29 November 2008

die by the sword

canada's conservative governing party went through their first term of minority tenure not by working with other parties, which one would normally expect governments with a weak mandate to do, but by constantly threatening their opponents with the prospect of allowing the government to fall, triggering an election for which none of the other parties were financially or logistically prepared.

the tactic worked well enough for them over two years that they've immediately decided to go back to it as their first order of business since the federal election in october. they even decided to make a rather pathetic attempt at consolidating power by cutting crucial funding to federal parties, effectively strangling the life from any opposition. that said, since their strategy of threatening to take their toys home and call another election is pretty transparent, it shouldn't really come as a surprise that the opposition parties are willing to find a way to work around it.

i sincerely wish that this tactic succeeds, but even if it doesn't, it should at least teach the obtuse tory leadership that sometimes you need to play nice with the other kids.

20 November 2008

bellsh*t

i was smart enough to avoid ever getting internet service from bell, but, as you can see, those who decided to give their service a chance can look forward to a slow, grinding future on the internet, thanks to a new crtc ruling on the subject of "internet throttling".

this process basically allows bell to offer different access speeds to customers paying for the same service. more disturbingly, it gives bell, a privately held company with no responsibility to the public, the exclusive right to determine whose internet access will be slowed and when. despite the fact that the internet, as a part of the national communications infrastructure, is supposed to be administered in the public interest, control over whose access takes precedence is left in the hands of a company that already seems to hold its customers (see previous posts "bellderdash", "insult to injury", "the never-ending story" and "end game") beneath contempt, even when they are at fault.

sadly, this is something which is to be expected from the crtc, a perennially out-of-touch, slow-to-respond bureaucratic monolith and useless vacuum of taxpayer money. this is an organisation that has for decades cried out to be leveled and rebuilt from the ground up. let's see if any political parties are willing to rise to that challenge.

my life as an audience


one of the things that you notice about most people who are really dedicated music fans is that most of them either start out as or eventually become musicians. i know lots of people who are into music and almost all of them are involved somehow in making music (and that's an incredibly incomplete selection).

although i won't claim that i've never dabbled my toe in the music-making waters, with the exception of a couple of noise-based experiments and a touch of insanity during my techno-dj years, i've steered clear of actually attempting any proper musicianship myself.

that means that, as energetic and passionate as i feel about music, my role tends to be one of passive receiver rather than creator. that's an odd position to be in with something you really love. i'm constantly evaluating the skills and performances of people whose talents i admire, knowing that, as "informed" as i like to think my opinion is, i could never put my money where my proverbial mouth is.

in recent months, i seem to have gone to a lot of shows, either of my own volition, or because i knew people who were going and felt like being social. i even helped organise one in toronto before decamping for montreal. these shows have ranged from straight-ahead indie rock to some pretty harsh noise/ power electronics. the venues have ranged in size from tiny boites barely able t accommodate a couple of dozen to places capable of holding an audience of a couple of thousand. (for various reasons, you're unlikely to ever see me in anything larger than that.)

determining what makes a good show is tricky. great sound helps (my bloody valentine in toronto on my birthday was one of the best shows i've ever seen and the experience was undoubtedly enhanced by the power of the sound.), but it isn't always necessary. some artists can overcome substandard sound with energy. (noise artists, almost invariably relegated to playing shows through sound systems less powerful than my home stereo, can pull this off.) human-scale interaction (i.e., not just shouting randomly into the crowd, but actually trying to connect with them) can add to the feeling of being somewhere special (wire, who played here in october, were charming on this level, despite seeming a little off their game technically). however, there are some shows (taint comes to mind) where the lack of interaction helps build the overall atmosphere of a performance. so it's largely dependent on context.

since there is undoubtedly a visual element to a live show, putting some effort into making some type of visual statement (particularly for artists where there is little action on stage) can help build a unique live "experience" (my bloody valentine, pram, nebris and visions all did this). the need for exuberance on stage is completely determined by the type of music being played. going to see the bug in july, it was necessary (and they delivered). at the visions/ nebris/ sighup/ ourobouros show a few weeks earlier, it would have been inappropriate.

but ultimately, what defines a great live show experience is a sort of energy, something i'll describe as a symbiosis between artist and audience. if you don't believe me, think back to shows where the audience has been uninspired by what they saw (not antagonised, but simply left cold). i guarantee that it was a bad show for all involved. without actually giving them creative control over the sounds, a great live show bridges the gap between artist and audience, making the audience more than just passive listeners and transforming their role into a key part of what happens on stage.

i may never be a musician (really, i'd rather stick to writing anyway), but the best experiences i have at live shows still make me feel like a participant-observer, rather than simply a receiver. and the possibility of that happening is why i'm keen to continue as an audience member, until i'm too deaf to know what's going on.

17 November 2008

end game

so they called again.

a brief call, this time, to let me know that, without me calling back, they had somehow known to apply the credit from my ontario account to my quebec account. somehow, despite the fact that no one at bell can apparently access information available to any department other than their own and couldn't tell that there was a pending issue on my account beforehand), they knew to do that for me. (i now owe them a grand total of $4.17.)

somewhere, deep in the subterranean labyrinth that is bell world headquarters, there is an alarm that starts ringing every time someone thinks of calling my number.

i win.

14 November 2008

the never-ending story

ring ring

hello?

hello, may i speak to kathleen macdonald?

yes, this is she.

ms. macdonald, i am calling from bell canada regarding your past due account.

this is not the number you should be calling, my friend.

really?

look carefully at your screen. do you see a note on there that i am waiting on a credit from you, in order to clear the balance of my current account?

oh, yes, i see that you are supposed to be getting a credit, but it doesn't tell me when.

can you see what my billing cycle is?

oh, yes, it says you'll be getting your final bill on november 14th.

you mean today.

yes

so why are you calling me if you can see that there's an issue with the account that's pending and that i've already spent nearly four hours on the phone with you getting it resolved? i was told that i wouldn't be getting any more phone calls.

well it's an automatic dialer.

why hasn't my number been removed from the automatic dialer?

i guess the last person you talked to didn't do that.

the last person i talked to told me that the person before him was supposed to have done it.

i don't know why he didn't remove your name, ma'am.

[continue dialogue along these lines until a promise that my name is being removed at that very moment is extracted.]

congratulations adam from bell. (and i can only assume that you're prohibited from giving out last names because of the inevitable crank calls to your homes.) you are one more idiot in my rogue's gallery.

13 November 2008

insult to injury

so i'm at home, trying to get some writing done and the phone rings. although it's from the same phone bank as my previous calls from the bell canada billing office, i answer, preparing, teeth gritted, to explain to yet another uninformed moron that there is an issue with my account that they need to resolve and that they will receive their money (which, in point of fact, they have already received, but which has been credited to the wrong account) in due course.

the result? despite the fact that i stayed on the line for some time, repeating "hello? hello?"there was no response.

that's right. faced with the reality that they have made a mistake and that their own bureaucracy has slowed down the process of correcting it, compounded by the fact that their organisation is completely incapable of transmitting information from one branch to another, bell canada has started crank calling me.

11 November 2008

bellderdash

no one really likes dealing with utility companies. i don't know why, but they're always organised in such a way as t to make communication infuriating and to make any deviation from normal needs exponentially harder than it has to be. but even among utility companies, there are some that really do seem to take customer service to a new low.

to that end i present: katred vs. bell telephone

to start with, i moved from toronto, ontario to montreal, quebec on 1 july 2008. shortly before that time (the 19 june to be exact) i called bell, my phone company, to have my toronto number disconnected and my montreal number set up.

it actually took them the better part of a month and three technicians to get my phone line set up at all. but that's not what this story is about.

i made payments on my bell bill, from july on, although this was complicated by the fact that i wasn't receiving my bills. i generally paid when i got phone calls at home reminding me that i hadn't, since i knew that i was supposed to be receiving bills and had a rough idea what they should be. it did seem like i was getting calls more frequently than i should, but it took me three long, painful attempts to get my address corrected in the system.

on october 24th, i finally got a paper bill. for my toronto number, showing that a) it had never been disconnected and b) all my payments had been going towards that number, rather than towards my montreal number.

so i called. and was told by customer service (after a 20 minute wait) that they couldn't help me and that they needed to transfer me to disconnections. disconnections was able to shut down the toronto line, supposedly, but they couldn't help me with getting the balance i'd paid retroactively applied to my montreal bill. that had to be done by billing in quebec. so i waited on line for another 15 minutes (i should add that the disconnection process took almost and hour), only to be told that the person in disconnectoins hadn't done his job, and that he should have been the one to deal with the credit. so, after blowing my top at the billing guy, i'm transfered back to disconnections. and told that they can't help, but that they can get someone from the credit department on the line to deal with the problem.

once on the line, the woman from the credit department tells me that it's not their fault that the toronto line wasn't disconnected, because there's no record that i ever asked for it to be disconnected. that, she informs me, is why they tell people to make sure that they get the name and employee number of whoever they are speaking with, so that these transactions can be followed. i'm quick to tell her that no one has ever apprised me of that until now and that i want to speak to a supervisor. she resists, telling me that the supervisor won't saying anything different, but i stick to my proverbial guns (and oh, how i wished they were real guns) and finally she acquiesces to transfer me. after waiting on hold another 5 minutes, she comes back on the line to inform me, shrilly, that a supervisor will speak to me now. and then, accidentally, we'll say, i'm disconnected.

barely able to contain myself, i call back and am connected to someone brand new. the first words out of my mouth in response to the question of how they can help me is to say 'i'm going to try to remain calm'. but this is different. this woman, in twenty minutes, is able to do everything that five people in four departments were unable to accomplish in almost two hours. in that twenty minutes, i'm able to determine that the disconnection that had been done half an hour earlier- for which i had a confirmation number- didn't take. so this woman did it again, making sure that it was retroactive to 30 june. plus, she was able to determine that, contrary to what the credit department woman had told me 15 minutes earlier, there was a record of my request to have the line in toronto disconnected (and, in fact, that her supervisor would have been able to see this). she was able to put a note on the account, informing the billing department to stop calling until the closure of the toronto line is complete (when the final bill is sent) and tells me what to do in order to get the balance transfered. TAA-DAA!!

so in the last couple of days, i was bewildered by the fact that i started getting calls from the bell billing department. i called today and... well, i ended up speaking to three different people, one of whom had the audacity to try to convince me that i should just hand over the money owing up front (without waiting for the credit from my toronto line to show up). i explained, very carefully, what the competent woman had told me and every time this person tried to contradict me, i responded with 'could you please check that again'. and every time i turned out to be right (including the part about there being a note on my account saying not to call until after the 7 december).

the fact that i got connected that second time to what i can only assume is one of six competent employees in a company with a staff of thousands is purely luck. without her, there is every possiblity that i would never have had the problem resolved. but in a way, her ability to deal with the issue makes the surrounding circumstances even more infuriating. after all, she proves that an admittedly complicated situation can be dealt with by one individual in less than half an hour. what's wrong with the rest of the company? (caveat: i know that she personally wasn't dealing with all the issues- she was putting me on hold to contact different departments- but it was more of a comfort to me that i only had to speak to one individual, rather than the first call, where i had to explain the problem from scratch to a succession of indivudals.)

the ultimate irony is that, had i set up my phone line with a competitor, i would have become aware of the problem much sooner- because i would have known that getting calls from their billing department was indication of a mistake.

one of my former bosses, not a genius by any means, but a successful businessman, once made the point that a customer evaluates a company not primarily on the basis of the quality of the products or service they provide, but on how you handle problems when they arise. sage advice.

more here and here and here and here and here...

10 November 2008

no denying


well, it's official. i have reached that moment, which always comes shortly after halloween and its attendant air of macabre festivity, when i am forced to deal with the fact that winter is about to stomp on me with its giant frozen boot. (other than ugg boots, this is the only boot that i don't enjoy seeing.)

in this case, there's been a little bit of strangeness. after all, there was snow on the ground for a few days before halloween (abomination! although it at least melted on the 31st). last week, there were several days of spring-like temperatures, where it was perfectly comfortable to walk around montreal without a coat.

but now, there is no denying. the typical november weather, just above the freezing mark, with a sort of pervasive dampness that no number of layers of clothing can ward off, has descended. it's grey all the time and the light, even as the days reach their apex, is feeble. i love the fall, but november is one of those months that forever seems dead to me. i'm not alone in that belief, apparently.

what made it undeniable when i looked outside this morning was that the large tree across the street from me is naked. i've spent the last couple of months admiring its fiery foliage, aware that the reds were fading to rust and gold, and that the leaves themselves were sparser, but now there's not a one left for me to admire.

soon enough, there will be snow, which at first (before it turns blackish grey and starts to pile over my head) seems like a relief. november, that sort of pocket of dead space before, leaves me, shall we say, a little cold.

05 November 2008

68 days later

there's an episode of "the simpsons" that i really admire (well, there are several, but there's one that relates to what i'm feeling now), where lisa finds the skeleton of what many in her american every-town believe to be an angel. lisa, bright, logical and scientific, doubts the skeleton's authenticity, along with the existence of angels. she has her sense of righteousness shaken, however, when she finds out that her mother is one of the people who believes that the angel might be real. the pivotal line in the conversation is when marge says to her "if you can't make a leap of faith now and then, well, i feel sorry for you".

i was remind of that line this morning, when i spoke to some people i know about the results of the american election. despite my initial fears that the campaign was going to descend into levels of mudslinging that had never been seen before, i did get caught up in watching the whole affair. yes, there were some pretty hideous examples of the worst that america has to offer. and last night, watching obama speak to a crowd of people who look nothing like the crowds normally seen at political rallies, i was both moved and excited. it was hard not to be. for the first time, i was not able to immediately slip into jaded character and mock what i was seeing and hearing.

one (fellow canadian) person told me that, if obama were running in canada, he wouldn't have the sort of outpouring of enthusiasm we've been watching for the last 24 hours (and, indeed, the last 24 months), because we'd all be finding faults. canadians, the line of reason goes, don't buy into idealism or visionaries. we're too practical. we assume that if someone has vision, that this must mean that they lack the skills to put that vision into any form of action. (in point of fact, the person who said this to me had been a hilary clinton supporter in the primary process for that exact reason.)

another (canadian) person i know was decidedly morose about the election result, his only comment being that obama was inheriting a big mess. to be fair, this person had told me earlier that he was a mccain supporter. why? he felt that obama's idealism was an indicator that he was unrealistic and that mccain had the experience to deal with the problems facing the country.

saying that one trusts john mccain and the republican party on the basis of experience is like choosing to go back to an ex who'd given you three types of venereal disease because it's easier than meeting new people. but that, sadly, is the mindset that afflicts a lot of people, more so, i would venture, in canada than in the united states (particularly at this moment in time).

i'd like to say that i'm shocked at this cynical attitude. after all, at the very least, the united states now has a leader who represents much of the best the country has to offer- idealistic, statesmanlike, compassionate- after eight years of being led by someone who represented them at their very worst- ignorant, xenophobic, patronising, violent. that in itself is a victory. and, of course, there is the matter of race. it's easy to forget how recently this result would have been impossible to conceive. in 1974, within my lifetime and the lifetime of most people reading this post, there was violence over the desegregation of public schools in boston- a bastion of american liberalism. for the country to have a black president in 2008 is remarkable. and let's not lose sight of the fact that this victory was the result of the largest voter turnout since 1908.

but the fact is that i'm infected with the cynicism bug myself and i understand the urge to denigrate what's been achieved. after all, we are numb to the bombast of politicians, operating as they do within a hugely corrupt, money-driven system. (lest we get too wrapped up in the romance of obama, look at how much money was collected and spent by his campaign.) the largest voter turnout since 1908 amounted to about 64% of the registered electorate, a proportion that should be embarrassing in a functioning democracy. and we all know what happens to the lofty ideals of leader-figures once they actually has to take over the business of government. (americans take note: google pierre trudeau if you want a glimpse of what your future may look like.) a friend recently ridiculed me for what he perceived as a naive belief in the democratic system at all. while he might be one of the few to voice it in exactly that way, i don't think that his opinion is unusual. i think that it reflects the esteem in which the system is usually held.

besides, it's a foregone conclusion that obama will fail to live up to the almost messianic expectations that have been set for him. no one could live up to them. something will always go wrong and nay-sayers from all over the political spectrum will be able to nod sagaciously and say "you see?" with raised eyebrows. therein lies the comfort of being a cynic. if you don't believe in anything, you can't ever be wrong.

the changes that he will be able to make (and i'm giving him the benefit of the doubt there by assuming that he'll stick to his word and try to make the changes he's promised) will be marginal. their effect may not be visible for a long time and there will be resistance to them, which will limit their effectiveness over both the short and long term. author susan faludi, in her book "backlash" likens the progress of feminism to a slightly inclined coil; the euphoria of breakthroughs is normally followed by a period of "clawback" where many of those gains are lost, yet, over time, things gradually improve. it's a compelling metaphor and not just for feminism.

the simpsons episode i mentioned earlier ends with lisa being vindicated. the skeleton, predictably, is proven to be the most flagitious sort of fake and the people of springfield are made to look ridiculous. therein lies the danger of the leap of faith- take them too eagerly or too often and you will likely end up looking like a complete fool. but the down side of never allowing yourself to believe, is the sort of malaise i've mentioned. you need the mad, jubilant excitement of short term gains in order to ensure even modest progress over the long-term. without that, you get a flat line.

so the good news for this nation of cynics (mine) is that we'll almost certainly be vindicated. there will be disappointments and things will get worse. but it's kind of a hollow victory. like marge, i feel sorry for us.
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