“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
— Benjamin Franklin, in reply to a question about what sort of government the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention had settled on.
February 2 is the day some people, primarily in North America, attempt to divine the next six weeks of weather by observing groundhogs who briefly exit from winter hibernation in their burrows. If it’s a sunny day, the groundhog will see his or her shadow and, counter intuitively, those watching the animal will pronounce six more weeks of wintry weather. On a cloudy day, with no shadows in sight, the prediction is for an early start of spring weather. People in some parts of Europe have a similar tradition involving different animals, such as badgers in Germany and hedgehogs in Britain.
Emerging briefly from hibernation in February 2014, a groundhog takes leaves to line its burrow nest or toilet chamber. Photo by Ladycamera.
This is all silliness, of course, with no proof of accuracy, but it is mostly harmless except for possibly obnoxious intrusions on the lives of peace loving groundhogs. In ancient Rome, prognostication using animals took a more deadly turn. All sorts of animals – chickens, sheep, and goats among them – were confined until the day they were sacrificed for the purpose of having a kind of priest called a haruspex examine the dead animal’s entrails for signs of the future. This was deadly serious business, not only for the sacrificial animals, but for the generals and politicians who often did not make a move unless the signs from the entrails were auspicious.
There is no record proving the consistent accuracy of haruspicy (divination by the inspection of entrails), just as there is no record for the accuracy of groundhogs at predicting the weather based on the presence or absence of cloud cover on a particular day. Nonetheless, people have been wasting their time and efforts on these methods of divination for millennia. The ancient method, haruspicy, was a nasty business all around, while Groundhog Day observations cause little harm and are of no consequence.
The Danish National Symphony Orchestra performs a suite of themes from Ennio Morricone’s music for the 1968 Sergio Leone film Once Upon a Time in the West. Tuva Semmingsen performs the vocals that were sung by Edda Dell’Orso on the original soundtrack recording.
What about reading the signs of the times, such as looking at newspapers to follow developments in the republic called the United States of America? What about a Senate majority of Republicans who vote to exclude witnesses in the impeachment trial of a corrupt president? What about a Republican state legislator in Montana who maintains that the Constitution of the United States sanctions the shooting and imprisonment of Socialists, merely for being Socialists? What about the chortling lunatics cheering on Orange Julius as he threatens and demeans his opponents at his demented pep rallies? And what about those same cheering, jeering lunatics threatening violence if their Chosen One is removed from office either by impeachment or by the results of an election?
Those signs and others are easy enough to read for anyone paying attention to developments in order to honor the obligations of an informed citizen. There are those citizens, however, who are too lazy to pay attention. Very well; they should continue in their laziness and stay home on Election Day in nine months, rather than show up and vote for the incumbent president simply because the wolf is not yet at their door. And then there are those voters, more culpable in the decay of the republic than anyone else, who are interested only in the health of their financial portfolio, and who are deaf and blind to the cries and despair of anyone shut out of the bounty and suffering under the oppression of the oligarchy. The signs now point toward a Tyranny by Corporate Oligarchy, and if citizens continue to choose it by doing nothing, then after Election Day in November there will be no going back and we will have gotten the government we deserve.
For those who can’t get enough of the sound of the loss of the republic, here it is on the theremin. Katica Illényi performs with the Győr Philharmonic Orchestra in Budapest, Hungary.
Few things are more frustrating than dealing with poor or indifferent customer service. Calling a company’s customer service number – if you can track it down – usually involves navigating a phone tree of options that may or may not result in discussing your problem with a human being, and then only after waiting on hold. When you do get to talk to a person, that person may be based at a call center in India, and while they are almost always polite and professional people honestly trying to do a good job, there can be language and cultural barriers getting in the way of resolving your problem. Some companies have reacted to customers’ frustrations by touting that their customer service representatives are based in the United States, and to avoid long hold times they offer to call customers back.
Email is a somewhat better route for dealing with a company’s bureaucracy if you don’t mind delays of a day or two in getting a response. If you have follow up questions, the back and forth can stretch to a week or more and can feel like dancing with an elephant. Even though you might think there is an advantage to having your questions and their answers in writing, it has come to be more of a stumbling block than it used to be as reading comprehension deteriorates in the population. Consider how many times you have written an email to a company’s technical support only to find out after the usual one or two day delay in getting a response that they obviously misunderstood your question. They read the first sentence, and whatever followed made their eyes glaze over, because after years of exposure to television and the internet, they no longer have the attention span to comprehend anything longer than a snippet or a sound bite.
MÁV train reservations call center in Hungary; photo by MÁV Zrt.
Of the three major technological ways of interacting with customer service, that leaves chat, and it turns out to be the most satisfactory in many ways for both customers and companies. Unlike a phone call, chat leaves a customer freer to do other things while waiting for a representative to come online or even while the chat is taking place. Unlike email, chat response times from companies are far quicker, and in many cases quicker than phone call response times. And like a phone call or face to face interaction, chat allows for immediate clarifications of misunderstandings. There is back and forth between the customer and the representative as in a phone call, and at the end the customer can print a transcript. Companies prefer chat, too, because it is cheaper to run than a call center on account of the flexibility the representatives have in handling multiple customers at once, and because the experience leaves customers more satisfied than dilatory email responses.
Hotel owner Basil Fawlty, portrayed by John Cleese, was not one for tact or subtlety.
But what about older folks, who are often not as technologically savvy as the rest of the population, or what about people who simply don’t want to hassle with computers? These people prefer to contact customer service the old-fashioned way, either in person or by phone. They experience even more frustration than the rest of us because companies have mostly moved away from those older methods as being too costly, and even seem to actively discourage their use by making the experience unpleasant and time wasting. That can lead to serious consequences for the elderly especially, as their frustration with modern customer service options leads them to take foolish risks, like trying by themselves to dislodge a fallen branch from the power line service drop to their house after a storm rather than calling the power company to have them remove it, a service power companies perform for free because the hazard is serious and people should not be discouraged by a fee from having the problem resolved safely.
The 120 volt insulated line connecting to a house or apartment building can be every bit as dangerous as the higher voltage lines going from one utility pole to the next, and you have only to make one mistake with it and you’ll never make another. For safety reasons like this, it is vital that companies who deal in dangerous products like electricity and home generators and space heaters not hide their old school customer service contact points as some modern companies have done. We can gripe as much as we like about the cable company’s lousy customer service, but their product can’t kill us if we mess with it (physically, that is; mentally – that’s open to question). A power line is another matter entirely, even when the birds seem to tell us it’s okay.
Three magpies (Pica pica) gathering in the tree tops, United Kingdom; photo by Flickr user Peter Trimming. In a nursery rhyme featuring magpies, three together signifies a human girl will be born. That may be, but for purposes of this post it is important to note that birds can perch safely on a power line because they come into contact with it at only one point, and therefore do not provide a path to ground. An exception can be found in the case of large birds such as raptors, whose extensive wing span can bring them into contact with two lines at once, or with a line and another point, electrocuting them.