Archive for July, 2014


any little fish



Groove of the Day

Listen to Nöel Coward & His Orchestra performing “Any Little Fish”


customer service

customer service 1

My recent power troubles were a disaster. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but when all was said and done, my All-Power 3500-watt gasoline generator had burned out two TVs, three computer speaker systems, one phone system, and a printer. I should have been quicker to figure out what was going on, but I was initially fooled by the advanced age of my equipment and the thought that it was simply reaching the end of its useful life. Luckily I had back-up equipment to replace the printer and phone equipment, but I did need to buy new computer speakers (they were cheap) and a new TV to hook up to my Roku, which is a streaming device that eliminates the fits-and-starts that are a part of Internet streaming out here.

Now I can take my lumps like any grown-up. The whole affair cost me only about $200 in out-of-pocket equipment purchases to get back to normal. Rather, the most difficult thing was having to deal with so many customer service organizations—at last count, eight of them. Their performance ranged from excellent to awful, being equally split between the sheep and the goats, with two being mediocre.

I learned a lot from the experience, although it has resulted in three weeks of frustration from which I will only have the conclusions of this post to show. I’m not going to bore you with a blow-by-blow recounting of the whole experience, but will just provide you with the highlights and low spots.

The best customer service organizations (in order of excellence):



The worst customer service organizations (in order of awfulness):



The mediocre customer service organizations:

JDNA (the manufacturer of the generator)


The best customer service organizations are characterized by their dedication to solving problems in the quickest and easiest ways. Amazon has a policy of sending out replacement equipment, no questions asked. Brother got the job done painlessly. And Vonage had the skill to deliver bad news so that I was satisfied and understanding, even though it involved a wait of two days for replacement equipment (at no charge).

The worst customer service organizations didn’t agree on the best way to solve my issues (, a retailer, tried to sell me unnecessary equipment, and and RCA didn’t know who was supposed to provide customer support on the new TV—there was no phone number supplied in the owner’s manual, and between Frys and RCA, I was given the numbers to six support organizations, all bad numbers but one). As it turned out, all I needed was less than a minute with someone who understood my issues, but I probably spent three hours listening to interminable music-on-hold and Fax twitters trying to find such a person.

By far, the worst customer service department was Roku, which had offshored their call center to India, where it is cheaper to provide “support.” The unresolved issue was refunding a $17 service fee for “overnight delivery” of a $10 cable that never happened. The call center in India kept trying to convince me that 4 days in transit was actually “overnight delivery” because I had placed my order on a Thursday.  The call center in India kept sending me emails saying that new files on my complaint were being opened, but the center was not empowered to resolve the issue. A quarter of my time was spent repeating myself due to not being understood, half my time was spent listening to music-on-hold, and only a quarter of my time was spent talking to someone and trying to get them to understand the logic of my argument that you don’t take the customer’s money for a service you are incapable of actually delivering.

The experience of dealing with so many customer service organizations has led me to two conclusions.

First, the bad providers don’t make their own stuff or provide their own services. In the interests of cheapness, American business has resorted to outsourcing manufacturing and/or support for “brands” versus retaining responsibility for “products.” Old-line companies still tell stories about the greybeard founders who could personally perform every job in the factory. No more. When businesses outsource overseas, they place more distance between the customer and the product, especially psychological distance. My experience with Roku taught me that removing a sensitivity to American language and sensibilities from your customer service operation is a short-sighted policy. Even though Roku presently offers more channels, give me Amazon (which has a competing product) any day.

Second, providing good customer service is just as important as providing good products. Maybe there are some products that sell for too little money to provide good customer service, maybe not. Providing support that has value to your customers is a commitment that needs to be backed up by training and the empowerment to solve issues.

Just opening new case files on questions or complaints doesn’t cut it any more. We’re smart enough to tell when someone’s giving us the run-around.


Groove of the Day

Listen to The Rolling Stones performing “Satisfaction”


PS: In the interest of full disclosure, I did finally get the $17 charge refunded after contacting the US-based Director of Communications, forewarning her that some negative publicity was on its way.



banksy 1

One of the few things I regret having left behind is a world without graffiti, especially since the UK-based artist Banksy has come on the scene. You may think that graffiti is a scourge, but my feeling is that anything besides art that is man-made is inferior to the beauty of nature. The argument can be made that a street artist who “defaces” an urban wall or building is, in most cases (except where a competent architect has been involved), improving whatever serves as his canvas.

In an earlier life, I have even been known to accompany a vandal on a late-night tagging expedition, just to see what it was like.

Banksy is a pseudonymous graffiti artist, political activist, film director, and painter whose satirical street art and subversive epigrams combine dark humor with graffiti executed in a distinctive stencilling technique. Such artistic works of political and social commentary have been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world.

Known for his contempt for the government in labeling graffiti as vandalism, Banksy displays his art on visible surfaces such as walls, even going as far as to build physical prop pieces.  Banksy’s first film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, billed as “the world’s first street art disaster movie”, made its debut at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. In January 2011, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary for the film.

Knowing where to attack government where it will be noticed, in August 2004 Banksy produced a quantity of spoof British £10 notes substituting the picture of the Queen’s head with Princess Diana’s head, and changing the text “Bank of England” to “Banksy of England.” The bank notes can be seen in Exit Through the Gift Shop.

In 2014, he was awarded person of year at the 2014 Webby Awards.


Here are some of his best-known works:


banksy 3.

banksy 10.

banksy 11.

banksy 4.

banksy 5.

banksy 9.

banksy 6.

banksy 8.

And one of my favorite Banksy projects:



Groove of the Day

Listen to The Clash performing “Clampdown”




When I was a boy growing up, I was imprinted by the concept of sainthood. At the time, this was defined by Catholic conceptions, but as I dropped my Catholicism in favor of other spiritual beliefs, the concept never left me. A purpose of living is, I have always believed, to live a good and righteous life. You do it well enough to be emulated by others, especially after your death, and you become a saint.

As I have done research on the subject, it seems that achieving sainthood is popularly believed to be out of the reach of ordinary mortals with ordinary ways-of-life. This is why, early in my business career when I was being recruited by a corporation for an open job, I was dropped like a hot potato when asked what my life’s ambition was, and I answered, “To become a saint.”

At the time, I didn’t realize what an oddball answer it was, or what potential difficulties (for an employer) such an answer might presage. Better for most employers to select for less celestial ambitions.

While researching this post, however, I discovered a swami—Sada Shiva Tirtha—who says, “It is hoped that all can see that there is no real chasm between people and saints—each of us has saintliness within and is closer to being a saint than one may believe,” he says.

This popular attitude to sainthood arises, he says, from ten misconceptions:

1.   Saints must perform miracles
2.   Saints never get angry
3.   Saints don’t display human emotions
4.   Saints don’t get sick
5.   Saints wear special ‘holy’ clothes
6.   Saints remain unmarried
7.   Saints never have children
8.   Saints never make mistakes or fail at anything
9.   Saints only do literal holy things
10. Saints never watch TV or movies

“Just by discussing or trying to do something a little better, a little nobler, remembering God a little more often, those higher, nobler things charge us with those feelings,” he says. “God infuses us with His inspiration. It is the attempt towards these qualities that develops saintly qualities. And due to the power of these qualities alone affecting us, it is not as difficult to act and feel more saintly as one would first believe.”

The swami says: “By simply and sincerely trying, one finds instant upliftment and raised self-worth. The attempt to follow one or more positive habits is the highest of medicines. The reason it is so easy to experience upliftment is because the mind is—even if for a moment—focused on God or Godly behavior. The Vedas tell us that as we think so we become.”

Whether you believe in God or not, you might agree with me when I say that our souls are victimized many times by our lack of self-control, lack of self-discipline, and lack of desire to achieve a pure state of mind and body.  It seems to me that this is so because most of us have placed our soul as something we cannot touch or feel, something we are not in tune with.

I think we must correct this wrong opinion of our soul, and see it as a vital part of our whole being. As the old saw goes, we are spiritual beings having a human experience. We must remember that our souls are not separate from us, but as much a part of us as our flesh and our minds.

Our ultimate purpose is revealed to us and enriched by the eyes and ears of our souls.



martyr 5.


gertrude of nivelles.

martyr 6.

st martin.


mandela as saint.

martyr 1.

st laurent.


the saint.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Billy Eckstine performing “Body and Soul”



fossil feathers

This will take some real adjusting.

Paleontologists have come up with recent discoveries suggesting that all dinosaurs were actually feathered creatures, and that present-day birds are not distant relatives of the dinosaurs, but direct survivors of the creatures that dominated the Earth until the end of the Cretaceous era 65 million years ago.

I remember the time 35 years ago (before the film Jurassic Park) when scientists shocked the world by saying that dinosaurs were not lumbering beasts that dragged their tails, but quick-moving creatures that used their extended tails in a balancing-act every bit as remarkable as the upright posture of early man.

Our conceptions of what the dinosaurs actually were have gone through many permutations since Richard Owen reconstructed dinosaurs for the first time on a large scale for the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1854 in London. These sculptures, which popularized the view of dinosaurs as “thundering lizards,” can still be seen today, and immortalize a very early stage in our perception of dinosaurs.

After Charles Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859, much of the focus of paleontology shifted to understanding evolutionary paths and evolutionary theory. The late 19th century was dominated by the well-publicized “Bone Wars” between Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh; dinosaurs were not yet ingrained in culture because the knowledge was still so incomplete. Marsh, although a pioneer of skeletal reconstructions, did not support putting mounted skeletons on display, and derided the Crystal Palace sculptures. Yet the period saw a tremendous expansion in paleontological activity, especially in North America.

The trend continued into the 20th century with additional regions of the Earth being opened to systematic fossil collection, as demonstrated by a series of important discoveries in China near the end of the 20th century. Since 1980, when Luis Alvarez and his son Walter discovered the KT Boundary (a sedimentary layer found all over the world and containing concentrations of iridium, a substance that is extremely rare in the earth’s crust but abundant in asteroids,  suggesting that an asteroid struck the earth) , paleontology saw a renewed interest in mass extinctions and their role in the evolution of life on Earth.

Scientists have recently discovered a freakish, birdlike species of dinosaur—11 feet long, 500 pounds, with a beak, no teeth, a bony crest atop its head, murderous claws, prize-fighter arms, spindly legs, a thin tail and feathers sprouting all over the place. Officially, it’s a member of a group of dinosaurs called oviraptorosaurs. Unofficially, it’s the “Chicken From Hell.” At least, that’s the nickname the scientists have been using.

A couple days ago a paleontologist and writer named Michael Balter appeared on PRI’s The World. Balter says there’s already a consensus among scientists that birds are dinosaurs, but a new find in Siberia raises questions about when dinosaurs started becoming birds. Many scientists are now saying that dinosaurs always had feathers.

“Just how deep does ‘birdiness’ go in evolutionary terms?” he asked. (“Birdiness” is a term Balter coined to describe the bird-like properties found in many dinosaur remains.) “The new discovery indicates that birdiness really probably arose very, very early in dinosaur evolution,” he said.

Here is the radio broadcast if you want to hear the interview for yourself.

Living in this place where the ancient past seems like it could have been just yesterday, I think a lot about early life on Earth. As large birds of prey soar on the winds which dominate Estrella Vista, I think of birds as being much more robust than their city-slicker cousins from my youth. They make me think that I have been living with dinosaurs every day.

That’s quite an adjustment from what I used to believe.


Groove of the Day

Listen to John Williams conducting a performance of the “Jurassic Park Theme Song”


mysterious hole

mysterious siberian hole 1

Helicopters flying in northern Russia recently spotted a giant hole in the Yamal peninsula—a part of Siberia called “the end of the world”—and speculation over what caused it made scientists and conspiracy theorists go wild for a few days with various theories which included meteors, UFOs, underground cities, and even the “hollow earth” theory.

Aerial video footage shows debris and apparent signs of an explosion or impact around a massive crater.

A team of geologists was set to investigate, and most experts are certain that the mysterious hole is actually the result of a tundra phenomenon called a “pingo.”

open-pingo-gifBecause the closest I have ever been to the tundra is southern Canada, I was unfamiliar with the term. But a pingo forms when a mass of ice embedded in the earth starts to get pushed towards the surface by rising ground water. This rising water level is caused by warming temperatures, especially in the Arctic where permafrost in the ground is beginning to melt. Once the ice mass reaches the surface, it can violently rupture from the Earth, creating a ring of disturbed soil that resembles a crater. When the mass finally melts, all that remains is a damp and very deep hole.

This pingo theory was confirmed by experts last week after investigating the hole for themselves. Investigators found a flowing lake of ice water at the bottom of the hole, which is more than 260 feet across and about 230 feet deep.

“For now we can say for sure that under the influence of internal processes there was an ejection in the permafrost,” said Andrey Plekhanov, senior researcher on site.  “I want to stress that it was not an explosion, but an ejection, so there was no heat released as it happened.”

The past two summers were unusually hot for Yamal, leading to increased permafrost melt, he added.

“Such kind of processes were taking place about 8,000 years ago. Perhaps they are repeating nowadays. If this theory is confirmed, we can say that we have witnessed a unique natural process that formed the unusual landscape of Yamal peninsula,” he said.

This is probably how the lakes in the region were formed.

Global warming may cause more pingos as the permafrost and other arctic ice formations melt. Because of global warming, there is much more activity in permafrost areas than has been seen in the historical past. Arctic areas are experiencing some of the highest rates of warming on Earth.


Groove of the Day

Listen to the Outlaws performing “Waterhole”




I have had a running battle with packrats at my house. They are prodigious burrowers, and I am afraid they will eventually undermine the walls. I have tried everything before resorting to poison, which I hate having on the property. This morning a dead packrat was sprawled in the middle of the power house when I turned on the inverter. The packrats keep eating the bait, but they keep burrowing, too.

I guess there are always new generations of workers to keep up the assault.

Packrats, also known as woodrats and sometimes trade rats, belong to the genus Neotoma. The packrats in this immediate neighborhood are gray and, as the name suggests, rat-like in appearance. They have prominent eyes and large ears. They look like rats to me, but the only thing that keeps me from thinking I live on a rat-infested property is their name.

Packrats get their common name from the habit of collecting—whether it be bits of bone, plant material, or small objects and have hence made it into our slang for “hoarder” or “collector.” Their less-common name “trade rat” comes from their habit of dropping what they are carrying if they find something they like better (such as shiny things).

This collecting habit may be an annoyance to those of us who live with them, but it’s proven to be a boon for paleo-ecologists who use packrat middens or dens to learn about the past.

Unlike other desert rodents, packrats void copious amounts of urine and thus must rely on succulent plant material and protection from the sun to maintain their water balance. They seek shelter in caves and rock fissures, under mesquite trees, and in my house—and then improve these shelters with a loose mound of sticks, plant material, bones and mammal dung. Often these dens, or middens, are armored with a thick layer of prickly pear or cholla cactus, making them unappealing to predators that may have a packrat snack in mind.

Fossil middens (resembling blocks of asphalt with the consistency and mass of an unfired adobe brick), represent only part of an active den. Packrats will typically use a portion of their den as an outhouse, and unused and discarded plant fragments which accumulate in these areas become saturated in rat urine.

In dry climates such as ours, the urine crystallizes into a substance called “amberat” which has a number of useful properties. Most obviously, it binds the midden materials. It is self-sealing to an extent: it rehydrates under humid conditions and becomes sticky, so dust and dirt become trapped on the outside surfaces and prevent moisture from penetrating more deeply. Saturating plant material with amberat is comparable to packing it in salt, protecting it from decay.

Packrats are solitary animals, and individual middens are thought to represent a few years of activity. However, choice settings are reused over and over again, so large fossil middens spanning thousands of years can be produced. The foraging range of a packrat has a radius of about 100 to 160 ft (30 to 50 m), so their middens are local records.

Because packrat middens are often built in caves or rock fissures where they are protected from the weather, they can survive intact for tens of thousands of years. This is where a long-term midden deposit is quite useful: as conditions change and different plants become more or less abundant, the changes will be recorded by generations of rats.

packrat middensPackrat middens are excellent sources of pollen, plant fragments, body fossils of insects, spiders, millipedes, small vertebrates, and fossil rodent droppings. They span at least 40,000 to 50,000 years and are particularly well-represented in the deserts from western Texas to eastern California, areas that are lacking in other sources of paleoecological fossils like lakes and marshes. By far the most popular aspect of fossil middens has been their plant fossils. Researchers reconstruct changes in plant assemblages over time, which can be used as a proxy for climate.

The master at packrat midden story interpretation for the Chihuahuan Desert region is Dr. Thomas Van Devender, a research scientist with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. He and his colleagues have analyzed hundreds of packrat middens throughout the Chihuahuan Desert.

Van  Devender and his colleagues have looked at 14 middens in the Maravillas Canyon in the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, on the eastern side of Big Bend National Park from here. The oldest samples indicate that 28,000 years ago the canyon slopes were covered with a woodland of pinyon pine, shrub oak and junipers.

Two species of junipers were found in the samples: red-berry juniper and ash juniper. This is interesting because—while red-berry juniper is still the most common juniper in the Trans-Pecos—the ash juniper is fairly rare in this region now. With the climate change that marked the end of the Ice Age, ash junipers retreated eastward and are now most commonly found on the Edwards Plateau.

The presence of ash juniper is believed to be an indication that the climate was wetter during the distant past. Other indicators of nearby water include the remains of over 30 species of amphibians found in the Maravillas Canyon middens.

Other plants include Hinckley oaks—a small tree that rarely grows over three feet tall and is now considered an endangered species. But 24,000 years ago, the Hinckley oak was the dominant oak in a woodland scattered with lechuguilla, althorn and sotol—a combination of plants you’d be hard pressed to find today.

The Maravillas Canyon middens also revealed another surprise—the remains of a California Condor. These bones, and others found near Mule Ears Peak in Big Bend National Park, indicate that these majestic birds—having a wing span of more than nine feet—soared through the West Texas skies over 10,000 years ago.


Not bad for heaps of plant matter and other things cemented by rat pee. But what will happen over time to my house? I’d lay bets that the packrats will win.


Many thanks to Cathryn Hoyt of the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center for much of the content of this post.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Susan Trump performing “Pack Rat Blues”