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December 10, 2009

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The Comcast Center dominates the Philadelphia skyline.

Hey,Comcast, I oughtta get paid!

I want my cable TV! As a Comcast cable customer for nearly 20 years, its been one debacle after the other. The incompetence of it’s customer service is so routine that I’ve actually learned how to earn money and free premium channels for all my pain and suffering.  In the last 16 months, since I moved from the Hill to West Mt. Airy, it’s been one snafu after the next.

Whenever I call for service, I dread the thought of getting a customer service representative who does not speak English as a first language, which makes communication virtually impossible.  Not to mention my vehement opposition to outsourcing jobs when unemployment stands at 11 percent in Philadelphia.

Speaking of communication, Comcast — the largest cable company in America and soon to be the largest entertainment company with its recent acquisition of NBC Universal — hasn’t mastered the skill set that would equip its various departments with the ability to communicate with each other.  Customer Service can’t speak with Technical Support, Dispatch or Billing, a frustrating predicament when most problems are interdepartmental.

When I moved in 2008, the technician who was supposed to install my cable and high-speed was a no-show despite a scheduled appointment and multiple confirmations.  That episode took several months to rectify, and after each missed appointment, I earned $20. In addition, as time ensued and my impatience mounted, I was placated with premium channels for 6 to 12 months.  When the time elapsed, I could always count on Comcast to extend the premiums for another six months. 

Am I taking advantage of Comcast?  No.  In fact, Comcast is getting exactly what it deserves.  I’ve spent hours, entire weekends and even a “staycation” with Comcast.  So much time, that Comcast has become my dirty little secret, like a clandestine love affair. I am put on hold for 30 minutes. Calls take, at minimum, an hour as I demand a supervisor and then another until I get someone who is intelligent, speaks English well and has the authority to make a decision.

Now that I think about it, I should run a workshop on how to get the most out of one’s subscription with Comcast — or maybe a support group. You may wonder, then, why it is that I stick with Comcast.  At first, it was the only game in town; now it’s the only cable company my landlord permits.  So, I am a captive audience, hoping that one day Brian Roberts will stop outsourcing jobs and that this mega corporation will use its millions in profits to run its company efficiently and utilize communications technology to do just that — communicate.

The latest saga lasted nearly a year. My cable blips — a technical term — in and out for about five seconds every 40 minutes. Naturally it goes out when the Eagles have the ball at 4th-and-goal or during the final cliffhanger moment of my fave telenovela.  Most recently my TV blipped for two weeks earning me a free month of service, including my high speed, and six months of yet another premium channel.

Now don’t misunderstand, I’ve paid Comcast thousands of dollars over the years, and all I expect is uninterrupted service!  But I must admit that part of me relishes every Comcast blunder.  My eyes just roll over and go cha-ching.

But really, I would rather just have my cable without any hassles.

Lila Bricklin lives in Mt. Airy and is a longtime contributor to the Local.

 

Philly fans: another point of view


We all know about the Philadelphia fans. They are boo birds of the first order. They cheer when opposing players are out cold on the football field at the Vet. They throw snowballs at Santa Claus. They, we, are reputed – and reported in the media every time a national game is held in Philly – to be the most despicable bunch ever to buy a ticket and root, root, root for the home team.

Not so fast.

During the last week, three events have taken place that might just modify that view.

On Dec. 1, former Flyers John LeClair and Tony Amonte were inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame. LeClair, one of the strongest left wingers ever to play for the Orange and Black, was a mainstay on the team from 1994 until 2004. Among his other accomplishments he was the only American-born NHL player to have three 50-goal seasons back to back.

Amonte – who was here for just about a year and made most of his impact with the New York Rangers and the Chicago Black Hawks, with shorter stops in Phoenix and Calgary – was one of the premier Americans ever to lace on the skates.

Two days later, former Phillies infielder Placido Polanco returned to the Phils, rehired to be the National League champions’ starting third baseman. He will bring a reliable bat and strong fielding to the position held the last couple of years by Pedro Felice.

And, most notably, Allen Iverson, the NBA Hall of Fame-bound guard who was the ‘76ers’ heart and soul for 10 years before being traded to the Denver Nuggets in 2006, came back to the Sixers for a second tour.

So, what does this have to do with the Philly fans’ reputation? Each of the four players cited made it abundantly clear that Philadelphia was the city where their hearts are and always will be.

LeClair, of course, was here for a long time, but he did win a Stanley Cup in Montreal. Amonte was only here for a short time, and dreaded coming here because of all he had heard about how badly the fans treated their athletes. Iverson was sent on his way after his off-the-court shenanigans got to Sixers management. Polanco was traded to make room for Chase Utley at second base.

Yet each of them mentioned repeatedly that the Philadelphia fans were the most knowledgeable and the most loyal anywhere in the country. What they, and many others who have played here, always say is that when the Philadelphia fans boo, the team or the player deserves it.

This rather busy week for superb athletes who once played here isn’t the only indication of how much the fans mean to the stars of our four major sports.

The Flyers, particularly, are widely regarded as one of professional sports’ classiest organizations. The number of former Flyers – Bob Clarke, Paul Holmgren, Gary Dornhoefer, Billy Barber, Brian Propp, Keith Jones, Chris Therien, Bernie Parent and Bob Kelly to name a few – are all still involved at one level or another with the team for which they played.

The loyalty to the Phillies and ‘76ers by former players is equally impressive.

The bottom line is: it is significantly more important what those on the fields of battle feel than what, say, Al Michaels or Chris Berman and Joe Buck think.

The Philly fans were voted the most intimidating in the NHL. They are intimidating to the teams that come into the Wachovia Center to take on the Flyers. Doesn’t that help boost the energy level for the local icemen just as the full houses at Citizens Bank Park have clearly energized the Phils? Of course it does.

Clearly, athletes like playing here. While there may be many reasons for that, the loyal and savvy fan base is clearly one of them.

Ignore the bad press our fans get. My guess is that more than anything else, the folks from other teams and other cities are envious, although it’s probably not a good idea to toss snowballs at Santa or boo when an opponent is injured.

 

Christmas Gift Books for the rescue-minded, Part 2


Out-of-the-limelight authors need love, too. I said that in last week’s column, but have revised my thinking just a bit since then. The authors I recommend today do need love, but I’m not sure these books would make good gifts. I hesitate because taste in books is as individualized as taste in jewelry and neckties. Liking a book is no guarantee that anyone else will like it.

There, I’ve hedged my bets. If you want some offbeat reading suggestions, this would be a good time to get your scissors and clip this column.

The all-time funniest book I’ve ever read since “No Time for Sergeants” is “Norwood,” by Charles Portis. This book is just about guaranteed to make you obnoxious to everyone around you, when you start reading out loud the funny passages to be found on almost every page. In fact, I’d recommend anything by Charles Portis, especially “True Grit,” which is about to be made into a movie again. The book is a masterpiece of revenge drama that wraps itself around some thorny ethical and legal questions. I felt that the John Wayne/Kim Darby movie (1969) sucked the life out of the novel, especially Wayne, playing as the drunken bounty hunter, ‘Rooster’ Cogburn.

Speaking of drinking: out of curiosity, I read the novel on which the popular wine-quest movie, “Sideways,” is based. Very enjoyable read, with some sweet side plots and more tannin in the character development than the movie. I also enjoyed two other wine-related books, both by the wine writer George M. Taber. The first, “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine,” (2005) describes the famous blind tasting where California wines took most of the top 10 cabernet and chardonnay places. Taber was, almost accidentally, the only journalist present for that event. Taber’s biographical descriptions and histories of nearly all of the famous California wineries are fascinating.

The second book, “ To Cork or Not to Cork - Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle,” (2007) really went down easy. The experience reminded me of an early review of John McPhee’s book, “Oranges,” (1967) where the reviewer wrote: “I can’t believe I just read an entire book about oranges.” That was my reaction to the cork book. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about cork and about bottling wine, that most cranky of all beverages.

All this wine talk could lead to a permanent residence on skid row or the Betty Ford Clinic, so if you want to read about substance abuse, I have some addiction books to recommend. Most of them are memoirs, which are almost always stories of triumph over self-degradation. Two of them alarmed and depressed me. “Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town,” by Nick Reding (2009) deserves more attention than it has received. Though focused on the small town of Oelwein, Iowa, it combines individual profiles with regional economics. This technique shows the scale of the methamphetamine epidemic currently riding in the wake of unemployment and impoverishment in our country. 

The other scary substance abuse book was written by William Cope Moyers (the journalist, William Moyers, Jr.’s son) and is titled, “Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption.” (2007) Crack cocaine, heroin, alcohol and all the trickery and conning needed to maintain such addictions. Bill Moyers, Jr., did everything a parent could possibly do, including writing his son some beautiful letters. Just heartbreaking — until the young Moyers hit bottom and saved himself. I’m afraid to Google him to find to see if he’s still on the wagon.

A final word on this subject: Jack London’s “John Barleycorn” (1913) remains readable and fascinating. In it, he relates his fantastic life’s story (he’d led several adventurous, exhausting lives already by the time he turned 21) and the driven, committed way in which he wrote his way from newspapers to international fame as a novelist. Just the thing for the holiday punchbowl.

Depressing? Want to hop a freight and get away from it all? Maybe some hobo memoirs would revive your spirit. Probably not, but here are some I’ve read in the past two years: “Waiting for Nothing,” by Tom Kromer (1934. Regarded as one of the great proletarian novels. A West Virginian escapes the coal country to ride boxcars through the Great Depression. Written on scraps of paper as he traveled). “You Can’t Win,” by Jack Black (1926. A thief, drug addict, and convict rides through the hobo underworld).  “Hobo: a young man’s thoughts on trains and tramping in America,” by Eddy Joe Cotton (2002). And finally, William T. Vollman, the prolific contemporary novelist, hops freights whenever he can and writes about his experiences and musings in “Riding Toward Everywhere” (2008. Short on adventure, long on musings, but such thoughts!).

And speaking of memoirs: Remember when people had to achieve something in their lives above and beyond surviving their parents, or their own weaknesses?         One of the most amazing autobiographies I’ve read this year is John Lomax’s “Adventures of a Ballad Hunter” (1947). Moved from Mississippi to Texas at age two, he helped on his father’s North Texas ranch till his indentured service to his father ended. Not until he was 21 was he free to make another life for himself.

Even as young as the age of nine, he would lie in the grass and listen to the lonesome sounds of the cowboys singing at night. Some yearning compelled him to write the songs in a notebook, which grew fatter every year. He also befriended an old, freed slave who worked on the ranch, and this man saw his interest and taught him the songs the black field hands knew.

At 21, he left for college. He showed his collection to his college teacher, who said they were not worthy of further attention and that he should study the English ballads and poets instead.

John Lomax, discouraged, went behind the men’s dorm and burned the collection of American folk songs he had built since his childhood.

After years of working as a teacher and administrator, he got the chance to go to summer school at Harvard. There he came under the influence of two men who were just starting the field of American Folk Studies.

Fast forward: John Lomax and his son, Alan, went out across America making the first recordings of indigenous American folk music. They had an old Ford sedan whose back opened up to reveal their recording studio. They traveled for years throughout the South and Southwest, visiting encampments, prisons, small towns, bars, personal homes, anywhere and everywhere they thought they might find music. They discovered Leddy Hudbetter, who went on to fame as “Leadbelly,” the blues and folk musician.

Nearly all of their recordings are now part of the Archives of American Folk Music at the Library of Congress. Were it not for John and Alan Lomax, the folk music craze would not have hit American college campuses in the early 60s and then produced a long range of American talents ranging from Bob Dylan to Spruce Springsteen.

The biggest thrill I had this year came from finishing this book and then going online to the Library of Congress Web site, where I listened to, and in some cases saw, the actual performances recorded by the Lomaxes. One cowboy whistling song I heard is so poignant it haunts me still.

How to get any of today’s books:

I borrowed half of the books I mentioned from the Free Library of Philadelphia. I think all of them are for sale on the Internet as used books. On the Web, go to Amazon.com, or ABEbooks.com, or viaLibri.com, or AddAll.com. Read the dealers’ descriptions and terms carefully. Many of the books I mentioned can be found for a few dollars, plus shipping.

If you don’t like shopping via computer, ask Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Mt. Airy, or Walk a Crooked Mile books in Mt. Airy, or Harvest Books in Fort Washington to find a copy for you.

Or, if you like, e-mail me and I’ll tell you where to get the book.

 

Obsolescence is obsolete


“Design ... is an attempt to make a contribution through change. When no contribution is made or can be made, the only process available for giving the illusion of change is ‘styling’”! – George Nelson, architect and designer

After taking part in two Weird Waste Days and seeing the incredible amount of electronics that were piled up in dozens of four-foot-high cubes, I could not help but wonder about our society’s struggle with obsolescence. Most of the items I saw being recycled still worked. The bulk of the televisions were there because they weren’t cable or HD compatible. Buying new has become cheaper than changing the worn out batteries in cell phones or repairing a broken DVD player or replacing new ink cartridges for your printer.

There used to be a whole repair industry poised to fix broken lamps, vacuum cleaners, radios, televisions, washers and dryers, watches, shoes , etc., but those people are vanishing. Their labor costs cannot compete with China’s cheap replacements.

Planned obsolescence, a term used in the manufacturing trade since the 1920s, describes the life-cycle of a product and its eventual replacement by newer and supposedly better products, the purpose of which is to stimulate demand by forcing consumers to repurchase a newer product when the old one fails or is upgraded in some way.

Proponents of this system claim that rapid repurchasing drives innovation while long lasting products slow it down. But innovation has come at a not-so-hidden cost and become so prevalent in our culture that it is now virtually impossible to purchase products for the long haul. It is planned obsolescence that occupies our landfills, pollutes our water, deteriorates our health and keeps us spending and wanting more.

My home phone system is on its way out because the batteries are failing. Replacement batteries do not exist for this phone. I’ve had these phones for about two years – six months longer than the extended warranty and, most probably, just at Panasonic’s planned life expectancy for my unit. What can I do? It’s now impossible to buy a telephone that will last more than a couple years.

When I moved into my house in the early 90’s, there was an old, black rotary dial phone that had been rented by the former owners since, well, phones were invented. This phone worked no matter what – rain, sleet, snow, high winds, blackouts. It was there when you needed it. I wanted to keep it, but since it had been a rental, ol’ Ma Bell wanted it back. Since that time, I’ve gone through at least a half dozen phones. That old, black, Bakelite phone lasted 45-50 years, and when it finished its tour of duty it was returned and recycled by AT&T.

According to Planet Green, Americans spend $1,200 per household on new electronics each year and threw away three million tons of e-waste in 2006. So here comes Santa Claus with a sack full of the newest, hottest iPods, flat screens, Blue Ray players, X boxes, digital cameras, Blackberries, laptops, GPS and Wii’s.

How can you green them up? First, try making the items you already own last longer and put off buying gadgets just to keep up with the Joneses. That sounds like a bummer, but what if you spent the money you saved on an amazing experience instead, like Bon Jovi tickets for March 23 at the Wachovia Center.

Second, try buying used instead of new. TechForward.com sells refurbished electronics and will recycle them for you when you’re ready to upgrade. Even Apple sells refurbished iPods and computers – I’m typing on one now. Purchase carbon offsets with that new PDA at carbonfund.org –  that’s Pretty Darn Amazing of you. Most importantly, make sure to recycle those electronic castoffs responsibly. Earth911.org can point you in the right disposal direction. This Frontline Video(click here for video) take you on the shocking journey of our electronic waste to Ghana and other parts of the world and will really drive home my point! As my fabulous cousin, Mary, always says to her children on their way out the door, “Make wise choices!” Have a great holiday season and be sure to contact me with any green holiday tips at ecologic.chlocal@gmail.com.

 




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