Showing posts with label complaints. Show all posts
Showing posts with label complaints. Show all posts


google does it again: recent blogger updates are not user-friendly

Once again, Google has reduced the ease and functionality of Blogger.

A while back, the layout of the Blogger dashboard changed. I used to be able to see an overview of all my blogs plus my "following" list on one dashboard page. I found this very useful, and I imagine that other users who also moderate more than one blog would have agreed. Now I can no longer check for and moderate comments on all blogs at the same time, and I no longer have one-stop-shopping for which blogs on my list have updated.

For comments, I have to check each blog separately, necessitating many more clicks.

For blogs I read, I had to subscribe to email updates, on blogs that offer this function. Not everyone does. (I don't like using feeds; I prefer to visit blogs and websites on their native platforms.)

Next, Google discontinued the option to have comments on your own blog emailed to you. So, for example, if Allan put a bunch of comments through on wmtc, those comments would be emailed to me.

I'm talking about this, found in Settings > email, which tells you when a comment has posted --

 -- not this, found in Settings > posts, comments, and sharing, which emails you when a comment is waiting to be moderated:

Now to check for new comments, I now have to go to Comments > published. I have to remember to do this for each blog in order to see what comments may have posted. Not very convenient.

Google also discontinued the option for any user with any ID to comment. Previously, the choices were Anyone (including anonymous), Any ID (Google, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc.), or Only Members of this Blog. This has changed to Anyone (including anonymous), User [sic] with Google ID, or Only Members of this Blog.

When "Any ID" disappeared, I didn't want to exclude readers who might not have a Google ID. As a result, I've been deleting about 20-30 spam comments every day. It's become so annoying that I've changed commenting to anyone with a Google ID. I wanted to be more inclusive, but Blogger and spammers have conspired against that.

It's been months, and I'm frustrated. 


sheraton hotels' "green choice" is really just precarious work

These days, most hotel rooms contain some sort of green messaging, as companies are expected to show how eco-friendly they are. Usually guests have the option of not having their towels changed daily, which is supposed to yield big energy savings.

Last week at the Sheraton Parkway in Toronto, I learned that Sheraton's green policy is not exactly as advertised. I don't know if this qualifies as greenwashing, but it is certainly not full disclosure. The card reads:
Conserving water, energy and other resources is rewarding for you and great for the environment. Enjoy a $5 voucher at participating food and beverage outlets or 500 Starpoints® awarded at check-out for each night you decline housekeeping (except day of departure). It feels good to conserve.

To participate in the Make a Green Choice program, please tell us at check-in or look for the door hanger in your guestroom.
It may feel good to conserve, but your conservation doesn't feel good to hotel workers. For each guest who uses this program, a worker's hours are cut.

As I looked around my room, I could easily identify many ways Sheraton could be greener. For starters, disposable coffee cups could be replaced with mugs. Tiny plastic bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and lotion could be replaced with hanging dispensers. Why are any hotels using those tiny bottles anymore? That's a lot of plastic.

Sheraton participates in Clean the World, which distributes unused soap and shampoo products to third-world countries. I don't know how effective this program is, or how many Sheraton hotels participate in it, but the best way to cut down on landfill waste is to create less waste.

On this Sheraton's website (scroll down to "Highlights"), there is a list of all their green initiatives. Some are significant, some are just padding. But less impact on the planet shouldn't mean less work for low-wage, precarious workers.

Next time you stay at a Sheraton, please don't Make a Green Choice. Sheraton should find ways to reduce that don't reduce workers' paycheques.


the mysterious case of kars4kids: deceptive advertising for orthodox jewish proselytizing

When I watch baseball, I always watch the Red Sox broadcast, and almost always choose local radio for the audio feed. (Hooray for MLB streaming on Roku!) And while I always mute the ads between innings, hundreds of ads are stuffed into the broadcast itself, so it's impossible not to hear and see a lot of advertising.

One advertising staple is something called "Cars for Kids". The ad exhorts you to make a cash donation or to donate your used car, and tells you how Cars for Kids makes it very simple. I've been hearing this for years, but only recently wondered, what is Cars for Kids? Who are the kids, and how are cars helping them?

I assumed it had something to do with fundraising for children with a serious illness. The Red Sox are linked to an organization called The Jimmy Fund, which supports the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. The Make-A-Wish Foundation of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, is also a Red Sox sponsor. So I assumed that Cars for Kids was something similar.


First, I discovered Cars for Kids is actually "Kars 4 Kids," which is stupid and pointless. Since the misspelling is pronounced the same way as the proper spelling, why misspell?

Next, I discovered that when you visit the Kars 4 Kids website, it's not immediately apparent what the vehicle donations actually support. The FAQs are all about how to donate your car. The donor comments are about how easy it was to donate a car. The "How It Works" link, same.

Those links are in all-caps, bold, right up front when you first go to the site.

In a smaller font, not all-caps, not bold, on the left, there are links to "charity" and "about us". Click on one of those, and for the first time, you see the word Jewish on the site.

The website for Kars 4 Kids Canada (I guess they realized Kanada would be a mistake), shows this.

Both websites (and all the Kars 4 Kids websites) keep the purpose of the charity pretty vague. They help "children develop into productive members of the community", they "keep kids busy in a healthy environment", they "give Jewish children and their families the support, resources and guidance they need". What does that mean?

All the Kars 4 Kids websites mention something called Oorah. In the US: "our sister charity, Oorah", with no further explanation. The Canadian site says "Your car donation will benefit Kars4Kids, d/b/a Oorah Charitable Organization, a registered charity dedicated to addressing the educational, emotional and spiritual needs of Jewish children and their families."

Having been raised Jewish, when I see those words -- the educational, emotional, and spiritual needs of Jewsih children -- I know exactly what it means. I have the code book.

Next stop, Oorah. Oorah appears to sponsor programs exclusively for Jewish people to explore Judaism. This is code for trying to get Jews to become Orthodox.

People who practice Judaism generally fall on a continuum from Reform, to Conservative, to Orthodox; these are called movements. (They are sometimes known as sects, but they're really not equivalent to, for example, the Protestant sects.) In addition to the three movements, there are sub-divisions, such as Reconstructionist, Modern Orthodox, and several others. This is a huge, complex political and cultural stew, full of hypocrisy and arrogance, full of people looking down on other people for choosing or taking paths different than their own. To someone like me who was raised in a Reform but observant household, the words "make their Judaic heritage more personal, relevant and meaningful" are heavily loaded.

More importantly, why would the general, non-Jewish public donate to this charity? I'm not sure why anyone, Jewish or not, would care about making "Judaic heritage more meaningful to Jewish children", but surely non-Jewish people wouldn't care about this, would they?

The absence of information -- who are the "kids"? how are the cars helping them? -- is obviously not accidental. Ad copy isn't found in nature, it's purposely and carefully written. And once I discovered Kars 4 Kids' mission and purpose, the omission of the word "Jewish" in ad copy seems purposely misleading -- deceptive.

I'm not the only person who thinks so.

From Tablet, a online magazine of "Jewish news, ideas, and culture": Kars 4 Kids Rakes In The Buckz: "A well-branded Jewish charity goes to great pains to avoid calling itself Jewish—and takes in millions nationwide."

From CharityWatch: Costly and Continuous Continuous Kars4Kids Disguise Charity's Real Purpose. (Clever use of alliteration!) From this story I learned that Kars 4 Kids advertises everywhere, especially on sports TV and radio, and apparently has an incredibly annoying jingle. CharityWatch writes:
Cars for… an Orthodox Jewish Cause

Nowhere in the Kars4Kids ads (in most states) does the charity inform potential donors of how their car donations will help kids. A visit to the "" website displayed at the end of the TV commercial is similarly vague as to how kids will benefit, simply encouraging people to "take action" for the "1.2 million kids [that] leave school without a diploma each year" by volunteering to "mentor, fundraise, advocate or run an awareness campaign." (This "take action" message likely is a strategic one designed for Kars4Kids to take advantage of an accounting rule that allows charities to report a portion of advertising costs as program instead of fundraising expenses.) When going to the website address shown in the TV commercial, only by scrolling all the way down to the fine print that includes Kars4Kids' copyright notation at the bottom of the page will donors eventually learn what activities their donated cars support: [emphasis mine]"Your donation will benefit Kars4Kids, a national organization dedicated to addressing the educational, material, emotional and spiritual needs of Jewish children and their families [emphasis from CharityWatch]."

In CharityWatch's view, the Kars4Kids ads deceive potential donors by failing to inform them that donated cars will benefit a Jewish organization and kids of Jewish faith. Furthermore, the youth programs Kars4Kids supports promote an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, which CharityWatch believes compounds the deception perpetrated by the Kars4Kids ads. Oorah, Kars4Kids' "sister charity," is the organization that actually runs the "educational, developmental, and recreational programs for Jewish youth and their families" described in Kars4Kids' mission statement. Kars4Kids and Oorah share a principal officer, Eliyohu Mintz, the son of their founder, Rabbi Chaim Mintz, and both organizations are located at the same address in the heavily-Orthodox Jewish town of Lakewood, New Jersey. Oorah, which means "awaken" in Hebrew, "specializes in outreach to non-observant Jews, operating summer camps and other programs that seek to make non-Orthodox Jews more observant," according to an October 2016 article in the Forward, which covers news for a Jewish-American audience.
CharityWatch continues:
While supporting Orthodox Jewish organizations is a worthy endeavor for those donors who are intending to do so, many donors of other faiths may not be pleased to learn that the car they donated to Kars4Kids may have funded religious teachings that are in conflict with their own faith or personal beliefs. Orthodox Jews, who follow the traditional interpretations of Jewish law with strict observance of Jewish ritual, make up only about 10% of Jewish adults in the U.S., according to a 2013 survey published by the Pew Research Center in August 2015. Moreover, many secular Jews are not enthusiastic about funding Orthodox organizations...

If the truth about Kars4Kids' mission as a Jewish organization and its funding of Oorah's Orthodox Jewish outreach is an unwelcome surprise to some donors, perhaps they will be comforted to learn that since 2010, Kars4Kids also has conducted various charity events and giveaways for the benefit of needy children, regardless of their religious affiliation. These events have included several backpack giveaways and coat distributions in parts of New Jersey and New York. Kars4Kids also released a free smartphone app in mid-2014 designed as a safety alert for parents to remind them not to leave young children in the backseat of hot cars. Nonetheless, Kars4Kids' grants to Oorah still represented more than 91% of its program spending over the two-year period from 2014-2015, thereby making Jewish children the primary "kids" that benefit from its car donation proceeds – a fact that many Kars4Kids donors likely never end up knowing.
I also found stories, showing that less than one percent of funds raised even goes to the "kids". Oorah is also the subject of a million-dollar lawsuit, accused of using a synagogue to hide questionable financial dealings and putting the synagogue on the hook for a million bucks.*

Even more troubling than Kars 4 Kids deceptive practices are their unwitting donors. Do people really donate to organizations without knowing what they support? Never mind researching what percentage of donations goes to the actual cause -- start with the basics! What is the cause? Where does your money go?

According to everything I'm seeing online, millions of people -- which by definition means millions of non-Jewish people -- are forking over their hard-earned money to support Orthodox Jewish indoctrination education? Seriously?

Are tax deductions from car donations so amazing that donors don't care where the money goes, so long as they get their deduction? From CharityWatch: Car Donations: Taking Taxpayers for a Ride, and from Nonprofit Quarterly: Nation's Largest Car Donation Charity a Self-Dealing Mess.

* Since someone will undoubtedly point this out in comments, Bill O'Reilly "exposed" Kars4Kids on Fox News. I don't even want to click. I'll just call O'Reilly a stopped clock and move on.


an open letter to loblaw: greed is not good -- especially for public relations

Loblaw Companies Limited
1 President's Choice Circle
Brampton, Ontario, L6Y 5S5
Attention: LCL Customer Relations Centre

Dear Loblaw Ltd.:

I am a Loblaw customer and I was extremely disappointed by recent public statements made by Loblaw CEO Galen Weston, Jr., regarding the proposed raise of the minimum wage in Ontario. Mr. Weston claimed that the proposed wage hikes will result in higher prices and more self-checkout aisles, and speaks about labour costs "ballooning" by $190 million.*

Mr. Weston clearly values Loblaw's shareholders more than it cares about its customers. When I spend my hard-earned money, I don't think it's too much to ask the store to provide check-out and bagging, and for there to be adequate staff on-hand to minimize time spent waiting in line. Instead, Mr. Weston implies that if the minimum wage is increased, I will be forced to provide his very profitable company with free labour by doing my own checkout.

When a company posts $990 million in profit in one year (2016), it is reasonable to expect it to raise employees' wages, provide more hours (which means better service for customers), and consistent scheduling.

I can imagine that Mr. Weston, who is the second-richest person in Canada, does not understand what it's like to (try to) survive on a part-time, minimum-wage job. Not only is the wage well below a basic standard of living, but hours are inadequate, ensuring the need for a second job. Inconsistent scheduling makes it impossible for workers to hold a second job -- or to attend school, which might increase their chances of ever earning more than minimum wage! By paying minimum wage and offering only precarious work, Loblaw contributes to poverty in Canada.

And then there's the company's image. From a public relations point of view, wouldn't it be smarter for Mr. Weston to champion the minimum-wage increase, and voice its concern for its employees, rather than whining about the cost of running his wildly profitable business? Mr. Weston would do well to listen to Toronto Star business columnist Jennifer Wells, who reminds him "that the company’s people are assets, not just a cost centre". (It's an excellent column: I hope Mr. Weston will read it.)

It's not too late for Mr. Weston to salvage the company's public image. I look forward to reading his retraction and apology, and Loblaw's support for more fair and livable employment laws in Ontario.


Laura Kaminker
Mississauga, Ontario

* Although the word "ballooning" is not quoted directly, every media story about Mr. Weston's statement uses it -- not a coincidence. I was unable to locate the media release online.


Other ways to contact Loblaw are listed here.


mighty leaf tea: green tea and greenwashing

I recently tried a new brand of tea. I'm always looking for almond tea, which is difficult or impossible to find (more on that below), and noticed Mighty Leaf had an Almond Spice. It's green tea, and I prefer black, but I thought for the almond, I'd take a chance.

The Mighty Leaf Tea box is covered in stories about how carefully they care for the tea, the quality of their tea leaves, and how green the company is. The tea is whole leaf only, the tea pouches are made from the greenest material, and so on.

Back when we had organics recycling, we always tossed used tea bags in the "green bin". Now, living in an apartment, we no longer have that option. The tea bag is going in the trash anyway, so the greenness of the pouch isn't a big concern for me. However, ordinary tea bags are fine for organics recycling, so I'm not sure why this pouch is so special.

When I brought the tea home and opened the box, I was surprised and dismayed to find each individual pouch packaged inside a plastic sleeve! Fifteen tea pouches, 15 plastic sleeves! What the...?

Mighty Leaf tea pouch

Mighty Leaf tea pouch as packaged

I tweeted the company and did not get a response, then tried email.

I recently bought a box of Mighty Leaf tea for the first time. When I opened the box, I was horrified to find each pouch packaged in an individual plastic bag! I would never have bought this tea if I had known this -- and it is exactly the opposite of all the promotional copy on the box.

I am planning on writing about this on my blog, but wanted to contact you first, so I can include your statement or reaction.

I'm guessing this plastic is some specially made material that is considered biodegradable. But as I'm sure you know, almost nothing biodegrades in landfill. Are the plastic pouches suitable for organics disposal? If so, why doesn't it say so on the box?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Thank you,

I received this response.
Hi Laura,

Thank you for your e-mail. Our tea pouches are in fact bio-degradable and compostable, although we would recommend industrial composting available in many parts of Canada. Our tea pouch has in fact won awards for being environmentally friendly:

[This was pasted in.] Artisan Hand-Stitched Pouches

In ancient traditions around the world, a freshly brewed pot filled with whole tea leaves is revered as the richest in character. Inspired by this legacy, Mighty Leaf specially created the silken Tea Pouch filled with the world’s finest whole tea leaves, herbs, fruits and flavor. No longer was it necessary to brew a pot of tea and use a strainer or an infuser to experience whole leaf tea the way it's enjoyed in gardens across the world!

Each portion of whole leaf tea is precisely measured and carefully wrapped in our hand-stitched pouches. These large, silken pouches showcase the distinctive beauty of our special blends and give the leaves room to unfurl as they steep, allowing the nuanced flavors to fully infuse for the ideal tea experience.

Besides the beautiful leaves you’ll notice that our pouches have a lot of tea inside. Typically our pouches contain about two and a half grams of tea, which allows you to brew a large cup of tea (btw 12oz to 14oz).

Each tea pouch is hand stitched with 100% unbleached cotton. The silken material is made from polylactic acid (PLA), which is derived from corn starch. The pouches are biodegradable and can be composted in an industrial composter.
The email also included this image.

I find the tea-pouch narrative a bit much. But in practical terms, did this person really misunderstand my question? Was my question unclear? I tried again.

Thank you for your reply. However, I was not referring to the tea pouches. Each pouch is packaged in an individual plastic sleeve. I am referring to that outer container or sleeve.
He replied:
Hi again Laura,

In order to conserve the freshness of our teas and herbal infusions we need to hermetically seal them in some form of envelope. Unfortunately nobody has yet developed a material in which you can hermetically our teas which is also biodegradable. As you can tell from the environmentally friendly efforts that we made with our tea pouches, as soon as someone does, we will look at using it.

Enjoy our teas!
I'm afraid I took it one step further, and I did (unintentionally) ignore the word "hermetically".
Are you kidding me? One already exists. It's called paper.
Their response.
Hi again Laura,

No, I don’t believe I am kidding you – paper cannot hermetically seal, unless of course you wax it and then it won’t biodegrade.
Does tea really need to be hermetically sealed? Why isn't a paper envelope -- similar to how Lipton (US) and Red Rose (Canada) are packaged -- adequate? My all-time favourite tea, Bewley's (Ireland and the UK), uses mesh bags with no string and no paper. Works great.

I didn't like the almond tea very much, probably because it is green tea rather than black. But no matter how much I enjoyed it, I would not buy a product loaded down with unnecessary plastic packaging.

* * * *

The story of the almond tea. I used to love Celestial Seasoning Almond Sunset tea, but it disappeared many years ago, apparently discontinued. I have not been able to find a decent substitute, even in expensive loose-leaf tea, which I would rather not buy. For this post, I found the Celestial Seasoning website -- and they have a Canadian site, too -- which encourages you to contact them if you cannot find what you want in stores. If I could buy Almond Sunset directly from CS, that would be amazing.

And why don't I use loose-leaf tea? We do sometimes buy and enjoy loose tea for interesting flavours or because we find ourselves in a nice tea shop. But we drink tea every day, and we both enjoy the convenience, the strong flavour, and the consistency of tea bags. Our favourite is Bewley's Irish Tea, which we used to go out of our way to buy in New York. We have not found a convenient place to buy it in the GTA, but if I ever see a box, I would pounce on it.


jordan is the anti-egypt and petra is the anti-giza

From what little we've seen of Jordan so far, it is the opposite of Egypt in many respects. I admit we have a small sample size, but in both countries, we have seen the capital city and visited the country's top tourist attraction. Petra vs the Pyramids at Giza is a stark contrast.

Working animals
Petra: standards posted everywhere (online, print, posters, brochures), conditions passable to good, tourists asked to contribute to animal welfare by reporting perceived abuse
Giza: no standards to be found, conditions deplorable, no oversight or concern noted

Cleanliness of site
Petra: spotless, cleaning staff deployed throughout
Giza: deplorable, no trash receptacles, possibly some cleaning staff (unclear)

Washroom facilities
Petra: adequate facilities, very clean, paid staff onsite
Giza: don't ask, your stomach can't take it

Information for visitors
Petra: professional guides available for hire, noteworthy areas signposted in Arabic and English, fully professional visitor centre
Giza: none

Petra: professional guides available for hire with rates suggested
Giza: touts posing as guides available for hire at exorbitant rates

General useability for visitors
Petra: easy: passes available for one, two, or three days with minimal price difference; entire site included in pass; also available on Jordan Pass; expensive
Giza: difficult and confusing: separate admissions for different areas of site, nothing signposted; moderately inexpensive

Petra: daily express buses from Amann, 10 dinars each way
Giza: none

Petra: clean, plenty to choose from
Giza: trashed, but you can find a decent place or two

And in general:

Egypt: filthy
Jordan: clean

Friendliness to tourists
Egypt: only if you pay enough
Jordan: very

Harassment of tourists
Egypt: 90%
Jordan: 10%


pupdate, pressure, and poor customer service

Diego at the beach
Three weeks after losing Tala, Diego became violently ill. The usual home approaches didn't work, but when the trip to the vet didn't work, I was really worried. Seeing this dog -- normally the picture of happiness, with a voracious appetite -- so quiet and sad, and unable to eat, was very scary. He ended up staying at the vet clinic for two nights, on intravenous medications and fluids.

I have been feeling very put-upon. Just before the Christmas holiday, Allan was in a car accident. He wasn't hurt, but the insurance company declared our car a total loss. Then Tala. And then Diego. Service from the insurance company was horrible, adding to the stress, and we needed to buy a car -- fast. All this while I am under a lot of pressure to get both library work and union work wrapped up before our trip. And we need a healthy dog before we leave, too!

This morning we picked up Diego from the clinic, and he is once again his happy self. A huge relief! Our vet strongly suspects inflammatory bowel disease, and is optimistic that a special diet and continuing medication will do the trick. The car saga should end tomorrow, when our friend M@ helps Allan return the rental and pick up our new (to us) car. We're bleeding money, but not for the first time, and undoubtedly not for the last time.

Two notes I wanted to share.

I have been raving about Rollover, the semi-soft dog food that we've been using as training treats. (I mentioned it herehere, and elsewhere.) We've now learned that the high fat content of this food makes it ill-advised for many dogs. Diego has been getting large quantities of this, in place of some of his regular food, for about 20 months. Our vets do not want to guilt us, but I'm sure it contributed to his current issues. If you are using Rollover, please make sure your dog can tolerate a higher-fat diet, and you might want to keep his or her regular food very low fat to balance it out.

The other note is about our insurance carrier, Aviva. Getting in an accident just before the holidays, I realize that service may be slower, and things may take a bit longer to sort out. But that excuse only goes so far. The rep assigned to our claim was unavailable for more than two weeks -- and then appeared only to tell us that we should talk to someone else. But there was no "someone else" -- our information was unavailable to other agents.

Meanwhile, the policy has a cap on the rental of a replacement vehicle. The settlement offer was unreasonably low, and we're about to be out-of-pocket for the rental, because of the agent's incompetence or unavailability. She didn't return phone calls, and when we asked questions by email, she would reply with a five-word "please call me to discuss" -- but would not return our calls. It was very frustrating, and created a lot of extra work and inconvenience for us.

Finally, Allan called the general number, asked to speak to the agent's manager, and left a message saying he was calling to complain. What a surprise, later that day, the rep called us, extended the rental, made a better offer, and mailed a cheque. I realize this may be an aberration, but I'm not so keen to deal with Aviva again.


i look forward to the day when no one wears a fitbit anymore

What did people do before Fitbit? Without their adorable little bracelets, how did they get enough exercise? Never mind that, how did they manage to live?? All those lonely, barren years, decade upon decade, people running, swimming, cycling, lifting, walking -- without a Fitbit. Can you imagine? It breaks my heart just thinking about it.

Pre-Fitbit, I often didn't know if people were exercising at all! Imagine! I might be speaking to someone who was getting enough exercise, and I wouldn't even know it! Unless the subject came up, I wouldn't know how many steps they had walked that day! What a scary thought.


frustrations with technology, or, when upgrades are really downgrades, or, give me back a previous gmail app

I've really been enjoying my Nexus 7 tablet. I dislike that tablets have become the norm, and in a perfect world I'd use a desktop, a netbook, and a tablet. But in the real world, my netbook has been phased out, and I'm back to taking notes with pen and paper.

But in general, I do enjoy my tablet. I especially love the compact size of the Nexus, how smoothly it glides from task to task, and how quickly it charges. I use a Samsung Galaxy at work, and the Nexus has it beat in all categories. And I picked it up - the version with both wifi and data - for less than $300.

Now I've learned that Google has discontinued the Nexus 7. I'm probably going to buy a second one to have on reserve for when my current one dies!

The tablet is constantly asking me to update apps - I choose not to use automatic updates - and I've already learned that the next update of the Gmail app has some features that I find very annoying, and which can't be turned off. This is not me being resistant to change: this is my own specific preference, no matter what email program I'm using.

After I determined that I disliked the latest version of the Gmail app, I was happy to learn that I could easily revert to the previous version. All good.

Yesterday my tablet forced a system update... and I have lost access to the previous version of the Gmail app.

Here's what I dislike. No matter what email program I use, I do not like to preview email before opening it. At all my many workplaces that have used Outlook - and I use Outlook at home - I turn off the reading pane. It doesn't really matter why I like this. The fact is I have a strong preference for this, in all email programs, over a long period of time.

On the smaller screen of the tablet, this is even more important. There is already a sidebar showing all my various Gmail accounts, or once I'm in an account, the folders. I would like the remaining real estate to show either a list of emails in the folder, or the body of the email I have tapped on.

The new Gmail app will not let me do this. The screen is divided into thirds: accounts or folders, list of emails in that folder, and previews.

I've spent a bit of time searching for ways to revert to a previous version, but it appears that the system update has precluded that possibility.

And this is my problem with mandatory "upgrades". I want to choose. Google won't let me.


negative reviews and threats of lawsuits: let's not give in to corporate bullying

There's a new bully in town, and he's not going after fat kids in the school cafeteria. He's a corporate bully, and he's gunning for you, his dissatisfied customer.

An increasing number of companies are threatening lawsuits against customers who post negative online reviews about their products or services. At least one company has actually sued a former customer for defamation, based on negative reviews - and won.

This is a chilling development for anyone who cares about free speech, a free internet, and consumer advocacy. But it may not be as dire as it sounds.

A slightly more level playing field

We are bombarded with advertising at every turn. Everywhere we look, companies are claiming that their products will make us beautiful, cooler, more connected. That we'll look smarter, live longer, enjoy our lives more... if only we buy their products. Our world is filled with false advertising, if not by explicit claim, then certainly by implicit suggestion.

If these claims turn out to be untrue, there's little we can do about it.

In the past, when we complained about a company, our complaints reached very few ears. We could write a letter to their corporate headquarters, and we could tell our own contacts, but for an ordinary person with no media access, it ended there.

The internet has changed all that. Now consumers have the opportunity to create a slightly more level playing field. If we have a bad experience with a company, we can warn many more people away from their products and services.

Not only has the internet given us the means to spread the word, but internet culture encourages us to share information with others. When a product falls apart, when a contractor does shoddy work, when a restaurant offers consistently terrible service, we feel something bordering on a responsibility to warn others away from a similar experience.

(Is it a level playing field, even now? My post about bad customer service from Heys Luggage (here, plus two follow-ups) is Google-able if you're searching. But Heys' own advertising on billboards, in magazines, and online is visible by hundreds of thousands of people every day.)

The opportunity to share information online has been incredibly empowering for consumers. So perhaps it's not surprising that many companies are pushing back. Through letters threatening lawsuits, they are trying to frighten consumers away from the culture of information-sharing, and trying to create a culture of self-censorship. They are corporate bullies, and their ranks appear to be growing. I found numerous stories, most with sensational headlines designed to fuel the fear, warning people to watch what they say or they'll be sued.

A letter is not a lawsuit

Many of the news stories I've seen put the onus on the consumer to avoid potential threats. The Toronto Star's consumer reporter Ellen Roseman offers tips for consumers posting reviews, such as sticking to facts and avoiding inflammatory language. Good advice, for complaints and almost everything else. But stories like these don't address the basic inequity at play.

A consumer posts an online review that a company finds potentially damaging. The company refers the complaint to its attorney, who then writes a standard "cease and desist" letter. The letter demands the consumer remove the offending review from the internet and threatens a lawsuit. But - and this is the important bit for consumers to know - the letter doesn't mean there are solid grounds for a lawsuit. It doesn't mean that the company would necessarily win a lawsuit, or even that they would invest the resources in a legal proceeding in the first place. The letter is the equivalent of shaking your fist and saying, "Take that back, or else!" It looks official, what with the letterhead and legalese and all, but it has no teeth. They may use the word demand, but it's actually more like a request. (The cease and desist letter is also a necessary precursor to a potential future lawsuit.)

Sending a letter is low-impact for the company. It costs perhaps an hour of some lawyer's time. But for the person in receipt of the letter, it can be frightening. Even the possibility of a lawsuit is enough to get most people to retract their reviews. And so, even though the review was factual and there is little chance of being hurt by a lawsuit, the consumer deletes the review.

Now the company's bad behaviour is not exposed, and all it cost was a letter.
Nevertheless, even the threat of litigation is a powerful option for contractors. When a Toronto couple posted a 2,000-word negative review about their $400 home improvement project, their contractor threatened litigation unless the review was removed. Intimidated, the couple revised their review to a mere 30 mild words.
In this case, it sounds like the consumers might have been a little over the top. Was it really necessary to post 2,000 words? Would a factual and not-heated 50 words have avoided the threat of litigation? Perhaps. But the threat of litigation was effective. The consumers were bullied, and the review was diluted.

As a customer-service person, I find it a bit mind-boggling that a company would choose this route, rather than practice a bit of damage-control. A legal spokesperson for Yelp - which was involved in an actual lawsuit - said:
Litigation is not a good substitute for customer service. Businesses that try to sue their customers into silence rarely prevail, end up wasting their own time and money, and usually bring additional, unwanted attention to the original criticism.
In one case, a company threatened a lawsuit against a consumer who posted a negative review... then Amazon dropped the company from their website. Then there was the crazy restaurateur in Ottawa, whose online bullying made international news.* OK, it was only The Daily Mail. But still.

Dietz v. Perez

The one documented instance where a contractor followed through on the lawsuit threat - where a customer was actually sued - was far from typical. Following the reports as the story developed, I could tell that there was a lot of bad blood between the two parties. The contractor and the homeowner apparently knew each other before the work was done; the consumer claims her home was damaged and her jewelry was stolen; the contractor was claiming $750,000 in damages. The fact that the case even went to trial speaks of two parties that have dug in their heels. Most consumer lawsuits are settled out of court.

But to the dismay of free-speech and consumer advocates, the consumer was found guilty of defamation, although no damages were awarded. And the court ruled that the offending review would remain online, unaltered.

So, that happened. The threat of a lawsuit may actually turn into a lawsuit.

Does that mean if you write a factual negative review, you will be sued? No, it doesn't.

This is an important piece to remember. Follow good behaviour guidelines. Stick to the facts. Avoid sweeping generalizations. Don't get personal. (Ellen Roseman's guidelines are very good.) But if you do receive a letter from a company, take a deep breath. Read the letter carefully. Anyone can threaten anything. It doesn't mean they have grounds for an actual lawsuit, or that they'll choose to invest the resources in one, even if they do.

Let's not be bullied

To be sure, the consumer is not always right. There are people with an axe to grind, there are lies and exaggerations. There are trolls. So if you feel your business has been unfairly maligned, what recourse do you have? TripAdvisor offers restaurant and resort management the opportunity to respond to negative reviews. Smart management will apologize, thank the customer, and pledge better future service. Not-so-smart management gets into arguments on the TripAdvisor site.

Online reviews are potentially powerful tools. We have a responsibility to use them wisely. But let's not be afraid to use them at all.

* An Ottawa restaurant owner was so furious - and, it would seem, so unbalanced - that she sought to disparage the customer's reputation with the customer's employer. She sent "sexually suggestive e-mails" to the woman's workplace, and created an explicit dating profile in her name. In this case, the customer sued, and the restaurant owner was found guilty of libel. As far as I can tell, the customer posted one bad review, and the restaurant owner hounded her for two and a half years. In other words, a crackpot troll.


amazing but true: mlb does the right thing and increases fans' access to the postseason

The biggest surprise of the 2014 baseball postseason isn't the absence of both the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. It isn't the Kansas City Royals, playing baseball in October for the first time since 1985.

The biggest surprise of the 2014 postseason is Major League Baseball's decision to put fans ahead of corporate contracts.

After years of ensuring that baseball fans could only watch the playoffs and World Series if they subscribed to certain television providers, MLB has finally reversed course. The 2014 postseason is available to MLBTV subscribers through a variety of providers and devices.

A few days ago, I wrote a long, ranting post (available below!) about how MLB always puts corporate television contracts ahead of fans. When I started collecting links to complete the post, I was amazed to learn that MLB's policies had changed.

I don't know if MLB was forced to do this in court, or if some smart young executive finally got them to understand that increasing numbers of fans will never access baseball through cable TV, because they watch games on their mobile devices, and if games are not available on those devices, those fans will simply choose another form of entertainment. Or perhaps there was some other scenario.

Whatever happened, it benefits fans. For a few dollars on top of a regular MLB.TV subscription, almost the entire postseason is available. A few National League playoff games aren't included yet, but I suspect that's only a matter of time.

There are still many problems with MLB's pay-per system, but this is a huge step in the right direction. And it's a huge boon to us personally, as we watch baseball via streaming only. I have one complaint, and it's a big one.


The Red Sox won the World Series in 2013 and we missed huge swathes of the postseason, while we dealt with tech frustration, outages, and maddening buffering. Wait til next year, indeed. Bring on 2015!

Here's the post I wrote but didn't post.

* * * * *

mlb puts corporate contracts ahead of fans, now and always

Several years ago, we improved our leisure time options considerably when we got rid of cable TV and went to streaming only. We changed our internet provider from Rogers to Teksavvy, paying less money for unlimited bandwidth (rather than more money for capped useage), and bought a Roku streaming device. I've been thrilled with the results.

We used to pay a lot of money for cable TV and we used it almost exclusively for baseball. Plus we spent even more money to also access games online through MLBTV. Through Roku, we were able to eliminate that duplication and lose an entire monthly bill. Add Netflix streaming through Roku and we were all set.

Except for one very important thing: the baseball postseason.

Postseason games (playoffs plus the World Series) are not available through This is not new. In fact, fans are so accustomed to it that many or most don't question it, accepting a ridiculous situation as completely normal. Why aren't postseason games available through a subscription to Because MLB has exclusive contracts with TV providers, to ensure that all fans who want to see postseason games can only do so through those providers. For us that would mean getting cable TV through Rogers, in order to have a Fox affiliate station. In the US, it might mean having DirectTV or some other pay-TV service.

In other words, loyal baseball fans like us who spend money all season to watch every game cannot watch the postseason unless they get cable TV. Major League Baseball generates enormous revenue through these TV contracts, so it allows TV to control access. Fans don't figure into the equation. We are nothing.

I am perfectly aware that this is not a new situation. I did not wake up this morning and suddenly realize that MLB was screwing its fans. I am writing about it because I think many fans have stopped seeing this: it has become an invisible and accepted fact of life. We don't complain to MLB because we feel powerless to change the situation, even though we are the consumers of the product, the end user that baseball needs - in great numbers - to survive.

When MLB players went on strike in 1994, there was a lot of talk about fans leaving the sport. Much was said and written about supposed greedy and selfish players, and occasionally you'd see a mention greedy owners, too. Supposedly there was a dip in attendance as fans turned away. In fact, the sport's steroid-induced offensive surge was encouraged by MLB because it revived interest in baseball.

The 1994-95 strike was in response to team owners having imposed a salary cap. No corresponding cap existed - or will ever exist - on team profits. And the so-called luxury tax, through which teams pay penalties on burgeoning payrolls, does nothing to equalize payrolls among the teams. If the Red Sox or Yankees pay a payroll penalty to the owner of the Twins, nothing compels the Twins to spend that windfall on improving the team.

However, the Major League Baseball Players' Association, i.e. the players' union, refusal to accept a salary cap is usually characterized as greedy, while MLB allowing TV providers to control access, thereby screwing over fans who don't or can't pay for that access, is accepted as normal.

There are some tech fixes and workarounds through which locked-out fans can try to access postseason games. But for true fans, who really want to watch the game, these fixes are very poor substitutes. In 2013, the Red Sox were in the postseason for the first time since we changed to streaming and Roku. We used various tricks and workarounds on our computers, but it was a frustrating and unsatisfying experience. Nothing worked really well. Suggestions from friends - "Why don't you go to a bar?" - were unrealistic. I watch somewhere between 20 and 30 postseason games. A baseball game is around three hours long. I have neither the desire, the energy, nor the money to spend that much time in a bar. Watching the occasional game in a pub is fine for a casual fan, but I'm not setting up shop in a pub for the month of October.

This year, with the Red Sox's abysmal 2014 performance, the postseason isn't as urgent as it might be, but it has the potential to be an exciting postseason in many ways, and I want to watch it. I'm willing to pay extra for access to all the playoff and World Series games. I think that's wrong - I don't think fans should have to pay extra for that! - but I'm willing to do it. But I can't, unless I get cable TV. Because MLB cares more about its TV contracts than its fans. And that sucks.


things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #16: my least favourite library customers

I must preface this post with a happy disclaimer: I love library customers. I love helping them. I love giving them a good feeling about the library. I value great customer service and I love to provide it. At least 90% of our customers are polite and appreciative. Perhaps another 5% are developmentally or socially disabled, and may or may not be conventionally polite. No problem. The other five percent is not a big deal.

Another preface: I am always very patient and polite. Some of you know about an incident when I lost my temper with a customer - with good reason! a dangerously neglected baby! - but I used that experience as a learning opportunity, and I've never come close to doing that again. I've perfected the facial expression and body language that doesn't agree but doesn't challenge: the tight semi-smile, the slight shrug, the noncommittal head-tilt, the raised eyebrows. A kind of "whatever you say, you won't get a rise out of me" kind of face.

So when I tell you these are my least favourite customers, you can be sure of two things: one, they are a very minor part of my job, and two, I keep my feelings well hidden. But I do need to vent!

Least Favourite Customer #1: The Unbeliever

Unbeliever: I'm here to pick up a recreation pass for my father.

L: I'm afraid we don't have recreation passes here. What kind of pass is it, maybe I can help you find the correct place to get it.

Un: No, it is here. The email said I can pick it up at any community centre.

L: I see. This is not a community centre. There is the Recreation & Parks department across the way, but they close at 4:30. [It is now 8:45, 15 minutes before closing.] Can I get the name of the pass so I can check for you?

Un: No! It said any community centre! It said I could pick one up here!

L: I'm sorry, sir, but this is not a community centre. It's a library. We don't have recreation passes here. I'd be happy to--

Un: I am here to pick up a pass! Just give me the pass!

L: Sir, I would be happy to help you if I could. If I had the pass you need, I would certainly give it to you. Could you please tell me--

Un: This! [Pointing frantically at a printed-out email.] This! This!

L: Let me check online and see what I can find. [I Google the name of the pass, find the page immediately, and turn my monitor so Un can see it.] Here is the list of community centres where you can pick up the pass. Do you live nearby? The closest one--

Un: Right here! [Frantically stabbing the screen with his finger.] Right here, it says I can come here! Right here!

L: That's the Burnhamthorpe Recreation Centre. That's on Burnhamthorpe near Dixie.

Un: No, not that, not that! Scroll down! Scroll down!

L: These are all the community centres in Mississauga. It looks like you can pick up that pass at any of those, or at the Recreation and Parks department across the way [I show him where that is], but they do close at 4:30.

Un: [Muttering] Oh. OK. [Walks away.]

[Internal only: Don't you think if I had the pass I would freaking give it to you???]

Least Favourite Customer #2: The Ranter

I saw a Ranter just this morning, moments after we opened for the day.

L: Good morning, how may I help you?

Ranter: I don't have a question, just a general comment. Did you see the article in the paper about the decline of math scores?

L: [External facial composure, noncommittal look and slight shrug. Internal eye-rolling. I recognize a Ranter and I know my goal is to get rid of him as soon as possible. If he baits me into discussion, I'm sunk.]

Ranter: What do you think of that? What do you make of a society that doesn't teach kids the basics? I mean, we have 9, 10, 11 year old kids using calculators, punching buttons! That doesn't teach you anything! No one learns the basics anymore!

L: [Quietly] I wouldn't really know what is taught. [Internal: Why are you telling me this????]

R: Let me ask you, do you have any kids in the school system anymore? [Whole lotta assumptions going on there!]

L: [slightest shrug] I've been seeing stories about declining test scores all my life. I don't put too much stock in it.

R: Right, right. Around here, we have all the Asian families, they send their kids to Kumon, where they drill, drill, drill, and they get the high math scores.

L: [External: smile gone, replaced by slight look of inquiry and waiting] [Internal: Where are we going with this? How loud is this guy going to be, and what will he say about "the Asians"?]

R: Do you see the names of the kids who win the math and science prizes? They're all Asian. You don't see one Canadian kid on that list.

L: [slight smile] Those children are Canadian, too.

R: Yes, of course, of course they are Canadian. But you get my point, right? You know what I'm saying?

L: [tight lipped, nod] I believe I do.

R: All right then.

Ranter is not always racist. But Ranter comes to the desk only to rant, to announce, to declaim.

Should I feel sorry for him because he has no one who will listen and he must resort to Ranting to strangers? Maybe, maybe not. But really, all I think at the time is, Why are you telling me this????


military propaganda at sports events reaches new extremes: continuous recruitment ads at baseball games

I've recently returned from a lovely trip to Boston, filled with so many of my favourite things: friends, family, books, and baseball.

I love Fenway Park, and I'm always happy to be there. On this trip, we saw three great games, two of them wins, so I was thrilled. The games were marred by only one thing: nearly constant propaganda for the US military. This is not an exaggeration.

Throughout Fenway Park, as in many sports venues, monitors show a TV feed of the action on the field. Right now, between innings, the Fenway Park monitors show a continuous feed of advertising for the United States Army. During the game, the ads continue on a sidebar beside the action.

Let that sink in a moment. The constant advertising crammed into every moment of the ballgame, and the constant linking of sports and the military, are now joined in this doubly offensive development.

There is something particularly Orwellian about watching a baseball game while a constant stream of silent images of war and military run in your peripheral vision.

I gathered from the brief branding displays that the ad feed is supplied by Access Sports Media. According to its website, Access Sports Media
provides advertisers cross-platform solutions engaging passionate fans in sports venues nationwide through digital out of home, social media, mobile, and in-venue sponsorships. Access Sports reaches more than 110 million viewers annually through a national footprint of 200 sports properties and a digital network of over 20,000 screens across professional, minor league and college sports.
Its list of clients includes many major corporations, a few specific products, and - listed first - the US Army.

The Army ads themselves stem from a campaign written about here in The New York Times, called a "reality" theme without a trace of irony. Of course, it bears little resemblance to reality. There are no bombings, no destroyed villages, no torture prisons. No amputations, no traumatic brain injury, no alcoholism, no domestic violence, no suicides.

The ads are built around the slogan "Army Strong": "There's strong, then there's Army Strong". This is a particularly good sell for a Boston-area audience: after the Boston Marathon bombing, the city rallied to a cry of "Boston Strong". The Times article notes that the ads are
an example of what is known on Madison Avenue as a program-length commercial or infomercial. Once the province of gadgets peddled with hard-sales entreaties like, “But wait, there’s more,” such longer spiels have been embraced by well-known brands like AT&T, Bing, Chase and Teleflora, along with a number of automakers.

Program-length commercials are becoming more popular as part of a trend known as content marketing, sponsored content or branded entertainment. The trend is meant to counter the growing habit — particularly among younger consumers, like the target audience for the Army, ages 18 to 24 — of ignoring traditional forms of advertising.
The "Army Strong" ads at Fenway are a barrage of quick-cut images emphasizing camaraderie and bonding, toughness and strength, dirt and grit, and stirring patriotism. Men (I saw no female soldiers in the ads, although there might be one somewhere) worked hard and played hard, always together, often dirty, but always serious and strong. In a world where career choices often involve life behind a desk or tethered to a computer, the men in these ads were running across rugby fields, rappelling down snow-covered mountainsides, parachuting out of airplanes, and using lots of exciting-looking equipment.

Only two quick images gave any hint as to why so many men are running, rappelling, shooting, and seeing the world through night-vision goggles. In one image, a woman in a hijab slides a slip of paper in a ballot box. In another, a group of soldiers sit in a circle in a tent, listening to a traditionally-dressed Afghan man (or, I should say, an actor dressed as one). What's the caption here? "How many weddings did we bomb today?" "You take the oil, we'll keep the heroin"? Or maybe just "Me smokem peace pipe."

As both Allan and I have written about before (here, here, and here, for example), there is already a huge amount of military propaganda inappropriately linked to sports events. The Boston Red Sox and the many other teams that contract with Access Sports Media - a list is here - now take the trend to new extremes.

I wrote this to the Boston Red Sox. If you are a sports fan who finds this advertising offensive, I hope you will speak up to your team's management, too.
I am a Red Sox fan who lives out of town. I am able to enjoy games at Fenway about every-other year, at best. I love Fenway Park, and thus, when I attended three games against the Texas Rangers last week, I was extremely disheartened to be subjected to continuous military recruitment advertisements.

Many young people, especially those from low-income families, believe what they see in the United States Army's ads and enlist, only to find the reality gravely different. Of course, who would ever sign up if the ads showed the truth? Amputations, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder; rampant alcoholism and domestic violence, skyrocketing suicide rates.

By partnering with Access Sports Media to show these deceptive ads at Fenway Park, the Red Sox are complicit in that deception.

The Red Sox Foundation promotes the "Run to Home Base," which raises money to "provide much needed services to local veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan... with combat stress disorders and/or traumatic brain injuries". At the same time, the Red Sox are helping to ensure that more healthy young men and women will eventually need those services.

The constant showing of military propaganda during a baseball game is inappropriate and offensive. I hope the Boston Red Sox will reconsider the decision to run Access Sports Media's US Army recruitment ads during games.


what i'm watching: not love, but crap, actually

Tonight I tried again to watch "Love Actually", and once again am left shaking my head in disgust (at the movie) and disbelief (in its popularity, among people who ought to know better). Why does everyone love this movie? Why is it hailed as the great ode to love and romance and a beloved holiday-season classic? It is not romantic. It is not funny. It is crap.

I should start by saying that I didn't want to see "Love Actually". The presence of Hugh Grant alone is enough to drive me away. But so many people - people I respect! people with brains and thoughtful opinions! - said that they liked it. One smart man said the movie had "all the markers of a movie I should hate," but he ended up thinking it was wonderful. All right, then. I'll give it a go. Costs me nothing. Wrong!

Tonight I tried a third time to watch the film (the first two tries unsuccessful), so that I could tally (a) fat jokes, (b) older male bosses drooling over too-young subordinates, and (c) moments of intrusive, manipulative soundtrack, but I lost count and gave up. This is a movie so heavy-handed - and with so little respect for its audience - that it must break out into loud, sweeping Romance Music every time Feelings Are Present. Did you hear that? That there's the sound of Feelings! Get it, didya, huh? Here it comes again, listen to the Big Music, kiddies, Feelings again!

Feelings of some kind, but not love. Love is not present. Hardly ever. One would-be lover after the next can't tell the difference between love and lust. Nothing wrong with lust. I'm all for lust. But this is supposedly a movie about love. And no romantic comedy worth two hours of your life confuses the two.

Christopher Orr, in The Atlantic, calls "Love Actually" "the least romantic film of all time". He writes:
I think it offers up at least three disturbing lessons about love. First, that love is overwhelmingly a product of physical attraction and requires virtually no verbal communication or intellectual/emotional affinity of any kind. Second, that the principal barrier to consummating a relationship is mustering the nerve to say “I love you” — preferably with some grand gesture — and that once you manage that, you’re basically on the fast track to nuptial bliss. And third, that any actual obstacle to romantic fulfillment, however surmountable, is not worth the effort it would require to overcome.

Begin with the elevation of physical attraction over any of the other factors typically associated with romantic compatibility: similar likes and dislikes, overlapping senses of humor, shared values, what have you. Grant falls in love with McCutcheon the first time he speaks with her — “Get a grip,” he chides himself moments afterward — when essentially the only thing he knows about her is that she accidentally uses profanity a lot. (Charming? Sure. Evidence of a soul mate? Unlikely.) Firth and Moniz, meanwhile, fall in love despite not sharing a word of language in common. Moreover, the movie telegraphs very clearly that the moment when Firth really falls for Moniz is when he watches her strip down to her underwear.

The film is a considerable outlier among romantic comedies in its rigorous conviction that people don’t even need to learn anything about each other to confirm their initial attraction.

The pattern is repeated throughout the film.
Some of the supposed romances - like Grant's - are merely ridiculous and non-credible. But others are downright disgusting. Alan Rickman lusts after his beautiful and sexually available assistant. He buys expensive jewelry for the object of his desire, which his lovely and age-appropriate but same-old-same-old wife Emma Thompson finds in his pocket. Thompson marvels, thinking Rickman wants to re-kindle their romance... until she finds a Joni Mitchell CD under the tree. Rickman is well pleased with himself for remembering that his "cold English wife" "still" listens to Joni Mitchell, even though her clothes look like Pavarotti's hand-me-downs, and why are we following this story? Where is the love, actually?

Another supposedly romantic plotline sees a man stalking his best friend's wife, because... because... because she is so hot! Back to Orr here.
Creepiest of all is the storyline involving Lincoln and Knightley. Why is he so desperately in love with his best friend’s bride? Well, it’s not the result of any conversation they’ve had or experience they’ve shared, because the movie is at pains to note that he’s barely spoken to her and he goes out of his way to avoid her company. Indeed, the video tribute to her bridal radiance that he records at her wedding makes pretty clear what it is about her that so captivates him. (Hint: not her mind.) And he, too, like Neeson, ultimately suggests that the only way he will ever get over this love of his life is by hooking up with a supermodel. I’m barely scratching the surface of what’s wrong with this subplot—the movie’s worst—which somehow manages to present the idea that it’s romantic to go behind a friend’s back to ostentatiously declare your everlasting love for his wife. But let’s not get off track.

This is the point at which defenders of the film will reply, reasonably enough: So what? In movies beautiful people always fall in love with other beautiful people! What’s wrong with love at first sight, anyway? Which are both fair responses, as far as they go. But Love Actually is a considerable outlier among romantic comedies in its rigorous conviction not only that people fall in love without really knowing one another, but that they don’t even need to learn anything about each other to confirm their initial attraction.

This is not some abstruse or esoteric component of high-end cinema. The core of most romantic comedies — the core, for that matter, of most romantic comedies written and/or directed by Richard Curtis — is one form or another of mutual exploration between potential lovers. Some movies do it well and some do it poorly, but almost all at least make an effort to do it. The protagonists bicker their way into love (27 Dresses, Sweet Home Alabama, Something's Gotta Give ...). The guy gradually persuades the gal that he’s worthy, or vice versa (Groundhog Day, Knocked Up, Working Girl ...). One helps the other overcome a foolish obsession with a Mr. (or Mrs.) Wrong (The Wedding Singer, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, While You Were Sleeping ...). The free spirit teaches the control freak to let go and embrace life (Along Came Polly, Pretty Woman, The Ugly Truth ...). Opposites discover that they are attracted (Two Weeks Notice, Notting Hill, Maid in Manhattan ...). Etc., etc. My point is in no way to suggest that these are all good movies. (They’re emphatically not.) Rather it is to point out just how far outside the ordinary it is that none of Love Actually’s fated couples spends any meaningful time getting to know one another at all.
And let's not even start on the sexism. Maybe it makes sense in a movie where lust is mistaken for love that women are portrayed exclusively as objects, and anyone whose bones aren't visible in an off-shoulder top is fat-shamed, and a woman who takes care of her mentally ill sibling will die alone because all that nurturing gets in the way of sex, and fathers tell their creepily mature 11-year-old sons that the only way to get over the death of the great love of your life is by having crazy sex with a supermodel.

So maybe all that hideous sexism is to be expected. But it's still disturbing. For the low-down on that, read this skewering review at Jezebel.

Perhaps the only honest line in the entire film is Joni Mitchell's rich contralto singing, "I really don't know love at all." You don't suppose Richard Curtis is commenting on his own film?


คาสิโนออนไลน์ แจกเครดิตฟรี 2019

i hate christmas 2013: christmas in the public library

My annual I Hate Christmas post is a mixed bag this year.

Last year, I found Christmas less awful than usual, thanks to the absence of both commercial TV and my law-firm job. Those changes are permanent (at least I hope they are!), so I may never need to hide from Christmas quite as much, ever again.

On the other hand, Christmas at the public library is a grand opportunity for alienation. The decorations, the displays of children's Christmas books, the Christmas-themed storytimes... and everyone thinks it's all hunky-dory, as long as we stick to Santa and ignore Jesus. No crosses and no creche, but Santa's sleigh and Christmas music are everywhere.

How do our many Muslim and Hindi customers feel? Do they know they're not the only ones on the outside, looking in?

A colleague recently related how a customer asked if the library could do a Ramadan-themed storytime. My colleague was all in a huff. How inappropriate! Don't they know religion belongs at home? We are a public institution, we have separation of church and state! I said I wished that were true, and pointed out (or tried to) that the library does celebrate the holidays of one religion. She said she agrees that in our Christmas storytimes, we shouldn't use a lot of songs that mention Jesus. She said this without irony.

It seems that in this predominantly Christian country, the public consciousness makes a distinction between the religious Christmas and what is seen as a secular Christmas. Santa, elves, candy, and gifts are in; Jesus, Magi, and virgin births are out. But when you're not Christian, it's a false distinction. Christmas is a Christian holiday. And it doesn't matter that the form of the celebration has pagan roots. We're not celebrating solstice.

To my few colleagues (thankfully, not the majority) who are self-absorbed enough to recite the boring details on their shopping lists, I nod vaguely and make little pretence of caring. Perhaps they notice my blank expression, or how I'm not contributing to the "conversation" (really a monologue), and they ask if I'm celebrating Chanukah. One, Chanukah was in November this year, and two, Chanukah is a minor holiday. It's not "the Jewish Christmas", any more than Christmas is the Christian Yom Kippur.

In my vision of the public library, we'd celebrate winter and spring, not Christmas and Easter. We would acknowledge the most important dates of every major religion - Ramadan and Eid, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, Diwali, Solstice, Visakha Puja, Gantan-sai, and more - with displays and good cheer, just as we acknowledge Halloween and Thanksgiving. But we'd leave Christmas at home with Christians, where it belongs.


the sad tale of an oil stain, or how i was misled by the internet

Last week, while enjoying a lovely lunch at a restaurant with my mom and my partner, an oily sauce jumped out of a bowl and splattered on my shirt. All right, it didn't actually jump out, truth is I can be a clumsy eater. But the sauce went on my shirt. Ugh.

This wasn't one little dot, which can be annoying enough. This was an entire collection of splats, re-decorating the front of my shirt. Double ugh.

Because I was busy with family and friends, I wasn't able to immediately soak or stain-treat the shirt. It ended up sitting for a couple of days before I washed it.

When I got home a few days later, I stain-treated and washed the shirt several times. I used my preferred stain-removing spray, OxiClean, and also soaked the shirt in a solution of OxiClean powder, each time putting it in the washing machine on warmer water than I would normally use. The stains did get lighter, but they did not come out.

Next I Googled "how to remove oil stains from clothing". I found answers at: WikiHow, Wise Bread,, and a blog called the Northern Belle Diaries. There were other sources, but I judged these four to be most reliable. (Another source that is generally good, eHow, recommended what I had already done.)

One method was common to those four sources: putting 10W-40 or other motor oil on the stain, letting it soak in, rinsing it out in hot water, then laundering in the washing machine again.

It seemed strange and a bit shocking to put motor oil on my shirt. But the shirt was unwearable in its present condition, so I felt I had nothing to lose.

I followed instructions.

The stain did not come out.

Neither did the motor oil.

My shirt now has huge black oil stains all over it.

If the stain had not come out, but the shirt was in no worse shape, I could have tried another method. But now it's too late.

On reflection and hindsight, I might have tried a less drastic method before resorting to the 10W-40. Some sites mentioned baking soda or baby powder. However, I have tried those methods in the past and found them useless.

So what happened?

Is this idea of removing oil with more oil a myth, kind of like using tomato juice to remove skunk odor from a dog's fur? (Trust me, it doesn't work. Use baking soda and hydrogen peroxide.)

Does that mean people publish how-to articles on sites like and WikiHow without actually trying it first?

Are these websites simply repeating what other sites publish, the way people do with Wikipedia, potentially spreading misinformation along with good information?

Does this method actually work, even though it didn't work for me?

I wish I could post before, after, and after-after photos, but, not knowing that my shirt would be ruined, I never thought to take a pic. Just imagine a lovely cobalt-blue, hip-length, gathered-V-neck cotton shirt (similar to this) with motor oil all over it.


Update. Catching up on impudent strumpet, I've learned there's a word for the internet phenomenon I was trying to describe above: citogenesis, courtesy of the inimitable xkcd.


self-checkout is unpaid labour, gift cards are interest-free loans, and let's stop using both

There are two current trends that I seriously dislike, and wish we would all organize to change: retail self-checkout and the use of gift cards as thank-yous and gifts. Neither practice will go away any time soon; indeed, I'm sure they only will become more ubiquitous. But both trends are in our power to stop, and I wish we would stop them.

A cashier is not a luxury

Buried in an earlier post about unpaid internships, I mentioned a few other forms of unpaid labour that have become commonplace. These days, most retail chain stores enjoy the benefits of an unpaid, uncomplaining labour supply that never demands overtime pay and never takes a holiday. They're called customers. Us.

Almost every major chain store now has a self-checkout lane, where customers scan, bag, and pay for their own purchases, with varying degrees of frustration and success. Typically, one worker - that is, one paid worker - oversees and troubleshoots four or six self-checkout bays.

I believe that, all things being equal, very few customers would choose self-checkout. That is, if cashiers were available with a minimum of waiting time, most people would prefer a cashier. Thus, stores make sure that cashiers are not available. On a typical day at our local Loblaw supermarket, two checkout lanes are staffed, and about eight lanes are closed. This ensures long lines, which in turn ensures that customers will choose self-checkout, thus letting Loblaw get away with hiring so few staff.

Why are we doing Loblaw's work for them? And Canadian Tire's, and Ikea's, and ... fill in the name of your store here.*

Who sees the savings?

Corporate public relations would have us believe that self-checkout allows companies to "keep prices low". I ask you, does that appear to be happening? Have prices dropped? We all know the answer, as the price of everything continues to rise.

Self-checkout has allowed one thing: corporations can continue to decrease labour costs. Low-wage workers lose their jobs or see their hours (and their income) dry up. And fewer jobs exist in our communities. While it's true that some company somewhere must make the self-checkout machines, that manufacturing is typically (a) done by robots, and (b) not in the community, or even in the country.

The work of humans is constantly being replaced by technology. This is a trend as old as human civilization itself. Scribes were replaced by setters of movable type, field hands were replaced by cotton-picker machines, assembly-line workers were replaced by robots. There is seldom anything we can do about it.

But this is actually within our control. If we all refused to use self-checkout, and the lines grew to intolerable levels, and customers complained, stores would be forced to hire more workers. The change would not be instant, but it would happen eventually.

This August 2012 story about self-checkout says that Ikea has scrapped self-checkout in the US because of long lines and customer complaints. This has not happened in Canada, and little wonder, since Canadians are notorious for complaining only to each other.

It's worth noting that Whole Foods, with its emphasis on excellent customer service, stands nearly alone in not using self-checkout. Whole Foods is certainly not hiring cashiers because they love to provide employment! They're employing cashiers because they know that it promotes a better shopping experience (especially given the stores' high prices).

Whether we are shopping for groceries or hardware, it should not be a privilege or a perk to have a store employee ring up our purchases, put them in bags, and take our money.

If everyone reading this right now would pledge never to use self-checkout - and ask five people to do the same - and those five people would ask five people... But alas, this is not a hilarious internet meme, so we won't expect it to go viral.

In praise of cash

In recent years, gift cards have become a nearly ubiquitous currency for the expression of gratitude or appreciation. Supervisors and managers give gift cards to employees as perks; friends give them to friends to say thanks for a favour. People also routinely use them for gifts when they're unable - or unwilling - to shop for a personal gift.

Gift cards are easy to buy, the giver doesn't need special knowledge of the recipient's likes and dislikes, and (now) they don't expire. But another reason people reach for the gift card is that we are embarrassed by cash.

Many times, I have received a gift card as a little thank-you. It was totally unnecessary, a simple verbal thank-you would have sufficed, but the giver wanted to do a bit more. This giver never would have given me cash. They would have considered that crude and unseemly. Yet they spent the same amount of money, plus they limited my enjoyment to one store.

They make great gifts... for corporations

Six or seven years ago, it came to light that many popular gift cards were hardly gifts at all. The contained expiry dates - often in tiny print or on disposable outer material (that is, not on the card itself) - and the companies charged fees both for purchase and redemption. (The phrase "They get you coming and going" springs to mind.)

In response to public complaints, most Canadian provinces passed consumer-protection laws regulating gift-card sales. Similar legislation appears to have been passed in the US in 2010.

Despite these necessary controls, the use of gift cards as currency puts far too much power in the hands of the corporation. This excellent article by David Olive in the Toronto Star explains how gift card purchasers extend billions of dollars in interest-free loans to some of the world's most profitable corporations.** In Canada, those loans total $50 billion; in the US, they reach more than 12 times that amount.

Give the gift of choice

When you buy someone a present, and you don't want to choose a gift, why limit their gift to one store? If you give cash, they can (obviously) buy whatever they want.

One argument I've heard against giving cash is that it might be used for necessities like food or rent. What of it? If the recipient uses a gift to help pay rent, that help is likely most welcome. At the very least, the cash gift frees up income that would have gone to rent. If a person does need help with their rent, their landlord is not accepting Tim Hortons cards.

There are times when cash is out of the question. When a close friend with a healthy income does me a favour, I don't offer to pay her. I can try to return the favour at some point, or take her to dinner, or write a note to express my appreciation. That's what friends do.

But in many other circumstances, one crisp $10 bill plus one $5 bill in an envelope would seem cheap and a bit weird. But a $15 gift card seems generous and acceptable.

Let's resist this ridiculous devaluing of real currency in favour of company scrip. Let's give and accept cash without embarrassment. Who's with me?

* I'm not including self-checkout at the library. Library staff are public employees, self-checkout involves RFID tagging, and there are other considerations. I discussed this a bit here.

** Cited here by Impudent Strumpethey mcdonald's: the working poor don't need financial advice or higher banking costs. they need higher wages. (updated).


grenada to ronda / ronda

We changed our plans, then changed them again. Originally, we had pencilled in a drive to the very southern tip of Spain, where on a clear day you can see Morocco, and where there is a supposedly wonderfully intact set of Roman ruins, Baelo Claudio.

From the start, I was skeptical that we could do this and still do everything else on our wish-list. I think Allan had forgotten how everything takes longer than you think it's going to, and how sleeping in a different town every night can mean not seeing anything very well. In Granada, it was time to firm up the flexible spots in our itinerary.

We love seeing Roman ruins. But we've seen a fair number of them. On our big trip in 1993 - we spent a month in France and Italy - we drove through Provence and saw a huge number of amazing Roman ruins. And of course, we've been to Rome. On the other hand, this current trip includes something we've never seen and may never see again: neolithic cave paintings. I have wanted to see cave paintings since I first read about the caves in Lescaux and Altamira (now both closed to the public). As soon as the Bilbao Guggenheim opened, and I saw its proximity to caves where there are paintings, I started thinking about going to Spain.

So cave paintings are a major incentive for this trip, and we have planned them for the very end. I was concerned that if we went to Baelo Claudia, we would never make it up to Basque Country in the north, and we'd end up seeing more Roman ruins, but no caves.

So we reconfigured the remaining part of the trip for less time in the south and more time in the north. Our plans for today were to drive to Ronda, walk around the town, then continue on to Zuheros, about an hour away from Cordoba - not spend the night in Ronda, but stay two nights in Zuheros.

* * * *

We woke up in Grenada to the sound of cannon fire, or maybe kettle drums, or maybe fireworks. It was 8:00 a.m. and we have no idea what that was about.

After breakfast, we bought a few things at a small supermarket across from the hotel, then went to a tiny panderia (bakery) - so tiny that customers queue up in the street, because only one customer at a time can fit in the shop. We bought a wonderful fresh baguette, two pastries, and two cookies for 2.50 euros.

The lovely woman at our hotel, plus a gentleman who helped direct Allan out of our tiny parking spot, both assured us it was much easier to get out of town than it was to get in. Armed with great directions, we nervously hit the road, but had no problem finding the highway. We did stop once for directions, just to confirm. A man said "...go to the left," while motioning right. I said, "A la derecha?" ("To the right?") And he said, "Si, derecha" which tells you something about miscommunication! But we found the highway easily and soon I was navigating us to Ronda.

* * * *

We stopped once to eat some of our ham, cheese, and bread, but otherwise were driving through beautiful, hilly orchards, with steep mountains in the distance. We could have taken fairly fast roads all the way to Ronda, but against my better judgement, we decided to use a tiny adjoining "cut-through" road. I knew that would be very slow and take us through mountains, and Allan said he also knew that, but... let's just say I don't think he understood how tiny and how slow that road would be. Or where he'd be driving. Allan is afraid of heights. Let it not be said I didn't warn him.

The road to Ronda turned out to be one of the more dramatic drives we've ever done, on par with the Big Sur coast in California or the Almalfi coast of Italy. (The latter we did by bus and Allan couldn't look out the window.) First we wound our way through two tiny "white towns" - the typical towns of Spain, with white-washed buildings and red-tiled roofs - called Andarle and El Burgos, then there were no towns.

The road was barely wide enough for one car. When a car approached from the other direction, Allan stopped and we held our breath. We went up and up and up, into the mountains, with a very steep drop-off on my side, and so close to the side of the road that I didn't want to look down. On all sides of us, there were dramatic rock outcroppings, and in the valleys there were pastures, with the occasional hacienda and pick-up truck visible. It looked a lot like scenery I've seen in the western US, with the same huge sky and dramatic peaks.

At one point, we found ourselves behind a herd of goats. A man and two dogs were working them down the road, then off the road and down the cliffs to the right. I scrambled for the camera and we drove slowly behind them until all the animals were safely off the road. I waved and yelled to the shepherd.

Another time we saw a nice dog sitting in the road. Allan looked very upset and was determined to continue driving. We have rescued some strays while traveling, and other times staggered away, heartbroken, from dogs we could not help. I thought we could at least take this dog to a town. I made Allan stop and ran back to the dog, but when I found it, I realized it was fine, just a country dog out for the day. She wasn't skinny, her coat looked good, and the last thing we want to do is abscond with somebody's dog. So I ran back to the car and tried to assure Allan, and we continued on.

This drive went on for hours, real white-knuckle driving, no more than 20 or 30 kms/hour. At the highest point, we stopped at a lookout with some information about the Seirra de las Nieves range. After that, the drop-off was on the driver's side, not ideal for our man behind the wheel! I'm pretty sure Allan was forcing himself not to look out his window.

When I noticed that it was 3:00 and the road was just beginning to flatten out towards Ronda, I suggested we spend the night there. Zuheros has to be three hours away. Did we really want to do that tonight?

* * * *

We entered Ronda from the ordinary, non-historic part of town and put the car in an underground parking lot. We very quickly saw the train station and a hotel right across the street, and figured, what the hell, let's give it a go. At the Hotel Andalucia, the man said he had a vacancy... for 35 euros. Allan thought I heard wrong but no, it was 35 euros. I asked to see the room. It's a simple, clean room with a spotless bathroom, and a closet nearly as big as our hotel room in Paris. The hotel has a parking deal with the lot where our car is already parked, so overnight parking will cost 6 euros. Wifi is free and in all the rooms. Wow.

Next we had to change our reservation in Zuheros. I couldn't get it done through, so I called the hotel directly. They were very accommodating, allowing us to cancel one night on such short notice, but they said they did need to receive something from whatever internet site we booked with, or else they would be charged a commission for an unused room.

Trying to work with was awful. One, their phone number - which says, "A free call from anywhere, 24/7!" - is only free within the United States. Two, their number is listed as 1-800-CA-HOTELS, with no actual number given beside it. Does anyone have a phone with letters on it anymore?? There are millions of people traveling today who have never even seen a rotary phone with letters! After waiting on hold, and being transferred, the person who actually helped me wanted to keep me on hold while he called the hotel in Zuheros. I don't think so.

So that was awful, but we got it done, then headed off into Ronda.

* * * *

We walked through the commercial area of town, a pedestrian-only mall, past a bullfighting ring, and down to the edge of town. Literally, the edge. There is a wall, beyond which the town drops off a cliff. You can see towns in the valley, then huge mountains in the distance. From the cliffs on this side of town, you can walk around a walkway to a bridge.

The bridge passes over a dramatic gorge, a huge steep drop, with giant stone finger-like projections on all sides, on top of which the town seems to be growing. On the other side of the bridge is the old, historic part of town, with narrow cobblestone streets, white houses with red roofs and wrought-iron gates, and a zillion schlocky touristy stores. Tacky, but beneath that, beautiful.

In between the two sides of town, upstream from the bridge, you can see the gorge, the rushing water, people walking up and down a scenic walkway, and in the distance, farms. It is very dramatic, very beautiful. From the old-city side, looking back on the bridge, you see the full height and impressive arches of the bridge. Allan couldn't get too close to the rail, so I took all the photos. Some view of Ronda, the gorge, and the bridge are here.

This town is supposedly a magnet for fans of Ernest Hemingway. Ronda's Wikipedia page mentions something about a bit of For Whom The Bell Tolls being based on Ronda. I re-read that novel only a month or so ago (I loved it), and I don't remember anything remotely like this town being in it.There are also pictures of Charlie Chaplin in several places, but I don't know why.

After our walk, we were ready for dinner, but it was still too early. The whole town appeared to be having coffee, ice cream, and dessert. Hundreds of families with children, older folks in groups, teenagers on dates, absolutely everyone, were gathered in dozens of cafes, gelaterias, and confiterias. After all, it was "only" 7:00 p.m.!

We reluctantly stopped for coffee and tea, at a cafe selling all manner of baked goodies and "bombs" (bonbons). When I ordered Allan's "the con leche", they made the tea with steamed milk, instead of water. That was new for us. We used the time to further reconfigure the rest of the trip. We're both concerned that things may take a long time in the north - that it may take time to get there or to find a cave tour. As I've said, it's a focal point of the trip, and we don't want it to be cut short. So we actually cut a day out of our planned three days in Madrid.

I only wanted to do one thing in Madrid: see painting at the three big museums. We are also meeting up with our friend David Heap! But I'm not particularly interested in running around Madrid seeing El Escorial and other famous sites, given the time and priorities of this trip. (Of course I'd see any city for any reason, and I'm sure Madrid has many things to recommend it, but in context of this trip: art only.) So now I will have two full days to see the greatest highlights from all three museums. It should work.

After planning over coffee, we found a simple place for dinner. We were clearly the "early bird special" at 7:30. We are both a bit tired of tapas. (Who knew such a thing could happen?) I want to have some great paella somewhere, but this is not paella country. The menus here favour game, stews (including bull-tail stew), and grilled fish. I had a version of huevos rancheros - scrambled eggs with potatoes and chorizos - and Allan had fried calmari that looked like fishsticks. We also had some kind of yummy white bean soup that was made with sausage. We drank vino verano and I had yet more coffee, and the bill barely scraped 20 euros.

This doesn't seem to be a big foodie area. Basque Country, in the north, is supposed to have some of the best food in Spain (or anywhere). I don't know if we'll find any, or perhaps it's impossible to miss. But somewhere, somewhere on this trip, will I get a big bowl of really good paella?

Our little hotel was super easy to find, because it's across from the train station. We were happy to see it again; it has been a long day. I called my mother, who was thrilled to hear from me. I called her two or three times on our long drive from Barcelona to Granada, but she wasn't in, and I knew she'd be massively disappointed to miss my call. She is reading this blog, and she has been to Ronda, among many other places in Spain. It was great to hear her voice!

Photos of the mountain drive to Ronda are here.

Photos of Ronda are here.