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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Well, Since You Axed...

I got a call at work, Xerox wanting my opinions about their service levels. Well, it wasn't really Xerox calling, it was some woman in India. I wouldn't say her accent was thick, at least no thicker than a bank vault door. In fairness, I could understand her most of the time, and when repetition by one of us was necessary, one additional iteration did the trick.

So we're clear here: I'm not bashing Xerox. Or venting xenophobic hatred or anything of the sort. Besides, the caller's English was so much better than my any-other-language-at-all, I can't really criticize. I could study Hindi for ten years and probably be far behind her English skills.

Thing is, I have to call Xerox on average a couple of times a month, not because our DocuColor is deficient, but because we use the hell out of it. The print quality is on par with an offset press, better in some instances (it's pretty forgiving of low-res photos and screened images while having good, crisp type and vector output). But things go wrong. The touch screen has gone out on in twice, and it was brand-new in February, so maybe some design issues are there as well, but mostly we just keep wearing shit out.

Used to be, when I'd call Xerox support, I got someone in America, and this someone could often walk me through a fix over the phone, getting us back up and running sooner and avoiding the need to dispatch a technician. When we were having networking issues, one even took an hour and a half to walk me through various solutions that didn't necessarily even involve the DocuColor (though, being a network printer, if the network was running the DocuColor was running). I even took the trouble on that occasion to make sure her boss knew what an above-and-beyond help she had been.

Then, three or four months ago, this same phone number started to be answered by people in other countries. Montego Bay, St. Lucia, and I think New Dehli though the gent I spoke to today says not the latter.

And, to put it mildly, the level of phone support fell off the cliff. The workarounds suggested became non-sequiteurs, answers that clearly demonstrated misapprehension of the question. More and more often, it's meant the Xerox tech has to call or come to the shop to resolve the issue.

So back to our survey, when I was asked to rate things on a one-to-five level, there were areas I could give three to five marks, but there were a few I had to honestly tell her 'One.'

Turns out, this is recognized by Xerox for what it is: a red flag. Hence the gent who called me today. A gent who, in the course of the conversation, allowed that he had been one of those stellar call center staff I got spoiled by before the Outsource began. I didn't ask him how many other extremely competent and dedicated employees were axed when some Vice President of Shithead Moves* decided he could add shareholder value at the cost of customer satisfaction.

The same VP, no doubt, instituted a system where the surviving phone reps would follow up when a surveyed customer expressed less than satisfaction. Not that he'll do anything about it, not in a company the size of Xerox. This is a company that has come so close to the Darwin Awards so many times it proves Michael Milken's thesis that a large enough company is no risk even with their unrated bonds.

But if I can tell they've outsourced the job, that right there is a problem. Because I never thought maybe I was talking to an immigrant in Phoenix or Dayton, I knew from the second sentence I was talking to someone on another continent. They spoke English, but they'd never spoken it around anyone who didn't have their accent, meaning they had as much trouble understanding me as I did them.

Memo to the Executive In Question: You get what you pay for. Someone who will do the job for a third the price would not do so if they could do it for more. Of course, in the case of Xerox, the VP who outsourced a very good call center is judged solely by the wages because the board of directors is not calling in for service. And honestly, if the quality was there, I'd have no complaints. I respect India's boom, China's too. I believe the bigger the economy, the better in general. But with a call center, you're selling communication, and that's not as easy to outsource to the third world as cotton mill work...

*Full discloser: I've been a victim of this kind of stupidity, so I'm biased. Not wrong, I'm biased in favor of the honest truth.. Last December I was traduced by an asshead who thought he could outsource me to India. He found, quickly, that he was wrong about that, though he's still threatening my former coworkers with the notion that the job could be done for a third the cost by independent contractors. This is a lie, one I called by offering to be one of these contractors. At $6 a job and free to pick which jobs, I could easily make $200 an hour off TradeNet. They weren't dumb enough to pay me that, but they've continued to pretend like they could replace their best and most experienced employees for pennies on the dollar. The pisser of it is, the so-called leadership there wants the rewards of integrity without actually having the annoying costs of integrity.

The next day, the head honcho for Xerox support in the KC area visited in person. He was under the impression that I wasn't happy with the technician who came out, and he was very concerned. I explained to him that it was really only the phone support I had a beef with, that the tech did a fine job. So whatever deficits the upper echelons of Xerox's executive ranks, the front lines take customer satisfaction seriously.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Border War

So after the whole pizza party thing, we went to a friend's house for dinner. This was sort of a Border War party, with KU-MU being played. Usually KU-MU is the Toilet Bowl, and no one cares. But this year, with them being #2 and #3 and the #1 LSU losing the day before, it was the hot game.

I was pulling for KU because they were undefeated and I like the idea of an undefeated national champ. But damned if MU didn't outplay them. It actually turned out to be a game, by the time I got home and caught the end of it. When I left the party it was looking like an MU blowout. Something the Jayhawks could take in stride on a normal, 'why do you have a football program again?' year.

I mean, the Jayhawks haven't had a team like this since the plains were black with buffalo.

So now I hope MU wins it all. Nobody expected it, and it's not likely to happen again.

And anway, the party was fun. I thought I'd caught Julie eating a hamburger, which is almost as impossible as KU being in the running for a national championship in football. Turns out, it was a turkey burger, though I don't think she knew it. I also caught her holding a baby and playing with a toddler, so it appears the apocalypse is still on...

Pot-Pourri Pizza

My Dad owned a pizza place before I was born. I mean right before. I think me being on the way was a big part of what made him snap out of it and get a job he hated and stick with it for 25 years.

The pity is, he makes really good pizza. But in 1968, Americans didn't eat pizza three times day, and a town of 1200 was not big enough to support much of any restaurant since those same Americans didn't eat out nearly so much.

There were other issues, of course. Mowing lawns with my Dad, I learned about his general business acumen. One job would be lost because he priced it too high, then the next job would be a ball-buster and he'd underbid it for fear of not getting the job. Then we'd be finishing after dark, making a third what we should have.

Still, if Dad had understood he was going to commute to and eventually move to Overland Park no matter what, and opened Pot-Pourri Pizza there instead of in Baldwin, Kansas, I'd be heir to a pizza fortune.

Anyway, we try to badger Dad into making pizza at least once a year. I often request it as my birthday dinner.

Dad's pizza is different from the typical Lobster Land pie: I make big, thick, pillowing crusts and Dad makes what I refer to as 'cracker' crusts. He insists they are not cracker crusts, because apparently there is such a thing as a thinner crust, but I'm not so sure.

Anyways, I made a couple of pies, both sans red sauce (a bit of olive oil instead). I made four or five different types of pizza on each crust. Usually, at home, I make a whole pie for each combination and end up making too much pizza without making all the recipes I envisioned.

This time I made all my pizzas in zones. One corner might be smoked oysters, anchovies and shrimp, another might be Italian sausage, bacon, onion and black olive, another slice might be pepperoni and green pepper, etc.

Mo kept trying to steal this little guys that live at my Dad's house. She smuggled a couple of armloads out to the car, which I snuck back in before we left. She tried the same stunt when we went to another friend's house for a dinner/Border War party, trying to steal their honyock's toys. We have toys like this at my house, but not as many as we would if Mo hadn't flushed so many down the toilet, stuck them down air returns, thrown them into the neighbor's yard, stuck them in the hole in the bathroom wall...

There were nine children in the house, most of them under five owing to my step-siblings propensity for rapid breeding. Any idea how loud it gets in a house with nine kids and only eight adults?

Big Bird Homecoming

Big Bird came home, thanks to a friend. This is the first time I've actually gotten a lost rocket returned, whether I put a sticker on it, write my number in Sharpie on it or what.

The nose cone, which is the most likely part to be reusable, did not come with, nor did the parachute. What came home has spent too much time in the rain to be something that could fly again. I went to pull the motor out and the whole motor mount came, centering rings & all.

Still, good to have Big Bird back. Need to build a replacement to go with the perfectly good booster I have for him.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Well, Mo had eaten four or five bowls of snow by nine this morning.

We bundled up to head up to the park with Barley the Dog Faced Boy, and it was great. Last Thanksgiving, we launched rockets in the park it was so warm out. Hell, four days ago I think it was 70ยบ.

I gave Barley some off-leash time because we had the joint to ourselves. The snow was nice and wet, you could make snowballs with it and me and Em threw a bunch at each other. Then I threw one at Mo but she didn't react.

Because she was having a seizure. Short one, but still. It wasn't as long a walk as last weekend when she had one on the trail, a mile or so from the car on a rugged bit of single track.

Cheese Popcorn

You know that cheese popcorn that's the first to go in the holiday barrel? The stuff you have to buy the caramel and cinnamon crap to get?

You can make it at home. You'll end up with some spare elbow macaroni.

Pop a bowl of popcorn (however you like it, I do it in a pan with oil), butter it lightly, then sprinkle the cheese sauce powder from a macaroni & cheese kit, and you're good to go.

Unless you have one of those freak metabolisms that keeps you from ever, ever getting fat, I'm doing you no favor telling you this.

Rigatoni Black Bean Burger Alfredo

Okay, Mo was hot to eat pasta again. When she discovered the giant, 24oz thing of Parmesan in the fridge Wednesday, she asked for pasta, and I made fettucine.

When I got them home Friday evening for dinner and asked what was wanted for dinner, she grabbed the Parmesan from the fridge again and said, 'Pasta with shakey cheese, please.'

Well, when it's as hard as it is to get complete sentences out of the kid, what's a Dad to do?

I tossed the rigatoni (which turned out a perfect al dente because I thought to cook it a minute less than the time listed on the box rather than trying to rinse it to arrest the cooking) in Alfredo, and loaded it up with Paremsan for Mo. Then I dressed up the remainder for myself.

I nuked a couple of veggie burgers, spicy black bean ones, and minced them up and tossed them with the pasta. Pretty good stuff. Served with some tasty Brussels sprouts.

I know I should discourage Mo from treating Rigatoni Alfredo as finger food, but it was too cute when she figured out how perfectly they fit her fingers.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanksgiving & Bloodletting

Okay, Turkey day is not the same without my kiddos. For all that 'good riddance' sentiment of divorce, having to split up the holidays sucks. I'm not saying I don't have it better than a lot of divorced Dads, because I do. And I've got them most of the coming weekend, with festivities planned both with family and friends.

And I did do some Turkey Day eating of Turkey at Mom's with my bro and his wife, which was excellent.

So what did I do with my Thanksgiving Day? Something I hardly ever do: I went to see a movie, first run, full price, in the theater.

I blogged about this one a couple months ago, when I learned it was coming out. Not since the Lord of the Rings movies have I been so eager to see a film. Maybe part of why those are among a tiny handful of films I've paid full price to see on the big screen.

I'm thinking, and aside from occasional family films like Shrek and Monster's Inc. that I've taken in with my honyocks or my once-nucular fambly, I've seen less than one per year for going on a decade. Even if you added the Pixar type thing, you'd average out barely over one a year.

Three LOTR flicks; Shop Girl (on a rare evening in the Rome is Burning stage of my marriage that I had an opportunity to see a movie, and it was the best option available at the time); the first Kill Bill (which was terrible, I tried to get my money back but they don't give refunds if you tough out the whole miserable affair); and American Gangster, which I saw two weeks ago when I thought I was going to get to see No Country for Old Men only to find out it was a 'limited' release at the time. I was so hooked on the idea of going to the theater, I went anyway, and that was the best looking offering at the time. Good flick, but not $9 good.

So is No Country worth the ticket? You betcha. Cormac McCarthy's best work to date adapted for the screen by the Coen Bros, you cannot go wrong. I caught the 12:35 showing and when I came out, I was so enthralled I counted the money in my wallet, found I had sufficient resources left to buy another ticket, got my large Diet Coke refilled (they claim it's a free refill, but when you pay $4.50 for the first one, I don't think you get to 'free' until maybe thirteen fills) and went to the 3:00 showing.

I haven't done that since Silence of the Lambs. It's that good.

It's not perfect: I understand the needs of the screen require abridgment. There are rants by Sheriff Bell in the book that could have been done in voice-over, but wouldn't necessarily have added to the film. There are plot elements that get combined for brevity, and I can dig that. But when specific scenes in the book are fine, I don't understand the need to nearly portray them on screen. Or when dialog in the book is sound, why edit it?

These are small things, sometimes. The difference between 'It made a impression on me' and 'It made an impression on me.' The latter is grammatically correct, but the former (the way it is in the novel) is more West Texas and has a ring of dry humor to it.

The book had a bit better closure, too. Especially since the man who hires Carson Wells is different from the man who's $2.4 million is in play, and there's a scene in the novel with Chigurh and that guy that I'd have liked to see in the close. I think I understand why the Coens condensed the characters, to cut out a scene and explain more explicitly the relationships and motivation, but the lack of clarity in that respect was one of the book's charms. We know, in the book, that this dope war is ultimately a game of chess between legitimate looking businessmen who stay above the fray, and we don't know who they are. Which seems to me to be perfectly true.

Still, I'm not dissing the overall effect. I not only paid to see it first-run, I did so twice in the same day. I briefly toyed with seeing something else instead, since the novelty of seeing a film on the big screen is probably part of the charm for it's rarity, but nothing else showing had the same pull.

One thing that bothers me in both novel and movie: in the initial setup, when Moss finds the vehicles and dead dudes in the dessert, he's out hunting antelope, and when he runs into the one surviving (barely) Mexican begging for 'agua,' he doesn't have any to give. Who the hell goes afoot in the West Texas dessert hunting without a canteen? That's just stupid. A sprained ankle could turn into a fatal injury with no water out there.

The performances are masterful, of course, but what do you expect from Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin and such? And Javier Bardem, with his Spanish (NOT Mexican, Spanish) accent and octave-below-Johnny-Cash voice is the perfect Chigurh.

Another thing that really sets this film apart is the lack of mood music and sonic undertones to build to what's going to happen. There is actually one scene where they use a bit of ominous drone, but for the most part, surprising violence happens exactly as it does in real life, with no warning. And yes, it is a violent story: this is Cormac McCarthy—my second favorite of his books follows a gang of scalp hunter's in 1849. But hey, Shakespeare gets pretty violent, too, eh?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Sunny Side of the Moon

Floyd, the Boob Cancer Rocket, finally got air.

This was the last KCAR launch of the year, and the weather could not have been better. I wore my big Cult hoodie because I thought it was supposed to be colder than it was. It was in the low 50s and the winds were around 3mph. If there was ever fly-it-straight-up-on-its-biggest-balls weather, this was it.

The club equipment was tardy, which meant I had all my rockets prepped by the time it got there. We had our FAA notification in, so Floyd was covered there, and I had my Aerotech E30-4T motor ready to go.

Now here's a reason to join a club: I learned this lesson the first time when I joined the Kansas City Bier Meisters back when I started thinking about making my own beer. Everything looked intimidating and involved, but the beards in the club brought me along, showed me what wasn't really that hard and what was tricky (and often, what the trick to it was).

Dave Lucas helped me load the composite motor, get the Copperhead igniter in correctly (another flier today didn't do so, and half his engine burned before his rocket started to move, a mistake which would have made Floyd eat high speed dirt). He also pointed out that I really needed a second launch lug up the body, gave me a section of quarter inch and helped me get it mounted on there. Even taught me a new trick (baking soda as a fortifier of Super Glue).

I've said I probably wouldn't build another rocket on Floyd's scale. This one motor cost as much as nine of the Estes motors I usual fly on, making Floyd way too sexy for his shirt.

But I was told if I ever tried composite motors, I'd be hooked. I've heard the same thing about cocaine, and it's probably a good thing I never tested the theory. I've seen other guys fly on composite motors, but it isn't the same thing as when your own rocket actually hurts your ears leaving the launch rod. I can't fly this kind of thing often (both financially and logistically, it ain't no park flier), but I can't honestly say I wouldn't build another monster like this.

I also launched The Great Pumpkin Rides Again on a D12, which was great except he shucked his engine (too much wadding, methinks).

I got excited about the duration competition and remembered how close I've come to losing Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, my two-stager. I had him loaded up with a C6-0 and a C6-7, then decided to change the second motor to a C6-3. On a seven second delay, this rocket falls way too far for a duration contest before throwing out the laundry.

This was a mistake. The three second delay wasn't nearly enough because it meant the recovery charge blew while the rocket was still scooting along at a good clip. The 75lb test Kevlar chord and six feet of 1/8" elastic wasn't enough to take this stress. The Kevlar snapped and the bottom half of the rocket came down hard. Fixable, but a disastrous flight.

Then there was Punk Rock(et) Girl, who flew twice on E9-4's and was absolutely worthy of the Dead Milkmen. Straight, no perceptible body roll, got to maybe 1500 feet and descended slowly, landing gently and in tact. She probably should have been my duration entry, came close enough to ninety seconds of hang time.

Thor's Candycane and Mr. Creosote both failed to open their parachutes, though they landed safely enough in the tall grass. I should have powdered their parachutes (I will in the future).

Lots of other great rockets were out there. The helicopter recovery competition, those guys built some amazing things. Elaborate and fragile craft that go up us rockets and then sprout great balsa props to spin back down. Also some very involved glider recovery rockets flew today.

Mo and Em even got to see a couple of launches, include Punk Rock(et) Girl's second flight. Good time had by all.