September 18, 2023

Terrible Customer Support: Nu Skin Edition

At the suggestion of my former eye doctor, I have been taking Pharmanex LifePak anti-aging packets, each of which contains four capsules. The packets come in a box of 60—essentially a two month’s supply—sent to me every two months by Nu Skin Enterprises, Inc. My most recent shipment was on August 21. When that shipment arrived, I still had nearly a month’s worth of packets left. I wasn’t sure how shipments and usage had gotten out of sync, but I put the package in the pantry and thought no more about it.

On September 16, I received e-mail indicating that my next shipment would be on September 21. This was clearly inappropriate, and I telephoned Nu Skin today with the intention of changing the shipment date to November 21. The call did not go well. First, I dialed the telephone number listed on the September 16 message. This resulted in my hearing a recorded message to the effect that the Nu Skin number had been changed as of August 1.

I then called the new number. (Happily, there was a number to call, and my call was answered after a brief delay.) I explained my consternation over the September 16 message. I was told that, in fact, my next shipment would be on October 21. I received no explanation for the message that occasioned the call. October 21 was actually the expected shipping date given that the last shipment was on August 21. I explained, however, that I had not yet opened my last package, and I asked for the next shipment to be on November 21.

Incredibly, I was told that the computer system did not allow that change to be made today. To make the change, I would have to call back after October 1. I remarked on the failures of the IT department, noting also the outdated telephone number on the September 16 message. I was told that changing references to the former telephone number was in progress. I somehow managed not to scream at the agent, something I could do after the call. Instead, I asked that my standing order be canceled, so that I would never receive another shipment. I was assured that this would be done.

After the call, I was asked to complete a four-question survey about my telephone experience. I indicated that the call did not resolve my problem and that I was unhappy with the outcome. A few minutes later, I received an e-mail message confirming the cancellation. Rather than screaming after concluding the telephone call, I decided to write this essay.

Complaints about poor customer service are legion. Often, it is difficult even to figure out how to contact a representative of a company. (I have often failed to find a telephone number on a company Web site but found one through a Google search. I highly recommend this strategy.) Nu Skin deserves credit for publishing a customer service number and actually answering the number promptly. I’m not sure if the representative was a native speaker of English, but she spoke well enough that I had no trouble understanding her.

That said, what Nu Skin did was unforgivable. Why did I get the apparently erroneous September 16 message? Why did a message carry an outdated telephone number a month and a half after the number was changed? Why is the Nu Skin order tracking software so inflexible? Why did the agent make no effort to save an account from being canceled over such a simple problem?

There is no excuse for customer service such as I experienced today. I have a standing order for cat food from Chewy, Inc. Changing a shipping date for that order has been a snap. Perhaps Nu Skin can figure out how to operate as competently as Chewy.

September 11, 2023

Digital Invariants Discussion Revised

My treatment of PPDIs/Armstrong numbers on Lionel Deimel’s Farrago has been checked and revised. I have added a new theorem and revised a corollary that it affects. Although it remains to be proven that all bases above 2 contain non-trivial PPDIs, I can now confidently assert that {302}{1208}5130 is a PPDI. I’m sure my readers were eager to learn this. The discussion on my Web site begins here.

 

September 4, 2023

A Meditation on Donald Trump and Juries

 That Donald Trump may soon find himself in a courtroom at the defendant’s table has led me to think about juries generally and juries that may stand in judgment of the former president in particular.

I have never served on a jury, although I once came close to being selected. (I made a first cut, but was not included in the final selection.) Conventional wisdom declares that the more education one has the less likely you are to be chosen to be on a jury. My chance of ever being on a jury is likely slight.

It is sometimes argued that jury selection is the most critical aspect of a trial. Attorneys on each side want to select jurors likely to favor their side of the case. The task is difficult, as conspicuous indicators of bias regularly result in the dismissal of potential jurors. If the defendant is accused of killing a policeman, for example, relatives of police officers will surely be excluded from the jury pool.

In a criminal case, prosecutors look for people likely to possess strong law-and-order sentiments. Defense attorneys, on the other hand, seek sympathetic souls, particularly if the defense’s case is weak. An empathetic juror who doesn’t have the fortitude to stand up for his or her opinion, however, will likely be ineffective as an advocate for the defendant.

In principle, a jury should be objective and unbiased. Our adversarial judicial system, however, does not directly seek such a jury, instead relying on the interests of competing parties to select a panel likely to render a just verdict. This system works surprisingly well. Juries make news when they render verdicts widely thought to be incorrect, but such news is uncommon. Nevertheless, the time a jury spends deliberating is a time of great anxiety for all concerned.

Again in principle, the ideal juror should be capable of understanding both the law and the evidence and be able to relate one to the other. Potential jurors are typically given a questionnaire to rule out certain disqualifying characteristics. They are then questioned by attorneys on both sides. This process attempts to weed out the prejudiced and mentally unsuitable.

What potential jurors are not generally filtered for is logical thinking. It is easy for jurors to be led astray by emotion or to reach conclusions that do not strictly follow from the evidence, the law, and the charge of the judge. Being a juror is unlike nearly every other role one is likely to experience in life. One must take into account material presented in the courtroom and exclude from consideration everything else. Jurors are expected to use their common sense yet introduce into consideration no knowledge obtained outside the courtroom. This is, in a sense, contradictory, but it usually seems to work out in practice. For instance, a juror may appeal to his or her own experience but cannot introduce something heard on a television newscast about the defendant. It is difficult to know how strictly logical jury deliberations are in practice.

Because I have a doctorate in computer science with a minor in mathematics, I believe I can reason about evidence and the law particularly well. I believe this would make me an excellent juror, but attorneys on either side might consider me either unpredictable or an actual threat.

This brings us to the matter of Donald Trump. Although I believe that, as a juror in almost any criminal case, I could logically reach an objective, proper verdict, I am less certain in any case involving the former president. I would almost certainly believe Trump to be guilty going into the trial, whatever the charge. I think I could weigh the evidence fairly. If, however, I found the evidence wanting, I just might be tempted to vote guilty for the sake of the country. Although I doubt that situation would arise, I could become, legally speaking, a loose cannon. Defense attorneys will try to filter out anyone with proclivities such as mine. I wonder how hard that will be to do. How my Americans would, given the right circumstances, be tempted to engage in jury nullification?

August 26, 2023

Observations on the Recent GOP Debate

The GOP debate of presidential hopefuls on August 23 was mildly useful, though it illustrated again that the mechanics of these events are all wrong. 

Candidates at August 23, 2023 GOP Debate
First, let me offer a few quick observations.

The most animated participant, Vivek Ramaswamy, was insufferable and pretty much acted as a stand-in for the former president. He was born into a Hindu Brahmin family and appears to think that this automatically makes him a member of the highest caste in the United States. He is a businessman, and we have ample reason to believe that is a disastrous qualification for high office. Besides, he is barely old enough to be president. He will not go far, at least anytime soon.

Ron DeSantis, the personality-challenged Florida governor was unimpressive. Enough said.

The remaining candidates, except for Nikki Haley, were unremarkable. The former U.N. ambassador displayed a realization that the policy positions needed to obtain the GOP nomination are the same ones that will doom the standard bearer in the general election. She is clearly the strongest candidate and will therefore fail to be nominated.

Now, as to the debate mechanics. I should begin by saying that the moderators, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum of Fox News, largely asked reasonable and relevant questions. (The UFO question asked of Chris Christie was the exception.) They were hampered by two ongoing problems: the presence of an audience, and the lack of an adequate mechanism to enforce the agreed-upon rules of engagement.

I don’t know how the audience was selected, but it clearly favored the Republican Party in general and Donald Trump in particular.  Reactions of the local audience cannot but influence the remote audience and perhaps even the candidates themselves. Moreover, the audience interrupted the debate. It was unsurprising that Bret Baier felt the need to turn around and admonish the crowd, which was becoming unruly. (In my more mischievous moments, I’ve thought that it would be interesting to have a Democratic audience for a Republican debate.)

Disruptive audience reaction is not a new problem but is one that is easily ameliorated: eliminate the audience. Put them in another room with a remote feed, but remove them as a factor in debates. I suspect that getting a ticket to a debate is a perk offered by the network or the candidates. (As I said, I don’t know how the audience is selected.) Fine, give them a comfortable auditorium with a big TV screen and generous hors d’oeuvres. They can cheer and boo to their hearts’ content. Meanwhile, the debate can be held in a much smaller venue, perhaps in a television studio.

Then there is the matter of controlling the candidates themselves. It is clear that the rules for who can speak and in what circumstances are not self-enforcing. The moderators ringing a bell to indicate that a speaker’s time has expired was conspicuously useless in shutting anyone up. If candidates perceive that they can gain a rhetorical advantage by flouting the rules, they will do so. This has been shown to be true time and time again. The solution to uncontrolled debate is also simple: mute the microphone as soon as a candidate speaks beyond his or her allotted time. No one will be able to speak out of turn if an active microphone is not available. If a speaker is in the middle of a sentence, it may be appropriate to allow a three-second grace period before a microphone is cut off. This more aggressive timekeeping is probably best done by a technician. Not only do moderators already have enough to think about, but it is best not to give a candidate reason to be angry with a moderator, either during the debate or later.

My suggestions are not rocket science, and I surely am not the first person to think of them. Why haven’t they been implemented? As long as a debate is staged by a television network, there is an incentive to make the event as entertaining as possible. Audience reactions—to a point, anyway—and verbal fireworks among the participants are audience magnets, at least among those more interested in entertainment than politics. Nothing leads to changing the channel faster than a boring discussion. I suspect that even participants appreciate a certain anarchy in political debates. They are not above stealing more time than they deserve, and they want to display their passion or machismo. (Can a woman show machismo or is there another non-sexist word I could use?)

Of course, my suggestions will not be implemented. None of the participants seems to have an incentive to participate in a thoughtful, polite discussion.

August 14, 2023

Lock Him Up!

This evening, Rachel Maddow and Hillary Clinton are having a discussion as we await information about the just-issued indictment in Georgia. One of the matters they have spoken about is a proper sentence for Donald Trump. Clinton seems reluctant to say that Trump should go to prison.

I don’t remember when first I said I wanted to see Trump in prison, but it was a long time ago. I feel even stronger about the matter today. There are two reasons for desiring that result. First, it is important to make it clear that the undermining of the Republic that was the program of Donald Trump must never happen again and that the punishment for such behavior is sure and harsh. In addition, however, putting Trump in prison is a way to shut him up, to remove his poisonous influence from the body politic.

A say, as I have said before, “Lock him up!”

Meteor Hunting

This past weekend, I went meteor hunting. August, of course, is the month in which the Perseid Meteor Shower can be seen, and the celestial show was supposed to be at its zenith Saturday and Sunday. I have fond memories of my first encounter with the Perseids. I was attending family camp at Sheldon Calvary Camp, an Episcopal Church retreat on Lake Erie. I lay on the grass and watched one meteor after another one memorable night. I have been trying to duplicate that evening of wonder ever since.

To view the Perseids, one needs three things: the right timing, darkness, and a clear sky. I could generally get the timing right, but finding a place away from urban lights has always been a problem. And clear skies always seemed a big problem in southwestern Pennsylvania. Last year, on the condominium deck in a dimly lit development, I did see a handful of meteors, one of which was dramatic.

Having lived in Clifton Springs, New York, for less than a year, I wasn’t sure where I might find a good spot to view meteors. According to The New York Times, the best time to see meteors is between midnight and dawn. I am not such an astrology freak that I was willing to lose a major chunk of sleep to view the sky at the ideal hour. I thought I might have a fair shot of finding darkness at an earlier hour, and I hoped that the weather would coöperate.

Saturday afternoon had seen showers—the watery kind—and I wasn’t sure whether the cloud cover would prevent me from seeing anything in the sky. Nonetheless, I set out after 10 o’clock to have a look. There are two parks a block from my apartment, and I suspected that in one of those, it would be dark enough for meteor viewing. What I discovered is that this small village has a lot of illumination at night. There are streetlamps on Spring Street, lights from the apartments on Main Street, and, much to my surprise, bright lighting at the large pavilion in one of the parks. Nevertheless, I lay down on a paved path in the park near the pavilion and looked up at the sky. I saw some sky, but, mostly, I saw clouds. After 20 minutes or so, I gave up my search.

I decided to try my luck on Sunday. After 10 o’clock, I set out with water bottle and exercise mat. I walked around a bit looking for a dark spot and ended up on a pickleball court in the other park. I decided this position was dark enough. Moreover, lying on my exercise mat was considerably more comfortable than lying on concrete, as I had the night before. I lay on the pickleball court for about an hour. The sky was mostly clear, although some clouds drifted by from time to time.

I am happy to report that I did see meteors. I saw one really good one. There were others that I think I saw but cannot be sure about. They were faint, were not where I had been looking, and were visible for but a brief moment. Watching the sky was like an eye test I’ve been subjected to in which I had to press a button when I saw a flash but was often unsure whether I had seen something or not.

Although I had not duplicated my experience of 30 years earlier, I returned home. At least I had seen some meteors. Perhaps I will be more ambitious and lucky next year.

August 12, 2023

A Delightful Organ Concert

Organ in its present home,
the former Methodist Episcopal Church
On August 6, I attended an organ concert in Lodi, New York, some 36 miles from where I now live. A friend had made me aware of the concert; my usual sources of event information were silent on the matter. I am a fan of organs generally, but what attracted me to the recent concert was that the instrument being played was an 1852 instrument made by E. & G. G. Hook. (The instrument is Hook Opus 140. The Hook firm built more than 2500 organs over its lifetime.) The concert was sponsored by the Lodi Historical Society. The Historical Society owns the former church in which the organ is installed. Opus 140 was erected originally in Canandaigua, New York. The organ remains substantially as built, though the decoration on the visible pipes is a later addition.

The musicians are all members of the Sears family. Both Father David F. Sears and daughter Rebecca A. Sears hold doctoral degrees. Mother Permelia S. Sears has a master’s degree in organ performance. The entire program involved the organ. David played organ and piano; Permelia played organ and viola; and Rebecca played violin and piano. The concert was the only organ concert I can remember that included no music from any member of the Bach family. The music was from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The Sears family is apparently dedicated to playing old tracker-action organs, and they do a fine job of it.

The organ is a two-manual affair of 14 ranks. I am told it is tuned to a pitch of A=444 Hz using unequal temperament. Since it lacks the ability to choose a desired collection of ranks at the push of a button, the organ was often being played by one person while two other people were pulling and pushing stops. The 
Searses were resourceful in playing music intended for a larger instrument. There were occasionally two people at the console and, in a transcription of the Grand March from Aida, Rebecca played on the grand piano to compensate for the fact that the organ’s 16-foot pedal stop has only 13 pipes. The Aida March was surprisingly effective.

If you ever have an opportunity to hear these musicians in concert, be sure to avail yourself of it.

Organ and instrumentalists before concert
L to R: David, Permelia, Rebecca

July 19, 2023

“Yo”

I occasionally write a comment in response to an opinion piece from The New York Times. My thoughts may have little influence, but it is satisfying to express a strong opinion or point out a fact or idea not considered in the original essay.

I was frustrated today that, after reading “Is ‘Yo’ the Gender-Neutral Pronoun We’re Looking For?” by linguistics professor John McWhorter, I was not given the opportunity to leave a comment. Was the essay so controversial that the Times didn’t want to encourage a fight among its readers? Is Professor McWhorter too busy to be bothered with reader feedback? I’m not sure how often opinion pieces in the Times do not support reader comments, but never before have I wanted to write a response but was not given the opportunity to do so.

McWhorter correctly notes that the lack of a gender-neutral personal pronoun in English creates problems and that various neologisms have been offered to solve the problem. None has caught on. Actually, I don’t think “yo” is the solution. (Is there a declension for “yo” or is it the same in every case and number?) Actually, English has a gender-neutral pronoun: “it.” No one seems comfortable using that pronoun to refer to people, however. (There is no distinctive plural of “it,” of course, so this might be considered a problem.) I have often thought that we should refer to God as “It” if we truly believe that the deity is sexless. One could make a case for “They” to refer to the Trinity. But I digress.

McWhorter mentions the use of “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun, suggesting that this usage might have a bright future. Frankly, it drives me crazy. I have often encountered such a “they” without a trigger warning that it is intended to refer to a single person. I then search the preceding text to figure out who are the persons “they” refers to.

Well, the Times hasn’t let me rant, but there are other venues for comment.