When Good Customer Service Turns Out to Be Really Bad

We’re all used to bad customer service; too much so, in fact, that we’ve come to accept it as the norm. So when customer service is good, it can be surprising; when it’s really good, it can put a smile on my face.

But sometimes, what seems like good customer service may actually be the contrary. Here’s a tale about a recent experience I had with what seemed to be good customer service, but turned out to be crappy.

I recently decided to try to go paperless. I have to keep ten years of accounting documents, which is a couple of big boxes worth, and I’m planning a move in the coming months; it seemed like a good time to scan all those documents and shred them.

Using information from two books – my fellow Take Control author Joe Kissel’s Take Control of your Paperless Office and David Sparks’ Paperless – I decided to acquire a Fujitsu S1500M scanner. This is a wonderful device, which has a paper-feed, scans both sides of paper you place in it, OCRs it and creates searchable PDFs. I got this last Wednesday, and started using it on Thursday, scanning hundreds of pages of invoices and bank statements. At the end of the day, some of the pages had colored vertical lines on them; nothing too serious, but annoying.

Friday morning, I started scanning more, and the vertical lines showed up after about 30 pages, and were increasingly visible. I called Fujitsu’s tech support number, and spoke with a very helpful woman who asked me to send samples of the bad scans. She got back to me quickly, said that it was a hardware problem, and that Fujitsu would replace the scanner; the next day! This was a good thing, because I had been planning to scan all weekend, and get this project out of the way before Christmas.

Well, the next day came, and no scanner arrived. Monday came, and still nothing. Tuesday was Christmas, and Wednesday there was nothing either. I tried calling Fujitsu a few times on Wednesday, and there was no answer; only a message in German. (I’m in France, and their support center is in Germany.) I sent an email, and got no reply (whereas the week before, I got replies in less than a half hour.) Thursday morning – today – I tried calling again, and there was still no answer.

I had bought this scanner from Apple’s online store*, and I called them and explained what happened. They immediately set up a replacement, though, unfortunately, it may take a week for it to come. But the person was very helpful and understanding, and I frankly feel a lot more comfortable working with the Apple Store than with a vendor directly; they have a lot more interest in keeping customers happy (especially since I buy most of my Apple products from them directly).

So what happened? What seemed to be top-notch customer service was just pretend? Did they really intend to send me the scanner the next day? I did get an email from DHL confirming that it was sent, but with no tracking number, I have no idea when it was sent, or when the delivery was scheduled. The fact that Fujitsu’s tech support team seems to be on vacation for the holidays is inadmissible; I don’t expect them to work on Christmas day, of course, but taking a week off – if that’s indeed the case – seems to suggest they only care about their customers when it’s convenient for them.

I like the scanner; it’s very efficient, and it’s going to save me a lot of time. And I’m sure the problem I have is not a common one. But I’ll think twice before buying anything else from Fujitsu, because of what they put me through.

* I would have bought the scanner from Amazon, and gotten next-day delivery, but it’s about €30 more expensive there. I guess I should have paid more, because Amazon is very efficient regarding returns and replacements.

Book Review: Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo

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Dogen’s Shobogenzo is the most profound and perplexing work of the Zen canon. Written in the 13th century by the founder of the Soto school of Zen, the Shobogenzo is a collection of texts written over a long period of time that examine the concepts and practices of Zen.

This edition is a milestone, representing a complete English translation of the Shobogenzo, in an extremely attractive set of books. The two volumes are, while a bit expensive, very well produced. The paper is thick and opaque, the font is very readable, and the binding will last one or more lifetimes. Volume one has introductory matter about Dogen’s life and the composition of the Shobogenzo, and the first part of the texts (fascicles 1-47). (For a more thorough discussion of Dogen’s life and career, as well as an analysis of his thought, see Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, by Hee-Jin Kim.) The second volume contains the remainder of the texts (fascicles 48-95 plus a 96th fascicle not included in the original edition of the Shobogenzo), and an extensive glossary explaining the terms used in the books.

Some of the texts in this collection have been published previously, in Moon in a Dewdrop, Beyond Thinking, and Enlightenment Unfolds. In fact, many readers may find those there volumes sufficient in content, and more agreeable in overall price. (Another useful book is Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo, by Shohaku Okumura, which is a detailed, and very accessible commentary on this section of the Shobogenzo.)

This glossary in volume two is essential to the reading and study of this work. Readers will need to look up terms to get a better understanding of what they really mean. Often a single word, or a short phrase, may seem obscure when reading, but the glossary goes into detail to explain it better. In addition, the glossary serves as an index, with references to where the terms are used.

But the glossary is a bit problematic. At more than 200 pages, this is a big chunk of the text, and it is, of course, only available in the second volume. If you are reading the first volume, you still need to have this glossary handy, so you’ll need to have both books. I wish that Shambhala had included the glossary as a separate volume – perhaps a paperback – so it could be more easily consulted. Or, if they could provide an e-book version, popping it on an iPad would make reading and consulting it more practical.

This doesn’t detract from the overall work, which is, I must say, an amazing feat of translation that has taken decades. The text is beautifully rendered, and, while just one interpretation, it certainly has the weight of experience both of the translators as translators and as practitioners. This set is a monument to the work of Dogen.

Note: the original two-volume edition is out of print, but there is a one-volume edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) that has replaced it. I haven’t seen it, but it apparently has much thinner paper. There’s also a Kindle edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) which is great for reading on the go, since the book is so heavy, but the glossary is essentially unusable on the Kindle.

Speech Events and E-Mail Mailing Lists

A query from a colleague led me to look back at a Master’s dissertation I wrote in 1996, back in the very early days of the Internet: Writing Conversation: An Analysis of Speech Events in E-mail Mailing Lists In this paper, I looked at the types of speech events used in this specific type of communication. From my abstract:

In this paper, I will discuss how mailing lists function, the different types of mailing lists that exist, and how the type of mailing list can influence the type of discourse that is used on the list. Then I will discuss the different types of speech events that are used on mailing lists. Finally, I will show how those speech events are realized by examining an extended thread from one mailing list.

I had a re-read of the paper this evening, something I hadn’t done in more than ten years (the last time I looked at it was when a linguistics journal asked me to provide a shorter version for publication, back in 2000). And, you know what, it’s actually kind of interesting. I wrote this paper back in a time when computer-mediated communication was new, and the general public hadn’t yet embraced the internet. In addition, I did all my research using the internet: I didn’t set foot in a single library, and found papers on the web, or contacted authors who sent me off-prints of articles they had written.

This probably won’t interest many of my readers, but some of you, who have been using the internet for a long time, may want to take a glance at it and see how much has changed, and how much hasn’t. My paper was the first on a niche subject – speech events in e-mail – and it has been quoted by many other papers. While it earned my a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics, I didn’t pursue the field after that. It’s a shame, because it was quite interesting, and with the tools we now have for analyzing textual corpora, the possibilities are endless.

Some Thoughts on the Future of Newspapers

I’ve just finished watching The Wire for the second time. For those unfamiliar with the TV series, the fifth and final season features two concurrent plot threads: one has to do with the police and their investigations, and the other has to do with the press, notably the Baltimore Sun, the daily newspaper in the city where the series is set.

Throughout the season, you see the difficulties that the Sun faces; even though this was made several years ago, and the Internet is not mentioned, it is clear that times are tough for that venerable daily paper. The Sun has a storied history, counting one of America’s most famous journalists, H. L. Mencken, as one of its alumni. But in season 5 of The Wire, you see the problems faced by today’s newspapers, and how they cope.

This made me think about how newspapers have changed in my lifetime, and how they may change in the near future. At first, I found the newspaper to be a sacred object. In 6th grade – and this goes back about 40 years – I recall our English teacher showing us how to fold the New York Times to be able to read it efficiently. As with any broadsheet, the right fold is essential to be able to read the paper in the subway or on a bus.

Over the years, as an adult, I bought papers most days, and skimmed the news. At a time when I watched little television, the newspaper was my only source of information about what was going on in the world. When I moved to France 25 years ago, I started buying the International Herald Tribune, and over the years, subscribed to it from time to time. This slim broadsheet, now owned by the New York Times, was a condensed version of the world’s news, and it showed up in my mailbox six days a week. Unfortunately, French newspapers are quite expensive, which has always prevented me from buying them regularly, but with the Internet, and my RSS reader, I keep up with what goes on in the world, much more than when I was reading a paper.

But now that’s all about to change. With Apple most likely releasing a tablet computer, I’m looking forward to a shift in the way we get news. Instead of reading unrelated articles with an RSS reader, we will be able to buy “newspapers” digitally, and read them on the Apple tablet. What seems likely is that we’ll be able to subscribe to a paper – local or national – and get it daily, via iTunes, on the device. This will renew people’s interest in newspapers.

Some people think this won’t work. They think that no one will pay for news when it’s free; or they’ll just download pirated copies of newspapers for their tables. I truly think that the Apple tablet will save newspapers, for two reasons. First, why go to the trouble of rounding up the news you want to read when you can get it all in one place? There are a few trusted newspapers – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, Le Monde – any of which will give you a good overview of the news. Second, why pirate these papers when they’ll cost you less than a dollar a day? It’s too much trouble to spend the time necessary to find and download the files.

Journalism has power, and we can’t afford to lose it. From Henry Mencken (I recently read a biography of him), who, coincidentally, worked at the Baltimore Sun, to Woodward and Bernstein, by way of Albert Camus, journalists have kept people honest and kept us informed for a long time. Without good journalists, we would be a much poorer society.

I think the Apple tablet will change the way we get daily, weekly and monthly news. Because it will not only delivery daily papers, but also weekly and monthly magazines. This new way of getting news will be a paradigm shift for publishing, and will have a huge effect on the availability of free content. While you’ll still be able to get some news for free, the good news – that which is sanctioned by a respected newspaper or magazine, or the analysis that depends on the best journalist – will no longer be free, but it won’t be expensive enough to make you want to seek out free.

I hope that with Apple’s (still only rumored) tablet we’ll see a resurgence of publishing, because the news is too important to lose to free. What’s happened in recent years, because of the Internet, has endangered all of us, because we need the press to serve as a check and balance for government, corporations, and our own stupidity. Let’s hope that Apple’s tablet will pave the way for a renaissance of journalism.

My New Go Set

I like to play go. It’s a board game, originally from Asia, that is played on a board with 19 x 19 lines. You take turns placing stones (one player gets white, the other black) on the intersections of the lines. The goal is to create a territory; space delimited by your stones. At the end of the game, you count up the points (intersections) in your territory, and add any stones you have captured (you can capture stones by surrounding them). The person with the highest score wins.

That was a very, very succinct description of the game of go (or baduk, in Korean, or weiqi in Chinese). While the rules are simple, it does get more complicated than that. The game is played professionally, mostly in Japan, Korea and China, and has developed a long tradition of strategy and tactics. You could say that the depth of study is similar to that of chess, though the game’s logic is totally different: while you can kill stones, the goal is to make territory, unlike in chess where the only goal is to kill pieces.

Another difference between go and chess is the ability of computer programs to successfully play the game. While software can beat chess grandmasters, no go software comes anywhere near the level of professionals (though people are trying hard). This is, in part, due to the number of possible moves at any time (at the first move, there are 361 points where one can play, though the first few moves are usually only played on one of a couple of dozen points), but also to the number of moves in a game (games range from 200 to 300 moves).

I’ve been playing go for many years, casually at first, then, in the early days of the Internet I started playing on the now defunct NNGS (No-Name Go Server), a server that connected people around the world. I now play on KGS, where my screen name is Dogen. Unfortunately, I live in an area devoid of go players or clubs, but with KGS I can play at any time of the day or night, and I get to play people from many different countries and styles.

So, for years I had wanted to get a nice go set. I had a cheap folding board with glass stones; fine to play the game, but not aesthetically pleasing. I finally made the investment in a nice set, ordered from Kuroki Goishi Ten in Japan, a manufacturer of go stones, boards and bowls. As you can see in the picture above, those are the three elements of a go set: a board, black and white stones, and bowls to hold the stones.

The board is made from hyuga kaya, a type of tree found in Japan, and is made of four pieces of wood glued together. A board’s price depends, in part, on the number of pieces of wood it uses: the more pieces, the cheaper. The most expensive boards are made of a single piece of wood, and this is very expensive because of the size of the piece needed and the impeccable quality it must have. Next come boards with two pieces of wood, with a joint in the middle. Then come four-piece boards, and then five- to seven-piece boards. The wood used for my board is beautiful; kaya has a yellowish tint to it, and the grain on the top is very straight. In addition, the four pieces of wood are joined at points just under lines, so you cannot even see the joints.

The stones are quite special. The black stones are made of slate, and are really “stones”; they are black, not the usual gray slate people are familiar with, and have a matte finish. The white stones are made from clamshells and have grain on one side. They are smooth and shiny, and contrast well with the black stones. There are three different grades of clamshell stones; from least to most expensive: flower, moon and snow. I chose moon, because the grain is more attractive (on snow stones, the grain is less obvious). They also come in different thicknesses; mine are 8.4 mm thick, which I find quite nice to hold. Many players prefer thicker, heavier stones.

Finally come the bowls. Perhaps the least esthetic part of a set, mine are made of cherry blossom wood, and have a beautiful glowing finish and very prominent grain.

What strikes me most about this set is the overall esthetic quality of the different elements and how they all fit together. The craftsmanship of this material is magnificent, showing that one can own hand-made objects even in our mechanical age at affordable prices.

But I said I don’t have anyone to play with. It’s a shame, but the only use I’ll have (for now) for this set is to play games on the board as I play them on a go server, or to play out pro games to study. I very much enjoy doing the latter, as it is a form of meditation; when one is absorbed in a game, the outside world fades away and one’s concentration peaks. For now, I’m a slightly-better-than-average player, but I’m getting better, through study and practice. Wish me luck!

Some of My Translations

In addition to being a writer, I’ve worked as a translator from French to English for the past dozen years. While much of my work involved translating technical documents, I have also translated a number of books, and excerpts from books. Here is a list of some of my translations, links to samples, and links to pages on Amazon.com for those books that have been published. (Alas, several of them are out of print…)

Non-Fiction

China in a Mirror, by Roland and Sabrina Michaud. This lovely book combines photographs of today’s China with, on facing pages, pictures of Chinese art that mirrors the photos. I translated the preface to this book, which was written by my friend Cyrille Javary.

Understanding the I Ching, by Cyrille Javary, is a book about the I Ching, its history, and its usage. The book is out of print, but you should be able to find used copies in a number of online bookstores. The link at the beginning of this paragraph takes you to a page about the book with an excerpt from it.

Lebanon, the Phoenician Pearl is a beautiful book of photos and history about Lebanon.

Versailles is a small, color art and history book about the Château de Versailles, as seen through the kings and queens that lived there.

Marrakesh: The Secret of Its Courtyard Houses is a beautiful book about the houses hidden behind the walls of Marrakesh. You will never be able to see most of these houses, but this book looks at the architecture and the history of this style of house.

Arabesques, by Jean-Marc Castéra, is an astounding book about arabesques, the ceramic mosaics traditional in northern Africa and the Middle East. Not only does it present these works of art, but it also shows the mathematic underpinnings of their design.

Paris; ah, gay Paree, as we say. A book that recounts the history of the city of lights, with memorable photos of the architecture that makes Paris so magical.

Fiction

Genia, by Manual Martin, a spiritual thriller, written long before that other best-selling book which codified the genre. Abundant samples are available on the web site.

The Warriors of Silence, by Pierre Bordage. Two sample chapters of this unpublished novel. Pierre Bordage is one of France’s best-selling science fiction authors. I’ve translated other long excerpts of Pierre Bordage’s work for French publishers; I do not have the rights to post them here.

The Story of the Grail, by Chrétien de Troyes. A work-in-progress that I’ll finish one day. You can download several sections of this work in PDF format.

I am always interested in translating books, both fiction and non-fiction, so if you are a publisher, editor or author, feel free to send me an e-mail. I’m especially interested in 19th century French fiction, classics such as Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac and Guy de Maupassant; history; science; science ficton; and mysteries and thrillers.