Customer Service and Dieting

For health reasons, Sylvana and I knew we needed to lose weight. And so back in September, we both joined Weight Watchers. Based on our previous experience, we knew this was the best way to meet our goals, and so far, it has been successful. We both still have a ways to go, but Weight Watchers gave us the tools to make it work. And hopefully stick this time.

So a couple of weeks ago, Sylvana went on-line to renew our memberships, but she noticed that WW already automatically renewed us both at the 1-month price. This isn’t what we wanted. We wanted to renew at the 3-month price, which is more economical. Sylvana went to the chat line on WW’s web site. The customer service rep was friendly, and connected her with someone in the billing department, Abdul. Abdul, however, didn’t respond. In spite of several prompts over 20 minutes, there was nothing from Abdul. Sylvana closed the connection, and tried again. Again, she was connected to Abdul. But this time, he closed the connection immediately.

Needless to say, Sylvana was furious. This is an absolutely unacceptable level of customer service. We discussed the issue, and decided it was time to terminate our membership. We decided to stay with the program until the middle of March, but not to go beyond that.

However, the lousy customer service is not the main theme of this blog posting, nor is it the main reason we’re quitting Weight Watchers. WW has changed. The biggest change is a new points program, called “SmartPoints”, replacing their PointsPlus plan.

(As an aside, years ago computer programmers used to have a saying: Whenever Microsoft uses the word “Smart”, be on the lookout for something dumb.)

Some time ago, they had a simple points regime, based on calories, grams of fat, and grams of fiber. The formula was easy to remember, and you could easily figure out the points just by looking at a nutrition label. But almost 20 years ago now, they introduced the PointsPlus program. Instead of counting calories, the formula now counted grams of carbohydrates and grams of protein, giving more points to carbs and fewer for protein. You pretty much needed the WW calculator to properly compute points, or you had to look up the points in their books.

Late last year, they introduced the SmartPoints system. When we joined WW, we knew (or at least should have known) that something new was coming since the books and points calculator for the old plan were available at discounted prices. In the new program, you punch in calories, grams of saturated fat, sugars, and protein into the calculator.

Of course, they claim that the new program is much better, claiming faster weight loss than ever before. However, we have issues with the new program. In the past, they encouraged a slow and steady approach to weight loss since there can be health issues associated with rapid weight loss. And they always advertised their programs as allowing you to eat anything you want. But under the new program, foods with lots of carbs come out with a lot more points. So many more points that many of your favorite foods are now effectively out of bounds. Looking at how heavily carbs are discouraged, I wonder what’s the difference between the SmartPoints program and the Atkin’s Diet?

Sure, limiting carbs is a good idea. But there always has to be balance in any diet. And while it’s a good idea to favor protein over carbs, in our opinion, it’s not reasonable to penalize carbs so much. By denying your favorite foods, you run more of a risk of falling off the wagon, with all the associated repercussions, including the possibility of binge eating.

That said, we will continue with our dieting. This is still too important for us not to continue. We just won’t do it anymore as Weight Watchers members. And we’ll continue following the PointsPlus system.

And just to be clear, we don’t want to discourage anyone from trying the Weight Watchers program. The new plan may well work for some people, just as the old program works well for others. Weight loss isn’t always easy, and you may have to make some effort to find a strategy that works for you.

Cheers! Hans

Voting, and Why You Should Work At a Poll

This morning, I was awoken an hour earlier than I wanted. You see, yesterday I had to be up by 7:00am to get to my polling station at 8:00am. But when it was all over, I forgot to reset my alarm back to its usual time.

I’ve participated in several elections, not just as a voter, but working on election day. I volunteered a couple of times for a candidate, working as scrutineer. But the last time I acted as scrutineer, I looked closely at the job done by the staff at the polling station, and I decided that I could do that. And unlike working for a candidate, I would get paid.

I won’t comment much on the outcome of yesterday’s provincial election. So far, among my Facebook friends, there has been precious little discussion about yesterday’s surprise result, of a Liberal majority. Clearly, most Ontarians didn’t much care for Tim Hudak’s brand of “Tea Party conservatism”. In my riding of Kingston and the Islands, although there was a noticeable lack of red lawn signs, 40% of the population still supported the Liberal candidate, with the Conservative candidate coming in third behind the NDP.

For those unfamiliar with the election process in Canada, here’s a short description. When you arrive at the polling station, you are met by a greeter who directs you to the appropriate table. If you have your voters card, the greeter will direct you to your poll, which is staffed by two people: a deputy returning officer (DRO) and a poll clerk (PC). The DRO sits with the ballot box and checks your identification. The PC finds your name on the voters list at crosses it off. The DRO instructs you on the process and tears off a your ballot. You take it behind a “voting screen” (actually little more than a cardboard box, but large enough to allow you to vote in privacy), and you mark your choice. You then show your folded ballot to the DRO and then you drop the ballot in the ballot box.

Yesterday, I worked as a DRO and Sylvana was my PC, the first time we did that as a team. This was my second time working as DRO, but the first time I worked through the entire 14 hour day. In the last provincial election, I signed up too late and on election day, I started off on the reserve list. However, at noon I was called to the polling station in Barriefield to replace a DRO whose car got totaled in an accident in the parking lot and was too distraught to continue.

It’s a long hard day for all the polling station workers. The greeter, in particular, is on her feet for the whole time. But I can tell you that sitting for 12 hours isn’t fun either. By 9:00pm, everyone is exhausted, but that’s when the most important job starts: Opening the ballot box, counting the ballots, and recording the results. But the instructions are clear and explicit, which makes the job easier. Fortunately, our totals balanced at the end of the evening. Savvy poll workers know they can ensure a clean count at the end by occasionally cross-checking the voters list with ballots remaining during the day. That way, problems can be identified early if they crop up.

Why should you consider working at a polling station? I’m sure there are lots of reasons people do it. For young people, it’s a way of gaining experience. And yesterday, there were a few of them at our polling station. One DRO was 18, in fact. For others, it’s a way to augment their income. For some, it’s a chance to get out and meet your neighbors, if you work a poll close to home.

But although it sounds hokey, I think many of us do it to serve the public, and participate in the democratic process in a very concrete manner. Along with the necessary training, you can see clearly how the process works. Although there are many steps to the process, you can see how things work close up. You get to understand the reasons behind the steps, and you can be certain that the process operates in a fair manner, with all the necessary checks and balances. Although I’m sure most people have their own opinions about which candidate should win, the vast majority of election workers are committed to following the rules in a totally unbiased manner to ensure a fair election.

To summarize, by all means, do go out and participate in the process, either by working at a polling station, or by volunteering as a scrutineer. You can see for yourself how the democratic process works in Canada.

As for me today, I’m going back to bed.

Cheers! Hans


What is life other than a continual series of transitions? Four years ago, we were preparing to move from Toronto to Kingston. When we thought of the possibility back then, the transition made a lot of sense. And to a great extent, we met the goals for that move. We did it to provide our daughter with a safer environment to grow up in. And seeing her develop in maturity, we know we did the right thing. The move was a no-brainer for us.

Moving Sylvana’s mother and sister to Kingston was also challenging, but again, made a lot of sense. As they age and face increased care needs, having Sylvana nearby to advocate on their behalf is vital to their well-being.

But other transitions are more difficult. Finding software development work in Kingston hasn’t been easy. I.T. is simply not a good career choice for those of us over fifty. I’m still an active computer geek, and all my skills could be put to use. But I just can’t bear having to report to someone thirty years younger than me. My last job in Kingston was intolerable due to the working conditions, and I quickly reached that “Take this job and shove it!” moment.

So now I’ve reached the point where I simply have to consider myself “retired”. This is not an easy transition for me, and it’s going to take me some time to wrap my mind around the idea. What will I do? What challenges await me?

One thing I need to do is make a break from my professional past. It’s been almost eleven years since the staffing shuffle that moved me out of the iSeries group at the IBM Toronto Lab, but I still follow some iSeries related groups on-line. There’s just no point to that anymore. I need to burn some bridges, and that’s a good place to start. In addition, I’ve already deleted my LinkedIn account. I need to look forward to the future, and not dwell on my past professional life.

What’s next? As a retirement gift to myself, I bought a new tenor ukulele, and once I get a new set of strings, I hope to explore the possibilities of low-G ukulele tuning. But that’s just a start!

Cheers! Hans

Working in a Sick Building?

Last year, I worked for a few months in an office in an old renovated woolen mill on the Cataraqui River in Kingston. There were a couple of factors that lead to my resignation, and perhaps I’ll discuss other reasons later. But for now, I’d like to focus on one.

Old buildings like this have a certain character lacking in more modern structures. In Toronto, I worked for a couple of years in a century old office building just off the Garment District. I liked the exposed brickwork and wooden beams inside the building, as well as the bare wooden floors. This old restored mill in Kingston had all that, plus a nice scenic location on the river.

However, this building is an area where much of the land and sediment in the river is still contaminated with significant amounts of toxic chemicals, such as lead, chromium, and mercury. I have no doubt that the building I worked in met current rules for workplace safety, but I still have to wonder if there’s something in the environment within that building.

For a long time, I’ve had to deal with anxiety symptoms. I’ve identified a couple of causes. First, I seem to have a sensitivity to MSG. Second, my symptoms seem related to seasonal allergies. The latter can be dealt with using one particular OTC allergy medication. The former can be addressed by careful reading of food labels and avoiding any foods containing MSG.

However, during my time on that particular job, I found my anxiety steadily increasing. And it seemed to do so in a way totally unrelated to the stresses of the job. Even after quitting that job, the symptoms stayed on for several months before fading away. I suspected something about the environment within the building. Sure, there were other aspects of the working conditions in that office that were less than ideal. For instance, the level of lighting was unacceptably low. There were spotlights aimed at the small desks, but the overall ambiance made me feel like sleeping instead of working. Also, the development staff was crowded into a small space, which made working uncomfortable. But what I found really suspicious was a greasy residue on the floor. Was that oily substance out-gassing some chemical into the air?

Sure, this may not be the worst of Kingston’s brown-fields. And I’m sure most people who work in this particular building do so without feeling any ill effects. But for me, I think I’ll stay away from that area.