Showing posts with label consumer issues. Show all posts
Showing posts with label consumer issues. Show all posts

12.23.2018

true confessions, or will laura buy new window treatments for a house that doesn't need them

This is the other shopping story. The one in which I don't come out looking like a rational adult.

I don't care much about clothes, shoes, bags. I don't buy expensive cosmetics or skin-care products. As long as I have what I need, I'm good. It's easy to watch my spending about any of those.

But. There's always a but, right? I love home things. Towels, linens, dinnerware. Rugs. Shelves. Lamps. Organizers. (I could go on.)

And I love home-decorating. When buying clothes, I hold my nose and get it over with. But don't let me in Bed Bath and Beyond or Ikea without adult supervision.

Despite this, I still try very hard to not buy gratuitously. I won't say I never buy home things that we don't technically need. But once I've got our "needs" covered, I try to leave it there. (Scare quotes around needs, acknowledging that these are not true needs, but needs of privilege.)

Does it seem like I'm avoiding something? Not getting to the point? Window treatments. There, I said it. Window treatments. Curtains, shades, blinds.

Why window treatments? I love colour, and curtains or shades add big swaths of colour to a room, totally changing the way a space looks and feels. (I could go on.)

I've had a bad habit of spending too much money on window treatments. This goes alllll the way back to Brooklyn, the custom-cut blind for the bedroom window that had to match the lavender comforter. 

Then there were the vertical fabric blinds over the huge picture window on Bogardus Place, our first apartment in Washington Heights

I didn't feel bad about either of these, despite being relatively poor, with hand-me-down furniture and very few things to wear. It was more important to dress the apartment well. And to be fair, there was a giant window facing the street, with no covering at all, and it was an odd size. And I don't remember the cost being exorbitant. 

See what I did there? I can rationalize anything.

On Bennett Avenue, where we lived 14 years, the majority of our time in New York, I bought some inexpensive fabric and a friend made curtains for me. This was penance for the Bogardus vertical blinds (the ones I just rationalized). An apartment had become available on a nearby but much nicer street -- a bigger apartment in better condition, for much lower rent -- and we decided to move. And my custom fabric vertical blinds were now wasted.

That was my first experience with this phenomenon. I'd like to say I learned my lesson, but if I learned my lesson in 1992, would I be writing this post?

Now we fast-forward to 2005, the year "wmtc". We rented a tiny, dilapidated bungalow in the Port Credit area of Mississauga. To us, it was paradise. It was walking-distance to the Lakeshore GO train, steps from the most beautiful part of the Waterfront Trail, and for the first time in our adult lives, we had a backyard. The lake was at the end of our street! And we were in Canada! We were overjoyed. I felt like the luckiest person in the world.

The house itself was dirty, cold, and not in good condition. While waiting for the moving truck to arrive with all our things, we painted. That's how it started. The painting was necessary, but it got into my head: I had a little house to decorate.

First there were the three accent walls -- in wild colours renters are not supposed to use, including one wall from which I stripped seven layers of wallpaper. None of this was expensive, and using those colours was fine, since we knew the owner would eventually sell the property for a tear-down. Now we're getting to the heart of the matter. 

"...since we knew the owner would eventually sell the property for a tear-down."

The rental wasn't long-term, and we knew it. We just didn't know how short-term it would be. After the one-year lease ran out, it might have been five years, it might have been five months.

So here we are at the real confession: the custom-made shades I bought for the living room and dining room of that house. I won't even tell you what they cost. It would have been expensive for any house. For a broken-down rental that had the potential to be short-term, it was... You can fill in the blank. I don't want to say it. 

I didn't buy them on impulse; I thought about it for a couple of weeks. My mother encouraged me to go for it, but she didn't know what they cost. Allan, who is more frugal than I am, went along without a peep. I'll never understand why.

The windows needed something, of that there is no doubt. But why didn't I buy inexpensive curtains at Ikea or Home Outfitters? That would become my default setting for "I need to fix up this rental without spending a lot of money". Yet I didn't even consider that. I just plowed ahead and bought the beautiful, two-colour, honeycomb fold, Hunter Douglas, fabric blinds.

And we lived in the house 14 months, and then had to move.

We took down the blinds. I saved the hardware and wrapped up the blinds in bubble wrap, and I've been moving them from rental to rental ever since, hoping that one day, some rental somewhere, will have the same size windows. (I've also tried -- multiple times -- to sell them on Craigslist and Kijiji, for a small fraction of their cost.)

Since then, we've lived in too many places. First there was the sewage flood, then the greedy landlord, then the big move west. For each place, I bought some inexpensive curtains, or else bought fabric and had curtains made. I spent very little money and significantly changed the look of the room, exchanging ugly PVC blinds -- and in one case heavy velvet curtains with a heavy coating of dust -- with big swaths of colour that pulled together all the other colours in the room. Very little money, big results.

And now my long story finally arrives at the present: the lovely old house we are renting in Port Hardy. For the first time ever, we have moved into a house with nice window treatments: fabric vertical blinds in the kitchen, dining, and family/living rooms, and fabric black-out curtains, complete with matching and good-looking rods, in all the bedrooms. There are even nice thin blinds in all the bathrooms. All quality, all matching, all in good condition.

And all beige. Sandy. Approximately number 13 on this.

On the day we arrived -- literally on our first walk-through of the house! -- I saw the blinds and curtains and thought, beige. I thought, Those would be great if they were a better colour.



I'm know I won't do it. I'm pretty sure I won't do it.

12.21.2018

in which i buy shoes on the internet and this makes me way happier than it should

I have two stories to tell about my shopping habits. This is the one with a happy ending, the story that makes me appear to be a rational adult.

On our road trip from Mississauga to Port Hardy, I quickly became aware that my boots had become useless. They were light hiking boots from New Balance (shown here). I wore them in Egypt and on our Northern Ontario trip, but they were suddenly taking on water like a leaky raft. If it was at all wet outside, my feet were wet and cold. Note to self: buy new boots.

But how? Where? Surely not in Port Hardy. Not even in Campbell River. There really is only one answer: buy them online. I buy almost everything online; it's been my preferred method of shopping for a very long time. But can you buy shoes online? Of course I know shoes are sold online, but how do you buy shoes if you can't try them on first? And don't you need to try on multiple pairs, until you find one that fits?

I also realized I need not just new boots, but better boots. It's not like I'm such a rugged outdoorswoman. Hardly. But my feet -- like everything about my annoyingly high-maintenance body -- need a lot of support. I have custom orthotics, but I still need a lot of cushion, and ankle support, and grip. And living in rainforest territory, waterproofing is essential. These days I need boots (as opposed to sneakers) for walking of any distance, especially if there is any possibility of uneven surfaces.

I never researched boots before, I just bought whatever was available, and was usually less than thrilled with the results. So this time I read things like this and this -- and general advice like this -- and checked reviews on Amazon and elsewhere. I also read Reddit and other forum threads where people were discussing the pros and cons of online shoe-shopping. (Yay internet!)

I'm probably making this process sound more methodical and meticulous than it was. I don't have a lot of patience for research, but I've (mostly) learned to stop myself from making impulsive buying decisions. I usually do short, quick bursts of research, multiple times.

Turns out many people buy shoes online. People with hard-to-fit feet. People who want shoes they can't find locally. People who like to shop online. Check, check, check: I am all of the above.

One of the biggest issues about online shopping in Canada is practically a non-issue now. In the past -- as recently as five years ago -- many companies simply didn't ship to Canada. Others charged outrageous and prohibitive shipping fees. Amazon has pretty much solved that. Living in a town with an easily accessible post office is great, too. (Remind me to write about our mail and the post office. When I picked up my packages, they had a dish of candies out.)

So, I bought two pairs -- one pair of duck shoes, and one pair of hiking boots. Both arrived within a week, which was better than I expected. I was very nervous about the fit, and had convinced myself there was no chance of either pair fitting properly. And then... they did. Both pairs fit. They fit! I. Am. Thrilled.

The moral of the story is: if you want to buy shoes online, you should go for it. You all probably know that already! But this was a fun revelation for me.

Boot #1:
Vasque Women's Breeze Iii GTX Waterproof Hiking Boot

11.25.2018

the move west: day six: swift current saskatchewan to calgary alberta

Greetings from Mountain Time! I had a friend from Denver who always said Mountain was the forgotten time zone. He may have been right: we forgot about the hour time difference until we saw the time on a bank sign.

On the way out of Swift Current, the highway was a bit slippery, not from recent snow, but from compacted snow and ice that hadn't been cleared. We saw a few trucks in the median that had slipped off the road; we did have to drive a bit more carefully, but nothing scary.

The land looked more like ranch and grazing land than farmland, and we did see a lot of cows and some buffalo. I'm glad to see them out eating grass the way they should be. I spotted a few animal crossings, the tunnels built under highways. The land was also less flat, with low, rolling hills, but still unbroken to the horizon. There were looong stretches without a town in sight.

We listened to more Dortmunder -- we're both getting a little bored and want the book to end soon -- and coordinated the airport pickup and a U-Haul issue with M. An engine light is on, and although the truck is driving fine, we want to get it sorted before driving into the mountains. U-Haul is supposed to have roadside assistance.

Speaking of "supposed to have," I was unsurprised to learn that the "third stay free" Super 8 promotion is pretty much a bait-and-switch. It's a program through the parent company, Wyndham, and the front desk person at the Calgary Super 8 didn't know anything about it. After some discussion, we checked in in the usual way, then once in the room, I poked around the Wyndham Rewards website.

Yes, we are earning points for these stays, but they aren't credited right away, and they have an expiry date. In other words, the program is worthless. I plan to complain, only because I think companies should hear from us (all of us), but I know it will do absolutely no good. Luckily the Super 8s have been fine, actually pretty nice, and the rates have been good.

While I'm complaining about hotels, here's my recurring complaint about the supposed green policies at most hotels. Reusing towels or sleeping on the same sheets two nights in a row are logical actions to take -- except that those actions end up cutting hours for underpaid hotel workers. Meanwhile, the hotels are using disposal cups in all the rooms. Even worse, many of the in-room coffee makers use disposable filter holders -- instead of putting the filter pack in a tray that's part of the coffee maker, the filter pack comes with its own single-use tray. It's incredibly wasteful. And of course there are the little bottles of shampoo and other hygiene products. We've stayed in hotels with good environmental practices, I know it's possible to do. It's not green to push more families into poverty and to increase income inequality.

My former co-workers and union team will be interested to hear there was a strong scented air "freshener" in our room when we got in. I'm one of the people who benefited from the City of Mississauga's scent-free workplace policy, and several times had to deal with violations, both as a supervisor and a sufferer. We were in our room for about 30 seconds when I started coughing violently. Allan got rid of the scent thingies and I opened a window, and avoided a full-scale asthma attack. I will definitely mention it to the manager on our way out.

The room is much nicer than I expected for the price, once I was able to breathe.

I got Diego settled, M dealt with U-Haul, and Allan picked up SIL from the airport. Diego went absolutely berserk with happiness when he saw SIL -- leaping about, jumping up to kiss her over and over, then barking furiously to try to get SIL to greet him the way he wants -- hands-on. SIL was a bit freaked out; who wouldn't be? Of course, we all knew SIL was coming today, but Diego didn't. To him it was the most amazing and wonderful surprise! Ah, dogs. We are so loving traveling with him.

The hotel is in the middle of big shopping area -- it looks exactly like Mississauga -- so we went down the street to an East Side Mario's for dinner. (Non-Canadian readers, that's Canada's version of The Olive Garden.) After dinner all three of us went to M/SIL's room to drink wine, but SIL and I quickly conked out. I've been getting up ridiculously early every day; my brain is still on Eastern time.

Today, the mountains! There's no snow in the forecast and we're closing in on the end of the journey. Thanks for coming along. It's fun to know that friends are following our progress.

3.27.2018

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.

10.23.2017

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.

Wrong!

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 "kars4kids.org/howtohelp" 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.

7.31.2017

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.

Sincerely,

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.

7.05.2017

the great whole foods experiment of 2017

In our home, shopping at Whole Foods was once reserved for special dinners or used a stop-gap during an extremely busy week. Then slowly, over time, it became habit -- and a big one. For a long time now, we've had two regular shopping days each week, one at Loblaws and one at Whole Foods. Sometimes we end up at Whole Foods multiple times in one week.

This has been expensive, of course, but I felt it was worth spending more for better quality, and even more so for convenience. Because of Whole Foods' prepared food, we've been able to spend less time on food preparation, but still eat healthfully. Where prepared food in most supermarkets consists of rotisserie chicken and mayonnaisey pasta salads, Whole Foods carries an array of fresh, healthy, delicious -- expensive -- choices. Over time we relied on this more... and more.

I did determine that some prepared food was actually no more expensive than if I had made it myself: see my post about Roman tuna salad. Now I suspect that tuna salad is either a loss leader, or an outlier.

Several months ago, Whole Foods' prices shot up. A bag of groceries that once cost $65 now runs $95 or as much as $120. I rationalized it for a while, but even I, the Queen of Rationalization, can no longer ignore the obvious. But what do we do instead? What did we do before Whole Foods came to Mississauga...? The answer is: lots of different things that all involve more effort and less variety.

Hence the experiment. We won't shop at Whole Foods for one month, then we can decide if the money we don't spend is worth the effort we do spend. This also has an added benefit: the owner of Whole Foods is notoriously anti-union, so this is an opportunity to align my spending with my principles a bit more.

3.18.2017

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.
Hello,

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.
Hi,

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.

3.01.2017

amman to cairo to home: in which things out work very nicely

EgyptAir, we love you! I'm writing this from an airport hotel, where I did not expect to be.

After Ridiculous Breakfast #3, we did a little negotiating (see below), then packed up for the airport. On a tip from the concierge, we stopped at the beautiful Zalatimo Brothers for Sweets on the way. I was quite pleased: this saved time and solved a problem. And then, as we walked into the airport, we saw... Zalatimo Brothers for Sweets! They have a small outpost near the international departures.

The flight from Amman to Cairo was fast and uneventful. The EgyptAir rep in Amman told us we would have to go through passport control and customs, get our luggage, then check into our next flight, and so on. Turns out this was untrue.

We were waiting in the passport control line in Cairo, when a man approached us, claiming to be from EgyptAir, saying they have a free hotel room and dinner for us, and do we want to see the pyramids, too?

It took quite a bit of convincing that he was legit, but once I gave in, things started to happen.

Apparently any time an EgyptAir passenger has a layover of more than six hours, the airline arranges a complimentary hotel room and meal. Say whaaat? 

First we went to the EygptAir counter, where our New Best Friend cut through both apathy and red tape, and secured our hotel and meal voucher.

Then he took us to the visa window. Our original visa was good for 30 days, but expired when we left Egypt a few days earlier. The visa window was a comedy, or maybe a farce. The guy who refused to take anything but Egyptian pounds a few weeks ago now refused to take that same currency. Next window, not working, says the person working there. Next window, how about Jordan dinars?

We paid some LEs, some JDs, currency flying around at two different windows, and boom, we had new entry visas. There is absolutely no way we could have done this on our own.

Next, the passport control lines are all gone and the agents have disappeared. But NBF finds someone to stamp our passports.

Next, he whisks us down to the baggage carousel, piles all our things onto a cart, and hurries us towards an airport shuttle bus.

Several times along the way, he has asked if we want to see the pyramids one more time. Half-hour to get there, one hour there, and a half-hour back, with the transportation costing 50 LEs. Given the distance between airport and Giza, it was a sweet deal -- but it felt too rushed and too busy. We declined.

So now, instead of sitting in the airport for nearly 10 hours, we are relaxing in a well air-conditioned hotel room, and can eat, shower, and change clothes before our flight.

* * * *

Our stay in the Amman Marriott was nearly perfect.

The room was lovely, the food was great, and the staff was amazing. As I've mentioned, the breakfast was very expensive, but it also was incredible -- a huge variety of freshly prepared foods of all types, different each day, with seemingly no possible breakfast desire left unsatisfied.*

I say "nearly" perfect, because there was one problem. The temperature of our room was quite high, and the air conditioning didn't work. The first night, Allan made multiple late-night calls to the desk, and more than one person visited the room, with more than one excuse given. Eventually the air did turn on, and the room did cool down a bit.

The second day, the air conditioning continued to work.

On the third day, we returned from Madaba to a hot room. More phone calls, more apologies and excuses... but no AC. We spent some time eating and drinking in the lounge, and returned to an uncomfortably hot room. The heat woke me up in the middle of the night. More phone calls, but to no avail.

This shouldn't happen to you in any hotel, but in a five-star hotel that is reputed to be one of the best in the country... no. Just no. I hope everyone reading this already knows this: when you are inconvenienced, you should be compensated.

At breakfast, we discussed what we thought would be a fair rebate, and sat down with the concierge to discuss. (His nameplate said "Customer Relations / Concierge.) The outcome: all three breakfasts comped. Many thanks to the Amman Marriott and their awesome staff.


* For those who like food details: an assortment of breads, rolls, pastries, and donuts; Arabic dips such as hummus, eggplant dip, etc.; salads such as lentil, quinoa, chopped vegetables; smoked fish; meats, cheeses; all condiments for all of the above, such as onions, capers, lemon, etc.; beef sausage, beef bacon, potatoes (prepared differently each day); mini eggs benedict; waffles, pancakes, and omelettes made to order; soups; fresh squeezed juices; oatmeal, yogurt, and dry cereals and all toppings that might conceivably be put in those; fresh fruit; falafel, kibbeh, bean stew, and other Arabic dishes. And even with this long list, I'm sure there are choices I have forgotten. Everything is very high quality and freshly prepared.

2.06.2015

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.

11.26.2014

#walmartstrikers + international buy nothing day = don't shop at walmart

I don't know when people starting calling the day after US Thanksgiving "Black Friday," but the expression has become synonymous with over-consumption, empty consumer culture, and the bizarre importance assigned to hunting for bargains.

And what a bargain it is: a multibillion-dollar corporation sells a piece of crappy future landfill at an artificially low price by manufacturing it halfway around the globe with child labour, dumping toxins into the environment, and paying its own customers sub-living wages. In return, consumers agree to see nothing and know nothing except the price sticker. It's a deal that is devouring our planet, and our souls.

Those low, low prices on Black Friday are partly subsidized by Walmart employees, who earn crap wages, can't get full-time work, and are harassed and intimidated when speak up about their working conditions. This year, as in 2013 and 2012, Walmart workers will go on strike to demand change. And you can help them. Here's how.

First: don't shop at Walmart this holiday season.

Second: let Walmart know that you are boycotting their stores because of their unfair labour policies.

And third, if you're in the US: drop by a Walmart on Friday, November 28, to cheer on the strikers.

Even if you don't see a protest at your local Walmart, you can still participate: bring a sign saying that you support the workers fighting for fair pay and respect. Snap a selfie, and tweet it with the #walmartstrikers hashtag.

Feeling camera-shy? Write a letter a store manager. Walmart tracks every one of these actions, and collectively, they have a huge impact.

Go here for tips, instructions, and legalities. (In some states, there are legal injunctions against protesting in front of stores.)

For more on International Buy Nothing Day, Amy Mendoza, on xojane, gives us five reasons to buy nothing on Friday, December 28.

11.08.2014

towards a cruelty-free face: switching to products not tested on animals

I've begun changing my personal care products to cruelty-free: natural products from companies that are better for the environment and don't test on animals. I'm not sure how far I'll be able to go, but I've begun the process.

After a lifetime of using conventional products, I was moved to think more about this by a few different sources.

When I worked in the children's library, I often saw a book about animal cruelty. It was not the one I wrote about here, about dogs, but a book in a series called "Tough Issues," similar to the kind of series I used to contribute to. This "tough issue" asked the question, "Why do people harm animals?" It's a good book, one that successfully treads that very careful line separating honesty from the overly graphic. Even so, there was one image that burned in my brain. (I know this image would have been highly disturbing to me as a child. Considering I saw the image in a children's book, this is very bad.) And now that image from that book joins the panolpy of disturbing images that I will never be able to un-see.

Another source: I belong to the Humane Society International (or HSI Canada), and their excellent advocacy against animal testing has influenced me.

The rational case for using animals in medical research has ended: as one prominent researcher says, "Whatever you discover, you will have to re-discover using people, so not only do the animals suffer using these experiments, the first few patients using these novel treatments will suffer, too." Using animals to test cosmetics and personal-care products shouldn't even be controversial. It is absolutely cruel and unnecessary.
Eliminating animal testing of cosmetics is entirely feasible. In the past three decades scientists have developed many advanced alternatives to animal testing—methods that use human blood, cell lines, artificial skin or computer models to test the safety of products. And many multinational companies have embraced these alternative test methods, reducing and in some cases eliminating their dependence on animal testing. As a result, they cut costs and save time; animal testing is expensive, slow and, because animals are not people, not always predictive.

The movement to eliminate animal testing extends beyond the cosmetics industry. In 2007 the National Academy of Sciences issued a report recommending that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fundamentally change the way chemicals are tested for human health risks. Through a greater reliance on in vitro testing, researchers could evaluate the effects of chemicals on biological processes while using very few animals. Scientists would generate better data and test a greater number of chemicals more quickly and cheaply.
And then there are microbeads. Perhaps I was the last person in North America to learn about microbeads, but the news finally reached me.
Tiny particles of plastic have been added to possibly thousands of personal care products sold around the world. These microbeads, hardly visible to the naked eye, flow straight from the bathroom drain into the sewer system. Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to filter out microbeads and that is the main reason why, ultimately, they contribute to the Plastic Soup swirling around the world’s oceans. Sea creatures absorb or eat microbeads. These microbeads are passed along the marine food chain. Since humans are ultimately at the top of this food chain, it is likely that we are also absorbing microbeads from the food we eat. Microbeads are not biodegradable and once they enter the marine environment, they are impossible to remove.
Although I used products that contain microbeads, I never asked, "What are the scrubbing particles in this product made of?" Indeed, I never even thought of it. But now I have learned that a few products I buy regularly contain these tiny plastic particles that go straight to our water supply and into animals. And so, microbeads became the final kick in the pants I needed.

I looked into cruelty-free products on line, mostly at Leaping Bunny and GoCrueltyFree.org, but I was quickly overwhelmed. There are so many products... where to begin? Then I remembered my dictum from other changes I've made: away from all-or-nothing thinking. This cheered me up.

I decided to start with two products: face cleanser and scrub, since these are most likely to contain microbeads. This would also allow me to stop buying products made by Procter & Gamble, a name found on boycott lists for decades.

The next time I was in Whole Foods, I talked to the person in the "Whole Body" department. She showed me several alternatives. I decided on products by Green Beaver, a Canadian company with an interesting genesis.
As young scientists, Karen was a biochemist with experience in the pesticide industry and Alain was a microbiologist working for the pharmaceutical industry. We were both appalled by the amount of chemicals found in kid’s shampoos, bubble baths and other products. Given our background, we decided to do something about it. We quit our jobs and left the chemical industry behind to create healthier, natural products for your family and ours. We wanted to make a difference, and this is our story.
The scrubbing particles in Green Beaver's grapefruit and aloe scrub are made from bits of bamboo.

Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and others who have written about the horrors of the industrial food chain often note that the only way we can live with such a disgusting and inhumane system is by purposely not knowing about it - by willful collective ignorance. (This is the same ignorance collectively employed about capital punishment in the US, now unraveling thanks to activists forcing people to see.) We don't want to know where our cheeseburger comes from. We don't want to know about the feed lot, the gestation crate, the chicken prison, the killing floor. Or the lab prison.

Most people want to avoid thinking about cruelty to animals. We don't want to know about it. We especially don't want to know that we're complicit in it! And our closed eyes allow it to continue.

11.02.2014

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.

10.03.2014

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.

WHY DIDN'T THEY DO THIS LAST YEAR????!!!!

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 MLBTV.com. 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 MLB.com? 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.

7.03.2014

sometimes knowing your rights is all it takes: in which we win our landlord battle

We won! And we won so easily, we're left scratching our heads and asking, "What just happened?"

As you'll recall, our landlord asked for an illegal rent increase - 10.5% when the legal allowable is 0.8%! - and implied that he would resort to dirty tricks if we didn't pay.

We did our homework, checked and double-checked that this home does not fall through a serious loophole in Ontario rent laws. We crafted an email with just the right tone - straightforward and firm, but with nothing that could be considered belligerent.

When he received our email, he asked when he could come over to discuss it. Part of me felt like shooting back, "There's nothing to discuss!"... but we successfully ignored that (younger, more volatile) self, and made an appointment.

Waiting to speak with him was nerve-wracking! We vowed we wouldn't negotiate or be intimidated, that we wouldn't agree to any increase over the legal one, and also that we wouldn't be baited into an argument, but instead would insist that anything further be brought to the Landlord-Tenant Board.

When Landlord came over, he immediately went to work repairing a broken light fixture - something he had tried to get us to take care of, even though it was clearly his responsibility. We were surprised... and wary.

Then we sat down, and he said, "What do you want to do?"

We were completely confused. "What do we want to do?"

"I'm a reasonable guy," he said. "I don't want to drag this out. I might not know all the details. You tell me something. I listen. So, what do you want to do?"

I said we want to renew our lease. Allan said he'd like no rent increase, but we understood that he could raise the rent this percentage in 2014, and this other percentage in 2015. So that's what we want: a new lease that is within the law.

Landlord: "I asked you last time I was here, do you have any questions? You said, no. Then I get your email. So I wanted to come over and finish this up right away."

Neither of us remember him ever asking that. But no matter. I said, "We were very surprised. We had to look into it."

"Yes, that's fine. So let's finish this up right now."

We went over the terms of the new lease, how we would work our new security deposit, and that was that.

It was as if the veiled semi-threats - the cash-only, undocumented increase, the implication that he could refuse to rent to us, the mysterious "other people" who offered him several hundred dollars more per month - had never happened. As if he had never said, "The rent will be $200 more a month," and when we balked, implied that we had no choice.

So what happened? I think he was trying to see what he could get away with. When we asserted our rights - when he saw we knew the law and were prepared to protect ourselves - he backed off. He's not a stupid man. Maybe he realized that the Landlord-Tenant Board would never rule in his favour, so fighting it would be a lot of work for nothing.

One other unknown variable was the presence of Mrs. Landlord during the first conversation. Was he showing off in front of her, playing the tough landlord? Was she the driving force behind the illegal rent increase? She did imply we broke the light fixture. (In fact, she questioned why we needed to change the light bulb!)

We'll never know what really happened. But here's the big lesson. If we had not known our rights and asserted them, we would be paying $200 more in rent every month, or we would have had to move. Instead, we are paying $15 more per month for the remainder of this year, and $30 more per month in 2015. Know your rights!




6.29.2014

know your rights, rental edition, part two

Just about one year ago today - July 8, 2013, to be exact - our area was hit with a massive flood that swamped homes, cars, highways, trains, and . . . our basement. The basement had been Allan's office. The office in which he was working to meet a publishing deadline. Stressful? You could say that.

It could have been much worse. We got an insurance settlement, and we moved - not without some hassles, but we did it, moving in to our current rental home in September.

Now, one year later, we mentioned to our current landlord that it's time to renew our lease. He said he'd come over for a visual inspection. That's his right, as he has only been on the property once since we moved in, when the dryer broke. (Interestingly, he questioned whether we had caused the breakdown through carelessness.) He also said there would be a "nominal" increase in rent.

We made a date, and he and his wife came to do a walk-through. Everything was fine, of course. A pot-light fixture has broken, and needs to be replaced. Mrs. Landlord implied that might have been our fault, just as Landlord had done with the dryer. I was puzzled, and assured her that the light bulb blew out in the normal manner, and when we tried to replace it, we discovered the broken fixture. They also saw the small garden that we had asked for permission to put in.

They said everything looks fine, and they would be happy to make a new lease. Then they said the rent would increase by $200 a month.

When I expressed some surprise, Landlord said he had much higher offers than what he was asking from us, but didn't take them because we're nice people.

I said, "Actually, you're not allowed to stop renting to us in order to get more money from new tenants."

He said, "Well, I could say I need the house back for my own use, but I won't do that. I do everything above-board."

One of the few legal grounds for a landlord to stop renting to a tenant in Ontario is if the Landlord or an immediate relative is moving into the house. So our "do everything above-board" guy is now telling us that he could lie and cheat in order to increase the rent even higher, but he won't.

Mr. Above-Board Landlord then requested that we pay the $200 increase in cash every month. Our 12 months of pre-dated cheques would be for the current rent, and the difference would be paid by cash, in an envelope.

I told him we don't mind paying cash, as long as the lease shows the full amount that we actually pay.

He said, no, he couldn't do that, as "that would defeat the purpose of the cash". Indeed.

I told him no, we would not pay one amount but get a receipt that says we pay a different amount. That would leave us unprotected if "anything happened". (To myself, I thought, What kind of idiots do you take us for? Did you really think we'd be that stupid?)

We didn't respond completely on the spot. The full import of a $200 rent hike hadn't sunk in yet. But once we started investigating, we learned that the current allowable rent increase in Ontario is 0.8%. In 2015, it will be 1.6%. $200 represents a 10.5% increase.

This applies to most units built before 1998. (Amazingly, for units built after 1998, there is no rent control. I could see a higher percentage, but none? I hear we have Mike Harris to thank for that.)

In addition, tenants must be informed of any rent increase in writing, with at least 90 days' notice.

If a landlord seeks to raise the rent more than the allowable rate, she or he must apply to the Landlord-Tenant Board for an exemption. Exemptions may be based on large-scale renovations or tax re-assessments, neither of which apply here.

A few calls to the City revealed that the house we rent was built in 1993.

We informed Mr. Above-Board of the current allowable rent increase, the notice period, and the requirement to inform us in writing.

Now the ball in his court.

I will not be at all surprised if he now informs us that a family member is moving in this house. I say: let him try it.

He has one son in university in Ottawa, another son who is 12 years old. This house has been a rental unit for many years. If Mr. A-BLL now produces a mystery relative who suddenly needs the house - after tenants balk at a 10.5% illegal rent increase - and after he tried to get that increase in cash, under the table - and after he said the property was fine and he was happy to renew our lease - it will look mighty suspicious. I'm thinking the Landlord-Tenant Board can see through that.

One interesting sidenote: had Mr. A-BLL asked for a $50 rent increase - still more than the legal allowable percentage - we probably would have paid it without question. It was only his greed that caused us to investigate and push back.

(And no, we're not sorry we rent. But we're also not planning on moving any time soon.)

2.12.2014

is the food movement elitist? michael pollan connects the dots between labour and our tables

In an excellent interview in Truthout, Michael Pollan responds to critics who accuse the food movement of being elitist. He very rightly credits Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation with explicitly drawing the connection between labour issues, animal issues, and our own food issues. And Pollan calls out the industrialized food industry that has been able to artificially depress food prices by paying workers sub-living wages.
When you buy cheap food, the real costs have been externalized. Those externalized costs have always included labor. It is only the decline over time of the minimum wage in real dollars that's made the fast food industry possible, along with feedlot agriculture, pharmaceuticals on the farm, pesticides and regulatory forbearance. All these things are part of the answer to the question: Why is that crap so cheap? Our food is dishonestly priced. One of the ways in which it's dishonestly priced is the fact that people are not paid a living wage to process it, to serve it, to grow it, to slaughter it. . . .

...We need to pay people a living wage so they can afford to pay the real cost of food. Cheap food is really an addiction for an economy and for a society. Cheap food is one of the pillars on which our economy is based. It is what has allowed wages to fall over the last 30 or 40 years, the fact that food was getting cheaper the whole time. In a sense, cheap food has subsidized the collapse in wages that we've seen. Part of repairing the whole system will involve paying people more and internalizing the real cost of producing this food.
It's an excellent story that I highly recommend: read it here.

10.30.2013

in which i survive three days without internet, or how rogers (maybe) punishes former customers

Sometime late on Thursday night into Friday morning, our internet went down. This is the worst possible time for such an event, as internet is our lifeline to baseball, and the Boston Red Sox are on their way (I hope) (I believe) to winning the World Series.

From the sound of things, there were problems at some major internet hubs in the area, with massive outages affecting parts of Mississauga, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton, and so on.

What was the problem? When could we expect service to resume? TekSavvy wasn't able to tell me... because Rogers wouldn't tell them.

I have been Rogers-free since March of 2012, and I have been extremely pleased with TekSavvy. TekSavvy's customer service is excellent, their tech support is excellent and local, and they deliver more internet for less money. I pay about 30% less for unlimited service at a higher speed; that is, I paid Rogers 30% more for capped usage at a slower speed.

The only sticking point is that TekSavvy is a re-seller. They contract with Rogers and other cable and DSL providers to use networks and technicians. And Rogers doesn't make it easy. During this recent (and unusual) outage, TekSavvy said "the vendor" (i.e. Rogers) was giving them no information on what was happening or when the issue might be resolved.

When I woke up to no internet on Friday morning, I told myself, there was no game that day, and we had until 8:00 on Saturday. It seemed highly unlikely that we'd be without internet for that long.

On Saturday morning, we still didn't have internet, and I was getting worried. Our Halloween program at the library kept my mind off waiting, and when I came home on Saturday, I rushed to the computer. Still nothing.

By Saturday evening, hours before the start of World Series Game 3, I was a bit panicked. I have a smartphone, so I could see my email. Our home phone is VoIP, but I can live without a home phone for a while. But... baseball!!

Saturday at 8:00, and still nothing. A friend who is a Red Sox diehard texted me play-by-play of the game! (My hero!)

Sunday morning, still nothing. TekSavvy still has no word from Rogers.

Sometime during the day, we realized that the sports radio station in Toronto would probably be carrying the national World Series broadcast. I'm so accustomed to thinking of radio on the internet - that's how I listen to the local Red Sox announcers - that I had forgotten about regular, non-internet radio. The Toronto station probably didn't broadcast all the playoffs, but the World Series would be on for sure. And it was. I happen to love baseball on the radio, so I was happy and relieved.

And Sunday night, while listening to the game, I absentmindedly turned on the TV and saw that the Roku streaming device had a connection. We came back online late Sunday night, about 72 hours after losing access.

So, does Rogers screw with TekSavvy and TekSavvy customers?

On one end of the spectrum we have total innocence and coincidence: Rogers had a huge outage, and although TekSavvy was not kept informed, TekSavvy customers were in no worse shape than Rogers customers. On the other end we have total conspiracy: Rogers targets TekSavvy, making TekSavvy customers unhappy with their second-rate, discount service, and more likely to switch (or switch back) to Rogers.

In the middle, we have a gray area where the outage affects everyone, but Rogers conveniently puts TekSavvy at the bottom of its to-do list, and makes sure it gets to everyone and everything else first.

Here's a possible precedent. About 12 years ago, my phone service was "slammed" - that's when a telco illegally switches your phone service without your permission. After the surreptitious switch, they either charge you exorbitant amounts for calls, or charge you a termination fee to leave. Or, if you don't look closely at your phone bill, you just pay them and continue doing so. My service was switched to an AT&T affiliate. The AT&T customer service representative assured me that it must have been an accident, because a reputable company like AT&T had no interest in stealing anyone's business.

After my service was switched back, I reported the slam to the FCC. The FCC rep told me that AT&T was the number one slammer: it slams thousands upon thousands of customers every year.

You can draw your own conclusions about Rogers.