Monthly Archives: November 2013

“We are experiencing technical difficulties…”

Those of us “of a certain age” or older (born before Apollo 17, the final NASA manned moon landing) remember when a television network feed was interrupted by weather, solar flares, mechanical issues, or occasional human error. A “Please Stand By” graphic appeared on the TV screen and an announcer would intone in a deep, serious, ceremonial voice “We are experiencing technical difficulties…please stand by”. The announcement repeated every few minutes until the station either regained the feed or switched over to alternate programming. They acknowledged the problem, worked on a resolution, and used the announcement to let us know they had not forgotten about us.

Technology improvements through the decades have nearly rendered technical difficulties obsolete, at least for “Over The Air” (OTA) broadcasting. The same is not true for cable TV transmissions or streaming video. Once signal drop happens, there is no warning, no acknowledgement of a problem or a resolution; it just stops working. Compounding the matter is many cable subscribers have Internet, television, and telephone bundled together. When it works, it works well, but when it fails, it fails completely.

Business class Internet provider service level agreements (SLA) usually stipulate 99.9% availability. I was an IT manager for almost ten years and signed several of these agreements. Simple arithmetic shows that the 0.1% allowed downtime per day is 86.4 seconds (60 seconds per minute × 60 seconds per hour × 24 hours per day = 86,400 seconds; 0.1% = 0.001, so 0.001 × 86,400 = 86.4). During a standard contractual year of 365¼ days, the allowed downtime is 8 hours, 45 minutes, 57.6 seconds (86,400 seconds per day × 365.25 days per year = 31,557,600 seconds; 0.001 downtime is = 31,557.6 seconds; 31,557.6 ÷ 3600 seconds per hour = 8.766 hours).

Consumer class Internet service does NOT have SLAs. I have Comcast for my cable, Internet, and telephone services, and there is no uptime guarantee. If I need an uptime guarantee, I could upgrade to their Business Class services for considerably more money per month. I could not find consumer SLAs for Dish Network, Charter, Century Link, Frontier, or Knology, though it is possible SLAs exist. The providers assume “it just works” and that people can call in and navigate several minutes of automated phone before being queued to a human in a call center 10,000 miles away. After all, everyone has a smart phone and a smart phone provides voice service in the “unlikely” event something is amiss. This is not a rant against Comcast, for until last Friday they provided reliable service, and the replacement cable telephony modem appears to have solved my issues. However, I was surprised at the dearth of consumer SLAs for these services even though a consumer is locked into a contract for a prescribed time frame.

Service level agreements are based on trust. The service provider trusts the service they are providing meets or exceeds the SLA parameters. They trust outages rarely occur, but are quickly resolved, oftentimes with no noticeable interruption to the customer. The customer trusts the service provider to honor the SLA. Because of this trust, the business customer is allowing the service provider to handle a critical piece of the business’s communications infrastructure. It is puzzling why Comcast et al. do not seemingly trust their consumer services enough to back them with an SLA. Perhaps they know something that we do not know.

Trust is very important to us. We trust our family to nurture us and love us unconditionally, and I am fortunate that mine does. We trust health care providers to care for us when we are vulnerable because of illness or injury. We trust public safety to protect us when we are in peril. We trust a particular product brand because of reputation. We trust a service provider to provide the best possible service. Trust is difficult to earn and easy to destroy.

Finally, we trust our friends. Trust in our family may have its origins in preservation of the species, but we choose our friends, and we hope we choose them wisely. We trust our friends with critical pieces of our internal infrastructure: our hopes and dreams, our worries and fears, our strengths and weaknesses, our secrets. We trust our friends to cheer us up when we are feeling down, to celebrate our victories, to help us see things from a different perspective, to listen when we need to talk, and to be good company when we are lonely. There is no formal signed contract needed because our friends provide these services willingly. Any unresolved violation of our perceived terms of service result in the friendship terminating. This is why ending a friendship is almost as devastating as a loved one’s death. Our friends become part of us.

Thanksgiving is tomorrow in the United States. My post from last Thanksgiving is still timely. We should take time and be thankful for the people we chose as our friends, and for those people who trust us to be their friends. That trust helps us get through our life journeys.

Give your loved ones a meaningful hug, try to stay away from retailers open on Thanksgiving Day, stay warm, don’t eat too much, and celebrate your thankfulness for being together! If you have a friend or loved one who cannot be with family tomorrow, try to give that person a call or better yet, try to include that person in your celebration. Those people make your life better by being part of it, and that is definitely something to celebrate. You can trust me on that.

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Oh, deer.

The month before Thanksgiving in the United States is usually the beginning of harvest season. Large tracts of former prairie land now filled with corn, soybeans, oats, or wheat also make ideal feeding grounds for deer. Deer hunting season and large, heavy harvesting equipment rumbling through tall corn leaving no cover, combine to pressure deer to move somewhere safer. Most of the crop harvesting along Interstate 90 in southern Minnesota is complete. It is not the most scientific surveying method, but the number of deer carcasses along the roadway shows the deer population is rebounding nicely. The live deer are harder to see because they are much farther from the freeway now, but they are out there, though I think many hunters may disagree.

Despite the size of their eyeballs, deer have terrible eyesight and their eyes are better suited for low light environments. Bright lights such as headlights temporarily blind a deer causing it to momentarily freeze while it tries to figure out how to see again. A vehicle moving at 70 mph covers 103 feet per second, and the average passenger car weighs ten times as much as an average deer meaning a collision results in major damage to the vehicle and serious or fatal injuries to the deer. Like deer, people freeze up when facing very bright lights, but we can use our arms or hands to shield our eyes. “Deer in the headlights” is a phrase used to describe someone freezing up in a critical situation.

We all have “deer in the headlights” moments: public speaking gaffes, first dates, forgetting one’s lines when acting in a play, the first day on a new job, a traumatic experience. Our moments usually end with maybe some embarrassment, or some ego bruising and loss of dignity, or laughs, or life lessons, but we are usually able to walk away intact, unlike the deer along the freeway. We have loved ones and friends to help us get through those moments, help with damage control, and help with getting us back on track. If not for those people, “deer in the headlight” moments are permanently damaging. Having those people in our lives gives us one more thing to be thankful for this holiday season.

Give your loved ones a meaningful hug and think of the times they helped during a “deer in the headlights” moment. Stay warm, and don’t stare directly into bright lights.

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The holidays are encroaching

Yes, the holidays are approaching. They are also encroaching, especially Christmas because of the shorter buying season this year. Home Depot already had a Christmas display by October 20th. You really are seeing Christmas promotions coming earlier every year. It is encroaching even more into autumn (in this hemisphere).

Thanksgiving in the United States is the fourth Thursday of November. Many companies also close the day after Thanksgiving, so people can enjoy a four-day weekend. Retailers realized that people enjoying a day off might have reason to go shopping with proper incentives. Wikipedia has a detailed definition and explanation of “Black Friday” for those of you living outside the United States or want more detail.

The latest date for the fourth Thursday, the 28th, occurs when the 1st is on a Friday, like November 1, 2013. The earliest date for the fourth Thursday, the 22nd, occurs when the 1st falls upon a Thursday, like November 1, 2012. Those extra six days of shopping season are very welcomed by retailers. Fast food and casual food restaurants also see a noticeable increase in sales during that period.

Stores opening on Thanksgiving Day is a recent development. There are businesses that traditionally have been open on Thanksgiving: gas stations, convenience stores, pharmacies, and restaurants. But retail stores like Target, Best Buy, Gap, and Wal-Mart would close. Unfortunately, the shortened shopping season is resulting in more retail chains opening on Thanksgiving Day itself, with some opening as early as 6:00 p.m. They believe if they are open, people will come.  My hope is that their Thanksgiving Day sales volume will not justify opening on Thanksgiving Day next year.

I had the misfortune of working for two small companies that did not close the day after Thanksgiving. I was lucky because Lucy and I would have a quiet Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, then we traveled an hour to my brother’s house on Friday evening to be with my family, but it was still a nuisance not getting that Friday off. Some of my co-workers had family out-of-state or out-of-country. Traveling to Asia is much easier with four days off rather than a weekend. This year it directly affects a close friend who will be unable to travel back to Illinois to be with family. I know it will also affect a niece and a sister-in-law.

As long as people are willing to stand in lines waiting for a chance at acquiring a loss leader item in extremely limited supply, the retailers will keep pushing “Black Friday” open times earlier into Thanksgiving Day. People should choose to be with family on Thanksgiving rather than wade through a sea of crazed shoppers only to go home empty-handed.

While the big-box retailers are participating in their “social experiment”, a different social experiment started in 2010. Small businesses are at a disadvantage to the big-box stores.The idea behind “Small Business Saturday” was to level the playing field a bit. It is ironic that American Express championed the idea. American Express usually has the highest per transaction “swipe” fee and charges the highest merchant fee of the major credit card brands. This years’ Small Business Saturday is the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 30th. Even if you are not an American Express card member, please take the time to shop at a small business. Check out the Shop Small map to find participating businesses. I hope to visit Carver Country Flowers, Gifts & Formal Wear and say hi to Annette.

I have my outdoor Christmas lights installed. It doesn’t take very long, and I try to do it the first weekend in November. Putting lights up in 50 degree weather is better than putting up lights in 20 degree weather and standing in snow. Lucy would insist the lights stay off until the day after Thanksgiving. That is when I will plug in the outdoor light timer. The Christmas tree gets installed the Saturday or Sunday after Thanksgiving. Perhaps I’ll try making piirakkas and red velvet cakes again this year. Julie and Suzy survived my last batch of baking with no ill effects, and they’re still talking to me.

Give your special someone an extra hug tonight. I know some of you have a loved one away from home, so surprise him or her with a phone call, text message, or email. Stay warm and thank you for your time!

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“Thar she blows!”

In “Moby Dick”, the lookout shouted “Thar she blows!” to signal a whale had surfaced. That lookout could easily have been forecasting our weather as of late.

November is a month of extreme weather in the Midwest. This year is no different. Three days of high winds have sent what was left of our fall colors nearly to the North Pole. Not many birds have braved the wind. During a brief interval when the wind speed dropped to a gentle breeze, two bald eagles were soaring with a group of over a hundred terns. There were also nearly a dozen hawks I could not identify gliding the updrafts and downdrafts in a looping figure “8”.

Change is definitely in the air. Most of the songbirds have molted their brilliant summer plumage and are in their duller winter feathers. Goldfinches are hanging on to the coneflower seed heads for dear life while showing off messy table manners. Peregrine falcons and kestrels are making more frequent low altitude flights looking for a quick snack, at least when they can maneuver. Squirrels and raccoons have been gorging themselves to help get through the winter. This means quite a few of them are too heavy to get out of the street quickly enough, which delights the crows to no end as they line up at their version of an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Not much is blooming at this point. Several hard frosts took care of most of the flowers. The blanket flowers around the mailbox are still trying to bloom, and their puffy seed heads are blowing around. I’m sure the front lawn will have dozens of new blanket flowers germinating next spring. Otherwise, most the greenery has turned to a muddy brown or into desiccated brown stalks. This summer arrived late which meant the fall colors were not as spectacular as in past years. My burning bush never got the chance to turn red before the leaves went flying away and the Autumn Blaze maple leaves turned a dull burgundy rather than a bright red. My neighbor’s sugar maple turned yellow instead of the usual orange-red. Maybe this year’s fall fashion colors were earth tones and dull yellows.

The dried plants are also causing increased dust in the air. Upper respiratory illnesses and allergies increased, too. Sharp changes in the weather seem to increase the likelihood of illness and discomfort. Lucy suffered from nasal allergies and sinus problems. I have a close friend who is suffering mightily from blocked sinuses, and another friend battling what seems to be the flu. My nasal allergies and sinus problems are in high gear with little hope of near-term abatement.

Adding insult to injury is the Winter Weather Advisory (recently downgraded from a Winter Storm Watch) for the Twin Cities effective Tuesday night into Wednesday afternoon. While we have already had a couple of days of light flurries before a several day stretch of summer-like weather, we are possibly skipping the light snow and might get an entire month’s worth in a twelve-hour period. The storm track and intensity are still in question, so the forecast amounts are ranging from 2″ – 7″; our average November monthly snow total is 9.3″ according to the Minnesota Climatology Working Group. Today has seen rain so far. Perhaps the rain will lower the amount of snow we can expect from the storm? One can always hope. I have jumper cables and a shovel in the car just in case and the snow thrower is ready for service.

The forecast for the next ten days is for high temperatures in the low 40’s, which is about normal. I know someone who will spend several days in a warmer area later this week. Unfortunately, I am too heavy to be considered checked baggage, but I will happily be the taxi driver to see the smiles. The ground will be wet enough to enjoy a bonfire, some hot chocolate, and many laughs with friends once the streets clear. One has to make the best of whatever weather comes along.

If snow affects you over the next few days, take it easy when shoveling or using a snow thrower, be careful on the roads, and stay warm. As always, for those of you lucky enough to have a special someone close by, make sure you give an extra hug just because you can. It will brighten your day, too.


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