Jan 022017
 

I captured this close captioning gem several days ago but then promptly forgot about it.

I know, I know, it’s not easy to caption a conversation in real time. But it was still hilariously funny. Thanks for a good morning laugh.

For what it’s worth, as I recall the word that was actually used was “agree”. How that turned into “pee”, I have no idea.

 Posted by at 8:37 pm
Oct 302016
 

Yesterday afternoon, I received a phone call from our prospective Liberal candidate in the upcoming provincial by-election.

Although I voted Liberal in the past, I was never particularly fond of our previous MPP, Madeleine Meilleur. (It didn’t help that back when she was still city councillor, when I once wrote to her about an issue, she never even bothered to send back an acknowledgement. And this was back in the snail mail days.) So despite my vote, I am not what they call an enthusiastic supporter.

Anyhow, Nathalie Des Rosiers called yesterday, and I had a delightful conversation with her that lasted maybe 10 minutes. For starters, I learned that she spent years working with one of our neighbors, whom I respect highly. She also used a phrase that I welcomed very much: “Evidence-based governance.” Most importantly, she patiently listened to me on the phone, even when I was less than eloquent with my concerns about Ontario politics (apologetically, I had to explain to her that my mind has been preoccupied lately with the US election campaign and the prospect of a Donald presidency.)

All in all, Ms. Des Rosiers left me with a very good impression. I am glad that someone with her attitude and qualifications is running for office, and I hope she succeeds.

 Posted by at 2:38 pm
Jun 122016
 

Exactly thirty years ago today, I grabbed a suitcase, a bag and my passport, and boarded a train from Budapest to Vienna, with the intent never to return.

A few hours later, I arrived at Vienna’s Westbahnhof, where I left my suitcase at the left luggage office and proceeded to Traiskirchen, to register as an East Bloc refugee. Thus, my new life began.

Little did I know in the summer of 1986 that in a few short years, the Berlin Wall would crumble; that most communist regimes would peacefully transition to pluralist democracies; or that even the mighty Soviet Union would come to an inglorious end after a failed coup.

And a good thing, too, as otherwise I might have stayed put. And then, I could have experienced from the inside what it is like to live in a country in which the great democratic experiment is faltering; one in which xenophobia (if not outright racism) prevails, fueled by a distorted view of history and a perpetual sense of victimhood.

Instead, I ended up a citizen of Canada. July 16 will mark the day of my arrival in Ottawa 29 years ago. I now call this city my home. My memories go back much further, as I had the good fortune to visit here back in the summer of 1973, when I was only 10. So although I didn’t quite grow up here, sometimes it almost feels like I did.

Of course I have not forgotten the city of my birth, Budapest. I love the history of that city, I love mundane things about it like its streetcars and other bits of its infrastructure. But it’s no longer my home. I feel like a stranger in town who happens to know the geography and speak the language… but who is far, far removed from its daily life. And sometimes, knowing the language is a curse: such as when I walk down the street and stop at a red light, only to overhear a young person yakking on her phone about that “dirty Jew”. Yes, such language, which I once thought was condemned to the cesspit of history, is not uncommon in Budapest these days, which breaks my heart.

So I consider myself lucky that I left when I did. I consider myself very fortunate that I had the opportunity to become Canadian.

Thirty years is a long time in a person’s life. Thinking back… I don’t really remember what I was like back in 1986. The world was a very different place, to be sure. The year I spent in Vienna… it was educational. At first, when I ran out of the small amount of money I had in my pockets, it was scary. But then… I found a job of sorts. I started to make some friends. People who owed me absolutely nothing were nice to me, helped me, offered me opportunities. And then, the same thing happened in Canada. First, my aunt and her family, who offered me a place to stay and helped me get started. Then, a mere three weeks after my arrival, a per-diem contract. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was vastly underpaid, but no matter: it was money, real money for professional work, not for washing dishes somewhere. And it allowed me to rent an apartment and begin my new life for real.

Many things happened since then, some good, some bad; but mostly good, so I have no complaints. It has been an interesting journey, which began with a first class ticket (who says a refugee cannot travel in style?) on the Wiener Walzer express train one early June morning in 1986.

 Posted by at 5:40 pm
Jun 082016
 

Whoops.

Here is what happened in downtown Ottawa, just a 15-minute walk from my home:

rideau-street-ottawa-sinkhole-june-8-2016

That’s one big hole. I hope it doesn’t start swallowing nearby buildings.

And yes, I feel very fortunate today that I do not need to commute to work.

And it has happened before, in 1924:

rideau-1924-sinkhole

 Posted by at 2:56 pm
Apr 072016
 

News item from Google news: Ottawa taxi drivers plan to blockade city bus depots.

Oh really? You jackasses really believe that this is the way to gain support at Ottawa city hall?

OK, they now claim that it’s just a rumor. I am not convinced.

I hope your industry dies, like, yesterday.

Not long ago, I was committed to using regular taxis (on the rare occasions I needed one) and not rely on untested, unproven, new services like Uber.

It was the taxi industry and their thuggish reaction to Uber’s disruptive technology that convinced me otherwise.

Thugs have no place on our city’s streets. Not even when they are masquerading as licensed taxi drivers.

Perhaps if, instead of acting like a criminal gang, you had focused on making your cars cleaner, your service more reliable, your drivers better dressed and better behaved, most of us would still remain committed to your service.

 Posted by at 1:57 am
Mar 182016
 

Yesterday, I went to see my barber. When I found the shop open, I was delighted that he kept his promise: he planned to retire at the end of last year, but on my last visit, he told me that he’d be keeping the shop open for a while longer. (Yes, it’s been that long since my last haircut. I don’t like haircuts, but when even my wife notices that I am beginning to look like Albert Einstein, I remind myself that you first have to match Einstein’s output as a physicist before you’re allowed to look like him.)

When I entered the shop, I noticed that it was under renovation. But the sign said that it was open! In fact, it was a brand new electronic sign that advertised the business hours. I didn’t see a soul in sight so I hollered, “hello?” and a young, brown-skinned man soon emerged. He assured me that the shop was indeed open for business, so I made the requisite leap in logic and realized that Michel, the old barber, must have retired after all. I asked the young man if he was going to be my new barber.

Soon, I learned a little bit about Paulos the barber. He came to Canada from Ethiopia about five years ago with his brother. Since then, they managed to sponsor several family members. Paulos is a lean, tall 41-year old man, though he looks much younger. He told me that he found the shop advertised on Kijiji and decided to go for it. He told me of his plans to hire 2-3 additional barbers, and create a much more welcoming shop with Wi-Fi and a coffee machine. I took a closer look at his hours: He is keeping the shop open, for now all by himself, from 9 AM until 8 PM every weekday, and until 6 PM on Saturdays.

paulos

Meanwhile, Paulos finished my haircut. When I asked him how much I owe, he told me that it’s whatever I used to pay Michel. So I paid the same amount, with tip, that I used to pay.

As I left the barber shop, I was shaking my head. Damn immigrants, I thought. They have the audacity to come to this country in search of a better life. And the cheek! Never mind making a living, working extra long hours, they actually plan to create jobs! How dare they.

And the cultural rift. It is hard to find a pair of countries more culturally different than Ethiopia and Canada. Yet he has the chutzpah to do this… finding his place in Canadian society, taking over a business from a retiring French Canadian gentleman and daring to be successful.

What a horrible thing that these immigrants are doing. What hubris… instead of being on welfare and being a burden on society, they dare to make this country better, enrich it with their hard work, contribute to its colorful multiculturalism. It is absolutely intolerable. Just what is this place coming to?

 Posted by at 9:50 pm
Mar 092016
 

Our long-serving Member of Parliament, Mauril Bélanger, was the recipient of an unprecedented honor today: He was named honorary Speaker of the House.

Unfortunately, we could not hear Mr. Bélanger speak. That is because he is suffering from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease (its most famous sufferer alive is the physicist Stephen Hawking), which is rapidly progressing; since his initial diagnosis last fall, he lost the ability to speak, so it was his iPad that was speaking for him.

The illness also ended his dream of becoming Speaker of the House, which explains the honor that has been bestowed on him today.

I have a lot of respect for Mr. Bélanger. Over the years, I wrote to him a few times with my concerns, and on more than one occasion I received a personal response, either in the form of a latter or, in one case, in the form of a telephone call. In short, Mr. Bélanger appeared to take the idea of representing his constituents very seriously.

He may have lost the ability to speak but he has not yet lost all his mobility. Although he needed some help, he was able to walk into the Chamber on his own two feet.

It was a moving moment, and I am glad I caught it on the CBC. Thank you, Mr. Bélanger.

 Posted by at 4:30 pm
Mar 032016
 

I was watching the news this morning. Including the weather. And then I double-checked my calendar, wondering if I perhaps became delusional: Is this really March, or is it still January?

Then again, tonight supposedly it’ll get even colder.

 Posted by at 8:17 am
Dec 242015
 

Here is the Weather Network’s forecast for today that was made a couple of days ago:

No, they weren’t lying. Here is what my thermometer showed just a few minutes ago:

20151224_113346

And it’s already less than what it was; the temperature dropped from 16.4 to 16.2 degrees Centigrade in the past half hour.

May not be impressive for a place like Dubai or Mumbai but lest we forget, I live in Ottawa, supposedly the second coldest capital city on Earth.

Needless to say, we are not going to have a white Christmas this year.

 Posted by at 11:42 am
Nov 292015
 

The other day, I saw a curious full-page advertisement in the copy of Ottawa Life magazine that came bundled with my morning Globe and Mail.

It contained phrases and symbology that I am no longer accustomed to see. What caught my eye at first was the red background, complete with five-pointed golden stars and an image of a statue containing a group of heroic figures. Stuff once common on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

Presented by the Embassy of the PRC, it was an advertisement in commemoration of the “Victory of the World Anti-Fascist War” as well as the “Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression”. Symbology and awkward language notwithstanding, knowing what I know about the brutality of Japan’s failed conquest of the Middle Kingdom (including the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons), I believe China has every right to celebrate proudly. Western bias notwithstanding, arguably the true starting date of World War 2 is July 7, 1937, the beginning of Japan’s attempt at a full-scale invasion, and it took a full eight years for this nightmare to end (though not the Chinese Civil War).

 Posted by at 5:25 pm
Oct 072015
 

It’s time for me to write about physics again. I have a splendid reason: one of the recipients of this year’s physics Nobel is from Kingston, Ontario, which is practically in Ottawa’s backyard. He is recognized for his contribution to the discovery of neutrino oscillations. So I thought I’d write about neutrino oscillations a little.

Without getting into too much detail, the standard way of describing a theory of quantum fields is by writing down the so-called Lagrangian density of the theory. This Lagrangian density represents the kinetic and potential energies of the system, including so-called “mass terms” for fields that are massive. (Which, in quantum field theory, is the same as saying that the particles we associate with the unit oscillations of these fields have a specific mass.)

Now most massive particles in the Standard Model acquire their masses by interacting with the celebrated Higgs field in various ways. Not neutrinos though; indeed, until the mid 1990s or so, neutrinos were believed to be massless.

But then, neutrino oscillations were discovered and the physics community began to accept that neutrinos may be massive after all.

So what is this about oscillations? Neutrinos are somewhat complicated things, but I can demonstrate the concept using two hypothetical “scalar” particles (doesn’t matter what they are; the point is, their math is simpler than that of neutrinos.) So let’s have a scalar particle named \(\phi\). Let’s suppose it has a mass, \(\mu\). The mass term in the Lagrangian would actually be in the form, \(\frac{1}{2}\mu\phi^2\).

Now let’s have another scalar particle, \(\psi\), with mass \(\rho\). This means another mass term in the Lagrangian: \(\frac{1}{2}\rho\psi^2\).

But now I want to be clever and combine these two particles into a two-element abstract vector, a “doublet”. Then, using the laws of matrix multiplication, I could write the mass term as

$$\frac{1}{2}\begin{pmatrix}\phi&\psi\end{pmatrix}\cdot\begin{pmatrix}\mu&0\\0&\rho\end{pmatrix}\cdot\begin{pmatrix}\phi\\\psi\end{pmatrix}=\frac{1}{2}\mu\phi^2+\frac{1}{2}\rho\psi^2.$$

Clever, huh?

But now… let us suppose that there is also an interaction between the two fields. In the Lagrangian, this interaction would be represented by a term such as \(\epsilon\phi\psi\). Putting \(\epsilon\) into the “0” slots of the matrix, we get

$$\frac{1}{2}\begin{pmatrix}\phi&\psi\end{pmatrix}\cdot\begin{pmatrix}\mu&\epsilon\\\epsilon&\rho\end{pmatrix}\cdot\begin{pmatrix}\phi\\\psi\end{pmatrix}=\frac{1}{2}\mu\phi^2+\frac{1}{2}\rho\psi^2+\epsilon\phi\psi.$$

And here is where things get really interesting. That is because we can re-express this new matrix using a combination of a diagonal matrix and a rotation matrix (and its transpose):

$$\begin{pmatrix}\mu&\epsilon\\\epsilon&\rho\end{pmatrix}=\begin{pmatrix}\cos\theta/2&\sin\theta/2\\-\sin\theta/2&\cos\theta/2\end{pmatrix}\cdot\begin{pmatrix}\hat\mu&0\\0&\hat\rho\end{pmatrix}\cdot\begin{pmatrix}\cos\theta/2&-\sin\theta/2\\\sin\theta/2&\cos\theta/2\end{pmatrix},$$

which is equivalent to

$$\begin{pmatrix}\hat\mu&0\\0&\hat\rho\end{pmatrix}=\begin{pmatrix}\cos\theta/2&-\sin\theta/2\\\sin\theta/2&\cos\theta/2\end{pmatrix}\cdot\begin{pmatrix}\mu&\epsilon\\\epsilon&\rho\end{pmatrix}\cdot\begin{pmatrix}\cos\theta/2&\sin\theta/2\\-\sin\theta/2&\cos\theta/2\end{pmatrix},$$

or

$$\begin{pmatrix}\hat\mu&0\\0&\hat\rho\end{pmatrix}=\frac{1}{2}\begin{pmatrix}\mu+\rho+(\mu-\rho)\cos\theta-2\epsilon\sin\theta&(\rho-\mu)\sin\theta-2\epsilon\cos\theta\\(\rho-\mu)\sin\theta-2\epsilon\cos\theta&\mu+\rho+(\rho-\mu)\cos\theta+2\epsilon\sin\theta\end{pmatrix},$$

which tells us that \(\tan\theta=2\epsilon/(\rho-\mu)\), which works so long as \(\rho\ne\mu\).

Now why is this interesting? Because we can now write

\begin{align}\frac{1}{2}&\begin{pmatrix}\phi&\psi\end{pmatrix}\cdot\begin{pmatrix}\mu&\epsilon\\\epsilon&\rho\end{pmatrix}\cdot\begin{pmatrix}\phi\\\psi\end{pmatrix}\\
&{}=\frac{1}{2}\begin{pmatrix}\phi&\psi\end{pmatrix}\cdot\begin{pmatrix}\cos\theta/2&\sin\theta/2\\-\sin\theta/2&\cos\theta/2\end{pmatrix}\cdot\begin{pmatrix}\hat\mu&0\\0&\hat\rho\end{pmatrix}\cdot\begin{pmatrix}\cos\theta/2&-\sin\theta/2\\\sin\theta/2&\cos\theta/2\end{pmatrix}\cdot\begin{pmatrix}\phi\\\psi\end{pmatrix}\\
&{}=\frac{1}{2}\begin{pmatrix}\hat\phi&\hat\psi\end{pmatrix}\cdot\begin{pmatrix}\hat\mu&0\\0&\hat\rho\end{pmatrix}\cdot\begin{pmatrix}\hat\phi\\\hat\psi\end{pmatrix}.\end{align}

What just happened, you ask? Well, we just rotated the abstract vector \((\phi,\psi)\) by the angle \(\theta/2\), and as a result, diagonalized the expression. Which is to say that whereas previously, we had two interacting fields \(\phi\) and \(\psi\) with masses \(\mu\) and \(\rho\), we now re-expressed the same physics using the two non-interacting fields \(\hat\phi\) and \(\hat\psi\) with masses \(\hat\mu\) and \(\hat\rho\).

So what is actually taking place here? Suppose that the doublet \((\phi,\psi)\) interacts with some other field, allowing us to measure the flavor of an excitation (particle) as being either a \(\phi\) or a \(\psi\). So far, so good.

However, when we attempt to measure the mass of the doublet, we will not measure \(\mu\) or \(\rho\), because the two states interact. Instead, we will measure \(\hat\mu\) or \(\hat\rho\), corresponding to the states \(\hat\phi\) or \(\hat\psi\), respectively: that is, one of the mass eigenstates.

Which means that if we first perform a flavor measurement, forcing the particle to be in either the \(\phi\) or the \(\psi\) state, followed by a mass measurement, there will be a nonzero probability of finding it in either the \(\hat\phi\) or the \(\hat\psi\) state, with corresponding masses \(\hat\mu\) or \(\hat\rho\). Conversely, if we first perform a mass measurement, the particle will be either in the \(\hat\phi\) or the \(\hat\psi\) state; a subsequent flavor measurement, therefore, may give either \(\phi\) or \(\psi\) with some probability.

In short, the flavor and mass eigenstates do not coincide.

This is more or less how neutrino oscillations work (again, omitting a lot of important details), except things get a bit more complicated, as neutrinos are fermions, not scalars, and the number of flavors is three, not two. But the basic principle remains the same.

This is a unique feature of neutrinos, by the way. Other particles, e.g., charged leptons, do not have mass eigenstates that are distinct from their flavor eigenstates. The mechanism that gives them masses is also different: instead of a self-interaction in the form of a mass matrix, charged leptons (as well as quarks) obtain their masses by interacting with the Higgs field. But that is a story for another day.

 Posted by at 9:47 pm
Sep 082015
 

I used to be sympathetic to the woes of taxi drivers in face of the semi-legal competition represented by Uber, and ambivalent about Uber’s ambitions.

This is no longer the case.

If taxi drivers really think that it is kosher to protest (not even about Uber this time, but about an airport pickup fee) by blocking the road to Ottawa airport…

I guess, it’s your way, dear taxi drivers, of telling us, citizens of Ottawa, to get screwed. Well… screw you, too. The sooner Uber kills your obsolete business model with scarce overpriced licenses, old and smelly taxis, taxi drivers with limited English or French and limited knowledge of the city who nonetheless yak or text on the phone while driving, the better. Good riddance. You just lost all my sympathy, and I guess I am not alone. From now on, it’s Uber for me.

 Posted by at 5:14 pm
Mar 042015
 

Five days ago, I was sitting on an Emirates Airlines flight from Dubai to Budapest.

Our flight took an unusual route. Normally (well, at least within my limited experience) such flights take a route north of Iraq, flying over Iranian airspace towards Turkey. Not this time: We flew across the Saudi desert instead, then turned north over the Sinai peninsula before entering Turkish airspace and turning northwest again. I was wondering about that kink in our trajectory: was it weather or perhaps some airspace over the Mediterranean was closed for military reasons?

As a service to business class customers, Emirates provides a limo service to the destination of your choice on arrival. I was wondering how I would find the limo pick-up location, but it was easier than I thought: the chauffeur was waiting for me at the customs exit, holding up a sign bearing my name. During the journey to my hotel, he told me about his son who wishes to become a particle physicist at CERN. So for a while, we were discussing the Higgs boson and teraelectronvolts, instead of more customary topics, like Hungarian politics.

I rented a car in Budapest, for my mother and I to take a short trip to southern Hungary, to visit my mother-in-law. As we had the car for a whole weekend, on Sunday we decided to take another small trip, this time to the north of Budapest, the small but historical city of Visegrád.

I used to live in Visegrád, from 1974 to 1977, mostly in this building:

At the time, this building served as a resort owned by the Hungarian Industrial Association. As a member of a crafts artisan cooperative, my mother was entitled to vacation in this place, which we did in the spring of 1974. This is how she came to meet my stepfather who at the time was the manager of this facility. To make a long story short, we lived in the manager’s apartment for several years, while my parents built a new house in the same town. I have fond memories of this place.

Today, it serves as a home for the elderly. It seems to be well taken care of. Much to my surprise, one of its terraces appears to have been converted into a chicken coop, complete with a rather loud rooster:

Other than these two excursions and a brief visit to a 91-year old friend who recently had a serious health crisis, I spent most of my time at my parents’ place, a small apartment on the Buda side, nearly filled by a giant dog and his favorite toy:

My parents are very fond of this animal. He is nice, but I remain committed to cats. They are quieter, smell nicer, and require a whole lot less maintenance.

And all too soon, I was on another airplane, flying “business class” on British Airways to London. I had to put “business class” in quotation marks, as there was ridiculously little legroom on this middle-aged A320:

At least, the middle seats were converted into an extra tray instead.

And the flight left Budapest nearly an hour late. The reason? The air crew arrived in Budapest late the previous night, and they had to have their mandatory rest. This presented a potentially serious problem for me: the possibility that I would miss my connecting flight, which, to make things worse, was purchased separately. I probably broke some records at Heathrow Airport as I managed to make it from the arrival gate in Terminal 3 to the Terminal 2 departure gate in only 32 minutes, which included a bus ride between terminals and going through security. I made it with about 10 minutes to spare. I checked and I was told that my suitcase made it, too.

I have to say, while I like both Air Canada and British Airways, their service doesn’t even come close to the quality of service I enjoyed on Emirates or Etihad. And I am not just referring to legroom or the age of the aircraft (the Emirates flight to Budapest was a really aged A330 and the seats, while a great deal more comfortable than these British Airways seats, were nonetheless a little cramped) but also the attentiveness of the staff on board.

Still, the flight was pleasant (except for some rather severe turbulence near the southern trip of Greenland), and some eight hours later, I was back in sunny snowy Ottawa. The land of deep freeze, where the Rideau Canal is breaking all kinds of records, having been open for well over 50 consecutive days already.

 Posted by at 9:06 am
Oct 302014
 

The parkways of the Gatineau Park are now closed and the autumn colors are nearly gone. Still, my wife and I enjoyed a pleasant walk today in the outskirts of the park, after a fine lunch at Le Buffet des Continents.

Autumn remains my favorite season. My only complaint is that it ends too soon, and it is often followed by a nasty winter.

 Posted by at 3:39 pm
Oct 292014
 

This afternoon, I felt compelled to take a walk to downtown Ottawa. Our home is within walking distance of Parliament Hill and the National War Memorial, where a deranged shooter killed a ceremonial guard, Corporal Nathan Cirillo.

It was a beautiful autumn day and the walk was very enjoyable. On my way downtown, I dropped by my favorite computer store (Canada Computers, on Rideau Street) to purchase some needed cables. Then I continued.

There was quite a crowd at the War Memorial, and it was full of flowers. Flowers, flowers and more flowers. Also, many Canadian flags.

And it so happened that I was very lucky: I caught the changing of the guard ceremony. I even managed to record it on video.

Near the end of the clip, a police officer (armed with what appeared to be a fully automatic weapon) crosses in front of my phone camera. He apologized for doing so (I can be heard muttering, “no problem,” on the video). After I was done recording, I stepped over to the policeman and had a brief conversation with him. I mentioned to him that it is an unfortunate necessity that he has to be part of the picture. He understood immediately what I meant. I also thanked him for his service.

I then carried on, right up to Parliament Hill. As a free citizen of a free country, I entered the grounds without encountering any guards, obstacles, metal detectors or other obscenities. It occurred to me that this is the first time I walked on Parliament Hill in 41 years.

The flag on top of the Peace Tower is still at half mast.

I also managed to take a panoramic photo of sorts of the view from the Hill:

Ottawa is still a beautiful city. And, having just returned from the Middle East, it was good to reassure myself that it remains a free city of a free people.

 Posted by at 6:54 pm
Oct 222014
 

So here I am, late at night, sitting in an Abu Dhabi hotel room, watching local TV streaming from my workstation in Ottawa with the news of a shooting taking place just over a kilometer away from my home.

The shooter is dead. Hopefully, he was the only one. Let him rot.

 Posted by at 5:32 pm
Jul 312014
 

I like Staples stores. I often shop at Staples stores, and not just for office supplies… I find that they have a reasonable lineup of computer and office electronics products, too, and sometimes I find “no frills” accessories at Staples (e.g., a plain PC keyboard with no fancy lights, buttons, or extra functions) that are difficult to find elsewhere.

Recently, a friend of mine (let me call him Sam; that is not his real name, but it will make it easier to tell the story) was contemplating the purchase of a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet. Much to my delight, I saw that Staples, specifically the Staples store at the South Keys mall in Ottawa, already had them in stock. So I naturally suggested to Sam that he should consider purchasing one there. After all, beyond supporting the local economy, a purchase in a brick-and-mortar store also means you have readily available support in case something goes wrong, instead of having to deal with someone from the Philippines over the telephone and then leave an expensive device at the mercy of a courier company when you need service. Well… I was really wrong on that one.

What happened is that Sam indeed went ahead and purchased his Surface Pro 3. As he also had a nice, older flat panel display with a VGA connector, he wanted to purchase an appropriate adapter. The Surface Pro 3 has a DisplayPort plug, which has become pretty much the new standard, capable of delivering images at ultra-HD resolution. Now Sam wasn’t (yet) interested in UHD, but he certainly wanted to be able to view his new tablet/laptop comfortably at home, taking advantage of a larger screen. He also wanted a VGA adapter in case he might use the Surface Pro 3 in the future to give talks; many institutions still have projector facilities that are equipped with a standard VGA cable.

The first adapter sold by Staples was an adapter for the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2. When Sam tried it at home, the adapter did not work. He returned it to the store, where they informed him that the Microsoft adapter is not compatible with his Surface Pro 3. (Could it be that they actually sold the micro-HDMI adapter that is for the Surface RT?) They exchanged the adapter for another, made by Apple, which was supposed to be generic and work with any DisplayPort device.

Except that it didn’t. When Sam plugged in the adapter, the Surface Pro 3 recognized the monitor, but no picture was displayed.

So Sam returned to the store, this time with Surface Pro 3 in hand, asking them to help again and perhaps demonstrate how he is supposed to accomplish this supposedly simple task: connecting his new tablet to a VGA display.

After trying several monitors (the store staff carefully avoided touching Sam’s device; he was asked to plug in the cables into his own tablet) with no success, the sales clerk concluded that the tablet’s DisplayPort connector was faulty.

So Sam asked to have his Surface Pro 3 replaced. Sure, they told him, they can do that as he is still within the store’s 14-day return policy window. When Sam revealed that he only had a photocopy of the receipt (the original was with his employer, as it contained other items as well, for which he was reimbursed) the clerk told him that only the original receipt is accepted.  This being a Friday, waiting until Monday was not an option as the 14 days were almost up. So Sam rushed back to get the original receipt and then returned to the store to arrange the replacement.

However, the store refused his request. Their technician examined the device and concluded that the DisplayPort socket must have been damaged by Sam. They explained that they can only replace a device that can be repackaged and sold. They also told Sam that it was all his fault; he should have purchased an extended warranty. Bottom line: the store told Sam to try his luck with Microsoft, as they had absolutely no interest in resolving this matter to Sam’s satisfaction. The risk that they might be stuck with a device that would not be accepted as a warranty return by Microsoft was not acceptable to them.

Needless to say, Sam was extremely disappointed. He wowed never to shop at Staples again (at South Keys or anywhere else). Indeed, he decided not to consider purchasing a nice UHD monitor that I saw at this very Staples, and which I recommended to him.

When Sam returned home, he phoned Microsoft. He gave them the details of his story. When Microsoft understood that the device was purchased less than 14 days earlier, they immediately offered to replace it, no questions asked, free of charge. Sam gave them a credit card number for security, and the replacement Surface Pro 3 arrived the following Monday morning, shipped over the weekend. Sam then returned the damaged device using the shipping label that Microsoft provided; tracking the package, he ascertained that it has since been received by Microsoft.

I felt very bad about this affair, since I was the one who recommended Staples to my friend in the first place. I thought a lot about what happened to him. Was Staples right? Well… let me assume that their interpretation of the facts is absolutely correct and that there were no ulterior motives (I have my doubts, especially in light of their snide comments about Sam’s failure to purchase a worthless extended warranty, but let me give them the benefit of the doubt.) Well… perhaps what they did was legal, but it was still insanely bad policy.

First, Sam did not do anything inappropriate with his new tablet. He was not trying to use it to swat flies, chop trees, or paddle his boat. He was trying to connect a device that was, in fact, provided to him by Staples. So even if it was his hands that caused damage to the connector, I’d argue that Staples bears at least some responsibility.

Second, Microsoft would likely have accepted the return from Staples just as easily as they accepted it from Sam (unless Staples already had a bad reputation with Microsoft with an excessive percentage of warranty returns.) The actual damage is arguably the manufacturer’s fault (a connector should be a little more resilient than that) and in any case, in an appropriately equipped service center, the repair (disassembling the device, desoldering the faulty connector, soldering in a new connector, reassembling and testing the device) would consume no more than a few minutes of a qualified technician’s time.

Third, and most importantly… Even if there was some risk to Staples, isn’t it precisely why we pay a premium and make purchases at brick-and-mortar stores? At the very least, we would expect better support from a local store than the standard set by online retailers like, say, Amazon or TigerDirect.

And sometimes, we get that level of support, even from retail chains that compete with Staples directly. I am thinking about Future Shop, specifically the Future Shop store on Ogilvie Road. A few years back, I purchased a digital camera and photo printer there, as a gift for my Mom in Hungary. I asked the clerk if the printer (which also served as a charger) came with a universal adapter that would work in Europe. Sure, I was told, all adapters are like that nowadays. Yet a few weeks later, as I was setting up the printer in my Mom’s Budapest apartment, the moment I plugged it in, the adapter went up in smoke… sure enough, its label read, 90-120V AC or something like that.

My fault. I should have read the damn label. Still, upon my return, when I next visited the same Future Shop store, I recounted my sad tale to a clerk, and also told him that I was able to find a replacement adapter online, and shipped it to my Mom. Guess what… the clerk asked me to wait a little, vanished for a moment, and returned with a manager who asked me to retell my story. When I was done, he told me that Future Shop would reimburse all my expenses in the form of a gift card. I protested, as it really was my fault! No, they told me, they stand by their products and the advice given by their store clerks, so if I was misled, even if inadvertently, they should reimburse me. And they did.

This happened a number of years ago but I remain a frequent visitor at that store, and in Future Shop stores in particular, ever since. Now this is how a brick-and-mortar store can still hang on to its customers, despite the online competition.

Not the way Staples South Keys treated my friend.

 Posted by at 9:43 pm
Jul 102014
 

Two days ago, I was driving south on Bank Street when I saw this:

Yes, a double rainbow. The last time I saw a double rainbow like this was nearly 20 years ago, when my wife and I were driving through the Rocky Mountains on our way to California.

 Posted by at 8:30 am