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 282014

Well, since I referred to the Katzenbande using a German word, I think it’s only appropriate to use German again to describe tonight’s visitor.

This cat, called MJ by his owner but Pizsomó (pajamas, but in a diminutive form) by us due to the pajama-like pattern of his coat, has been calling on us for many years. We think he first paid a visit sometime back in 2005. He doesn’t come often anymore (a good thing, too, as he has to cross a somewhat wide street to get here) but tonight, he must have gotten wind that I am inventorying the Katzenbande; he showed up just a few minutes ago.

MJ is a famous cat, by the way. Along with his buddy, Misty, they can be seen in an April, 2012 Google Street View image.

 Posted by at 11:08 pm
Jul 282014

It has been a while since I last wrote about our cats.

First and foremost, about our sick kitty, Szürke, whose name means gray in Hungarian. Szürke spends most of his time nowadays in cardboard boxes, where he feels comfortable and safe.

His anemia is under control, but his kidneys are not getting any better, and he is also struggling with a severe oral infection. He is getting lots of medications, and we are having a hard time keeping him well hydrated and fed. For now, though, he still enjoys a reasonable quality of life… I hope he will be with us for at least some time to come.

And then there is his brother, Kifli (the word is a type of thin croissant popular in Hungary; Kifli has the color of a bun, but he was much too thin as a kitten to be called “Zsömle”, so this is the name that he got stuck with. He doesn’t seem to mind.) When we got these two kittens, they were so small, both of them fit on the palm of one of my hands. And Kifli was the sickly one: we were so concerned about his health at one point, even his vaccinations were delayed.

Nonetheless, Kifli is now a healthy, big cat with no signs of any health problems at the age of 13 years and a few months.

Kifli’s best buddy these days is Pipacs (the name means poppy in Hungarian, and refers to his strikingly red fur of course.) Orange tabbies flock together! Pipacs is a scaredy cat who likes to hide under blankets a lot.

I guess this has to do with the fact that Pipacs was a stray; he showed up at our home during a time of major construction, and eventually we adopted him. He is sweet and lovely, but I hope I’ll never have to give him pills or feed him with a syringe; unlike Szürke, I am sure Pipacs will put up a mighty fight!

We also have another stray, Fluffy. (How else would you name a cat that is, well, just fluffy?)

Fluffy is not nearly as easy to scare as Pipacs, but she likes to hide under my desk during thunderstorms. I guess when you have such long, fluffy fur, getting wet is no fun.

Finally, we presently have a house guest: her name is Poppy and she is a return visitor.

Unlike our four cats, who are younger, Poppy is a 20th century cat. Her exact age is unknown, as she was adopted from a shelter, but she is believed to have been born in 1999 or perhaps even a little earlier. Poppy is an improbably small cat, with an improbably loud and deep voice. For instance, the other day, I was walking up the stairs when Poppy appeared on top, and I swear she honked at me like she was equipped with a foghorn or something. Poppy is such a fun cat, more than once my wife and I contemplated some grand conspiracy that would allow us to keep her.

So there you have it… a herd of five cats, a Katzenbande (I love that made-up German word). For what it’s worth, all these pictures were made earlier today.

 Posted by at 9:18 pm
Jul 262014

I don’t usually blog in two languages but I shall make an exception this time around: you see, my Mom’s and my stepfather’s cottage is for sale, and as it happens to be located in Hungary, the most likely interested parties are Hungarian.

To make a long story short, this is a waterfront property on a side branch of the Danube river not far from Budapest. The plot is about 4200 square feet, the cottage itself is about 500 square feet. It has electricity, running water, and natural gas heating. The property includes a licensed deck. It is accessible from a paved road that is maintained all year round. The asking price is HUF 12 million, or about USD 52,000 at current exchange rates.

Nem szokásom két nyelven bloggolni, de ez alkalommal kivételt teszek, miután Édesanyám és nevelőapám nyaralója eladó, s lévén hogy a nyaraló Magyarországon található, feltehetőleg az érdeklődők is leginkább magyarok lesznek.

Hogy rövidre fogjam, vízparti ingatlanról van szó, a Soroksári Dunaág mentén, Budapesttől nem messze. A telek kb. 390 m2, a nyaraló maga kb. 45 m2. Van villany, víz, s gázkonvektoros fűtés. Az ingatlanhoz engedélyezett stég tartozik. Aszfaltozott úton közelíthető meg, mely egész évben járható. A kért ár 12 millió forint.

And now a couple of pictures – És most pár kép:

My Mom's cottage – Anyámék nyaralója

My Moms’ cottage – Anyámék nyaralója

The waterfront deck of my Mom's cottage – Anyámék nyaralójához tartozó vízparti stég

The waterfront deck of my Moms’ cottage – Anyámék nyaralójához tartozó vízparti stég

The dog and the cat are not for sale; sadly, they are no longer around, as these pictures were made a few years back.

A kutya meg a macska nem eladó; sajnos már nincsenek meg, ezek a képek ugyanis pár évvel ezelőtt készültek.

Further pictures about the property can be seen on the Web site of a real estate agency. – Az ingatlanról további képek egy ingatlanügynök lapján tekinthetőek meg.

 Posted by at 2:20 pm
Jul 252014

The other day, responding to an e-mail in which I expressed my strong disapproval of the handling of the MH17 disaster by Putin’s government, someone suggested that I hate the Russians.

I most certainly do not. If anything, the contrary is true. I admire Russian culture, Russian literature, Russian music (ever listened to Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto? Or Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” symphony?) And I will always be amazed by the steadfast, grim determination of the Russian people as they repelled Hitler’s horrific aggression during the Great Patriotic War.

No, my comments were in reference to the actions of Mr. Putin’s government, which I do not confuse with “the Russians”. Despite the fact that apparently, a majority of Russians (for now) support Mr. Putin, there are many who do not. And a perfect, beautiful example of this came to light earlier today, when the opposition Russian newspaper (itself an endangered species) published the following cover page:

Looking at this cover, I don’t think that it is naive to place faith in the fundamental goodness and decency of “the Russians” even as we remain deeply critical of Putin’s thuggish behavior. This is especially true considering the personal risk that Novaya Gazeta’s journalists must face; four of them were murdered in recent years.

 Posted by at 11:20 pm
Jul 232014

In recent years, I’ve been struggling a little bit with my eyesight.

I’ve been nearsighted all my life, just like my Mom. I remember I once told my Mom when I was a child that at least as we get older, while other people get farsighted, for us the two will cancel out; and who knows, we may not even need glasses after a while.

Alas, that’s not how things work.

Myopia and presbyopia are not mutually exclusive. Just because you are nearsighted does not mean that your eye cannot lose its ability to focus. So you remain myopic, in need of glasses to see things that are afar; but the same glasses are no longer useful when you are staring at things up close.

So like many others at my age, I ended up with graduated prescription glasses: the top of the lens is meant to see far, whereas a lesser diopter is used at the bottom to help see things up close. Of course it also means that like many others in their fifties, I end up adopting that strange posture of holding my head up while reading a book in my hands, just to make sure that I look at the book through the appropriate part of the eyeglass lens.

And, I found, graduated glasses are by no means a perfect solution when it comes to staring at a computer screen. I found that I kept having to change the angle at which I kept my head, as I looked at different parts of the screen. It was frustrating and inconvenient, and indeed, it was interfering with my productivity.

Recently, I got a new pair of graduated glasses, in the hope that they will fix the problem, but they really didn’t.

So then, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I’ve known about a site, clearlycontacts.ca, for some time; they offer prescription glasses at a fraction of the cost you pay at a retail eye-wear store. So I ordered a new pair of “reading” glasses from them. Except that instead of giving them the “correct” prescription (+2 diopters for reading on both eyes relative to the baseline value for my myopia) I specified a smaller correction, halfway between the “reading” and the farsighted values.

The new pair of eyeglasses arrived Monday morning. As I opened the box, I was trying to tame my expectations; after all, you’re not supposed to play eye doctor with your prescription. I opened the box, took out the new glasses, put them on, and… WOW. I can finally see my entire screen clearly, without having to hold my head at unnatural angles. And the eyeglasses are almost good enough for reading, and not too bad for far vision either; my vision is a bit blurry with them, but I can still read, e.g., roadside signs, so these new glasses might even be safe for use while driving, at least in an emergency.

But for the computer screen, they are just perfect. And I already noticed a significant increase in my productivity, simply because my eyes and my neck don’t tire out as I work.

And the price of this little eyeglass adventure? A grand total of 58 dollars and 95 cents. Less than 60 bucks. And that price actually included scratch-resistant lenses.

Needless to say, I am very pleased. Indeed I am sufficiently pleased to provide clearlycontacts.ca free advertising in the form of this blog post. I am sure they don’t mind.

 Posted by at 10:35 pm
Jul 192014

To sum up:

  • MH17 was shot down over a region of Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
  • Said separatists have shot down several Ukrainian military aircraft in recent weeks, including an AN-26 transport aircraft.
  • Said separatists recently bragged about having acquired a powerful truck-mounted anti-aircraft missile battery.
  • Said separatists posted publicly on social media, complete with eyewitness video, about having shot down another AN-26 at the time when MH17 crashed, and in the same region.
  • The posts came from a source that was accepted as credible in the past, and were widely circulated in Russian media.
  • The posts were removed a few hours after it became clear that the aircraft in question was in fact a civilian airliner.
  • The Ukrainian government published intercepted cellular telephone calls, in which alleged separatist leaders, and possibly their Russian contacts, were discussing the incident. Although the source (Ukraine) is not impartial, no reason was presented so far to question the authenticity of the intercepts.

In light of all these facts, even if the black boxes can never be analyzed, even if the wreckage has been disturbed, even if the site has been looted, even if no investigators are allowed on the scene, I think that the basic conclusion is rock solid: MH17 was shot down by pro-Russian separatists who mistook it for a Ukrainian military airplane, and who were possibly not aware of the fact that international air traffic was allowed to fly over the disputed region at altitudes greater than 32,000 feet.

The only real questions that remain, in my opinion, concern the extent of Russia’s involvement. Where did the missile come from? Was it captured by the separatists themselves or was it provided by Russia? Who operated the missile? Was it Ukrainian rebels who may have received relevant training while serving in the military, or was it personnel provided by Russia?

From The Times of London.

The answers to these questions determine the degree of Mr. Putin’s culpability.

The Ukrainians also presented a video, showing the alleged missile truck, with one of four missiles missing, en route to Russia. There were also reports according to which the airplanes black boxes were found and have since been removed to Russia. If true, these facts only increase the culpability of Mr. Putin’s government.

Meanwhile, Russia’s propaganda machine is now in high gear, full of insinuations, including these:

  • Ukrainian air defense forces were tracking MH17. (Of course they were. That’s what air defense forces are supposed to do. I know… I served in one of them 33 years ago as an unhappy conscript, trained as a radar operator.)
  • Ukraine is responsible for a crime that happened over her territory. (Except when said territory is controlled by separatists who are supported, overtly and covertly, by a foreign government.)
  • MH17 earlier flew near Mr. Putin’s presidential airplane, which had similar markings, and NATO may have been trying to murder the Russian president. (Mr. Putin’s airplane never entered Ukrainian airspace. NATO does not usually miss its target by several hundred miles. And the actual locations of civilian aircraft in European airspace are available to anyone with a Web browser, which includes NATO officers but not necessarily ragtag paramilitaries in the fields of eastern Ukraine.)

So there. Tensions are never a good thing, especially with a nuclear superpower like Russia, but I nonetheless believe that at the very least, Mr. Putin should be held accountable for being an accomplice in a crime against humanity.

 Posted by at 4:45 pm
Jul 172014

Here is the Google Maps location of the last ADS-B coordinate transmitted by MH17:

And here is a (since deleted) social media release by Igor Ivanovich Strelkov, commander of the separatist Donbass People’s militia:

The underlined text reads, in English (slightly edited Google translation):

In the area Torrez just downed plane An-26, lying somewhere in the mine “Progress.” As we warned – do not fly in “our sky.” And here is the video confirmation of the “birdfall.”

Bravo, murderers. I hope you are proud. And congratulations are also due to Mr. Putin; after all, if you give a lit match to a child, you cannot really disclaim responsibility when the house burns down.

 Posted by at 3:10 pm
Jul 172014

Malaysian airlines confirms that it lost contact with MH17, a scheduled flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

According to Interfax, the flight went down near the Ukrainian-Russian border. As this is a known conflict zone, it raises the possibility of foul play, especially considering that a few days ago, Ukraine lost a cargo plane and it may have been shot down by Russia.

On the other hand, whatever the cause, it cannot be good news for Boeing either.

 Posted by at 11:50 am
Jul 112014

My stepfather is an avid angler. He spends his summers in their cottage just south of Budapest, on the bank of a branch of the Danube river. He loves to fish.

Late May, he caught what was one of the biggest fish in his life: a 21.8 kg grass carp.

To be sure, this is not the biggest fish ever caught, even at this particular location. The biggest grass carp that was caught there in recent memory weighed 35 kg; and the biggest anything was a 70 kg wels catfish.

Nonetheless, a 21.8 kg (48 lbs) fish is a respectable catch, which earned my stepfather a place in the local angler society’s record books.

Upload date: 2014.06.03
Species: Grass carp
Name: Tibor Kovrig
Organization: Ráckevei HE
Mass of fish: 21,800 g
Length of fish: 96 cm
Fish circumference: 76 cm
Caught on: 2014.05.27 10:50
Catch location: RSD main branch (13 rkm)
Bait, feed: Sweet corn, puffed corn
Technique, equipment: Shimano 4000 reel, 0.20 Gold Star braided line, #2 hook
Other circumstances: Sunny day, no wind, appr. 30 minutes tackling time

For what it’s worth, the fish was eventually released back into the river; in return, my stepfather was rewarded with a free license for next year.

 Posted by at 12:49 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
Jul 082014

I don’t usually comment on soccer games because, well, I am a geek. I am not into sports.

But today’s game was something special. This image (source unknown, popped up on several sites on the Interwebs during the game) sums up what happened rather nicely:

7:1. Wow. Poor Brazilian team and fans. I hope none get lynched or commit suicide tonight.

 Posted by at 11:48 pm