Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hot Off the Presses!

I have been informed that the technical difficulties have been resolved and the new printing of Paved With Good Intentions is in the queue at the printer and should be rolling off the presses within the next 10 days.

If you can't wait, Amazon has some first printings in stock as well as the Kindle version (identical to the new paperback edition).

I know there are several reviewers waiting for paperback copies, so this is a heads up to let you know you haven't been forgotten and your mailman has not swiped your copy.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Death of Customer Service

(Note: Customer Service no longer exists because as consumers we now accept what you are about to read as normal. If your first reaction is "Oh, that happens to everyone" then you are beginning to see the problem).

If you're reading this blog, it means that I was able to upload it during one of the "on" periods of my intermittent Internet service. For the past month, my Comcast High Speed Internet Service has been down more than it has been up! When something that has become such an important part of your life goes down on you that often, it had better be a girlfriend, not an Internet service provider!

Since last month, my service has randomly gone down for four-to-eight hours at a time. I reached the point of having to lug my laptop to McDonalds to read my e-mail! Repeated calls to Comcast followed the same pattern: listen to a recorded menu; follow the voice prompts; wait on hold for 20-to-40 minutes; speak to a Level One Technician who, reading from his or her script, tells me to "power cycle" the modem (unplug and replug) and reboot the computer -- all of which I have already done several times while on hold! Then, the Level One Technician (who is not really a technician and whose sole technical knowledge resides on the script she is reading) informs me that the issue will have to be "escalated" to a Level Two Technician (presumably someone who actually knows what he is doing). Why I couldn't speak to this person initially eludes me.

The Level One Tech places me on hold. Ten minutes later, I am disconnected. I call back and get a different Level One Tech; you never get the same person when you call back and they won't transfer you to them. Instead, they insist that they help you themselves and tell you to power cycle your modem. Eventually, they too, put you on hold. Of course, after being on hold for 15 minutes, I find myself transferred to the main menu, where I am prompted to begin the process all over again.

Now I get a recording that says "Due to high caller volume, we are unable to complete your call at this time - please go to our Web site." Obviously, since I am calling because I am unable to connect to the Internet, I cannot visit their Web site! Maybe they wouldn't have such high caller volume if the callers did not have to call back multiple time in attempts to resolve service problems.

Eventually I get another Level One Tech and I ask to speak to a supervisor. Instead, the Level One Tech insist he or she can help me. I insist on speaking with a supervisor and, after some reluctance and rudeness from the tech, I am placed on hold -- for 35 minutes.

Finally, a Level Two Tech comes online and assures me that he can help (don't they have supervisors there? And what are they doing, because it sure isn't supervising the people I'm talking to!) and tries a few more things that do not work. He concludes they must set up an appointment to send a repairman to my home. The earliest appointment is in four business days - always! I've never had a Comcast appointment in less than four days from the time that it was made.

I am also assured that I will receive credit for my downtime. Four days later, the repairman arrives, fiddles with the cables, and tells me that he has fixed it and I should have no further service interruptions. Two days later, my service is down!

I call Comcast. Reread paragraphs 2 through 5 above. When I have finally reached another Level Two Tech, he tells me that he will send out another repairman -- in four business days! And he will issue a credit. I tell him that they already issued a credit but he informs me that there is none showing on my account. Great, the other woman lied to me about the credit!

Two days later, I am about to take a shower. I let the water run for a few minutes to heat up and cover my face with shaving cream in the meantime for a quick shave. The phone rings. It's Comcast. I know from experience that they are calling to confirm the upcoming appointment and that if I do not answer it they will mark me as unavailable and cancel the appointment (although I do not understand why not being available to take a phone call on Tuesday equates to presumed unavailability to be present for a scheduled appointment on Thursday).

Nonethless, I answer the phone. "This is Comcast Cable calling. Please hold for a service technician." "This is Comcast Cable calling. Please hold for a service technician." The recorded message repeated two dozen times. I wiped the shaving cream from my phone. I was gobsmacked that Comcast would drag me out of the shower to have a recording place me on hold! But I got the message: our time is valuable, unlike yours, Mister Customer!

Finally a live Comcast employee came to the line to confirm the appointment. Then he wanted me to tell him what the problem was. I asked if he had log entries on his computer screen showing the 15 time that I had called in during the month. He said that he did. I asked if the entries described the problem. He admitted that they did. I advised him that rather than repeat it a 16th time, he could read them from his screen while I finished my shower.

Update: I am typing this blog as I wait for the repairman...

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Timeless Message

One hundred and fifty years ago, on April 12, 1861, at 4:30 a.m., Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, signaling the start of the Civil War. The guns fired for 34 hours before the fort fell to the rebels.
President Abraham Lincoln was at 1600 Pennsylania Avenue, having left his pocket watch with a local watchmaker down the street. The watch was one of Lincoln's few valuable possessions he brought with him to the White House from Springfield, Illinois.

Jonathan Dillon was repairing the president's pocket watch, when he heard that the first shots of the Civil War had been fired at Fort Sumter. Those shots were the "Pearl Harbor" or "September 11th" of that generation - they represented the end of the world, as they knew it.

Dillion was the only Union sympathizer in the watch repair shop. Forty-five years later, a then-84-year-old Dillon told the New York Times in a 1906 article he had secretly engraved a hidden Civil War message inside President's Lincoln's pocket watch.

Dillon's great-great grandson, Doug Stiles, first heard the story of the engraving from his great uncle decades ago. He contacted the Smithsonian Institution, where the watch was on display, and related the family legend. A 21st century watchmaker named George Thomas, using intricate tools, carefully pried open the interior of the antique pocket watch and revealed the metal plate underneath the watch face. Engraved in tiny script was the message: "April 13 - 1861, Fort Sumpter (sic) was attacked by the rebels on the above date. J Dillon." A second part repeats same date, states the location as Washington and says, "Thank God we have a government."

It is believed Lincoln never saw or knew about the engraving. "My gosh, that was Lincoln's watch," Stiles said, "and my ancestor put graffiti on it!"

You can read more here and here

The real mystery is how Jefferson Davis' name got etched inside the watch as well.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Piece of History

As Chris Matthews says, "I love history!" Did you know that more than one copy of the Declaration of Independence exists?

About 250 copies (known as "broadsides") were printed by Ezekiel Russell, a private printer in Salem, Massachusetts in 1776, although only 11 copies are known to still exist. After the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, each of the colonial delegations was charged with informing its residents about the decision to separate from England. Russell's copies were distributed to towns throughout Massachusetts to be read by each local populace in those pre-Internet days. Maine was part of Massachusetts in colonial times.

One broadside ended up in the hands of Solomon Holbrook, the Wiscasset, Maine town clerk from 1885 until his death in 1929. Town clerks back then worked out of their homes, so apparently this 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence was inherited by Holbrook's daughter with the rest of his household possessions. When she died in 1994, an estate auctioneer found it in a box of papers in her attic and sold it in 1995.

Ironically, the historic document declaring the colonies' independence from England next found a home with a London book dealer. He, in turn, sold it to an American, Richard Adams Jr. of Fairfax County, VA, in 2001 for $475,000.

The state of Maine claimed the rare copy of the Declaration of Independence belonged to the town of Wiscasset as a public record, and sought to recover it from Adams, who was also the founder of the first commercial Internet service provider, UUNet Technologies Inc. Adams filed an action in the Circuit Court of Fairfax County, VA to quiet title.

Justice Barbara Keenan of the Virginia Supreme Court opined with this unique opening: "This appeal concerns an action to quiet title to a copy of the Declaration of Independence (the Declaration) that was printed in July 1776." She continued: "We consider whether the circuit court erred in holding that a Virginia resident who purchased this document had superior title than that claimed by the State of Maine, which contended that the document was a public record owned by the Town of Wiscasset, Maine." The text of the opinion is here and I recommend it as fascinating reading to any student of history.

The Virginia court ruled that Adams, not the state of Maine, is the true owner of the broadside.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Who Are You?

A novice author asked me the other day if she should use a pseudonym for her writing. Now, I have never understood the concept of authors writing under  pen names. Why begin a relationship with your readers by lying to them about who you are? Most would consider it ill-advised to begin any relationship built on a foundation of lies.

Your identity conveys credibility. That’s why newspapers eschew “anonymous sources”. I’m not suggesting authors disclose their lives to readers like an open book (I blogged the opposite) but using one’s own name to take credit or responsibility for one’s words seems basic to me.

Yes, I know why some have done so in the past. There was professional bias. Somehow, the corporate elite got it into their heads if an individual became well known within his profession in one role, he was stereotyped and the public would not accept him in any other role. If one was a singer, then one could not also be an actor. A dramatic actor could not do comedy. A comedic actor could not do drama. There were clearly defined lines that could not be crossed, lest it cause mass confusion in the minds of the public.

How many great performances were lost to this mindset? We may never know, but thankfully it has been chipped away at. Dramatic actor Leslie Nielsen did a career U-turn with his deadpan comedic performances in  “Police Squad” and the “Airplane” movies. Funnyman Jerry Lewis turned in a riveting dramatic performance in one of the “Wiseguy” TV show arcs.

Yet there exists a professional bias in publishing. If one writes nonfiction, then one cannot also write fiction without confusing readers (who presumably cannot distinguish fiction from reality). Also, a nonfiction author might be embarrassed by, or lose credibility from, having written fiction. This happened recently when it was revealed that White House Vice Presidential Aide Scooter Libby had written a novel where girls were locked in cages to be raped by circus bears.

At age ten the madam put the child in a cage with a bear trained to couple with young girls so the girls would be frigid and not fall in love with their patrons. They fed her through the bars and aroused the bear with a stick when it seemed to lose interest.

The argument goes, in the case of the Libby book, for example, the public is too stupid to realize that a novel is a work of fiction (make-believe) and that by writing it, the author is not confessing self truths or writing nonfiction. Scooter Libby does not, and has never (to the best of my knowledge), locked a girl in a cage to be raped by a bear. His character did. In a work of fiction. Authors are not their characters. If I write about a character committing a vile act, the reader should not impute that act to me and assume I would commit those acts or hold those beliefs. Yet the mindset remains, if Libby wishes to write about bears raping children and not affect his credibility as an attorney, he should do so under an alias.

Another reason for using pen names is the whistle-blower situation, where the author wants to spill the beans about a matter of public concern but fears repercussions to his career were his identity to be revealed. The conundrum is by writing anonymously or under a false name, the author has undermined his own credibility in a scenario where credibility is essential. “Let me tell you the truth about this; I’ll begin by lying to you about who I am, and refusing to be accountable for my statements.”

Historically, women have written under pseudonyms because of the corporate elite’s recognition (or imposition) of societal norms that the public would not read books in certain genres if written by a woman. The solution was to list a male name as the author, as in the case of the Bronte sisters, or as Jane Austin did at first, write all of one’s works anonymously. Or a women could hide her gender through initials; hence, Nora Robert became J.D. Robb; Joanne Rowling became J.K. Rowling (allegedly because her publisher believed boys wouldn’t read books written by a woman – they got that right, huh?).

Finally, some choose pseudonyms to hide their writing from their bosses or friends, perhaps out of embarrassment of their chosen subject matter. A writer should not fear what others think of his work, else he shall never set pen to paper, overcome by the chilling effect of the opinion of others. Your friends know you and will remain your friends regardless of what you write, and if they don’t, then they weren’t true friends. So my advice to the novice author was, in the words of the bard, “to thine own self be true.” After all, who better for a writer to turn to, than Shakespeare?

Friday, April 1, 2011

May I Speak to Amber?

As many of you know, Amber Book Company is named after my dog Amber. I knew it would only be a matter of time before this happened:

Today the phone rang. “Hello, may I speak to Amber?”

I was slightly taken aback, because while my dog is generally more popular than I am, she seldom receives phone calls.

Me: “Who’s calling, please?”

Her: “This is DHL. We have a delivery and I need to speak to the addressee, Amber.”

Me: “Are you sure the addressee isn’t Amber Book Company?”

Her: “No, sir. My screen says ‘Amber.’”

Me: “Perhaps your screen truncated the name? May I help you?”

Her: “No sir, I can only speak to the addressee; may I speak to Amber please?”

Me: “You really don’t want to speak to Amber; she’s a bitch.”

Her: “That’s O.K., sir. I deal with those all day long.”

Me: “No, I mean she’s a real dog.”

Her: “Seriously sir, I can handle it but I must speak to Amber.”

Me: “O.K., hold on.” I called out “Amber!” and she trotted to my desk. I lowered the phone to her ear and put it on speaker mode.

Me: “O.K., Amber’s on speaker phone.”

Her: “Amber, this is DHL. We need to confirm your delivery address.”

She read the address over the speaker phone.

Me: “Amber is nodding that’s correct. She has to go now. Is there anything else?”

Her: “No sir, thank you. You and Amber have a good day.”

© 2009 Keith B. Darrell. All Rights Reserved.