Tuesday, July 29, 2008

If There Is a God, He Hates Republicans


Case in point: Just when it looks like the GOP's chances of fighting off a filibuster-proof majority for the Democrats this November couldn't get any worse...



Ted Stevens Indicted On 7 Criminal Charges

Monday, July 28, 2008

W.

Other than the too-obvious back score, this looks like it might be... interesting.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Once Upon a Time, I Actually Liked John McCain


Whatever happened to the guy who ran for president in 2000? The red-meat Republican running around these days who's calling himself McCain sure doesn't sound like the same man who charmed us eight years ago. It's like he's forgotten who he was and what he said he stood for. The kindest spin I can put on that is, he must be getting old...



McCain Says Obama Plays Politics on Iraq - washingtonpost.com

The McCain-Latino disconnect - David Paul Kuhn - Politico.com

After All the Good People Are Called to Heaven...

... the only folks who'll be left (apart from you and me) probably will be tough little punkettes like Bethany Black, star of the Image Comics series Strange Girl. I've just devoured the first collection, "Girl Afraid," by Rick Remender and Eric Nguyen, and it's a hoot. (I do have a few quibbles with Nguyen's art -- his figures tend to get lost in the background, and his storytelling sometimes takes a back seat to his page design. But it's fun to look at.) Funny and profane, imaginative and oddly touching. Check it out.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Nostalgia Bay

We just got back from a weekend in Santa Cruz, where we had a great time visiting with friends, despite spending three nights in a beach-side motel that gave new meaning to the concept of cheap and rundown. (We're all in favor of saving energy, and I have no objection to replacing incandescent light bulbs with low-energy fluorescents, but the only reason I can think of for the exclusive use of twenty-five watt bulbs is to keep the motel guest from noticing the dingy state of the carpet and the general tackiness of the furniture.) The condition of the motel, in fact, was part of the charm, because it reminded me of a beach town from my childhood -- a place that defined tacky for a generation or two of New Yorkers: Coney Island.

If I close my eyes and put myself in my personal Wayback Machine, I can still remember the smell of wet sand under the boardwalk -- the public changing room for those of us who day-tripped to Coney Island by bus and subway. I'm just old enough to remember Steeplechase Park, with its cast-iron horses running on a track around the windowed inside wall of the huge, warehouse-sized amusement hall. The big wooden slide shiny and slippery after decades of butt-polishing; the sloped, slowly-revolving dish big enough for a dozen kids and adults to tumble into each other, risking broken arms and sprained ankles and bloody noses; the big, rotating barrel that did its best to knock you to your knees; the fun house full of mirrors and tilting floors that guaranteed bumped foreheads and plenty of bruises.

Coney Island, when I knew it as a kid, invited you to try and kill yourself for fun. These days, when every freak accident at a safety-conscious Six Flags grabs a headline and a gloating two minutes of faked dismay on the evening news, it's hard to imagine that once upon a time, you didn't worry about getting hurt on a thrill ride -- you half expected it.

Ah, those were the days. Parachute rides with barely a seatbelt to hold you in. Roller coasters that threatened to throw you from your car with every rattling high-speed turn. People knew what they were getting into -- they knew these rides were risky, and that was part of the fun. At least, it was for me. But as my wife likes to point out, with a kindly, tolerant smile, I'm an idiot.

Santa Cruz is no Coney Island, of course; it has a roller coaster, built way back in 1924, and it's fun, but it's no Cyclone. It has a "Double Shot" free-fall tower ride, but it's no Parachute Jump. It has a boardwalk, but no under-the-boardwalk, all-too-public "changing room."

Still, it was just enough like that Coney Island of my mind* to evoke a pang of nostalgia for those innocent days of long ago.

Wet sand under the boardwalk (wet from what????), broken bones, bruises and bloody noses.

It doesn't get much better than that.

*With apologies to Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Critical Flaw


A friend of mine and I saw "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" on Friday. Before I get into the meat of this post -- which is not, as you might expect, a review of "Hellboy II" -- I'll just say I enjoyed the movie, laughed at the funny parts, thrilled to the action, and sat in awe of the imagery and graphic design. I felt my eleven bucks was well-spent (we went to the Arclight, which is more expensive than some theaters locally, but has, in my opinion, a better film-going experience, tra la la).

Then we ran into another friend as we were leaving the movie, and the first words out of his mouth -- I'm not kidding, here -- were, "What a load of crap."

Now. Watching a movie is a subjective experience. It's an interaction between you and the filmmaker. He/she creates and presents, you absorb and respond. What you absorb and how you respond depends on your expectations, your attitude toward the filmmaker and the genre he or she is working in, the screenwriter's ability to construct a script, the technical competence of the production crew, the performance of the actors, and the director and/or producer's skill in managing it all. Every aspect of this experience -- from the production, to your observation of the results -- is dependent upon a subjective appraisal. There is no absolute, concrete reality, no definitive, absolute consensus. Every movie, no matter how good or how bad it's judged to be by the film-watching population at large, offers ample opportunity for dissenting views. There are people who think "Lawrence of Arabia" is overblown, colonialist bull-hockey. There are others who think "Plan Nine From Outer Space" is the finest American film since "Citizen Kane."

The French love Jerry Lewis.

But when you leave a film, and run into friends, and the first words out of your mouth are, "What a load of crap," you are not presenting your opinion as a personal, subjective appraisal of the moment, but as the definitive, absolute, real-world summation of an undeniable objective reality.

You're forestalling any honest discussion because you're defining the entire experience in objective terms. "What a load of crap" could just as easily have been "God could have made this movie, it's perfect." In effect you're stating that anyone who doesn't agree with your summation is literally out of touch with objective reality.

It's obnoxious.

It ain't film criticism.

It isn't even a statement of honest opinion. (A more honest statement would have been, "I didn't really enjoy that much," or, "I was disappointed," or "I don't like movies that bombard you with visual imagery," or some other comment that accepts the idea that what you're asserting is your own personal view, and doesn't invalidate the views of anybody else.)

After that opening salvo there wasn't much to say. I could choose to agree with his opinion, or I could engage in a fruitless debate asserting my personal view as objective reality. I couldn't really discuss my experience of the film.

There was a time in my life when I would've jumped on that "debate" and done my best to tear down this friend's view of reality.

These days, I'd rather just admit I was disappointed by his reaction.

But that's my opinion.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Presto


I was reading an article in Harper's Magazine today about The Magic Olympics, that reminded me of how much I enjoy watching a good magic trick, well-performed, and intriguingly presented. I first encountered real live professional magic more thant thirty years ago, during a visit to The Magic Castle in Hollywood, which to my mind remans the gold standard for practicioners of the craft. That's where I met the legendary Dai Vernon, the man who fooled Houdini. In any event this article made me recall what I love about magic when it's well-done. If you have any interest in the field, by all means, look up this article. It's a fun read.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Monday, July 07, 2008

Under the Heading of "Duh": Outsourcing Can Lead to Plummeting Customer Loyalty


Ars Technica has a terrific article about the effect outsourcing customer support has on the "perceived value" of a company's goods to the average consumer:

Study: outsourcing can lead to plummeting customer loyalty

To sum up, the results aren't good. Who would'a thunk it? Apparently, when customers are shunted aside and treated like an irritating distraction to the important business of making money for overpaid executives and stock-price-obsessed stockholders, they tend to resent it, and their loyalty to the product in question and the company that makes it suffers considerable damage.

Why, I wonder, is this news? American business has been marching down this path to self-destruction for decades now, replacing the old business mantra that "customer is king" with a new mantra along the lines of, "the customer will take what we give him and like it or else." Is it surprising, really, this sort of contempt for consumer relations has a negative impact? Are corporate executives really so out of touch with the customers they purport to care about they can't begin to imagine how badly buyers feel when they're treated like crap?

Almost twenty years ago, I had an argument with a small business owner over the issue of office voice mail. I bemoaned the fact that more and more, when I called a company I was trying to do business with, I found myself routed through a rats maze of impenetrable and ultimately unhelpful voice mail options. "To reach technical support, press one; if your call concerns a new installation, press two; if you'd like to pay a bill, press three," and so on and so forth. Usually, what I wanted wasn't an option provided by the option tree. What I wanted was to speak with a real, live, helpful human being, who would point me toward another real, live, helpful human being who'd do his or her best to solve whatever problem prompted my call. Even twenty years ago, this was becoming increasingly difficult, and I suggested to my new friend that businesses did themselves harm by treating their customers, and would-be customers, like interchangeable cogs in a voice mail grinder.

"But it's really cost effective for us," he replied. "It saves us money and it keeps us from having to hire someone to deal with routine customer interaction. It's a great business tool."

Yeah, a great business tool for him. For anyone trying to reach him, or do business with his company, not so much. I couldn't seem to get this idea across. He kept repeating it was a money-saver, it was efficient, it weeded out unnecessary, routine customer interaction. But what if "routine interaction" had the potential to create new business? What if interacting with customers helped management respond to customer needs before problems arose? What if actually dealing with customers taught companies how to satisfy customers and build customer loyalty?

How can a robotic, dead-end voice mail option tree ever accomplish any of those basic business goals?

Obviously, it can't, and businesses that rely on automated customer interaction, and its vile evil stepchild, customer-service outsourcing, are reaping the contempt they sowed.

American business management has spent the last several decades doing everything it can to erode employee and customer loyalty in the blind pursuit of quarterly profit and increasing "shareholder value." But how does it create value for shareholders when you deny the value of the people working for you, as well as the customers who buy your product?

It makes no sense to me, but then, I didn't go to Harvard or Yale Business School, and I don't have an MBA.

And if you've got an MBA, who needs common sense?

I'm Sorry, But I Had To Do It...

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Burning Money

I used to drive an SUV, back around 1995 -- a Jeep Cherokee. It was fun for a while, and the payments were a lot less than my previous car (a Mercedes), but I never felt all that comfortable riding way up high, so when my lease was up, I went back to driving a sedan.

Karen, on the other hand, went from a sedan (BMW) to an SUV (first a Mercedes, later a Lexus) once Rachel started pre-school. Her reasoning made sense -- as a stay-at-home Mom, she sometimes had to carpool Rachel and her friends to play dates, birthday parties, outings, camp, and so on. An SUV made that easier -- there was room for the kids and the paraphernalia that went along with them: strollers, diaper bags, lunch boxes. She also felt safer in an SUV, though we both knew that was an illusion -- for one thing, SUVs have a higher center of gravity and are more likely to topple over in a high-speed turn (never mind why a Mom with several kids in a car would be making a tight high-speed turn).

Karen continued to drive her SUV till Rachel was in elementary school, and Karen went back to work full time. Then she switched back to a sedan (back to a Mercedes; we're German-car addicts in the Conway household), mostly because she was tired of filling up her gas-guzzler twice a week. She'd also started to feel there was something inherently wrong about driving a road-hogging monster. Smaller felt better. Before getting her sedan, she even toyed with the idea of buying a Mini Cooper (but once we realized I'd never get my legs inside, that idea went out the window). She still wants a Smart Car, but for now, she's happy with her E-350.

I bring this up because I want it understood that I get why people bought SUVs back in the 1990s and early 2000s. What I don't get is why they hung on to them for so long, and why they kept buying new ones, when the price of gas was slowly edging up, and it was clear to anyone with half a brain that these energy-eating, road- and parking lot-hogging monstrosities were an economic and ecological disaster waiting to happen. It shouldn't have taken a doubling of gas prices in the last year to make people see what a waste of money and space these things are.

But I guess we see what we want to see, and believe what we want to believe, evidence to the contrary be damned.

This rant brought to you courtesy of this article in today's New York Times.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Thursday, July 03, 2008

This is My Newest Favorite Thing Ever

Well, this week, anyway.

I found this on Boing Boing, one of my favorite websites. If this doesn't make you smile and feel happy for about four minutes or so, check your pulse.



For more information about Matt, check this website.

Raymond Scott - If You Don't Know Who He Is...

... you ought to. If you've ever seen a Merrie Melody or Looney Toon from the late 1930s through the 1940s, you've probably heard some of his music as adapted by Carl Stalling.

Enjoy: