Thursday, May 31, 2007

Lead in Queen's Park water

A decade ago, Queen's Park -- the castle that is home to the Ontario Legislative Assembly -- underwent a massive restoration, at a cost running into the hundreds of millions. Some aspects of the renovation were unnecessary but in this case building an entire new legislature would have cost even more and have been even more unpopular.

One would think in such projects every detail is taken care of, including the plumbing. Apparently not. Yesterday, the water flowing from the taps at the Pink Palace tested for unacceptable levels of lead. And the weirdest irony was this news came out just as the members were about to vote on legislation to -- toughen water standards.

Consider that back in 1990 when a report revealed a high number of children with lead poisoning, then Canadian PM Brian Mulroney immediately banned leaded gasoline a full three years ahead of schedule. Yet no one bothered to get rid of the lead in water, or at least attempt to reduce the levels of it. And we're expected to pay the costs of fixing our out-of-date storm and sewage sewers?

If there's lead in our water, we fix the pipes at our own expense. Or we get a water filter or softener at our own expense.

No ... clean up your own mess. The members from all three parties -- from the Premier on down -- should be forced to forfeit their stipends until the mess is fixed and the water at Queen's Park is safe both for them and the thousands who visit every day. Why should we get stuck with the bill?

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Anaheim hot

A lot has been going around who the real "Canadian" team is in this year's Stanley Cup Championship Final between the Ottawa Senators and the Anaheim Ducks; given that 19 team members of Anaheim are Canadians while only one or two of Ottawa are.

Ice hockey is nowhere near as popular in the Southwest US as basketball, baseball or football (or should that be American rules rugby? -- only Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand call what the rest of the world call football, soccer). But something must have caught on at the amusement parks in the O.C. because Southern California appears to have taken to the unlikely heroes from north of 49.

Or maybe Team Ottawa just can't get used to the Santa Ana winds, playing in an arena that is deliberately air conditioned year round rather than just in the later spring to early fall. Regardless, the Ducks took a two games to none lead in the best-of-seven last night when goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere shut out the opposition on the way to a 1-0 win.

The series reverts to Ottawa for Games 3 and 4 of the series. At this stage, I'm picking Anaheim to win the series 4 to 2. (Which would mean, since Game 5 if necessary will be in Anaheim and 6 in Ottawa, the Stanley Cup will be hoisted in the shadow of the one-time home of the Governor-General who donated the trophy in the first place -- by the Old Enemy, although they're not since most of them are Canadians, eh?)

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

If you can't stand the heat, get out of the vinyl

A bit of a watershed moment in the Canadian music business, as Sam the Record Man announced they are closing their flagship Toronto location. I didn't spend all that much time in that particular store but I had fun walking the aisles of their Hamilton stores. Sam Sniderman made it a point of stocking independent and Canadian artists, long before the CANCON rules and well before we began to speak of "alternative music." Many songwriters and singers can credit their careers in large part to the persistence of Sniderman when most deejays only wanted to play American and British stars -- and in particular, only those from whom they received payola.

But times have changed. Canada does have a home based star system so well entrenched that CANCON is probably not needed anymore although I still support it. But the big issue is that mom-and-pop operations have given way to Wal-Mart and of course online music stores which undercut physical plants. Not to mention illegal file-sharing.

With this downsizing, only two Sams will be left, and they're both franchises; in Sarnia and Belleville. As we see the insipid encroachment of tabloid values contaminating the Canadian music industry one must mourn at the loss of a true Canadian icon. One can only wonder how long it will be before the underground scene is forced back underground by RIAA and other industry groups. After all, they're still giving us music we don't want to hear and want to stuff even more down our ever-shrinking brains.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Zoellick replaces Wolfowitz

Dubya has announced his choice for the next head of the World Bank -- Robert Zoellick, current a top official at Goldman Sachs. While there really should be someone from the Third World running the agency and not yet another American, I think Zoellick is a somewhat palatable choice. He knows his way around Washington having served in a number of posts under Reagan and both Bushes as well as a key job at the Naval Academy during the Clinton years. He was also way ahead of Team Dubya on seeing the genocide in Darfur for what it was. And while he is a free trader, he is much more pragmatic than most neo-conservatives.

The IBRD is a huge mess right now and needs someone to clean it up big time. I wish Zoellick the best of luck but I think that no matter what his integrity he may prove to be as hapless as Bob McNamara and pretty much everyone who followed him in the twenty-five years since.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Libs win in PEI

BREAKING: The Liberals have defeated the Cons in Prince Edward Island. The new Premier is Robert Ghiz who at the age of 33 is probably the youngest Premier or Governor anywhere in the Americas. He's promised to boost funding for health and education while cutting the gas tax.

We'll have to wait and see on that one.

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Get KIA? Your family gets $4675

As our American friends mark Memorial Day, a sobering story about our Canadian military -- or rather the lack of respect for it. Even though the average funeral these days runs about $10,000 the families of service persons killed in the line of duty the stipend paid out for a military memorial service is just $4675.

So far since 9/11, 55 soldiers and one diplomat have been killed. They weren't forced to go in a draft. They volunteered for service knowing full well they might be called into action doing the thankless task the rest of us don't want to do or can't be bothered with. And so no matter whether we support the mission in Afghanistan or we don't, the troops deserve our thanks as well as our prayers.

The allowance hasn't changed in quite some time. Don't military families deserve better in times of mourning? Moreover, don't they deserve better housing and better assistance overall while their family members serve overseas or in the United States? Making their income tax free for tours of duty simply isn't enough.

Harper wants a stronger military -- and I actually agree with that, our forces have anemic equipment at best. But better equipment isn't enough. Our men and women in uniform deserve mo' money -- in life and, God forbid, in death.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Stop the NAU

The stakes are too high. I've said in the past and I'll say it again: I have no affection whatsoever for Maude Barlow or Lou Dobbs, but they're absolutely correct on this one: The North American Union must be stopped.

It's one thing to streamline trade for law-abiding companies and in that sense I do support such projects as Continental 1 and the completion of I-69. I also am in agreement with the idea of compulsory e-manifests for truckers, which has been applied to a number of key border crossings for some time and was implemented along the Niagara River last week. Process the paperwork before the rig gets to the border, one saves time and ensures "just in time" remains just that.

It's quite another thing, however, to have a European style arrangment with one country calling all the shots -- or rather, big business calling all the shots. Without labour and environmental standards, common and very tough safety regulations, and general principles of quality control (all of which the EU has); and without expanding such a union to incorporate all of the Americas, including Cuba, there's simply no point.

The idea is to raise standards and not lower them. Negotiating a treaty without even ratifying it is grossly unconstitutional in all would-be member countries anyway, and being in dereliction of duty the leaders of the three countries (Canada, the US and Mexico) ought to resign or put the idea to a binding referendum with a negative vote in any of the three nullifying the deal all together.

In the future, I'd like to see the Americas become borderless, in the sense that the borders are just lines on the map and that there is genuine sovereignty-association as the EU. But we're looking at another 20 years before that will be realistic. Plus, we have that pesky "War on Terrorism" we have to win. So for now, no NAU.

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Stalemate in Ukraine over -- for now

Two and a half years after the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine saw the end of Viktor Yanukovych and the rise of Viktor Yushchenko, the country is in political paralysis. The former found his way back into the system as Prime Minister while the latter has had trouble implementing his reform program as President. To settle the issue, and after days of talks, the two have agreed to fresh elections in the fall.

I don't know what it really takes to rule a country, but sixteen years after the Soviet Union broke up it's clear some have done it right while others have gotten way off the rails. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are now all EU members and are set to adopt the Euro as early as 2010. They have also acceded to the Schengen acquis and will join the "borderless" continent regime at the end of the year, making it possible to drive from Tallinn to Lisbon without border checks -- unthinkable even just a few years ago.

Belarus is a Soviet-style dictatorship, Russia is a personality cult surrounding Vladimir Putin, and the "Stans" have become breeding grounds for radical strands of Islam with the governments there powerless to stop it.

Ukraine started out its new found freedom with a lot of promise, but since then has squandered it and quite frankly the patience of the world community. Seeing all the opportunities lost in my parents' former homeland of Croatia (as well as its unspoken but well known zeal to annex Bosnia-Hercegovina at some future date), I don't expect much better from Ukraine even after September. But stagnation is not a solution. It will either regress into oppression once more or it will move forward and not turn back.

Caving into Putin's dreams of restoring Greater Russia would not be the answer, however.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

The softer side of ... Michael Moore?

Michael Moore made his first TV appearance in over two years, last night on Bill Maher's show. This is a side of the Last Angry Man I wasn't expecting -- indignant but with his anger quite controlled. I do wish he had his facts about Canada's health care system right, though -- it's in huge trouble.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

10 in a row -- and decision time in Québec

For the tenth year in a row Canada ran a surplus ... $9.7 billion. As usual it's been applied to the debt which now stands at $467.8 billion or 37.9% of GDP. No question a lot of the cuts have been done on the backs of Canadians, but we're in considerably better shape than the United States whose current burden stands at 64.7% and climbing rapidly.

The question is where we go from here. The Harper government, having inherited a positive balance sheet from the Liberals has decided piecemeal tax breaks plus a cut in the GST is the answer. I personally think it would have made more sense to have kept the sales tax at 7% while having broader based tax relief as well as increased social spending. But at least until the fall, we're sort of stuck.

It is with that in mind that one thinks about yesterday's proposed budget plan in Québec. No question the province's tax burden is huge and bringing in the tax brackets there to be more in line with the other provinces makes sense. However, I don't think Harper gave billions to the provinces to cut taxes but to fix the social deficit. Thus one should not be surprised that the ADQ and PQ are threatening to topple Charest as early as next week. And the fact is the province has a crippling debt and needs to make some tough choices to bring its burden to a more managable level first before even considering it.

The argument can be made that the proposed tax cuts in the province are broad-based and will put more money in the hands of families. Of course, they will. The question is will they spend the money or hoard it? We tried trickle-down economics under Mike Harris in Ontario. The only thing that trickled down was arrogance and the belief that the tax cuts alone stimulated the economy. In fact, the only reason why the revenues went up as taxes went down was that we just got lucky by riding the American coattails -- until 9/11, that is.

It is apparent that Charest is trying to stop the brain drain -- more skilled people will mean more revenues. But tax cuts don't make sense without getting rid of the red tape too, and the bureaucracy in Québec is bloated. Some programs were privatized yesterday but little else was done to bring the public service in line.

If there is a no-confidence vote in the National Assembly one might assume Mario Dumont might be asked to try to form a government. Or there will be a snap election just a couple months after the last one -- and Québecois will really be in an unforgiving mood. Whether it's the ADQ or the Liberals that receive the wrath remains to be seen.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Think Hamilton will get a team? Dream on!

After failing to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins, the owner of RIM (the company that makes the Crackberry) has bought the Nashville Predators. Already there is talk about Jim Balsillie moving the team to Hamilton. But it simply won't happen -- in fact unless the Buffalo Sabres or Toronto Maple Leafs both went bankrupt at the same time it will never happen.

Forget the indemnification issues -- which could run as high as $75 million US for each of those teams. It comes down to a simple thing: People in Hamilton just don't care. Really, they don't.

If they can't be bothered to support a minor league team that's made it to the Final Four and is one game away from the Calder Cup final (average attendance during the playoffs has been a pathetic 3000 out of 17000 seats) then why on earth could they be expected to support a team with tickets costing ten times as much? The attendance at the recent Brier was pathetic. So it is with a lot of other major events in town. In fact, the last time Hamilton did anything successful was the 2003 Road Cycling Championship and that really was a one-off.

My feeling is that Balsillie will move Predators to Kitchener -- just outside the danger zones for the two "enemy" cities. Besides, there are more corporations based in the Golden Triangle than Hamilton and with that much more money for box seats. A new stadium would probably be needed but it could be built practically for free and not on the backs of Waterloo Region taxpayers. Here in Hamilton, we're still paying for the white elephant called Copps Coliseum and it's completely inadequate in the present environment -- they'd need quadruple the number of boxes just to break even. A 17000 seat stadium doesn't make money. One needs at least 21000 to make it work.

Besides, we're a crowded house as it is in the East. If there's a city that really deserves a team more than any other, it's Winnipeg. Phoenix isn't about to move back to their old home but another team might be persuaded.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

School shooting in Toronto

After this kind of news, I don't feel much like blogging today. So I'm leaving this thread open for relevant comments.

Oh ... Uncle Bobby died as well.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Dewert had woman on the side

I don't know whether to call this news pathetic or just sad, but as I noted yesterday Dick and Joan Dewert have resigned their posts at CJIL. I mentioned at that time I had some inside information regarding this management shift but withheld discussing it until it was confirmed. Even before I got the tip, though, it was what I mostly suspected: Mr. Dewert has admitted an affair with another woman. (Text of the press release is here.)

By no means is this a death blow to the evangelical movement in Canada -- not by a long shot.

But having watched the channel for a number of years (I get it as part of my satellite service) and despite my gripes about the Miracle Channel, Dewert at first glance seemed like the last person who would go down the wayward path. Dewert was one of the leaders of the "get out the vote" drive that was partly key to the success of the Reform Party, later the Canadian Alliance and now the self-styled "Conservative" Party of Canada. He was also one of the most strident voices against gay marriage -- one of the very few issues I actually agree with him on.

That and his pronouncements on other moral issues, however, is simply no excuse for adultery. It's not a criminal offence (hasn't been for decades in Canada) but it does go against the basic set of family values that most Canadians -- from conservative to progressive to socialist -- share in common. And it may be a double standard but it's a lot easier in the public realm to forgive someone from the Second Estate -- say, Bill Clinton -- for that particular transgression than it is for someone from the First.

For when a public servant cheats, he or she can merely be rebuked. When a servant of God fails his or her Master, it strikes against people's faith. If such and such a preacher cannot be trusted, it brings the entire ministry and from all denominations into disrepute.

The channel has offered counselling for Dick and Joan and they have accepted it. I pray with sincerity that they find a way of repairing the breach. I am not a man of ill will. I believe in the sanctity of marriage and if they can make it through there may be hope for all.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

No negotiations

Like many I've gotten weary of the war in Afghanistan ... but we've made a commitment and we need to stick to it, at least until our current military mandate there expires in 2009. I'm not really surprised by the polls that suggest it's time to negotiate with the Taliban -- but the fact remains that the country's next door neighbour, Pakistan, has nuclear weapons and the terrorists will do anything to get their hands on the bomb even if it means overthrowing Pervez Musharraf. And as much as I don't have any affection for Musharraf and his total lack of cooperation in hunting down the Taliban in his country as well as not securing the porous border, I'd still rather talk to him than those who aided and abetted Osama Bin Laden for years.

As for Hamid Karzai, he's blown too many chances and needs to realize the West's patience is about to run out just as it has with Iraq. Offering amnesty to the Taliban was a huge mistake and I think he's realized how big a boo-boo that was.

So I agree with Antonio at Fuddle Duddle. No negotiations, period. The Taliban must be crushed because they don't understand the meaning of good faith -- or human rights.

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Shakeup at Miracle Channel

Details are still sketchy, but it was reported late yesterday that Dick and Joan Dewert have resigned their management positions at the Miracle Channel out of Lethbridge, Alberta. (CJIL is available in Alberta either over-the-air or on basic cable and in the rest of the country on digital cable and satellite.)

I have griped about the Miracle Channel on a number of occasions, in particular to their almost slavish devotion to the heresy called the Word of Faith -- something which nearly enslaved me during the 1980s. I will not be celebrating, however. One, it's not the Christian thing to do; and we have no idea at this time whether it's because of personal issues or because the CRTC is about to issue a ruling (not just a "determination") against the station.

Two, we don't know if there are going to be any material changes in theology under the new ownership of the channel and its in-house church, Dominion Gateway -- the new pastors are pegged to be Wayne and Rose Boersma from Brooks, Alberta; whilst the new directors of the channel are likely to be Ray and Donna Block. Frankly I suspect not.

My main source on this is the watchdog site run by longtime critic of the channel, Tim Thibault of Humbolt SK -- although the article was written by someone who may be a church insider.

It's worth pointing out that on several occasions the channel all but endorsed Stephen Harper, saying that no district in Toronto, Vancouver and Montréal voted for a Conservative in the last election because the Miracle Channel isn't available on basic cable in those cities. I think even evangelicals in the Big Three (and there are many more living in those cities than the Exempt Media would have us believe) would be insulted by that assertion. We Christians all -- including myself as a Catholic -- can read the Bible for ourselves without someone interpreting it for us; and use that as well as all the pertinent information we can get to cast an informed vote.

UPDATE (12:20 PM EDT, 1620 GMT): I have learned some more information about what the truth might be all about. It's not pretty ... but for now that's all I can say about it.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

When Willy met Rush

This has been going around the net a few days, but I just had to comment on the rather remarkable chance meeting that Bill Clinton and Rush Limbaugh had the other day at a top-notch restaurant in NYC. Limbaugh posted a transcript of what he says happened (I'd post an audio link but it's for dittohead members only and I have no intention of joining that league).

I just found it interesting that a guy who spent the better part of the nineties practically wishing that Slick Willy would drop dead would be chatting it up like that with him ... almost letting bygones be bygones. Ditto for Clinton, who probably rued the day Rush was conceived. But at least Limbaugh acknowledged Clinton has the right to exist (and vice versa) and the two were actually polite to each other for the five minutes or so they were talking. I'll give them credit for that.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007


Michael Moore's new documentary, Sicko, opened today in Cannes and was received quite appreciatively from the crowd of about 2000. I wouldn't have picked that name -- maybe H.M.O. would have been better. More than a month before the film officially opens across Canada and the United States, it's already raising some tough questions.

Such as why was an eighteen month old girl who needed emergency surgery was denied it and died simply because she didn't have health insurance.

Or why 9/11 survivors have to get health care in Cuba -- Guantanamo Bay, Cuba at the military hospital that also serves the so-called "enemy combatants." (Message to State Department: Since when did Americans need permission to visit their own sovereign territory?)

Many critics have noted that this new movie is quite a departure from Moore's previous works which include Roger and Me, The Big One, Bowling for Columbine (which won an Oscar) and Fahrenheit 9/11. It is devoid of the "gotcha" interviews that made Moore famous because in part the HMOs warned its employees on penalty of dismissal (and, naturally, loss of their health benefits) not to co-operate with Moore. Instead, Moore settles for the human story; why it is that over 45 million Americans don't have insurance and the rest get health care that costs double and a half what the mostly streamlined systems in Canada, the UK and France cost.

I suspect that many issues will surpass Iraq next year in the 2008 elections, and how to reform health care will be just one of them. I don't like Mike as much as I used to (too shrill in my opinion) but I think he's served the opening volley once again. The season of sequels? This may be the summer of people starting to talk again in America.

And that's a good thing.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

The Secret of PSEP*

How does today's news about the Conservatives' "chaos manual" compare to previous attempts at silencing dissent? This has been running in my head all day and I have some observations. The most obvious example is the one the Opposition brought up -- Watergate. Does Richard Nixon compare to Stephen Harper? I wouldn't quite go that far, but consider the following:

Researching Watergate and its associated scandals a few years back, I thought Nixon took the cake with his infamous "enemies' list" which included such luminaries as Daniel Schorr, Paul Newman and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI). Then came the story of how Donald Segretti double-crossed the 1972 Edmund Muskie campaign in what infamously became known as "ratfucking".

Then one realizes a lot of the trouble started in 1971, a year before the break-in when the US Supreme Court issued a famous ruling that permitted the publication of the "Pentagon Papers" leaked by Danny Ellsberg. They had been commissioned by Bob McNamara under Johnson but Nixon thought they posed a serious national security risk. In fact they were all about past history and how Presidents in a line dating back to Truman -- yes, Truman -- lied about American involvement in Vietnam.

It's no coincidence the enemies' list was drafted just months after the Supreme's decision. Watergate may have been clumsily executed but it was a master plan to destroy democracy in America. Thank God it didn't work.

Here we are in 2007. And we find out what has been suspected for weeks: The Conservatives, being a minority, also have a minority on committees and while they have every incentive to work with the left have no intention of doing so and never had. So the only way they can keep the opposition from asking questions is to stall witnesses who are against Harper while coaching those who support him. By any stretch of the imagination, counselling witnesses beforehand -- especially those who have been sub poenaed -- is contempt of Parliament.

The Government has photo-op announcements before tabling legislation as though they are faites accomplis. Also, contempt of Parliament.

Cabinet meetings are never announced in advance. Contempt for a free press and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Even visits by foreign dignitaries are almost never announced unless they're from one of the countries that have nuclear weapons. Mostly trade issues are discussed, but why should Canadians be kept in the dark about building ties with our friends as well as our enemies?

Now naturally, the Conservatives claim that the Opposition is stalling passage of key legislation such as the crime bill. However in a minority situation I thought it is the role of the Opposition to make legislation better -- it's one of the few times the Prime Minister doesn't have a blank cheque. So how is it that the Cons know what the Opposition is planning even before they do? Why else would there be a chaos manual?

What's next? Stockwell Day, the Public Security Minister, calls the RCMP to wiretap the three opposition leaders' phones? Hey, no need -- the Communications Security Establishment probably already does, as well as every other phone in Canada; and by extension the planet with the Echelon project. Although since Canadian law prohibits domestic espionage the CSE can always claim it's the CIA that spies on Canada while the CIA claims it's the CSE that spies on America.

And on it goes. "Public Security and Emergency Preparedness"? Or Public Safety Canada or whatever they're calling it these days? How about giving it a non-whitewashed name, say the Department of Keeping Canadians in Fear and Hating Muslims, Aboriginals and All Other Non-Whites into Perpetuity?

* This is a pun, of course, on the 1982 Don Bluth animated classic The Secret of NIMH -- NIMH being an acronym for the US National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. PSEP is the Canadian Department of Public Security and Emergency Preparedness -- in other words, the anti-terrorist wing.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Wolfowitz out

Finally, Paul Wolfowitz realized the inevitable and will throw in the towel on June 30th.

Next item that needs cleaning up: The entire K-Street Project.

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How do you say "Duck and cover" in French?

Another overpass collapses in the Montréal area. This is breaking as I write this.

Didn't Jean Charest lose his majority over inadequate road safety?

How many more of these do we need before Harper sees the common sense in the one cent solution?

UPDATE (6:06PM EDT, 2206 GMT): Thank God, it was a beam falling off a truck and not a road collapse. But the roads are still unsafe.

UPDATE #2 (8:26 PM EDT, Friday 0026 GMT): At least three dead. Another inquest ... and more trouble for Charest.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Bush's law firm, back in action

Why does Bush continue to stand by Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank? Because the embattled leader has the same law firm that represented Bush in the contested 2000 Florida elections. And two of the members of the firm are Ted Olsen and Eugene Scalia. Olsen, we know about. Scalia happens to be the son of Antonin Scalia, who refused to recuse himself in the Supreme Court case even though federal law required him to. Had he done so, the result would have been 4-4 which would have affirmed the appeals court -- and Al Gore Jr. would have been President.

Olsen, it should be pointed out, was given the Solicitor General's job, the top prosecutor in the States, as his reward. (As a sidenote, his then wife was killed in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.)

Why is it that with twenty months left in office that particular case continues to haunt us? Whatever happened to Dubya's promise about restoring honour and dignity?

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Falwell dead

I'm neither happy nor sad at the news that Jerry Falwell is dead, but like many I sense this is the end of an era in American politics. Falwell, who openly believed that Jesus would be a Republican if he was on earth, had a shadow over the GOP like no one else in recent history -- not even the mighty Reagan.

There were some aspects about him that were troubling, though. A number of years back, I read the book With God On Our Side, a tome about the rise of the religious right in America as well as its often hypocritical nature and its lack of compassion on a number of issues. An entire section was devoted to Falwell and his Thomas Road Baptist Church, which once had the reputation of being one of the most racist congregations in the country. So racist, in fact, that even after the Supreme Court ruled interracial marriages were legal Falwell refused to perform them.

His anti-environmental stances as well as his criticism of the media made him the subject of much anger and even ridicule. Some warranted, the rest ... probably not.

But no question he was a colourful character. And he's going to be missed, big time. Many in the progressive and liberal communities will be raising a toast tonight. I won't be one of them. After all, he was a brother in Christ too.

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Reuters, a Canadian company at last

This is kind of fun ... maybe Canada's going to take over the world by stealth after all. First, by comprising a big part of the American entertainment industry. Now ... the British press. It was announced this morning the venerable newswire Reuters, which started reporting on the stock markets over 150 years ago, has been sold to Thomson. The Thomson family, which once ran the chain of papers that included the Globe and Mail, already has a big foothold in the States with its ownership of West, the court reporting company that publishes every Supreme Court and appeals courts decision in that country.

With the combination, Thomson-Reuters will now be the size of Bloomberg, the newswire once run by the current mayor of New York City. And while its editorial stance is certainly well known, it will provide a good counterbalance to the shrillness and T&A first leanings of News Corporation, run by Rupert Murdoch and which includes Fox News. While I do not as a rule support media concentration this is a case where there are two companies whose lines of business compliment each other -- and with more people than ever playing the stock market access to unbiased information (not the hurray for Wall Street we get all the time from Neil Cavuto) is essential.

Thomson-Reuters, Bloomberg -- and Fox. Let the games begin.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Law of the Sea may finally be a reality

Maybe it's because he's a lame duck, but Dubya is set to finally make at least one positive step on the environment. Perhaps as early as tomorrow, reports The Washington Note, he will urge the US Senate to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea which has been dormant since the Reagan Administration. Yes, over twenty years.

The coalition who's been pushing for this for the longest time includes such strange bedfellows as tree-huggers as well as the oil and gas industry; fishermen and shipping companies, and the US Navy. Coming out against -- still -- include Phyllis Schlafly and Senator James Inhofe, for no other reason than they hate everything about the UN.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out the sustainable operation of the world's oceans is one of the keys to global security. In fact it will actually help America's national defence because, as did Canada which has ratified, the 200 mile limit can be extended outwards to a new limit of 370 miles if "custodial managment" is deemed necessary. (In Canada's case, we've only used the Law of the Sea to protect the "nose" and "tail" of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland.) Reaching out a hand to the over 150 countries who have already ratified UNCLOS will be a good first step to putting America back in the world's favour again.

It will do nothing to prevent attacks by land and air, as we found out on 9/11. But having a major superpower out of step on something as simple as water is, as it stands, bewildering.

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Your point being, Stanley?

About a year or so ago, I found myself having to defend conservative blogger Kathy Shaidle against an unwarranted attack by the Toronto Star's Antonia Zerbisias. Today, the NYT's Alessandra Stanley writes a column about the departure of Nancy Grace from Court TV and her replacement, with these words referring to the trial of Phil Spector:

It may very likely remain preposterous: Court TV has announced it has hired Star Jones Reynolds, formerly of “The View” — whose tabloid wedding extravagances and Sisyphean weight struggles long ago eclipsed her background as a prosecutor — to be the host of a daytime talk show.
I don't like Reynolds any more than Grace. But since when did one's weight bear on his or her ability to report on the court cases of the day -- or on anything, for that matter?

The war against women is the war against men also. Disagreeing with one's opinion is one thing. Making it personal is another and I won't stand for it.

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Questions about the Black trial

As the trial of Lord Conrad Black continues in Chicago with Eddie Greenspan's brutual cross-examination of David Radler, a few questions come to my mind.
  • Why did Radler wait until the last possible moment to cop a plea?
  • Why didn't he realize that the "non-compete" payments at issue here were grossly unethical -- set aside the issue of whether they were legal or not?
  • When a company goes private or tries to, or some of the lead executives of that company try to buy out the outstanding shares, doesn't that usually indicate they're trying to cover up financial improprieties? (After all, the SEC no longer would have scrutiny on an unlisted company.)
  • Running a supermarket and a newspaper are two different things (Black once ran Dominion). For that matter, running a small town newspaper and a major market sheet are also two different matters. What made Black think one size fitted all?
  • What were in those documents that Black "borrowed" over a weekend when he was told not to touch them?
  • What exactly does Barbara Amiel mean when she says that her "extravagence knows no bounds?" Isn't that just as preposterous as the principle that necessity knows no law?
  • And lastly, if Hollinger was incorporated in Delaware why is the case being tried in Illinois?

I really don't know the answers but those questions are out there. I'm beginning to wonder if Patrick Fitzgerald is getting over his head like he did in the Valerie Plame scandal. What I do know is this: Southam News which was once a very proud newspaper chain became a complete joke under Black; the National Post despite some serious reportage is mostly a tabloid in broadsheet form; and Black is as hated in Canada as ... fill in your country's corporate raider.

Oh yeah ... Black wants his Canadian citizenship back. Get in line Conrad, just like all the other immigrants.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Trademarking a baby's name

Jon Voight may have his problems but clearly his estranged daughter Angelina Jolie has a much bigger one -- two in fact; her attitude and her conceitedness. I already had contempt for her because of how she and Brad Pitt conspired to humiliate Jennifer Anniston and still believe Jolie's humanitarian work does not excuse her past trangressions. The fact she appears to remain unrepentant is more proof of that. But this ...

It was reported the other day a perfume company wants to name its latest brand "Shiloh" but Jolie has filed an objection with the US Trademark and Patent Office claiming it would cause irreparable damage to her daughter. Okay ... if that's such a big issue, then an evangelical church which also uses the name Shiloh would have objected to her picking the name.

Shiloh is a rather unusual name but it certainly isn't unprecedented and is no more trademarkable than Hermione -- dozens of women, some of them who became actresses, were given that name before it was used by J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series. The US Supreme Court which tends to take on more patent cases than human rights ones and which has given protection to specific shades of colours and uniform designs for restaurants would really have to laugh if this one ever came their way.

This isn't like Moon Unit Zappa ... or Soleil Moon Frye. It's important to protect a child, of course, but don't lawyers have better things to do? Makes me glad my dream of becoming one never came true.

UPDATE (8:31 PM EDT, Monday 0031 GMT): For those of you who asked, I'm not saying Jolie is necessarily a bad person. Just that she shows bad judgment.

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Happy Mother's Day

For what it's worth, I want to wish all the Moms and Grandmothers out there a Happy Mother's Day. And I'm offering a prayer for everyone out there who don't have their mothers around -- me included.

Mullah Dadullah dead -- maybe

I can't help but just be a little skeptical at this morning's news that the senior Taliban military figure in Afghanistan, Mullah Dadullah, has been killed in action. This isn't the first time he's been reported dead only to turn up later ... not the first time that someone else's body has been paraded to the media.

And it really wouldn't be the end of the story. Dadullah recently told the BBC he's trained hundreds of insurgents to launch sneak attacks against the US-led coalition of which Canada is a part. And while the rebel Taliban "government" is a rather loose network as are al-Qaeda, its comrades in terror, it won't take long to find someone to take his place if the news is true.

Ho Chi Minh's strategy to beat the Americans in Vietnam was exactly the same one the Patriots used in their revolution against Britain two hundred years before; to wear them down. The US may have had the numbers but Uncle Ho and the Viet Cong had the lay of the land and used it to their advantage. And let's face it, it's what the Taliban is using right now.

While satellite mapping technology has significantly closed the home team advantage since the 1960s, the fact is all the gizmos in the world won't anticipate the worst case scenarios in street combat -- the enemy could be hiding anywhere, anytime. That's why Iraq is a lost cause and why the West is barely skimming in Afghanistan. And if real results aren't shown on the ground such as a move to a sustainable economy and reliable infrastructure such as water and electricity the people on the ground will give up and switch loyalties to their former tormentors for at least they had something under them.

I only hope this news is true, because NATO and our other like-minded allies have a small window, say by September, to close the gap and at least have a grasp of the upper hand. If not, we may as well begin demobilizing. We need to get rid of the Taliban senior command, all of them and fast and then go after their underlings. To be blunt, I'm not very optimistic anymore of our ability to do so.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Old guard endorsement

Now this is a shocker: Gilles Duceppe suddenly announced in the last hour or so that he's staying in Ottawa and instead endorsing Pauline Marois for the leadership of the PQ -- just a day after he announced he was running.

One can only wonder both at the logic behind the flip-flop; and the endorsement. I'm trying to figure it out myself ... it only works if the PQ can reorganize quickly enough after their disasterous showing in the Québec elections two months ago. Pauline Marois is part of the old guard, long presumed to be the protégé of Jacques Parizeau. But Duceppe at 58 is just a year younger than she is. André Boisclair may have been a problematic leader but they didn't think Mario Dumont was going to be a factor -- really, no one did. However, Boisclair was the next generation, and the PQ really needs to look to its future and not its past.

Of course, I'm a federalist ... but many of the innovative ideas that guide Canada's social policies came from the separatists, when the then leaders were in their prime; and quite frankly Duceppe and Marois are yesterday's news. I would not be surprised if Boisclair suddenly decides to run for his old job, therefore -- after all, he claimed that it was Duceppe who forced him out and now he doesn't have to worry about him.

Plus, it's not everyday an ex-cokehead is a national figure. Maybe a revived Boisclair, or some other crazy younger man or woman, is just what the PQ needs to get out of its funk.

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"There's a lot of flag burners who have way too much freedom ..."

The rule of law says the government must obey the laws it passes for itself. A successive administration can change that law but it still must abide by the old law until then. So I had to laugh when the CBC reported last night that PMS had no right to abolish the Court Challenges Program. Why? Because to do so violated the Official Languages Act.

Yes, incredible as it sounds the law program was set up not in 1982 as the neo-cons claim but rather in 1978, four years before the Charter of Rights. It was designed to help official language minorities (English in Québec, French elsewhere) to fight for their rights if local federal offices didn't offer services. So the fights were often over what "where sufficient numbers warrant." The program was later extended to cover other human rights issues.

The Official Languages Commissioner, as an officer of Parliament, can only make non-binding recommendations. But to see the sanctimonious Conservatives who were so tall and proud on "clean" government break the law is truly beautiful. I'm surprised they haven't yet proposed a constitutional amendment giving itself immunity into perpetuity.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Repost: Call centre blues, Part IV

[Originally posted September 21, 2006]

It's been nearly three months since I moved to the Customer Service Department of the call centre where I am employed. So, to build on my previous three posts about some of the grief my colleagues and I face on a daily basis, I present some of the issues of being in the trenches -- in the hopes, as before, you get a better idea of what it's like for us.

We keep track of all mistakes and who's responsible for them. We compensate stores for our mistakes but the stores pay us a penalty for theirs if they're above the chainwide average of mistakes. (That draw, plus a commission for each order we take on their behalf, is where we get our salaries from -- after all, we technically work not for head office but the franchise owners.) That explains why some specials are walk-in only, because the store would lose money on the order if we took it at the loss-leader price -- and we have to deal with screaming customers who just don't accept we don't take those specific orders.

Customer service doesn't just involve working with the customers, but also with the stores, drivers who deliver, a smaller and complimentary chain for which we also take calls -- as well as, on occasion, management and even law enforcement. Every call is different and we have to think on our toes. About half the calls we get still fall under ordertaking or verifying -- after all, if all the ordertakers are busy with calls and some of us are available the call gets directed to us. We answer "Customer Service," usually out of habit, but the customer wants to go back into ordertaking. Which is kind of weird especially if they've been on hold for ten minutes and they're implying they're OK with waiting another ten.

We take the order -- no questions asked. There are some other issues, though, and it's worth pointing out why we do it the way we do. This is by no means exhaustive, but here are some of the most frequent issues.

1. The customer wants a store credit for another day.

This often happens when a customer is unhappy with one or more ingredients, but they've eaten the pizza anyway. No can do. We normally offer only same day replacements. Among the exceptions are if the store is closed, the pizza has been remade already and the customer is still unsatisfied with the results, or if the customer is in an area where we don't deliver after a certain time. As I explained before, each store has a specific delivery area; boundaries are only crossed if a huge order has to be split betwen two or more stores, or an emergency crops up and another store isn't too busy and prepared to take up the slack. I can't count the number of times I've gotten into an argument with a customer about a replacement. But sometimes the customer is surprised and even delighted we would actually go to the trouble of remaking something. That's our job. We want them to be satisfied.

2. The customer wants the "real" phone number.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: It's on a need to know basis, and most times (99.9%), the customer doesn't need to know. They're unlisted, on purpose, so the store is freed up from being on the phone all the time so they can make the customers' orders. If a message needs to be passed, we take the customer's number and ask the store to call them back.

3. The order was sent to the wrong store.

It does happen, but agents do often send pickups to the wrong location; or they enter a street name wrong and it winds up in another part of town or even another city. We offer compensation, and in this case give the customer a choice. Either they go to the "wrong" store, or a fresh order is made at the right one. The customer gets the order for free, and if the order has to be remade we also compensate the other location for their expenses. Simple enough -- although it sometimes takes a few attempts to explain this to an irate customer.

4. A customer wants such and such driver fired.

That's up to an individual store, as they're franchises. We do pass on the complaint, though.

5. A customer had their order verified, and still wants a free order.

The reasons some orders are checked out are because of size or credit issues, or because a store wants all orders to a certain address confirmed. That doesn't stop some customers from claiming the time guarantee began from when the order was placed. (It's from the time we confirmed it and gave the customer the new time.) Or that they weren't expecting a call back. (We always tell them we will.) Or we have the wrong address. (That's the purpose of a verification -- if you confirmed the address and you gave us the wrong address on purpose, hoping to get a free order, we're not that stupid.) Oh, and for a multi-unit delivery point, such as an apartment or hotel, the guarantee ends in the lobby or front desk; unless you have no buzzer, in which case there is no time guarantee at all.

6. Stores don't want to remake an order, because they think the customer is lying.

We work on the presumption the customer is always right, and that they're being truthful. We do keep a log of the number of orders vs complaints, but one of our problems is that we keep track of them by phone number and not address. Stores on the front lines do remember like an elephant, however, so if a customer is trying to scam us with multiple phone numbers at the same address they know it well. In that case, and if a store manager insists, we ask them to talk to their regional sales manager, and we investigate it further. If an address needs to be blacklisted or otherwise get close scrutiny, then and only then do we flag it.

7. The stores want compensation for an undelivered order, or one cancelled by the store.

That depends on whether the order was sent to the right store in the first place. If it was, the store doesn't get comped and has to bite the loss. It's tough, but those are the rules. If it was a mistake on our end, such as an error in the street file, then of course, we'd be happy to comp.

8. The stores pin the blame on the commissary and not themselves.

We do have some very specific cooking and quality control rules, but once in a while head office does screw up. They label a mild sauce as hot, or lightly breaded wings are heavily breaded, and so forth. In those cases, yes, the error is on us. But if a store didn't prepare it properly, then it's their fault.

Two last points: Sometimes, when we're offering a remake, the customer wants to give the other product back. Health regulations forbid us from doing this, with the sole exception being a foreign object complaint. In that case, the regional sales manager gets in touch with the customer and arranges a pickup time.

Also, there is a priority for calls we take. Stores and drivers get priority (they have a special number that puts them at the front of the line), followed by customer service issues, orders for our fried chicken outlets and then orders for all our other outlets. Sometimes, an issue can be resolved during a call and we just take the next one, but sometimes we have to follow up and make sure all our notes are right -- which means not all of us are available at any given time. Please be patient if you do have an issue. We will always answer your call. Some nights, like on major event nights, we get backed up with orders and that also reflects on the queue in customer service but we do try to clear up that backlog as soon as possible. And if you're just ordering and you hear "customer service," don't hang up either. After all, all customer service agents are ordertakers -- but not all ordertakers are customer service agents.

Repost: Call centre blues, Part III

[Originally posted February 11, 2006]

In my last two posts I talked about what it's like working for the call centre of a major chain of restaurants and the problems we have with customers.

There have been times when even someone like me can get really unnerved and start to lose his cool. I've sometimes pounded my fist on the armrests of my chair or on the desk because I couldn't hold it in anymore no thanks to customers who just couldn't take no for an answer even when that is our clearly defined policy on an issue. I guess that's a holdover from my childhood, when I got bullied a lot and was prone to throwing tantrums which of course only meant getting bullied even more. I'm much calmer now but I can still get started.

For the most part I'm liked my current position, a promotion I received a couple of months ago. I hope to move up to the customer service department in the spring -- I probably could have jumped from ordertaking right to CSR when I was invited, but decided to take the intermediate step because I've heard of some people who couldn't handle it and went right back to ordertaking (along with a reduction in pay). Matter of fact, one of the people hired in my flight for verifications bailed on day one -- we really felt bad for her.

That being said, there are a few things that have emerged that have really droven my colleagues and I, both in verifications and customer service (we work next to each other in one room at the office, while most of the ordertakers are in five other rooms around the building) totally crazy as of late. I want to address a few of the major ones.

1) We don't deliver -- period.

Very few if any chain restaurants are company owned anymore. Most are franchises. They've delegated the ordertaking to us so they can spend their time making the food. That doesn't stop customers, as I mentioned before, from demanding the "real" phone number. The fact of the matter is, we're not going to give them out. They're only for contact between us and the stores if there's a customer complaint; or if we need to call the store to clarify if they have a specific ingredient (eg. Halal or kosher meat), or if they're participating in a promotion.

Some of the stores which serve universities will call in if they've gotten requests from the students they delivered to, to add tips to the orders they've done --and they can come in bulk, as many as 20 at a time and we have to approve the tips one at a time. When the validation machine for that university goes on the fritz, it can get maddening especially when you have a list of non-school orders to check up on also.

The delivery drivers who work for the franchisees have, next to toll collectors, one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. They don't work for us but the store owners. When they go out, those brave women and men often don't know if this ride will be their last. They can get attacked, mugged -- some have even been shot.

Because of this, some store owners tell us quite specifically there are some neighbourhoods they will not deliver to after a certain time. Or an apartment block where they'll only deliver to the lobby. There are a few hotels that also have this policy because they don't want the guests disturbed or they want to keep a certain "class" for their hotel. (This can be inconsistent, however -- the Intercontinental will allow door-to-door but the Royal York won't; the Chateau Laurier does, some strip motels don't.)

The customer, naturally, flips out. We have to explain to them it's a matter for their safety and ours. Some get it when we tell them the first time. Others just don't.

2) The delivery instructions aren't specific enough.

What's with that?

At least a couple of universities still aren't indexed by school or buildings in our street index. We have to ask the customer for specific delivery information so the driver isn't running all over the place. We keep pressing whoever compiles the street index to make it easier for us but it's like talking to the moon. This only makes it worse for the customers, too.

Some hotel guests don't want to give out their name, saying it's none of our business. Actually, it is. If there's a problem with the order, some front desk clerks won't patch us through unless we have the name of the registered guest. So humour us. Canada has strict privacy laws in this regard and we won't sell your name to a third party -- ever. We only keep the name long enough to do the job we have to do and only in relation to the job.

There is one other place that's also a bit of a nightmare for us -- the Blue Mountain Resort in Collingwood. Make no mistake: We love serving the compound. The guests are always nice, and the place is one of our best revenue generators. However, a lot of people don't understand it's actually a small city unto itself. Furthermore, the hotel on the grounds isn't one, but nine; so this is the one place where we need to be absolutely specific for the local store.

If you ever go there and stay for a night or a week, please note: Your hotel room does not have three digits, it has five. The first two refer to the chateau you're staying in. This will be clearly indicated on your room key. The ordertaker (I still do that, when there are no orders to verify) needs all five digits. Otherwise, if we need to call you back, we won't be able to -- in fact the store won't be able to deliver at all. The ordertaker gets charged with an error, and you don't get the food.

3) We give the customer a better deal, and they flip out and want to pay the regular price.


Usually a customer is grateful we're saving them money -- on large orders this can be as much as 30 bucks or more. Some, however, don't understand what a discount is. They really don't.

This has happened on occasion but with increasing frequency the last two weeks. I finally got one last night. They actually wanted me to charge them a higher regular price on a three item pizza with a combination that had a special on it.

Why? Are they business people who can deduct meal expenses and they want the maximum tax credit? No, they're just Joe and Jane Blows who don't understand we're trying to help them. Come on, people, lighten up! If we save you five dollars, that's seventy five cents less that goes to the government. That makes you, and us, happy -- we're sick and tired of being tax collectors too.

4) What's with the delivery charge? (Or, "Please remove it!")

Some people think we still have free delivery. We don't -- actually, our chain hasn't for about five years. The managment really should call it a fuel surcharge, because that's what it is. It's simply not fair to charge pick up and walk in customers for the gas the stores have to put in their cars for deliveries. So tip the driver. He or she doesn't get anything from the delivery charge. Nothing.

Some hotels, however, require us to tack on an additional charge as a condition for delivery. This goes to the hotel. We have absolutely no choice in this and we will not waive it even if you're Donald Trump or Bill Gates -- or Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Why not? Simple: The hotel has a restaurant on premises or has an interest in one nearby. They want their hotel "traffic" to be directed to their facilities. That's why their receipts have the room number so you can just charge the meal "on account." To make up for lost business to competitors such as delivery chains, they want compensation.

So if you're calling from a hotel, we ask you for the local hotel's number, not your cell phone. If we don't collect the charge that's due to them, they'll take note. Too many rogue orders and we'll be banned from the premises, permanently. That's not fair to the other guests who don't mind paying extra.

All we can hope is that in exchange for the extra charge, we can offer you superior service and food so you will order from us on your next trip -- or from the local store in the same chain when you get back home.

For that matter, please note if you're going to Casino Rama, our store in Orillia doesn't deliver at all there, at all. It's on native territory and the local tribal council has said we and the other delivery chains are not welcome there or any other hotel on the reservation, period. (Besides, there are nine restaurants on premises there already -- and if I'm spending a day there I want to eat at their buffet or Italian restaurant, not pizza or wings.)

5) The customer thinks we're discriminating against them.

We've had enough of the persecution complex. It doesn't work with us at all.

Most of us are either the children of immigrants or are immigrants ourselves. We know what discrimination is. The rest who don't know enough not to put up with discrimination.

So don't try to pull the "refugee" or "d. p." game on us. My father was a displaced person, and I'm proud of that. He sought a better life and because he did, I live here and am not six feet under in a cemetery somewhere in the Balkans. The same goes for the rest of us where we can claim ancestry in South Asia, Africa or Eastern Europe.

We treat all customers equally. If you're entitled to a store credit you'll get it. If you are getting a remake, it'll come you're way. If the situation calls for an apology and nothing more, then that's all you will receive. That goes whether you live on the streets or Rosedale; and if you're black or white.

For that matter, we won't cater to a racist clientèle either. Disabuse the drivers even once based on their race or ethnic background, and you'll be blacklisted. There's only so much we can put up with too.

Repost: Call centre blues, Part II

[Originally posted on November 27, 2005]

After spending some time in my current position at the call centre where I work -- having been recently promoted -- I have some new observations.

One of my colleagues told me a verifications clerk is really a glorified order taker. There is a ring of truth to that, but keep in mind the main reason there is an intermediate level between order takers and customer service representatives is quality control. I work for a restaurant chain with over 300 locations and the people who run the restaurants want to make sure they are as satisfied as the customers are.

Without going into too much detail, I have to keep an eye on how many orders need to be checked up on vs incoming calls. If no orders require verifying, I'll take a few orders before going to my primary job. Because I still take inbound orders, please review my [last post] to know what order takers do and how some people calling us try to trip us up in a deliberate attempt to get their order for free.

This being said, my teammates and I have some very important additional duties. I'm going to go through what they are, so you have a heads up. If you get a call from us or another business saying they're checking up on an order that you've made, don't be alarmed. There are legitimate reasons why we do this.

1. Unauthorized credit card. This may be the most common reason why you're waiting for your order. Sometimes the order taker has taken the wrong expiry date, other times it's the customer. The system we use is supposed to automatically validate the credit card. If it doesn't, we have to call the merchant division of Visa, MasterCard or American Express (one for each of them) and validate it manually.

If it still doesn't work, we have to call the customer back and tell them of the situation. They'll insist their card is fine. We have to point out that no it isn't and ask for an alternate method of payment. If none is offered, the order will be cancelled. We don't like doing this, but we have no choice. The store owners want their money and they get paid at the close of business. They get their ingredients fresh every day and the commissary wants payment too.

One other point on this: If you get a new credit card in the mail, please activate it before cutting up your old one, then call us. Activation is not automatic! (Also, make sure you activate only from your home phone number -- or your business if it's a commercial account. This protects you against identity theft.)

2. Unauthorized meal card. This applies to university students (both on and off campus) and staffers, all the way up to President, and is similar to the above. The main difference is either insufficient funds or a wrong student number (or in the case of the staff member, the meal plan number). You will get a call back asking for alternate payment.

3. The store insists we check every order. We can't all live in the Annex or Rockcliffe Park or even Levitttown. It's sad but in this crazy world we live in, there are some districts of some major cities that are just a powder keg. These are the neighbourhoods with high concentrations of people, sometimes as many as 30,000 in several high-rises just one city block. Sadly, they also have the highest crime rates. Some locations are in those neighbourhoods simply because people like our food.

Because of security issues, for those few stores (maybe about a half-dozen out of the 300), we check each and every order to make sure they're legitimate. These include even the hotels and / or universities which are a safe distance away but are still served by that location. We'll make one call and one call only. If you don't answer, the order will be cancelled. Period. So keep your phone line clear.

4. Your order is large. Obviously, the store isn't going to make it unless they're sure it's legitimate. We check to make sure and go through every product, every item. Depending on how large it is, we may even refer it to catering (something the order takers should be doing in the first place) or call the store and ask them if they can handle the order or if they have to split it with another location.

If there's no answer, there are two possibilites depending on where you live. For the larger centres, we just leave it to the store to decide whether they want to go through with it or not. For smaller and mid-size communities we give the customer one hour (or until close of business, whichever is less) to call back to reconfirm. If not, we cancel it.

5. First time orders. Usually we won't check it unless it's been kicked into our end or if it's in a neighbourhood unfamiliar to the franchise in question. If you order on the Internet for the first time, we absolutely must confirm it.

6. A child placed the order. I know there are a lot of parents who think it's cute to have their kids place the order for them but it's not. Many of them don't even know what an area code is and we always ask for the 10 digit phone number, not 7. They also take way too long to place the order. So we double check with their parents or their older siblings to make sure. And we never, ever take credit cards from kids -- adults only!

7. English (or French) as a Second Language. French language calls are handled by our sister call centre in Ottawa, but for them the same rules apply as in English for us. We'll go over the order to make sure it's exactly what the customer wanted. If we have to repeat it a few times we will until we're sure.

8. Future orders. We always confirm orders placed for delivery or pickup on another day. No exceptions. Make sure you answer or we may have no choice but to cancel the order, and all your kids or business colleagues will be doing the day of the party is spinning a Dreidel or pinning the tail on the donkey. Maybe Texas Hold 'Em, too.

9. Quality assurance. Finally, every hour, the order taking system automatically selects a few orders to be randomly called back. There's nothing wrong with the order, and it doesn't fall into any of the first eight categories. We just check it for auditing purposes, just as sooner or later we're going to get audited by the IRS or the CRA.

Like the order takers, we're here to help you, not eat you. We're doing our part. Just give us some help when we call back and you can be sure your order will be exactly as you asked for it.

Repost: Call centre blues, Part I

I don't really have much on my mind on this late Friday afternoon, and there's really no news worth commenting on, so I'm instead going to repost from my former blog my "classic" series on what it's like to work at a call centre. The one I'm at now is for a major auto manufacturer (well, a company under contract to a vehicle producer) and not pizza, but there are some rather similar principles at work.

[Originally posted August 22nd, 2005]

When people call into a call centre to order something or get information, most are quite polite and put up with the inconvenience of stopping for a couple of minutes to do what they have to do. There are some, however, who will complain that the order-taker is being rude to them.

Sure, there's no question some people in the industry are like that. But it cuts both ways.

Here are some of the typical examples that get at my colleagues and me, in no particular order:

1) "What is your special?"

In the singular, like there's only one. When you're calling in, often times there's a feature that lets you listen to all the specials, not just the one. We feel like a broken record as we repeat, verbatim, the hold message. Or you get steamed when the price has gone up, when a listen to the message or a check of the website would indicate exactly that.

Tip: For heaven's sake, listen to the voice mail. It'll speed up the call when you do place your order. When you're ready to place to the order, hit zero and the next operator will help you.

2) "Can you wait a minute?"

Here, we tell you that we're ready to take your order, then they put US on hold while they consult with their friends on a single ingredient. And this happens over and over again, so a two minute call becomes ten. And for every ten seconds it goes on, another person is put on hold. By the time we get around to THEM, they've probably hung up and called someone else because they think WE'RE the insensitive ones. Meantime, you've probably ended up ordering something you didn't want to begin with.

Tip: Have a general idea of the ingredients you want on each item, how well cooked, etc. We'll talk you through the different sizes and prices and offer combinations that'll save you money.

3) "You're just down the street from me."

Uh, the store is, but we're not. When you call a food service chain (or department store or whatever) to order something , more likely than not you will be not connected to the nearest store but forwarded to either to a call centre or to an agent telecommuting from his or her home, often hundreds of kilometres away from you. Often times, there's more than one call centre, and it's just the luck of the draw where you get directed to -- next available operator means just that.

(To use another example, when you call the federal tax authorities, it's not too uncommon to have your called answered in Vancouver when in fact you're calling from Toronto or Montréal -- or vice versa. That's why they ask you for your social insurance number, since they can all access the same file.)

And we're not authorized to give out the "real" store numbers, because those are reserved to deal with customer service complaints.

Don't worry. All the franchises subscribing to our system are linked to us. We'll take the order and send it via secure link to their printer -- whether it's a pickup or delivery.

4) "I don't like the service from such and such store, can you have it delivered from somewhere else?" Or "That store is five kilometres from here, why can't you have it delivered from the store down the road?"

On the first point, sorry, no can do. Each franchise has a specific delivery area and will not trod into a neighbour's territory. The sole exception is if a store gets bombarded with orders or has an emergency situation beyond its control. In that case, the store either temporary closes to deal with the backlog (usually, this will take about 30 minutes to an hour) or the computer will automatically redirect the order to another location that is not too busy.

On the second one, it's a legitimate point. But I think the system tries to keep track of how many orders each store gets and, every so often, will adjust the boundaries to ensure the franchisers get on a weighted basis roughly the same number of orders.

5) "Why is there no time guarantee?"

Three possibilities: First, you're too far from the store or in a relatively new development that the drivers are not yet familiar with. Second, your order is too large to fit under the normal time constraints. Third, the store has too many orders.

6) "Can you rush my order?"

It's first come, first served.

7) "I need to get my credit card (or meal plan)."

To speed things up, you may want to consider having it with you when you pick up the phone. In some cases, the credit information is handled by an automated attendant after we've taken your order and you have to enter the card number and expiry date with your touch tone phone. If you wait too long, it'll hang up and the order won't be sent to the store. The order is still in the system but you have to call back, we have to retrieve it and so forth, delaying your wait time even more.

Otherwise, if you have to read out the number to the operator, it's just common sense to have it ready to read out. We can send the order to the store straight away and you can enjoy your service a lot faster.

8) "You have such a lovely voice. Can you deliver it to me?"

I get this about once a night, from a far flung place. The answer is, yes -- if you have contacts at NORAD and can fly a Harrier Jet or F-18 down my way. Otherwise, it'll be someone locally. Sorry.

9) "Will you go out with me?"

No fraternizing with the customers. In fact, we're not supposed to fraternize with each other -- that might be construed as sexual harrassment especially if it involves an underlink and a supervisor. Not supposed to but it does happen anyway.

[Update for clarity: I originally stated that intrawork relationships are forbidden. Of course, that's silly. Since I first posted this at my ex-blog almost two years ago, I found out such workplace rules are only supposed to be illegal in the US and only because companies say they're against policy. I can understand the concern given how serious real sexual harrassment is; but for the record I did some research afterwards and discovered such clauses themselves actually violate labour standards so long as sexual harrassment isn't involved. Come on, you're going to stop people from falling in love, or for that matter having a fling?

[Turns out such rules are totally unenforceable in Canada anyway, although workplace relationships should still be reported to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest.]

10) "You already have my address on file, why do you need it again?"

To make sure the order is going to the right address. Far too many times, people are rushing to make an order and accidentally give someone else's phone number, which screws things up. Or they're on the road and use their home numbers to place an order at the town they're visiting or doing business in. There is a difference between Thunder Bay and North Bay: They're 1200 km apart, folks.

11) "Are you a top or a bottom?"

Yes, someone really did ask me this one time. The next time someone asks me, I'll ignore the question and continue with the order.

For the record, I'm 100% straight, single and looking.

12) "You speak with an American accent."

Blame that on watching the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and NBC's Meet the Press as a young kid. My experience around others is that one's accent is usually set around 7 or 8. Rest assured folks, I am Canadian.

13) "I've been on hold for 20 minutes."

No you haven't. When you call in, we have a clock that says exactly how long you've been in the system. Four or five minutes, tops, maybe. Not twenty. On a very rare occasion, one call centre might crash and the calls are redirected to the other ones ... even in a situation like that, we'll endeavour to clear the backlog in 10 minutes, tops. So please hold. If you hang up, you'll just go right to the back of th queue.

14) "I just want to place my last order, please send me back to the auto attendant."

This is rare, but there are people who do love voice mail. Not to worry, we can take care of that ... just pull up the last order from the server and you're done in about 15 seconds, which is way less time than it would take to send you BACK to voice mail -- if we had the ability to do that which we don't.

And last but not least:

15) "I don't need to give you a reason why I want to cancel my order."

Well, no you don't, but it'd be helpful if you did tell us. We want to improve your service experience.

Bottom line, we know you have a life to lead, but we're just doing a job here too. So cut us a bit of slack.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Another step to Star Chamber

Government leaks happen all the time. They're actually vital to a democracy because it gets issues out in the public domain. With the sole exception of the early release of budget information (which is the reason for media lock downs, to ensure no one can take advantage of the stock market based on advanced data) there is simply no reason to punish someone for getting the goods to the media. In fact, the last time any leak led to serious charges was against Doug Small when he got a hold of the 1989 budget. He was acquitted because the RCMP charged the reporter, not the Finance Department official who smuggled out that year's summary of the numbers.

So the news that the Harperites are charging a senior bureaucrat with breaking some vague notion of "secrecy" is even more proof that the Man from Calgary wants to turn emaciate Parliament and turn the Privy Council into Star Chamber. The public service is supposed to service the public, not the Prime Minister. And in reference to the PMO I mean "service" in the usual and the implied sense.

Words cannot express my anger on this.

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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

What will it take to get rid of Paul Wolfowitz?

It's been a time-honoured "tradition" that the head of the International Monetary Fund (which tries to manage balance of trade and currency issues) is always someone from the European Union; and the chief of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development a.k.a. the "World Bank" (which is effectively the bank of last resort for impoverished nations) is always someone from the United States. However, since decisions in both require a megamajority and the States has a stake that's just above what a "losing" minority would be, it effectively is in charge of both -- not the United Nations like it's supposed to be. So it's the US President who nominates who will head both as opposed to the Security Council.

So even if every other country in the world used its shares to declare no-confidence in whoever was in charge, it would be the White House that has the final say. Hence, Dubya can afford to stall on the Paul Wolfowitz issue no matter how repugnant the latter's actions were. For those in the dark, the summary is this: Wolfowitz managed to get his girlfriend (who also worked at the World Bank) into a senior position at the State Department at a pay grade higher than the Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice. The Board of Directors (which includes Canada's Jim Flaherty) is about to vote non-confidence in Wolfowitz. But he refuses to resign and Dubya won't contemplate even an offer of resignation.

Nepotism is as old as Magna Carta -- even older, in fact. But when public money is at stake people demand accountability. When it's a fundamentally flawed institution such as the IMF or the IBRD it's even more repugnant. So to say Wolfowitz must go is needless -- it's more than obvious even to a dolt. What possible rules of ethics did Paul not breach?

Until recently, I wouldn't have given much thought to the idea of getting rid of the agencies. But events like this are the last straw. It's more than obvious both need a shakedown and need to be reformed from the ground up, with more generous repayment terms to countries receiving loans. The subscription terms of donor countries need to be reformed as well with a greater say to the rest of the developed world without America's veto. If that's not possible, just abolish both all together and come up with something new, something that doesn't even involve the States.

It certainly would make more sense to have someone from the Third World run both institutions at the same time, to clean them up than a white man in a suit from the States and yet another white man in a suit from Europe. Say, why not Mohammed Yunus, the inventor of microcredit and last year's Nobel Peace winner? No way the Americans will stand for that though either -- after all, the State Department hates brown people.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Phishing blues (almost)

Word to the wise: If you get a call for one of those quick "surveys," ask some leading questions to make sure it's from a reputable firm such as Ipsos, Gallup, Strategic Counsel, SES or Léger. Today I had a follow-up from a call a couple weeks ago about whether I was enjoying my satellite radio service (of course, I am) and the operator invited me to fill in a survey to win $1000. I type in the address ...

... and my firewall throws up a red flag saying said site is a data miner. Good thing I couldn't get in.

Well, the fact is about half of web users, even in Canada and the United States, still don't have even elementary anti-virus detection let alone a firewall or a web blocker. Guess they were counting on me not having one either so they could steal money from my bank account.

I'm not that stupid. But lately I've been getting a lot of e-mails -- one to "confirm" my password at which turned out to be a third party phishing site (my account is at, by the way) plus several more to confirm purchases I made at eBay (I don't have an account there at all!) And all those pesky PayPal confirmations (I don't have PayPal either).

Why aren't the ISPs trying to put a stop to fraud like this? It wastes our time, keeping us from sorting through real e-mail correspondence.

And of course it's not just limited to online purchases. My grandmother got taken advantage of a year ago and we still don't know who tried to ruin her good name (although in her case and a few others, the collection agency was right on top of things and decided correctly the defrauded really were innocent).

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Adieu Boisclair

It really wasn't much of a surprise that André Boisclair was going to step down as leader of the Parti Québécois. A third place showing in the March elections made it inevitable. What was the surprise was the timing -- as well as the first ever open sniping between the PQ and its federalist counterpart, the Bloc Québécois.

Reagan once warned his party's members, "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican," even if he or she disagreed profoundly with the object of their contempt. It's how it managed to win so many elections, letting the Democrats rip each other apart -- something the donkey didn't learn how to stop until last fall when they took back Congress. It's the similar kind of solidarity between the PQ and BQ over the last seventeen years that has ensured the separatists were able to stay on message.

I don't live in Québec so I can't pretend to know the truth behind the falling out. But I think there are two factors at play. First, the federal conservatives were able to appeal to part of the same base that Mulroney was able to work off of during the 1980s. Second, the shocking rise of Mario Dumont and L'action démocratique du Québec, with an -- at least on the surface -- pro-family agenda that clicked with a lot of people.

In other words, I think Boisclair tried to appeal to the centre and he just couldn't. Duceppe still has considerable clout and perhaps he thinks the continued presence of Boisclair will hurt the BQ when the next federal election is held. So, two points: One, Stéphane Dion -- federal Liberal leader -- needs to move fast and try to take advantage of the vacuum. He has a much better chance of getting votes in the province if he focuses as much on Afghanistan as he does on the environment. True, the separatists are also against the deployment but Dion needs to point out the Bloc will always have only a regional vision, not a national one. And two, minority governments don't usually last that long. Jean Charest has about another eighteen months as Premier at most before a no-confidence vote. Dion can't rely on all of Charest's foot soldiers as many are Conservatives federally any more than Charest can rely on the federal Liberals, some of whom actually voted ADQ.

The key here: Work the refs. Appear in the media, appear often and attack their bias. Harper knew how. So did Dumont.

Boisclair couldn't (or didn't know how). Dion needs to be out there and more often. Mainstream as well as online.

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Just tear down Hamilton City Hall

Only in Hamilton could a cement and glass block building not even fifty years old with persistenly leaking ceilings, constantly malfunctioning elevators and inner wiring so out of date that any IT upgrade is a nightmare; only here could it be designated a historic site. And yet, a few years ago, some idiots decided Hamilton City Hall should get that honour. With other privately owned sites in much bigger threat which have not been so designated one has to wonder why anyone would want to renovate it.

Yet some time ago the decision was made to spend about $69 million to renovate the eyesore, for an alteration that might last, say, 20 years. And it still won't be adequate because the city will still have to rent out space in office towers at a nearby mall as well as at the Convention Centre. Now with about a week to decide, the new mayor, Fred Eisenberger, is trying to resurrect a plan to just tear City Hall down and build from scratch -- although somewhat scaled down from before. Cost: $115 million. The building could last at least 50 to 60 years or more. The twist is that it could be a civil centre with surplus space rented out to other public agencies such as the school boards or even to the private sector.

I think it's worth considering. In fact, I would vote to start anew. The city hall in Mississauga is an excellent example of what can be done to make it right and no doubt has played a role in the rapid growth in that city.

Besides, it's better to keep as many people as possible in house. Especially during rainy or windy days when some of the main drags in Hamilton turn into wind tunnels. It's hard enough running six city halls at once (five of them actual town or city halls before amalgamation turned them into service centres). Run five more downtown and physical plant can't keep up.

This is one case where we can't afford making a mistake by not getting it right. Just tear it down and begin anew. As long as they stay away from gold-plated door handles (as what was originally suggested for the original "new" city hall, which the then city council abandoned when they decided to go with renovations instead) it should pay for itself in time.

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