Two Cents At A Time

March 31, 2012

Our Civil Society fails Civics 101

Filed under: Civics,Lobbyists,Political Influence,Politics,Voters,Washington state — Organic Garden Year @ 6:41 am

By Maggie Dwyer permalink

I wrote this on December 10, 2011, and wondered how well it would stand up to a bit of time: was my response only going to be appropriate on that day of a flurry of Twitter remarks, or would it hold up over weeks, months – I don’t want to wait years, so I’ll have to come back to measure its temperature in the next administration, whoever is in office. Since I set it aside to cool for a couple of days and it has now had nearly four months, it’s time for airing.

As I wrote, I wanted to keep eyes on the page, so I looked for thoughtful political cartoons to illustrate my indignation at the state of politics today. My first and last place to look were in my home-state paper, the Seattle Post Intelligencer, where David Horsey has been drawing cartoons and winning Pulitzers for years.

K Street - photo from from Wikipedia commons
December 10, 2011. Two items in the news today coalesced for me into a dystopian view of the American legislative process. 1. Texas Governor Rick Perry doesn’t know how many judges sit on the Supreme Court, but he wants to put in place term limits, including the justices. 2. GOP anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist has ensnared 95% of the GOP congress members with his “I won’t raise taxes” pledge. The founder of “Americans for Tax Reform” is diddling his own rule – a December 7, 2011, twitter remark from @HouseinSession states “Norquist advises a room of House Republicans Thursday that a failure to extend the payroll tax cut should not be viewed as raising taxes.” As long as the rich aren’t taxed higher, then it’s okay with Norquist.


2011 Horsey cartoon, Seattle P.I.
Term limits and unelected individuals wielding such power, coupled with the 2009 decision by the Supreme Court granting corporations personhood with free, unregulated speech, terrify politicians who want to serve and the electorate who want fair play. Too many distractions disguise this serious issue. Elections too often go to those who have the most catchy ad campaign, bringing in votes from the unattentive electorate who vote against their own self-interest based upon misunderstanding the issues at hand.* If you thought “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” and their lies from whole cloth against John Kerry were bad, then realize that under current conditions that kind of abuse will go unchecked.

Elected officials are obligated to observe many restrictions of gifts, cash, travel, and other perks offered by private donors and corporations. They should be working with other elected officials to craft laws and to negotiate differences, but today lobbyists stand their Shelob-like ground, these spiders with their tangled webs of money taking ensnared house and senate members with them. Breaking free of such a toxic web means political death in the next election, if Norquist and like-minded lobbyists have their way. The route to Mordor parallels “K” Street, but too often simply drifts into its lettered-ruts.

I am opposed to term limits. I prefer legislators who have had enough time to learn how our complicated government works and stick around to help it run smoothly. We’ve seen many good politicians leave office well before their time because of the misguided term limit legislation that particular states enacted. In my home state of Washington, conservative grass roots efforts to put term limits on legislators went into effect in 1992, though it was overturned by the state Supreme Court in 1998. Along the way Washington’s powerful house member Tom Foley, at the time the Speaker of the House, was not reelected. The term limits fight was used against him by his opponent in 1994. Instead of having a seasoned and well-positioned elected official in Washington D.C., the state had a freshman representative who had to learn the ropes from scratch.

David Horsey cartoon from the Seattle P.I.
When retiring or defeated politicians leave office, their staff look for jobs elsewhere. What doesn’t seem to occur to the folks back home who vote to restrict term limits is that there is no restriction on how long these unelected staff members may work for those holding house and senate seats, and the longer they are there, the more behind-the-scenes power they accumulate. Do I have a link for that? No, but I’d be willing to bet real money that (for example) when Phil Gramm (R-TX), Howard Baker (R-TN), or from my own party, Tom Foley (D-WA) or Thomas Daschle (D-SD), left office, or with the death of Edward Kennedy (D-MA), their seasoned staff were in high demand among incoming or existing office holders. How big is this invisible army of staffers and what are they up to? I name members of both parties because this isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue, it is an overarching problem with government today.

I’m not suggesting anything is wrong with being an experienced and well-connected staff member, but I would much prefer that the experience and power be in the hands of experienced elected officials, not in the staff behind the scenes. I worry that those Corporations-now-persons use an avenue of influence behind the scenes as much on that collective staff that could exponentially dwarf the practice of paying huge sums to help their favored candidates win elections.

David Horsey cartoon, Seattle P.I.
I am a private citizen, with a public school education that in my day might have been resulted in an average understanding of how our government works. As I get older I watch governmental gravitas shrivel in the face of powerful outliers and wonder how average Americans can let it come to this? I wonder if American school children are taught anything to do with government or civics today? How can we raise generations of people who don’t know or don’t care how it works? How is it that the vast electorate who are not millionaires and billionaires have continued to act against their own self-interest? Hypnotized by the unregulated bombast that comes from the uncontrolled spending of money to influence politicians, are voters unable to recognize the false front of groups brazenly smearing opponents with lies? Who win elections based upon fear, not merit?

David Horsey cartoon, Seattle P.I.
In my lifetime I want to see the day when personal fortunes may not be used to fund elections, when public funding is all that is available to candidates, and when a law is passed putting corporations back in their place. If they can’t be held accountable for their speech, if only a fine is levied but no person has to go to jail for what they say, then they don’t have personhood. Corporations write legislation that elected officials put forward to give enormous benefits to said corporations. Since the act of incorporation is done to shield the personal assets of investors, there are no consequences to such misbehavior. When they operate well, we all benefit. When they become financial juggernauts no one benefits but stockholders and CEOs.

*I have done it myself. In college in the mid-1970s I voted on a heated issue with slogans like “Ban the Ban that’s Bad.” I was busy, I didn’t stop read the voter’s guide or newspaper analysis, and tried to evaluate the issues from the signs I’d seen. When I discussed it with my mother later, I was appalled to see how I had been tricked to vote against the result I really wanted by the way the initiative and the ads were phrased. I resolved never to let THAT happen again!


September 22, 2011

Nostalgia and Good Stories

Filed under: Community Service,Stories,Washington state — Organic Garden Year @ 1:14 pm

A new page was created in Facebook for people who are from my home town. It isn’t a tidy page, few people ever search for an existing thread before starting a new one, but every so often one starts where you connect with an old friend (or adversary!) and learn something new. The age/generation thing is compressed – where in high school it was important if you were a year or two older than others, now we’re all grown up and it is generally inconsequential unless we’re trying to figure out if someone went to school with us or one of our siblings.

I’ve published a few stories there but they end up long and I’ve deleted them after a while. I wrote about my mother, undergoing cancer treatment, requesting salmon when the Copper River Salmon came in (her last meal request, she died two weeks later), but decided that for that site it was Too Much Information. A couple of folks were sorry to see it go, but I decided it was too much of the family in that open site. But it would have been fine in a blog.

I wrote another one over there last night that I may well take out, it was also too long, but since I started writing it I finished it. Here goes, and maybe I’ll pick up an illustration for it, but since it was in the dark, it’s probably best to imagine that no one could see much of anything during this event:

I was on one rescue where two of us from the USFS were the first to get to the trailhead (French Creek) because everyone else was driving from Everett and we worked in Darrington. The sheriff couldn’t keep up with seasoned foresters, especially with all of the huge blowdown on the trail, and I was second getting to the woman who had (it turned out) a spiral fracture of her femur. Her boyfriend had wrapped her in all her clothes (after a wall of ice at the creek had collapsed on her- he dragged her away) and hiked out for help. Hours had passed.

I got there a couple of minutes after my partner, who had dropped his pack, put a thermometer in her mouth, and was preparing to do the usual first-aid things to make her comfortable and take vital signs. I thought “what can I do to help? He’s done everything?” and it seemed to me that lying in the total dark, except for the stars, and listening to the coyotes howl in that valley below Whitehorse, that it must seem unreal that we had arrived. So I sat down beside her and took her hand. She gripped my hand like I was hauling her into a life raft – hard, and for a long time. At first dawn a Chinook from Whidbey hovered over the valley and she was lifted into a basket and up and out. We all walked back down to the vehicles.

I saw her a couple of days later in the hospital. Her boyfriend rode up in the elevator with me and we didn’t recognize each other – our entire transaction of several hours had been in dark except for flashlights. When I told her who I was she brightened up – and the first thing out of her mouth was that she hadn’t believed it was real until I took her hand. I was so glad I’d been able to do that for her. Nothing technical about that rescue, just hard hiking and hand holding. 🙂

I didn’t look up anything as I wrote – there are a couple of trail heads down there and I think French Creek is too far west. I think it might have been up Squire Creek. I drove all of those roads so often in the line of work I did (timber management and looking to see if planted areas needed to be replanted, etc.) that they all kind of blur together now. Many years have passed. But here it is, a little story for my few readers.  🙂

August 23, 2011

Haste Makes Waste

Filed under: Customer Service,Media,Thoughtful remarks — Organic Garden Year @ 3:58 am


On Sunday evening I decided to look for a few blouses and a pair of slacks at my favorite local thrift store, McCart Thrift, in Southwest Fort Worth. A facebook friend has a blog and shows the great results she gets in pairing thrifted garments – I wanted to give it a try. I walked in the front door a couple of minutes after 6pm, knowing that they closed at 7pm.

Shopping in a thrift store, especially one so well-stocked, is a time-consuming process. They’ve recently separated out some of their sizes – the letter sizes (X 2,3, etc) are now off on their own racks, so after realizing all of those were too big (I still wear a number size, though it is a larger number than I like) I found my sections and had a fair stack in my cart. At 6:30pm, without warning, an announcement in English and Spanish said the dressing rooms were closed.

That couldn’t be right – the store was open for 30 more minutes. Who in their right mind would buy clothes without trying them on? I finished the row I was shopping and asked about the dressing rooms. That was a mistake, wasn’t it?

“No. They’re closed.”

“No exceptions?”

“No exceptions.”

“How to you expect anyone to buy anything they’ve picked up if you won’t let them try them on?”

No answer, no sympathetic apology. The clerk pointed out the managers, and I caught up with one as she was putting items up on racks.

The ensuing conversation was not a happy one. I asked if they would let me try on the items in my cart – I can do it quickly, I’d be finished well before their registers closed. A mouthy assistant kept saying “it’s the rule. The dressing rooms close at 6:30pm” and “if we let you use them, everyone else would want to also.” Well, yes, I thought, most people want to try on the clothes they are going to buy.

They were truculent, adamant, and frankly, gave me a sinking feeling. Was I wrong about this great store? Would I have to stop shopping here? Why were they so hostile to a reasonable request? I ended up both angry and embarrassed to have to confront them that way, and to receive the party line in such a frankly knee-jerk, defensive way. I was reasonable, I was polite, but terse. I didn’t shout, and I wondered what well-reasoned argument was going to convince them to let me try on the clothes I’d been selecting for the last 35 minutes?

They do sell clothes, right? And they do let people in the door right up until 7pm, right? So why don’t they let people try on the garments they select? “Do you mean that you’re willing to leave those dressing room doors locked and let me walk away from this cart full of garments that you will then have to put back out on the racks instead of selling them?”


So I gave the cart enough of a shove to let it roll a couple of feet and I walked off, extremely disappointed. I spoke to the second manager at the register, and told her that their nutty policy just caused me to waste an hour of my time, caused me to walk away from a sale that would have added up to about $50, and caused the work for them to put everything back on the racks. What kind of useful management strategy is that?

This is small potatoes in the world of customer service. It isn’t something the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Watchdog columnist Dave Lieber is going to waste his time on (though I will invoke his name so that if enough people complain, maybe he’ll notice). It’s the kind of entrenched policy that deserves that scrutiny. Who does it serve? No one. What bothers me is the sense of superiority they conveyed, the impression that they look down on people who make the choice (or have no choice) to shop in a thrift store. I wanted to think about it from their standpoint – is this policy intended so that employees will be able to clock out at 7:01 and walk out the door? In my experience, there is at least an extra hour of work involved in retail work, the clearing up, straightening, and re-stocking after the doors close. Does that not happen here? It simply makes no sense to let people in the doors at 6pm if you’re not going to treat them with the same respect as customers who walked in the door at noon.

If the hours of operation are published on the door (and they are) then one should be able to go through the reasonable steps of selecting, trying on, and purchasing the garments up until 7pm. The simple answer would be to make several announcements about when the store and the dressing rooms close (and make it more reasonable – dressing rooms could close 10 minutes before closing to allow time for standing in line to make the purchase).

I want to keep shopping at McCart Thrift, but the surly employee attitude and the embarrassment of meeting that unreasonable wall of resistance when making a reasonable request will make me think twice. It’s time for the management down there to get smart, start acting like a regular retail establishment. Their hasty closure of dressing rooms amounted to a waste of time for me. It’s not like I’m there for long, anyway – I always time my visits carefully because you can only shop till your bladder is full – they provide no public restrooms, despite the fact that the building most certainly had public restrooms in its previous life as a WinnDixie grocery store.

That’s another essay, but that is also strike two.

August 16, 2011

Tour Ellis Island with an iPhone app? REALLY?

Filed under: Endorsement,Media,Silly Technology (because we can) — Organic Garden Year @ 2:05 am


August 15, 2011

Comes from
This morning my Google Alert "Ellis Island" alerted me to a "press release" about a new way to see Ellis Island, using something that you may run concurrent to your visit on your iPhone. I think. I don’t have an iPhone and avoid a lot of the annoying "smart" devices that prove such a distraction to seeing the world around me. This one struck a nerve because I love Ellis Island, I worked there many years ago and can’t stand to imagine the oxymoron of people walking around plugged into their phones looking at this virtual app while in situ in the real place. They won’t actually experience anything OTHER than their phones. What a wasted trip.

People need to get over these "smart devices," they’re dumbing down the world. There are a lot of good things you can do with your phones, like call people, research prices in the grocery store, send an occasional photo to your twitter account, but the rest of the time put them away and experience the world as it is. Just because someone can make a device or an application doesn’t mean it is any good or that you need to try it. This press release was the document that finally pushed my buttons hard enough to inspire this rant, and justification for dissing the app.

Photo courtesy Statue of Liberty Natl. Mon, Augustus Sherman Collection
Ellis Island served as a major east coast immigration station from 1892 until 1924 when the second of two restrictive immigration laws turned the flow to a trickle of migrants leaving Europe and other Atlantic nations coming to the U.S. For many years other agencies used the island for office space and detention, and in 1954 the island was closed down completely. In 1976 the National Park Service opened the island for tours; as a poor step-child to the charismatic Statue of Liberty the season was only six months long and consisted of guided tours through plywood-reinforced (think the sidewalk passageway under scaffolding) corridors in the crumbling structures. There was no heat or air conditioning, getting to the island at extremely high or low tide was a challenge, and the visitor numbers were a fraction of Liberty Island’s.

In the 1980s Ellis Island was restored when corporate dollars turned portions of the island back into its original hermetic clean lined self, complete with air conditioning, self-guided tours, exhibits, food service and a gift shop and bookstore. Rooms exhibits are set up with preserved artifacts, photo reproductions, and the best acrylic exhibit sign boards Harper’s Ferry (the heart of NPS historic interpretation development) can generate.

Ellis Island photo copyright Margaret Dwyer. All Rights Reserved
I worked at Ellis Island as a National Park Ranger in the late 1970s, when the echo of ceiling plaster was heard falling on humid days, wet floors were slipping hazards, and where you could see your breath in cold weather and you dripped sweat during the humid summers in New York Harbor. And this was inside the buildings. You really felt like you’d been somewhere when you exited the crumbling compound of buildings.

Rangers led every tour back then and interacted directly with the visiting public because there were no exhibits, only rangers telling the history and stories of immigrants. Visitors stayed in tours groups and the entire experience was a an exercise in imagining what the decaying buildings must have looked like in their heyday: large, clean, but very crowded – it was a discussion of the history of the island and always included the collected stories we heard from visitors and their families who came out to the island to see where it all started. I loved the storytelling aspect of the visit, of seeing tears and smiles as story outcomes were happy or sad. This is a place where the visitors were a crucial part of the storytelling process and we collected all that we could. Our extemporaneous tours were  based upon a great deal of history and were adapted to the knowledge and interest of the groups before us. One size did not fit all in the early days, we crafted our tours to fit each group.

Ellis Is photo copyright Margaret Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.
I suspect the immigrant experience lay somewhere between these two post-immigrant modern day extremes. The buildings were new, the rooms were large and clean, and during the height of migration, very crowded and probably smelly and noisy. I don’t know if Ellis Island had air conditioning; based upon the number of fans I saw around the facility I’d guess "no." So today’s visitor, wanting a little of the feel, should bustle through the rooms with a crowd of non-English speakers and they should turn off the AC.


Give Me a Break! Take a real tour!

Photo Copyright Tom Bernardin. All Rights Reserved.
If you’re going through the restored Ellis Island immigration site in New York Harbor with your iPhone and headphones playing, following a new British "tour" that intends to show you "the darker side of Ellis Island" you’re wasting your $1.99 and might as well not go to the island at all if you’re planning to tour it that way. The "real" Ellis isn’t encapsulated in a media bubble. If you’re visiting any National Park, experience it with all of your senses, don’t stare at the bright little screen in your hand, blocking out the sounds of the place with your earbuds.

The press release claims "It is illustrated with thought provoking and evocative contemporary archival photographs." Oh. You mean the same public domain photos that the National Park Service has already installed all over the place in the static exhibits? If she paid for any of the photos she used, the price would be higher than $1.99 so she must have used the same photos everyone uses. That’s novel.

If you want a tour, you will have to get lucky and see if the Ellis Rangers are offering them now – or you can hire a private guide. The only private tour guide I know who has been taking tours to Ellis for years is Tom Bernardin, who worked with me at Ellis starting in 1978. While the Rama app developer Hannah Murray "visited New York nine years ago," Bernardin has been working on and visiting the island for the last 33 years and has continued his research through those years.

Photo copyright Margaret Dwyer. All rights reserved. It isn't okay to share this. Contact me.
Pardon me me for dismissing this app I haven’t used out of hand but it sounds like the worst possible approach to visiting a great site like Ellis Island. I will note here that good private tours are not inexpensive. You get what you pay for – depending on the extent of the tour or if you want to visit other parts of the city through the day, it can easily run to several hundred dollars, but if you hire Tom you have him to yourself and he knows NYC inside and out.

So, go visit the island with your eyes and ears open, wander around and look and think; after you pay for the boat ticket the island is free. Or go with someone, whether ranger or private tour guide, who can transport you through time and answer questions about your particular interest areas, or knows how to find the answers for you. Put the phone, if you simply can’t turn it off, on vibrate only, in your pocket. And leave it there for an uninterrupted trip through time.

This blog rant is not an endorsement for the iPhone app, but it may be considered an endorsement for my friend Tom Bernardin’s tours. I have not been paid to write this. With this post I’m now sending my rants to facebook and twitter, along with my more mellow gardening, dog, and nature observations in my “Woman of Many Parts” blog. (Ellis Island Tom from Aliza Moorji on Vimeo.)

March 6, 2011


Filed under: Customer Service,Media — Organic Garden Year @ 7:00 pm

Spam, from WordPressThis is a well-reasoned but rather flippant rant I originally posted on another blog. Then decided that since it was rather flippant, I’d move it over here instead. I work in a library, and while we are entitled to hold personal opinions, I don’t want to be pointedly rude to the rare patron who might stumble upon that library blog. I edited to reflect frustration at junk email and concluded with a few helpful suggestions.

My own customer service attitude needed some tweaking, and I have done so. That isn’t to say I want to discard the opinion, I just want to park it in a more appropriate place. This is what I originally wrote:

We all know that the canned meat product has suffered greatly in recent years, as its name has been applied to the e-machined offal that is pushed out sausage-style (ugly to look at) to our mailboxes in such volume that Spamhaus estimates that 90 % of all email in North America is junk or unsolicited bulk email. Pity Bill Gates, who receives an estimated 4 million spam emails a year.1

Here in the library, we get our share of spam, and alas, much of it is from people promoting books. We have a spam filter in our email and if one of us assigns a piece as spam, everyone else sees that it is already on that list. And most of the spammers we assign to that list are hacks out peddling their books.

Can you imagine how depressing it is for someone who works in a LIBRARY to assign book-promoters and writers to the spam list?

Monty Python spam skit

On the other hand, one hopes that successful writers are thoughtful and creative people, so perhaps this is the Darwinian demise of the unfit of the writing world. Spamming all of the addresses in the library administration office, or everyone in the library, with an email promoting your books smacks of desperation and of a lack of critical marketing (if not thinking) skills. These people haven’t stopped to consider WHO buys books in a library (very few people, actually, though we can all recommend purchases) and writes to the acquisition folks alone. And those of us who do recommend books aren’t likely to send an over-the-transom suggestion to the book buyers in our midst.

So do yourself a favor. Find out if you can send your book to the various library journals that review books (some want them pre-publication only, that’s why I say, check first). Librarians read those. Send them to your local newspapers after contacting their book editor to see if someone will be assigned to review it. Ask friends who write book reviews if they can write a good review of your book that they can blog or send to a journal they write for.

Salon online magazine of I would suggest that if this kind of review is generated, you find another day job. Though I didn’t intend this little rant to be about David Brooks’ new work of fiction, it’s a good point to end on. Reviewer PZ Myers got through the 2-dimensional “satirical novel” by yelling “Die, yuppie scum, die!” as he reached the end of each page. He gives a withering account of a poorly conceived and written “arid wasteland” of a novel by an otherwise respectable political commentator. The animated review had more life than the subject it described, rather like a well-written obituary.

If, in his desperation to sell this book David Brooks should send me a junk email suggesting I put it in my library, I will assign him to the junk email list.

1 From Wikipedia:

June 27, 2010

Dave Lieber’s new & expanded Watchdog Nation

Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers do you Wrong
Yankee Cowboy Publications, Keller, Texas, 2010, second edition (revised & expanded)

$20, and worth every penny.

ISBN-10: 0970853025

ISBN-13: 978-0970853028

I’ve been meaning to write this book review for a while, and kept putting it off. Partly because I was busy using the book myself. Since I started following these tips of Lieber’s closely I have changed my phone company, my electric company, and my Internet service. In those few acts alone I’ve paid for the book several times over. But the thing that set me to writing finally was a story a friend told me last week that made me want to kick something. Like a crooked roofing contractor.

My friend has been living in straightened circumstances for a number of years, getting by, but putting off a lot of things that needed doing. Finally, he could no longer put off having his flat-roofed Frank Lloyd Wright-style bungalow re-roofed. I had a real good one to recommend, who has done work for me a couple of times, and came to me via a contractor friend who has also worked for me a couple of times. My neighbors have also used and liked him. Word of mouth and satisfied customers is a good way to find a roofer. But my friend was trying to cut corners so he took the lowball bid from a guy who knew someone he knew. . . not a great introduction.

That job was slow, it was sloppy, and when torrential rains during the job got the house wet, everything turned musty and damp, and tar dripped down spots the inside walls. They didn’t finish promptly, they actually didn’t finish it. The rocks that need to be taken onto the roof are still in the side yard. The roofer had no insurance to pay for the damage to the house.

The worst (you mean, that’s not bad enough?) was discovered last week. The roofers (the only people allowed in this otherwise locked yard with very tall fences and gates) stole several expensive items. The theft was disguised by simply leaving behind the boxes and cases. A new pool pump, a good circular saw, the only evidence of their original habitation there are their empty boxes. Had my friend followed my recommendation, he would have had the job done for about the same quote as this fly-by-night roofer. And he wouldn’t have been out the hardware around the house or all of the time and expense of repairing the house now.

I’m sorry I didn’t write this review earlier, because I would have sent a copy of it to my friend and said “Do what Dave suggests – look at the local reviews, check with the BBB (Better Business Bureau), get personal recommendations from people you trust.” The bid price isn’t a bargain if the job isn’t done right, isn’t done at all, or is done so wrong as to cause more damage than a simply leaking roof will do.

I’ve sent copies of pages of this book to people. My brother received the pages (114-15) to do with complaining to the post office. It turns out that you CAN complain, you don’t have to take the desk clerk’s shrugged “that’s tough, you only paid for Priority, it wasn’t insured,” when you complain about something that went wrong that was under their control. (It seems the Artesia, CA, post office has a special drop-kick-and-thrash machine for both envelopes and packages, and special delay of weeks on delivering Priority mail.)

There was a woman at Lowe’s hardware in Fort Worth, TX, who was buying fans, and mentioned, “I have to set up an electric company in this new house. I suppose I’m stuck with TXU.” The clerk and I simultaneously said “NO!” but I was the one who was able to tell her how to do a good search to make a choice – “Go to Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation ( web site and look for his articles about how to choose an electric company.”

Dave Lieber is the consumer advocate columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and he solves this kind of problem and shares the whys and wherefores with his readers for a living. This guy is good. He’s smart, he’s efficient, and I bet when he phones and has someone by the short hairs because of their company’s poor customer service, he’s a bit of a pain in the ass (though I do believe him when he says he tries really hard to be super polite, because he records his calls and if he needs to use them as evidence, he doesn’t want to sound like the bully in the conversation). And that old honey versus vinegar thing. I wish I had his discipline – I’ve had to hang up on some of these folks, telling them “I’m so angry at you I can’t be polite any more. Goodbye.” At least I learned from Dave to stop before I became rude, not slog forward and accomplish little.

Early in the book Lieber notes that 15 minutes a day to solve some of these problems may be the way to pace yourself, to not feel overwhelmed if you have several issues to solve. That’s a good strategy. And keep a separate folder and page of notes for each business and each call. Take names, real names, if possible.

I’ve glossed over a few of the tricks that Dave Lieber discusses in this little gem of a book. You’ll have to read it to find his descriptions of how to make these techniques work. His chapters are each no longer than a typical newspaper column, so you can read through this book a short chapter at a time, or read through it cover to cover in one sitting.

I still have work to do – my local Fort Worth cable company has the most obtuse billing system and the most inefficient customer service clerks I’ve ever encountered. Just try to get a credit to show up on your bill. They apply it to the “taxes and other charges” but it never seems to actually make the balance drop. So I’m still working on that. And on that, my best contact method is another one of Dave’s recommendations (and at least they’re pleasant to talk to, if their efforts still go for naught) is to type my frustration regarding this company into a line of my Twitter feed. Use the pound sign (hashmark) # with no space before the company name to make it easier for them to find your remarks. They’ll usually figure out who you are and actually call pretty quickly. I’ve heard from them within 30 minutes. Who knew?

One of the other really important things Dave comments on is to say “thank you” when it due. I’ve used tweets and written blog entries where appropriate to do just that. So this book review is also a blog entry and a “thank you” to Dave Lieber for a job really well done. I’m happy with the choices I’ve made, but I don’t feel obligated to stay with these companies forever and ever, if they do me wrong. That’s a good lesson!

Now, go ask a bunch of questions!

May 5, 2010

Charter vs Sprint

Filed under: Customer Service — Organic Garden Year @ 4:28 am

Thanks to Core Customer Metric for this image.I won’t belabor the point, I’ve whined about Charter here enough. After a long call last month, in which I spoke to a supervisor, I am told that the corrections put in place by the past two customer service folks that didn’t stick will appear next month, but only if I pay the entire overcharged amount THIS month. They say that that NEXT month they’ll credit me the overpayment.

Do I look stupid? Or does Charter have a stupid accounting system?

Why am I slow to believe this supervisor in the Philippines?

Here’s the thing: I call Sprint if I have a problem with my cell phone bill and speak to an operator from the U.S. They make the correction and I see it almost instantly on my online account. I pay my bill in the corrected amount. End of story. It stays fixed. How difficult is that to manage, Charter? I think you’re just hoping that I’ll forget about it and pay all of your nickle and dime increases, even though we have a contract that states what my bill should be every month.

I hear AT&T calling. . .

March 31, 2010

Dear Charter: Play Nice or I’ll sic a Watchdog on you.

Filed under: Customer Service — Organic Garden Year @ 6:13 am
Tags: , , ,


P.O. Box 1688
Fond Du Lac, WI 54936-1688

Dear Charter,

In late December, 2008, I signed up for Charter Internet service. I was able to take advantage of a couple of six month promotional offers, and in January of 2010, after experiencing deteriorating phone service from AT&T, I decided to try the Charter bundle that was just phone and Internet.

The following is an account of my billing history over the last two months.

This bill is a working demonstration of how to rob Peter to pay Paul in the way it offers lots of deductions that are simply accounting hyperbole. It’s a waste of ink and a waste of time.

On February 13, 2010 I called 1-888-438-2427 and spoke with your customer service representative named Jeanne. I made an appointment to have the phone modem put in a week later, after the proper notification period to AT&T. On February 19th the modem was installed and the phone service sounds fine.

During that same February 13, 2010 call I asked Jeanne what my monthly payment would be during this 12-month period. She quoted me $59.98 plus the taxes, that would bring it up to $68.58 total a month. I also asked her what the prorated amount for the first month would be. The January 17, 2010 Statement of Service reflected a higher rate for Internet only service (for the period of 01/26/10 through 02/25/10), so I asked her to tell me what the prorated bill was now that I was changing the services and the plan. She told me that instead of sending in $67.89 I would owe $59.14. On February 13, 2010, I paid $59.14 and assumed my bill for the statement period was settled, and after that, I would pay $65.58 ($59.98 plus tax) each month.

I was surprised to receive a bill dated February 17, 2010 for $22.86. It clearly reflected the previous balance and the amount I had paid, but it also was included the prorated difference ($8.75). And why send a bill for only $22.86 at this point in time, when I expected to be billed $68.58 for the period of 02/26/10 through 3/25/10? In addition to the balance forward, it seemed to be asking for an additional $13.75 for Internet services, that was in fact already included in the $59.14 I had paid on February 13, 2010.

Not sure why the low amount, but not wanting to be hit by a high correction the next month, I simply over paid the bill on March 9, 2010 by sending in a payment of $50.00. I wanted to be closer to the actual amount, and figured the difference would be a few dollars ($18.58) more on the next month’s bill.

Charter’s customer service and billing are clearly written and spoken the way they are in order to wear down customers

The March 17, 2010 Statement of Service arrived, continuing to carry forward the amount that Jeanne the customer service representative waived on February 13. It also broke down the monthly bill as $29.99 for Internet, $66.75 for phone, and $21.87 for adjustments, taxes, and fees. If I have a bundle for $59.98 plus tax a month, why are the phone and Internet separated out and totaling $96.74 before taxes? Do we not have an agreement here that my bill should reflect “Internet and Phone charges $59.98 plus tax?” Why is it split, and higher amounts for each, and why is this extra balance there when it was supposed to be waived because the bill was prorated? This bill is a working demonstration of how to rob Peter to pay Paul in the way it offers lots of deductions that are simply accounting hyperbole. It’s a waste of ink and a waste of time.

Charter’s customer service and billing are apparently presented the way they are in order to wear down customers, because there was no sign of willingness to help on the part of Andre, who I spoke with on March 26. He continued to read off all of the petty fees and charges instead of accommodating a customer who had a rational beef with the bill.

I intensely disliked Charter when I had it before, and in the interim I used DishNetwork, but dropped them when their bills got ridiculous. Two years ago I set up my next door neighbor’s computer system when she switched to Charter Internet and found the Charter technical support to be pleasant and helpful, and thought perhaps the company had turned a new leaf. But when I called to set up my Internet only service in December, 2008, no matter what I told her, the sales rep kept concluding that I should get the bundle instead of Internet only. I hung up and ordered the service I wanted online so I didn’t have to speak to any more of the high pressure sales people.

When I do the math, I see that since last month I paid only $50, I still owe $18.58 on last month’s bill. When added to my $68.56 this month it equals $87.14. That is the amount I will pay this month.

If we can’t resolve this, so that every month for the rest of the year, my bill is $68.58, and ONLY $68.58, then I’m going to make more of a fuss. I’d like you to take a look at the photo on this link: I posted it to my Twitpic page today, it is of the AT&T lineman in my back yard running the advance cord so they can pull new copper wire to serve each house that currently has the underground wiring. I’ve known that Uverse was close, and this week on Thursday, it will be even closer, when they pull the new wire.

I want Charter to stop the obtuse billing practices and simply honor the plan I signed up for and the billing adjustment we discussed on February 13. And while you’re at it, stop telling me and the world that you doubled our download speed for free, yet make it a line item on the bill and reflect a $10 charge that you refund back further down the page. Free means Free, it doesn’t mean $10 minus $10. There is a difference.

I have never yet met a Charter representative who would back down and write off even a few cents for goodwill. I think Jeanne agreed to my request to have the bill prorated because she knew it wasn’t really going to happen, but it was what sounded good to convince me to add this service at Charter. I think it must be ingrained in your human resources training that customer service folks are to wear us down with repetitions of meaningless numbers, offering to “help you understand your bill” (from Twitter’s “Umatter2Chrt2” but they will not even meet you halfway. I had a horrible experience with the cable television end of Charter years ago, and will not go back to that. I prefer over the air and NetFlix, and I will give AT&T another shot at phone and Internet if you don’t stop the nonsense. I’m sure they’d be glad to have me back.

I have a blog. I use Twitter, Mahalo, and Facebook. Work with me, or I’ll loudly join the chorus that doesn’t sing your praises. Why the fuss over $4.33? The difference is probably greater than that, but the many dense fees and taxes in there hide a multitude of sins and overcharges that I’m not going to try to calculate. The answer is because you irritate me and because this isn’t about pennies, it is about a corporate decision to baffle customers with bullshit instead of trying to make them happy. I’m not asking for the moon, I just want fairness and clarity.

My Internet is fast and reliable, my phone sounds good. That part is fine. Now be on your best behavior and keep me happy and I won’t have to complain to the world and advise shoppers to make a choice other than Charter.

I have your number, and I have Dave Lieber’s number (also You know, the guy who writes the Watchdog column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I’ll be content if I can solve this problem myself, and simply give Dave some good free publicity. His columns are shorter and clearer than this letter, so you really don’t want him on your case.

March 6, 2010

Well Said!

Filed under: Media,Politics,Thoughtful remarks — Organic Garden Year @ 2:31 am

I haven’t posted much lately–I compose bits of blogs in my head, I make notes, but mostly I’ve been part of the team getting college applications and all of the funding paperwork ready for my high school senior. We have a couple of offers, and our fingers are crossed, hoping for at least one of the Common Application schools to come calling, hat in hand.

Meanwhile, here is a great post by Don Tapscott, a blogger new to me, with “Anonymity is double-edged sword.” If you’ve ever read the remarks following articles in online versions of newspapers, craving a lucid discussion, you’ll know what this is about. Those slug-fests are a waste of time. He illustrates how Internet comment environments can police themselves if the remarks aren’t made in the “dark,” if anonymity isn’t allowed. Of the New York Times, he says

All reader feedback is identified by the reader’s name and passes through the hands of en editor. The name-calling and ad hominem drivel typical of most newspaper comment pages isn’t tolerated. “We are not shy about moderating things out,” says Landman. “There is no constitutional right to have your comments published. And certainly if it’s abusive or stupid or something, well then, what’s the point, why is that a good thing?” The result is an articulate discussion by readers with the paper and readers with one another.

I have ceased to use most of my old monikers on many web sites, only continuing those where I am so well-established that the participants wouldn’t know who I was if I used my own name. I used a gender-neutral mask because of the perceived harassment of women in open forums, akin to the reason women often used only first initials in their telephone book listings. Even as one who thought she was being fair behind the nom de plume, I find that in my own name I try all the harder to put forward articulate ideas that are both clear and fair.

There is a social and environmental component to this argument that I will riff on more another day, the idea that many kinds of behavior are better, closer to home, because the community exerts control like a sort of social frontal lobe. With all of our connectivity today, the Borg weren’t really so fanciful after all, were they?

January 24, 2010

The Company I Keep

Filed under: Customer Service,Government regulation and oversight — Organic Garden Year @ 10:51 pm
Tags: , ,

Click here to visit Lieber's Yankee Cowboy (Watchdog Nation) store.

It’s time to make some changes. The electric company, the phone company, all of my home, auto, and flood insurance, and possibly even phone and Internet. (Sometimes you get on a roll, and decide to take on all of them!) So first thing I did was go to Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation site and re-read his article about saving money by changing electric companies, information I will apply to my various services and utilities.

This afternoon, I’m comparing electric companies. There is the basic information, based upon my zip code, that I can find at And then there is the spec sheet for each company where you decide if you want variable, fixed, indexed, whatever. Read those sheets—because the rate offered in the comparison charts is their best rate. And be sure to notice that after he tells you to “pick your poison,” you need to go to the site and see what the fine print is.

Why read the fine print? Because if you’re thinking of skipping Brilliant (they charge a $200 early termination fee) over Gexa, who charges only $150 for early termination (they both have a six month fixed rate plan) then you’ll miss the point that while Brilliant charges that same rate if you use 500, 1000, or 2000kwh, Gexa only gives you that low rate if you use 2000kWh. Less usage gets a higher rate. I see by my TXU bill graph over the last 12 months that I only hit 2000kwh twice that would have earned me the lowest rate, and there were two months when I was under 500kWh, getting me the least savings. So my rates during the 8 remaining months plus the two really low-usage months would have been higher than the price you see on the PowerToChoose chart. See how it works?

You also learn in the fine print that the reason YEP gives you a discount is "Because this is an E-Plan, your initial pricing as listed above also includes and assumes a 0.5¢/kWh discount for electing to authorize monthly payments of your invoices via automatic recurring withdrawals from your bank account(s) or charges to your credit card.” Give them automatic access to my bank account or credit card? I don’t think so! What happens if we have a disagreement?

Then there are the complaints.

I looked at these statistics going back a couple of years and drew lines under the companies I’m considering on a printout. (You may need to get creative with your printer during this research, some of these folks produce really non-standard sizes that don’t print easily. There’s probably a reason for that.) More complaints overall, fewer this month, but maybe last year they had fewer over all. Figure out what is a reasonable statistical spread for you and decide if the complaints from other people are going to influence your choice of a company that looks like a good fit. The easiest format for understanding the complaints is in viewing the Complaint Summary, because it gives actual complaint numbers, not just percentages. A 50 percent leap in complaints sounds like a lot until you see that they went from 2 to 3 in the reporting period. You can open individual graphs for each company from this index.

I haven’t finished my research yet; I’ve given myself a couple of hours this afternoon to do my poking around for this bill. And I’ll do the same this evening on the insurance, since the renewal dates are coming up (if I wasn’t keeping track of this myself I’d know by the mail coming to the house—some of this information is apparently public record, and other insurance companies send reminders and suggest I give them a try.)

It’s a new year, I have lots of expenses coming along when soon both kids will be in college, so the least I can do is beat some of the household expenses into submission. As a note for those who use Social Media: I will send a Twitter remark before I tackle Charter (they’re on my list) because last time I complained there, I heard from the company Twit, asking if he could help. Why yes, you can!


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