Monday, July 24, 2006

On a lighter note

My sister is off to Las Vegas today - from Bangalore, India to Vegas within a week. If that doesn't set your head spinning, I don't know what does.

If my parents weren't here for a visit, I would have jetted down to Vegas for a little sisterly bonding in the City of Absurdity. Instead, though, the folks and I are heading up to our other country for some lovely enjoyment of Canadian beaches and mountains, with a quick trip into sophisticated Vancouver. Enrico will be joining us by train later in the week.

It's well timed. Perhaps the US and I just need a little time out from each other.

Plus, one of my aunts will be meeting up with us, bringing me family photos and papers regarding our illustrious northern ancestors, about which my sister and I still want to write a book. (Once Moxie has left her insane job she may actually have time for such pursuits again.) My aunt is still in touch with the descendants of Famous Uncle Charlie, and has even visited the family stomping grounds in the far north. It should all be great fun.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

So, so sorry

I just want to say, for the record, that I disgree in the strongest possible terms with my country's support of Israel's bombing the shit out of of Lebanon. I do not think it's ok, not at all. I am embarrassed and angry that my tax dollars are going to buy more weapons to bomb more Lebanese civilians and to destroy the basic everyday infrastructure that they rely on for their basic everyday lives. I go through my day trying to imagine what I would do if all the roads around me were bombed, and I couldn't get anywhere, and I had no food, water, electricity or information, and I didn't know whether my house might blow up at any moment, and I couldn't get ahold of any of my loved ones to know if they were alive.

I'd like the rest of the world to know that we don't all buy into the assertion that this incredible death, displacement and suffering among Lebanese civilians is somehow a necessary evil, or reasonable tradeoff, or fair gamble, or whatever is that's being argued by my insane government officials.

That doesn't mean I'm hostile to Israel or Jewish people or their right to a safe home. I simply believe that this kind of destruction is morally bankrupt, no matter who perpetrates it or whatever their reasons. You reap what you sow. Scorched earth retribution is the worst kind of laziness.

I am sending money to relief agencies that are helping people in Lebanon and Gaza. I'm probably on some government watch list now, but I don't give a crap. I wish I had more pull, really I do. I'm sorry that we are so self-centered and such a source of suffering to the world, so willing to sacrifice everyone else for our smallest conveniences and our unsustainable way of life. Not everybody here feels that way. Hell, not everybody here even benefits from the conveniences.

Why don't the dissenters turn out en masse in the streets to protest, you might reasonably ask? I don't know. I wish I had the answer. All I can say is that the protests in my town are small, and depressing, and unfocused, and generally run by people whose righteous indignation seems to demand all-or-nothing agreement with their every viewpoint, and I don't see how it helps. Enrico still goes. He's a better person than I in that way.

There are still good things about the United States. The founding fathers, they were onto something with the democracy and the freedom of speech and the checks and balances. As a woman I realize I have more respect and rights and opportunities here than in most places on the planet. Don't give up on us completely, because we really do have something to offer, if we don't completely extinguish it with our government's war-mongering, fear-mongering, swaggering, dictatorial, willfully ignorant destructiveness.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

We're having another one of those rare and mercifully short heat waves here, where it gets into the 90s for a few days. I know, those of you suffering from 100-degree heat elsewhere in the country are thinking, pffft, so what? But you have to understand that WE DON'T HAVE AIR CONDITIONING here. Just like we don't have insulation in our walls. We're not set up for extremes of climate. Other than the wet kind of extremes.

And yet, as if in sympathy with the rest of the country, we have had two power outages in the last week. Not just a flicker in the power, but a few hours at a stretch. What on earth could be causing them? I see nothing in the paper to explain it. It can't be the strain of so many overworked air conditioners, as happens elsewhere, because WE DON'T HAVE AIR CONDITIONING.

Last night, as I brushed my teeth in the last twilight, I thought about the people in Gaza who have had electricity for about an hour a day, if they're lucky, since whenver it was in June that the power generators were destroyed. If I had only one hour of electricity a day, I thought, how would I want to use it?

Today we are heading to the peninsula. Maybe it'll be cooler out there, who knows. At least on the water they might have a breeze.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

On the other hand, here's something universal

Teenagers on buses, being loud, blasting music, and assuming that their life is something everyone wants to hear.

Hey, I'm not criticizing. We took the public bus in high school and we took over the back with no thought that our conversations might be private or our music unpalatable to others. It's just kind of reassuring that at least as of the age of 15 or so, human beings have that in common.

Monday, July 17, 2006


I have been feeling sad and angry and unsettled by the state of the world. I would love to put together a sharply written and philosophically dazzling essay, but alas, it is beyond me. I will just put out a few random thoughts.

First of all: The photos of the incinerated, blown-apart Lebanese toddlers trying to flee Israeli bombing...I am sorry, but there is no acceptable excuse for incinerating children. Period. I understand that the Israelis are surrounded by people who hate them, and that missiles are dropping on them, and that the world seems unable to resolve these problems. But I gotta say, I'm done with all those arguments. It is simply morally unacceptable to say that your only option involves incinerating children, and of course it's not your intention to do so, and therefore any toddlers you happen to incinerate are really on the conscience of your enemy who started the fight. No. Sorry. It doesn't work that way, ever.

I'm sick of this world view that has somehow taken hold in all quarters - American, Israeli, Iraqi, Al-Quaida - that says that if you're defending your people and fighting for the side of right against people who hate you, any means is justified. This swaggering Protector of the People act that declares that any human cost is by definition justified if you just say the code word - security, terror, right to defend, resistance. A world view that ignores facts and logic as much as suffering. That says the life of a military professional, engaged in war, is fair trade for the life of a trapped civilian unable to escape. That says punishing an entire population - or abandoning them to chaos and war and hardship for years to come - over the misdeeds of a few in their midst is an acceptable tradeoff. Somehow, the whole world seems to have bought into it.

This is a world in which extremism of thought is a virtue, violence in the name of a righteous cause is by definition acceptable, and your side is always right. It is the same philosophy adopted by both George Bush and Osama bin Ladin, and the Israelis are as poisoned by it as anyone. And I'm sick of the assumption that if you point that out, you must be unsupportive of Jews, and their right to a safe home, and the truth of their terrible, hard history.

My sister just came back from India, and we were discussing our belief that India will eventually be the dominant world power. Mr. Tata (I'm sorry, I don't know his first name) is the next Bill Gates. Enrico pointed out that in the previous glory days of the land that is now India, their predominantly Hindu faith held them back from building a colonial-style empire. Now they are tenaciously, methodically building a business empire while we are mired in folly. Good for them. Bring on the age of Indian dominance.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Miscellaneous Shellfish

I don't have a lot to say, but it seems like bad karma to leave my technical support venting up as the top post for too long. (We do have a phone again. I wrote a long and brilliant feedback letter to the president of the company, in which I cited Benjamin Franklin and systems theory.)

The mama robin has four babies, who are now big enough that we see their wee, oversized heads sticking up out of the nest, usually with their beaks open. They just sit there waiting for food to arrive.

My fifth decade of life on Earth began on Thursday! I don't feel any different.

We have friends in town this weekend, and I'm going on vacation soon, so there's lots to do. Zena and I declined to bid on one job this week, and referred another one out to a consultant that we thought would do a better job. We have a lot to learn about building our business, I guess. But, we have a bank account, and will soon have a Web site! (And actually, we have a pleasing amount of work at the moment).

Enrico has had job interviews this week too. He's just started taking steps to leave his stultifying place of employment, but it's very exciting.

We're thinking about southern France for next year. Maybe the Languedoc-Rousillon. So many cool things to see there, from mountains to beaches to the castles where doomed religious heretics once holed up for their last, tragic stand. I'm starting to teach Enrico French, or trying to. The pronounciation rules are proving a challenge, since I just know how to pronounce things but can't often come up with the rules to explain why. But he's doing very well, and has stopped questioning the logic of it, which is a necessary step. "You mean the little hat over the vowel has absolutely NO pronounciation effect whatsoever, but just tells you there used to be an S after the vowel, once upon a time?? What a ridiculous way to run a language." Yep.

So...That's about it.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The World Champion Complaint-Letter Writer would be so proud

Oh, Moxie, you would be so proud of me.

"I'm sorry ma'am, our system shows the provisioning of the line is complete but we're just waiting on the vendor to do the soft switch."

"I see. And that means what, exactly?"

"It means it's in the hands of the vendor. And I'm sorry, I can see from the account notes that you've really gotten the run-around here, but I can't say when your phone might be working."

"The vendor. Who would that be?"

"A company called Loop 3."

"And do the nice people at Loop 3 have a phone? Can we call them and ask them when they might getting around to flipping this soft switch, or softly flipping a switch, or whatever it is that they need to do?"

"No ma'am, we can't call them."

"Can't call them - like, they have no phone? Or they are in Mongolia and it's the middle of the night right now? Or they don't speak English? Or you will be fired if you call them? Or...?"

"We just have to wait, and all I can say is that your case seems to be progressing. I'd suggest you call us back once a day to check in. I'm very sorry."


Well, it turns out the nice people at Loop 3 DO have a phone! It's published, right there on their Web site. And I tell you what, Ricky at Loop 3 was none too happy about being disparaged by the Planetlink guys. No sirree. Plus, he was apparently having a slow day. So when he recovered from the surprise of hearing from me - I'm sure he was impressed with my determination and spunk! - he conferenced in his "tier 3"contact at Planetlink and said things like, "We're pinging you with call-outs but you guys aren't responding with a 183 or a 267. Looks like the IP is all built out on your end so maybe the gazoozadoodle needs to be re-honked." And, "This lady hasn't had a phone for a couple of days and has spent like four hours getting the run-around from your tech support." Go Ricky!

Apparently the key to getting someone's attention is to start a finger-pointing match between the tech guys over whose fault it is. To stalk, provoke and startle them into revealing the super-secret phone numbers shared only among themselves, the elite clube of techies who can actually DO things. The whole tech support system is set up to protect those people from commoners like me.

Still no phone. But I now have the direct line for Tommy at Planetlink, who seems to speak the strange insider language and who gave me my (apparently very top-secret) Master Ticket Number. Hopefully they have resigned themselves to the fact that I can't be brushed off with lame excuses like "It's somebody else's fault and we can't call them," or "you need to talk to the guy who's beaming your phone signal from the tower." Hopefully they understand that it is in their best interest to solve my problem and make me go away, before I track down their junior prom pictures and publish them on the Internet.

I'm transferring you to the person in charge of the Giant Laser

Ok, I tell this story with full perspective that there are millions of people in Iraq and Gaza who have no electricity, no functional water system, and are living in terrible conditions. My woes are truly minor.

I recently signed up for bundled phone service with my Internet DSL provider - the new great thing. Now, this was not without trepidation. The process of installing our DSL three years ago was excruciating. It took five weeks, and I spent 31 hours on the phone with technical support, not including the time I spent on my own configuring stuff. I received two broken modems before receiving one that worked. It went on and on. (I should add that I am a technologically savvy individual. The problem was not user error.)

So when faced with the clearly cheaper Internet phone service, I thought to myself, surely I have experienced my lifetime share of bad luck with Planetlink, and this switchover will go smoothly. Ha. We are now on our second day with no phone service at all. (Although thankfully the DSL works, or my business would be at a standstill. And worse yet, I couldn't blog about the experience.)

My sister happens to be the world's most prolific and talented complaint-letter-writer of all time. She has a dedicated customer service liason assigned to her from the Chicago Transit Authority, as well as a personal relationship with Michael Dell's Executive Assistant for Escalated Incidents. Sadly, she is in India and unavailable help me with my cause. So I'm on my own.

Now, ex-employees have brought to light that in many phone support operations, most of the people you talk to are under great pressure to resolve calls quickly but have limited information or ability to solve a problem. When you ask to be escalated to somebody with more information or authority, all they can do is transfer you the guy in the next cubicle, who pretends to be a supervisor, or a senior technician, or whatever the customer wants to hear.

I am NOT claiming that this is Planetlink's practice. I have no idea how they run their phone support. I will simply note that I have now talked with 10 of their phone support technicians, one of whom made the following statement:

"Ma'am, I'm going to transfer you to the person who is beaming your phone signal from the PlanetLink tower."

Clearly, by that point he had concluded that I was a COMPLETE IDIOT.

This was the moment I realized that I needed a new approach. When the hold music stops and I hear "Hi thanks for calling Planetlink my name is Stephen may I have your account number?" I now respond with: "Hi Stephen. I'm Flora. Before you even look up my account, let me ask you - what is your job? Uh-huh, I see. And, I'm in Seattle - can you tell me where you are?"

Stephen the Generic Phone Support Guy in the Philippines promptly transferred me to a guy named Thomas in Oklahoma. Who actually had some more information, and a more direct phone number for me to call back the next time. Thomas still has no ability to actually make my phone work. It was progress, nonetheless.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Moxie is found!

She has been heard from in distant India! Go read her blog, really, it's much more interesting. Especially if you want to learn how to make cutting remarks in German.

I'm not a fan of these commuter train bombings in India, however. Moxie isn't going to Bombay, but of course that's not the point. Why on earth do people blow each other up?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

In the land of the elephants

My sister is in India this week. At least I assume she's in India, since as far as I know on Friday she boarded a plane to Germany and then on to the exotic-sounding city of Bangalore. I was hoping to hear from her by now via email or blog post, but I don't know if computers actually work in 130-degree heat. It would be a bummer if they don't since she was flying approximately 382 hours around the planet in order to meet with a bunch of computer programmers.

I have been trying to describe to Enrico the sensation I have with Moxie being so far away. Not just on the other side of the globe, in goodness knows what time zone, but a place that I have no frame of reference for. She's not merely out of touch, she's beyond visualization, which I find unsettling. When she goes to Italy, I can picture her there in my mind's eye, because I've been to Italy. I can't visualize her in Bangalore because I've never been anywhere like Bangalore.

I asked my Mom if she knew what I meant, and in fact it occurred to me that perhaps my family felt this way when I was in Argentina. Mom said that she'd been thinking exactly that, how strange it is when her children travel to places so far away, and so far outside her personal experience. "I don't really worry about you," she said, "because you're both experienced travellers. It's more weird than worrying."

So, the best I can manage is to picture Moxie in a Bollywood musical number, with bells on her pasty white ankles and chiffon covering her blond head. I know, it's ridiculous, but it'll just have to do for now.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

In my continuing effort to relate any topic to quantum physics

The past couple weeks I've been on a home repair and improvement bender. I haven't really done anything on the house since my work sabbatical, 3 years ago, when for about six months I made it my full-time job to take care of our house and our daily lives. Since then, the to-do list has gotten full again.

There are a couple of rules for home improvement projects that I've learned to live by. One of the most important is The Law of the Second Cheapest. This is not just a rule, but really a law, right up there with thermodynamics and unintended consequences. The Law of the Second Cheapest states that when purchasing household items intended for regular use - I'm talking garden hoses here, not washing machines - do NOT purchase the cheapest one at the store. It will be a piece of crap and you'll be back at the store in a hot minute. However, nor is it necessary to go with the most expensive, because you probably won't get additional lifespan proportionate to the added expenditure. The second-cheapest option generally offers the optimal balance of durability and economy. It will be adequate.

Again, this law applies to disposable items such as gardening implements, hardware, kitchenwares, utilitarian furniture, and most fixtures and tools. It doesn't apply to purchases that are expensive and complex, like appliances, where you obviously need to weigh numerous features as part of your purchasing decision, or to items where aesthetics and artistry are important. Moreover, even within the disposable goods arena, there is one significant exception to the Law of the Second Cheapest: paint brushes. As any artist will tell you, it is worth spending whatever you can afford on paint brushes, because you'll get a return on paint job quality, effort expended, and lifespan of the brushes. I don't know why this is true, but it is.

Another important rule is the Rule of Three Trips To the Hardware Store. The logic goes like this: Let's say that for your upcoming project, you need to purchase a widget, a doo-dad, and a gizmo. You go to Ernie's Hardware, where you find a perfectly good widget; a doo-dad that isn't exactly what you had in mind but would do in a pinch; and no gizmos whatsoever. You will therefore need to go to Annabelle's Hardware to purchase a gizmo. The thing to remember at this moment is that whatever might transpire at Annabelle's, there WILL be a third hardware store run after that.

Why? Well, lots of possibilities. Perhaps you buy the disappointing doo-dad at Ernie's, but the doo-dad and the gizmo have to work together, and when you get to Annabelle's you discover that her gizmos don't work with Ernie's doo-dad. So you'll be going back to Ernie's to return the first doo-dad. Or maybe you skipped the doo-dad at Ernie's, figuring you'll find something better at Annabelle's as long as you're going there for the gizmo, only to find that she just sold her last doo-dad. Perhaps Annabelle won't have gizmos either, and you'll have to head to a third hardware store.

There are a million possible variations. You can't avoid them through clever planning, because it will just backfire on you. Kind of like time travel. Or, more aptly, you know in quantum physics, how changing the spin of a particle in one part of space will instantaneously change the spin of its partner particle light years away? It's like that. If you skip Ernie's doo-dad, thinking you'll get one from Annabelle, all the doo-dads will disappear from Annabelle's at the precise moment you make that decision. If you buy the doo-dad from Ernie, Annabelle will immediately stock the doo-dad of your dreams. You can't escape.

So you have to embrace the Rule of Three Trips, and factor it into your planning. Once in a while you might get away with fewer trips - especially if you're willing to forego returning an unnecessary gizmo, by either eating the cost or commiting to put it to use elsewhere in your home (although installation of this second gizmo will certainly entail more trips to the hardware store, so technically the rule's integrity still holds). If you get away with only one trip, just remember that it averages out with those times that actually require five trips to the store.