Big boxes

As someone who owns an old house and likes “do it yourself” projects, I spend a lot of time in “big box” warehouse stores. I try my absolute best to interact with as few employees as possible when I go to these stores because it never seems to go well. Here are a few conversational highlights from over the years:


—— Holy trash bags, Batman ——

Me: Hi there, you probably don’t have these but Western Safety is closed today. Do you have large four or six mil tear-resistant trash bags?

Big Box Store Employee: I don’t think so; what do you need them for?

Me: I’m tearing up a hundred-year-old sub-floor and the test for asbestos contamination has come back positive. The toxic waste dump won’t take asbestos contaminated waste unless it is properly bagged and labelled.

BBSE: Well, I’d just bag it and throw it out in the regular trash and not tell anyone.

(I went to Western Safety.)

—— Circular is the round one ——

Me, speaking to the guy at the tool counter: Hi, I need an eight inch abrasive cutoff wheel suitable for cutting thin, soft steel with a chop saw or circular saw.

BBSE: You mean these? 

Me: Those are reciprocating saw blades. Circular saw blades are circles.

BBSE: Oh, so you mean these?

Me: Those are ten inch wood cutting blades.

BBSE: Hmm. You mean these?

Me: Those are concrete cutting wheels.

BBSE: How about these?

Me: Those are metal cutting wheels but those are four inches wide. I need eight.

BBSE: Maybe you should try Lowes.

(I tried Ace, successfully.)

—— It’s not a nuclear reactor, it’ll come back online easily enough ——

Me, fifteen minutes before the store closes: Can I have this twelve foot board sawed into two six foot boards? I need two six foot shelves, and a twelve foot board won’t fit in my car.

BBSE: Sorry, the saw is already shut down for the night.

Me, speaking to the store manager 90 seconds later: I have a question for you: is it the policy of this store that the saw “shuts down for the night” at some time before closing?

Manager: Uh, no… who told you that?

Me: I think it was the guy who just vacuumed up the sawdust and doesn’t want to do it again.

Manager: I know just who you mean.

(They sawed my board but boy, were they not happy about it.)

—— That’s just smurfy ——

Me, talking to a guy in the electrical aisle: Can you tell me where to find one-inch diameter flexible electrical conduit? It is made of thin, ridged plastic and is sometimes called “smurf tube” because it’s that colour of blue.

BBSE: Sorry, we don’t carry anything like that.

As I turned to leave I realized that of course the smurf tube was directly behind me; the BBSE was looking at it as he was telling me he didn’t have it.

—— How useful! ——

Me, talking to a (different) guy at the tool counter: Where are the rivets?

BBSE: Rivets?

Me: Rivets.

BBSE: I’ve never heard that word before; what’s a rivet?

Me: A rivet is a metal fastener usually used to attach metal objects together. You insert the rivet through the objects you wish to fasten together and then deform one end of the rivet by peening it with a special tool. If you have access to both sides of the objects you can use solid rivets, otherwise you can use hollow rivets.

BBSE: Wow, that sure sounds useful!

(Another employee knew what rivets were, and, bonus, where in the store they were.)

—— Take a number ——

Now, I understand that the people hired at big box stores have no experience whatsoever using any product that they sell, and, as we’ve just seen, often no knowledge of what they sell in the first place. I know that if I want knowledgeable conversation about a tool with an expert I should go to Hardwick’s, which is like paradise for hardware geeks. The trouble is that they don’t have convenient hours; they’re closed by the time I get home from work, and not open Sundays. I try to go to local small-box stores as much as I can. Which is why this experience I had at my local small-business lumber yard yesterday was so disappointing:

Me: Hi there, I need three dozen eight foot two-by-fours and three sheets of quarter inch drywall.

Cashier standing by the front door: I think we have those.

Me: I’m quite sure that you do, since this is a lumber store. Are the two-bys and sheet rock in this building, or in the warehouse across the street?

Cashier: I don’t know. I think you’ll have to ask someone else.

Me: You don’t know where the two-by-fours are?

Cashier: This is only my fifth day on the job. Take a number and someone will help you.

I would have thought that “where are the two-by-fours” is the kind of thing you’d sort out on day one at the lumber store, but, whatever.

At this point I note that I am the only customer in the store. Behind the counter there are five employees. Three are talking amongst themselves. One is typing on a computer. One is on the phone. As instructed, I take a number, and walk over to the paint aisle to browse spray paint while I wait for one of the five people behind the counter to call my number.

They do so immediately. The moment my number is called, the three employees who were talking amongst themselves immediately leave the building by the back entrance, and the guy on the phone hangs up and leaves by the front entrance, leaving in the building me, the guy on the computer, and the cashier who does not know where the lumber store keeps their two by fours. I point out to the guy on the computer that my number has just been called, and he says that someone else will help me shortly.

I waited ten minutes watching him silently ignore me, typing away, and then I left and went to the big box store at the other end of town; I knew where the two-bys were there. 

Attention small business owners: I am doing my best to give you my money. Stop making it so hard.

Attention big box store owners: You run vast multinational corporations with huge profits. You can afford to hire and/or train employees to familiarize them with the products you sell and their basic functions.




I emailed the last portion of this blog entry to the owner of the small business involved, and:


I really appreciate the opportunity to address such an egregious example of poor service. I won’t bore you with the details but it was a bad intersection of shift changes, yard service people hanging out at the counter and too few sales people. We watched the tape of your arrival and departure and have talked it over with everyone involved. Please let me tell you we’re embarrassed and ashamed of the way we treated you. Please accept my sincere apology.


The owner also offered me a discount on my next order and free delivery, which was I think a very nice gesture. As I have said often, you can tell the quality of customer service at an organization by how they deal with mistakes. Good service means recognizing the mistake, taking ownership of it, identifying the structural problem that allowed it to happen, and making a gesture of goodwill to the customer; this is an example of really excellent customer service, and I appreciate that very much.

Wackiness ensues

This Twitter feed  answers the question “What would happen if Anders Hejlsberg and Barbara Liskov were forced to share an apartment[1. A single-threaded apartment, I’d assume.] in an “odd couple” style sitcom?”

Apparently I’m the “Kramer” of this sitcom. I hope I’m played by Ryan Gosling. Additional suggestions on casting the principal roles can be left in the comments.

Next time on FAIC: Can the is operator return true even if there is no compile-time conversion to the stated type?

What would Feynman do?

No one I know at Microsoft asks those godawful “lateral-thinking puzzle” interview questions anymore. Maybe someone still does, I don’t know. But rumour has it that a lot of companies are still following the Microsoft lead from the 1990s in their interviews. In that tradition, I present a sequel to Keith Michaels’ 2003 exercise in counterfactual reasoning. Once more, we dare to ask the question “how well would the late Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Dr. Richard P. Feynman do in a technical interview at a software company?

Continue reading

What I did on my summer vacation

I’m back, and I’ve almost made it through the 525 not-automatically-sorted email messages, caught up on my blog reading, and so on.  There are a number of interesting technical questions in my backlog that I’ll start getting to later this week once I dig myself out of the pile of bug reports that accumulated during my absence.

Until then, again, this was just too precious to not share.  If you only want technical stuff, stop reading now.

One of the highlights of my twice-annual return to my ancestral home is spending time with my cousins.  My five-year-old cousin Zephy takes great delight in taunting me.  Every year she teaches the small army of munchkins that she hangs out with some ditty which is to be shouted repeatedly whenever I come into view.  This year it was “Eric is evil!  Eric is evil!  Eeeeevil!”  It’s quite the experience, believe me.  I suspect that the root of this behaviour has something to do with the fact that I once convinced her that Lake Huron is chock-full of Great Canadian Beaver-Sharks — giant buck-toothed, flat-tailed sharks which subsist on a diet of driftwood, canoe paddles, wooden sailboats and little girls — and then repeatedly threatened to throw her in the lake. In retrospect, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea.

Her older sister Victoria does not believe in Beaver-Sharks.  At one point she and her friend Kelsey ran up to me (ten year old girls run everywhere) to ask if they could borrow my pair of kayaks.  “Sure.  You can always borrow the kayaks even if I’m not around as long as you tell a responsible adult that you’re going out on the lake,” I said.  Kelsey got a slightly worried look — “Is my mother a responsible adult?” she deadpanned.  

For future reference: unless otherwise noted, all mothers are responsible adults.  

And finally, Vic has a “mad crush” on a boy, who will remain unnamed.  She wasn’t sure what to do about that, and since apparently I’m an internationally recognized expert on getting boys to like you, she asked my advice.  I wasn’t sure what to say — the first girl I ever had a mad crush on I ended up dating for seven years, which is probably atypical — so I’ve started surveying every 8-12 year old girl that I meet as to what they do about mad crushes.  I met an eight-year-old girl named Heather at a barbecue over the weekend and asked her.  Her detailed off-the-cuff reply showed that she’d already put a lot of thought into this question, though she had not actually needed to test her theories yet.  Allow me to quote from memory:

There are two things you can do if you have a mad crush on a boy, you can ask him to propose marriage and if he won’t, then beat him up, then send him to an island, then surround the island with huge rocks so that he can’t escape, then send him Valentine’s cards that say ‘I HATE YOU!’ but if he does propose marriage then you can kiss him and marry him and move into an apartment and have a baby and bake him a cake that says ‘YOU ARE MY FAVOURITE BOYFRIEND’ in the icing.

Sounds like a good plan! Any current or former 8-12 girls out there who have additional advice for surviving a mad crush (who I suppose happen to also be interested in programming language design if you’re reading my blog…) please leave comments and I’ll forward them on.  Run-on sentences are fine.