Tuesday 25 November 2003
Outsourcing and Quality
Much is being made of Dell’s recent announcement that they would be moving corporate customer-support call-center functions back from India to the United States.
But I’m sure that it’s possible to find people with heavy accents and a lack of comprehension in the United States, too.
The problem isn’t that the customer-service people were in India; the problem is that they were morons.
I recently had a problem with the data-networking capability of my mobile phone. I called an 800 number and talked to someone in Minnesota for a while; when she determined that my problem was one that needed to be solved at a higher level, I was put on hold. For a very, very long time.
When the cheerful music stopped and I again found myself talking to a human being, it was a human being in India. He had a heavy accent, and he was unaware that Washington, D.C. and New York were in the eastern time zone. So much for training people in cultural cues to keep customers from knowing they’re talking to someone on the other side of the globe.
Instead of training him in American football — and time zones — and encouraging him to read USA Today — training him to make nice, basically — they’d trained him to do his job. My questions, which were about certain arbitrary configuration parameters of the phone system, were answered in five minutes and I was on my way. It would have been nice to not have had to wait on hold for an hour to get the information, but what are you gonna do? I’ll admit that the bar is set pretty low these days, but this was by far the best customer-service experience I’ve had lately: for the simple reason that my problem was actually solved.
Dell’s problem is not that they’ve got Indians doing their customer support, it’s that they’ve got idiots doing their customer support. Some of those idiots are in India, but I’d bet that the biggest ones are in Texas, at Dell HQ. Things only get so cheap to do; let’s say that the lowest total cost that you can provide customer support for is $10 an hour. I’m sure that there are people willing to sell you ‘customer support’ service for $7.50 an hour. The problem is, those people are not offering customer support. They’re offering something they call customer support, but which usually turns out to be customer alienation.
Posted by tino at 21:07 25.11.03
Wednesday 19 November 2003
SkyHigh Airlines, where a flight from Tulsa to Austin in ‘bench’ class takes 27 hours and 49 minutes, three connections, and $3,636,40. From that fantastic website feature, the CEO’s message:
It’s a parody, of course. One of the biggest clues: the site is actually a hell of a lot more responsive than most airline websites.
Posted by tino at 00:21 19.11.03
Tuesday 18 November 2003
Service and Defensiveness
Anger Management, the most recent Adam Sandler tour de force, is out on DVD now, and there’s a scene in it that says a lot about how our society works these days.
I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that the main plot of the movie revolves around Sandler’s character being ordered by a court to undergo anger management therapy. This court order arises out of an incident on an airplane, after a stewardess has been pointedly ignoring Sandler’s request for some time:
If you don’t like embedded movies, you can download it here.
The idiocy of race, airlines, and cops, all wrapped up in one little scene.
Now, of course, this movie is an absurdist farce, Sandler is a clown, and the scene is a joke. But the fact that it works at all as a joke — the audience is left laughing in recognition, rather than scratching their heads — is kind of disturbing.
People complain about erosion of 4th-Amendment rights and other major civil-liberties issues; but the biggest loss of civil liberty — because it affects nearly everyone, nearly all of the time — in recent times seems to be the assumption generally-held by people in positions of petty power, that everyone else is hostile, all the time.
Posted by tino at 23:08 18.11.03
Monday 17 November 2003
The NY Times’ View Of The World
Though Tino’s experience has been that many of these things are a colossal pain in the ass because they’re poorly designed, in many cases they in fact prove more convenient — it’s easier to put up with the lousy user interface of the machine than the wait in a long line to deal with a human — and a lot of people are using them.
The Times is wary, however. In the middle of their story is this:
What would be do without unidentified ‘critics’?
Yes, God forbid we’re eliminating opportunities for employees to let customers know just how much they’re resented. And, if only the employers of these surly pit bulls of customer service would spend more money to provide them with health insurance, the New York Times-reading customers’ liberal guilt would be assuaged.
So the employer and the customer alike are faced with rude employees who, ‘critics’ seem to indicate, should have employer-subsidized health insurance. The ‘critics’ seem to think that making customers regret that they came in in the first place, and making them feel guilty that their no-skill jobs don’t come with subsidized health care, is a winning strategy for these class warriors.
In fact, it’s garbage like this — driving away the customers while simultaneously demanding more money for it — that will eventually eliminate these low- and no-skill jobs all together. Perhaps then the ‘critics’ will feel better, because no cashiers will be without health insurance. Instead, they’ll have warranties.
Posted by tino at 10:44 17.11.03
Sunday 16 November 2003
Dangers of State Media
No matter what you think of their reporting, you’ve got to appreciate that the BBC is in a sticky situation. It very much wants to be thought of as independent and objective, even though it’s fundamentally a wing of the British government.
Yes, yes, I know, there’s an independent board of governors, etc., etc. The BBC effectively has the power to tax people in the UK, and to have them fined or jailed if they don’t pay. You could more easily argue that the New Jersey Lottery isn’t a wing of the state government.
So anyway, in an attempt to prove its independence that’s remarkably similar to a teenager’s attempts to prove her independence from her parents by dying her hair green, the BBC has taken the position of opposition to the government, the requirements of responsible journalism be damned. Ironically enough, the BBC’s quasi-governmental status — its supposed freedom from the evil, evil Profit Motive — gives it additional credibility. Instead of being seen as a mainstream-but-only-barely left wing organ like The Guardian (itself a non-profit entity), it’s seen as credible and responsible, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
This is hardly news, of course. But the BBC’s website contained a particularly silly juxtaposition last night:
I find the placement of a quote from Tony Blair about ‘shared values’ next to a photo of police wearing body armor and holding what look like submachine guns to be particularly interesting, given that this has to be a stock photograph.
Even more interesting, this story appears to no longer be available on the website; the original headline still shows up in ‘related stories’ lists, but the link now goes to a different story. Down the Memory Hole.
Posted by tino at 12:45 16.11.03
Wednesday 12 November 2003
Why Airlines Suck, Part XXXVIII
A US Airways plane made an emergency landing at Dulles airport on Monday after a landing-gear indicator light malfunctioned, leaving some doubt about whether the wheels on the right side of the plane were fully down and locked.
Most of the information in the Washington Post story about this on Tuesday comes from a guy named David Castelveter. A quick search shows that this guy is quoted in newspapers a lot; his job is to be quoted as an official voice of US Airways.
In the Washington Post, on 11 November 2003, this was the story:
The next day, though, the story was somewhat different. From the Washington Post, 12 November 2003:
Note that two things change. Most importantly, the central fact here: on Tuesday, there was no touch-and-go landing. On Wednesday, the airline is willing to admit that there was.
More important, though, is that Castelveter’s stated source for his information changes. I’m willing to accept that he may have got the wrong information at first, and then got more complete and correct information later. But note that in the earlier story, he says that he’d talked to the pilot. We know that this can’t be correct, because he had the wrong story at the time. It’s not like the pilot would have forgotten what had happened. And in the later story, he says that he’d only talked to people at the operations center.
At some point, then, Castelveter — a professional question-asker and communicator — has been caught in a falsehood, and I can’t imagine how it could have been unintentional. Worse, it’s something that doesn’t really matter. Did he talk to the pilot, or didn’t he? It’s hardly a life-or-death question — which further raises the question of why the hell he would lie about it.
My guess is that the airline industry’s culture of ass-covering, truth-bending, and reality-distortion in its dealings with the public is so pervasive, and the airlines are so used to never being called on their lies, that they can’t even tell whether they’re telling the truth or not.
Posted by tino at 21:55 12.11.03
Tuesday 11 November 2003
The Retail Experience in Columbia, MD
One of the biggest problems of most suburbs is that marginal uses are squeezed out; in the developer’s drive to make as much money in rent, and, at least as frequently, the county’s drive to make as much money as possible in tax revenues, nothing but the very highest-yield activities are permitted.
Now, this is a problem not because small businessmen are being squeezed out, or that you can’t afford to operate the Lesbian Seagull Coffeeshop, Bookstore, and Discovery Center in the middle of the Mews At Windsor Heights. It’s a problem because communities, to function properly, need access to a number of goods and services the provision of which, while profitable, is not spectacularly so. For a place to be a convenient one to live in, there needs to be somewhere to get keys made; there needs to be a dry-cleaner; there needs to be a place to have a car repaired. You need churches and thrift stores. It’s nice to have small bookstores, hardware stores, bakeries, florists, and the like.
There are a number of reasons why most of these things don’t exist in large numbers in the suburbs, but one of the biggest is that there’s no cheap real estate. In most urban neighborhoods — even the trendiest and most expensive — there are some buildings that are not as nice as most of the others. Some of them have settled oddly and have slanty floors, others have odd obstructions that make them harder to use effectively, others that are imperfectly located, and still others have landlords who just haven’t spent enough money on maintenance over the years, and where tenancy means putting up with temperamental building systems and a lot of strange quirks. In the best space, the newer buildings on the main streets, you’ve got the stores that, in the suburbs, would be in the mall: big national chains and high-margin local operations. In the B-grade buildings, you’ve got these less-profitable businesses that make a neighborhood livable.
Suburbs, by design, don’t have any B-grade space. Any given chunk of suburb tends to be built all at once, building codes and zoning laws try to see to it that the buildings are all of a similar quality, and when things inevitably deteriorate from age, they’re often extensively renovated or torn down altogether and replaced by newer buildings.
What many suburbs — particularly those that style themselves as something more than just bedroom communities — do have is what might be called A-minus-grade space: the ‘industrial park’. And it’s into these industrial parks that some of the marginal but necessary businesses are moving, in the suburbs. This is happening in Columbia, Maryland, a planned town about thirty years old and halfway between Washington and Baltimore.
Apparently the situation with actual retail space there is pretty dire:
Everyone agrees that there’s not enough retail space, and the county is in the middle of a ‘comprehensive rezoning’. I don’t understand how it’s important who owns the land; it certainly doesn’t sound like zoning any more retail space would result in Rouse and Kimco’s properties suddenly emptying out.
In any case, there’s no plan to do anything about the problem — unless someone complains:
They aren’t likely to be pursued? Most jurisdictions pursue businesses in an attempt to get them to move in, providing tax revenue, jobs, and services. Howard county suggests that they might ‘pursue’ — i.e. chase out of town — businesses for which there’s a demand but no officially suitable space.
There’s not enough retail space, everyone admits it, and there are no plans to solve the problem. But should someone complain about people operating what are effectively retail operations out of non-retail space, then the county will do something, i.e. throw out the ‘offending’ business. That’s what zoning is all about!
That these public-facing businesses are able to survive at all in such lousy locations — the main characteristic of suburban industrial parks is that they’re almost totally invisible from the outside — would seem to indicate that there’s a strong demand for whatever it is they’re selling. And what’s the only action that the county contemplates? Further curtailing the space available to these businesses.
When these suburbs become slums, I predict that the people in charge of their local governments will stand around scratching their heads, too.
Posted by tino at 23:24 11.11.03
Monday 10 November 2003
I have written about this very issue before, but as I now have a photo to go along with it, there’ll be an encore. Besides, I find the topic so damned amusing that I can’t resist.
Cold-War American movies that featured Russians always involved, at some point, the Russian characters pointing out that the United States was decadent. I am not sure whether Russians actually said these things, but in a Marxist’s view of the world the United States is quite decadent, i.e. in a state of decay.
Anyway. A lot of quite stupid Americans saw these movies, and they concluded that, if the Soviets were calling the U.S. ‘decadent’, well then ‘decadent’ was the thing to be. Being equipped with neither education nor dictionaries, their minds came to understand ‘decadent’ as being something represented by well-stocked grocery stores, the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, Cadillacs, and musical comedy. That is, ‘decadance’ means everything that most clearly distinguished the United States from the Soviet Union.
While you’ll see the word deployed to hawk all kinds of stuff, from feather boas on QVC (which probably are actually indicative of decadence) to expensive jewelry from legitimate dealers (more properly decadent in the Marxist sense), the notion of ‘decadence’ has for some reason particularly attached itself to things involving chocolate.
‘Chocolate Decadence’ as pictured here is chocolate cake with whipped-cream frosting, topped with little — very little — chips of toffee. You grab the inch-and-a-half square portions yourself out of a fluorescent-lit stainless-steel tub and carry them back to your table, where you wolf ‘em down with bent and scarred Chinese-made flatware. It’s a good thing we won the Cold War when we did, because if this now counts as ‘decadence’ I’m not sure we’d be culturally equipped for it any more.
Posted by tino at 21:53 10.11.03
Sunday 09 November 2003
McJobs and McMansions
McDonald’s is upset at Mirriam-Webster’s inclusion of the word ‘McJob’, meaning poorly-paid dead-end work, in the newest edition of their dictionary.
Is cantalupo Italian for cantaloupe? If it is, it might offer an explanation: instead of brains, this guy’s head is full of orange goop and seeds. And I’ll bet he made more money last year than Tino, too.
He seems, first of all, to misunderstand that dictionaries of the English language are descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, they record the language as she is spoke, not as the lexicographers think it should be spoke. And McJob is certainly widely-used to describe lousy jobs.
(Incidentally, I think that Webster’s has it wrong; a McJob isn’t just a low-paid dead-end job. Elementary-school janitor is a low-paid, dead-end job, but it’s not a McJob. A true McJob is one where neither the employer nor the employee expects that the job is going to last long or that either of them is going to do any more than is absolutely required by the three-ring binder. A true McJob is one that would be done by a robot, were robots cheaper and more effective.)
And second, note that he seems to think that the dictionary has done some disservice to people who work at McDonald’s by describing their employment as poorly-paid and dead-end, not that McDonald’s has done some disservice to them by paying them poorly and providing few routes for advancement. It’s not as if McDonalds’ sales are likely to be hurt by this. I can’t imagine that those who currently dine at McDonald’s are under the impression that the people behind the counter are well-paid. Frankly, given the incredibly inept job that almost all fast-food workers do, I can imagine people being upset if they did think that these workers were being paid much, or being considered for advancement. You get what you pay for, and McDonald’s has determined that the cost to them of lousy service and the need for constant close supervision of most of their employees is less than the cost of paying enough to get better employees. It seems kind of silly to willingly put up with the real consequences of your policies, only to get all bent out of shape when a dictionary acknowledges that people think that your low-wage dead-end jobs are ones that are not particularly desirable.
I have not heard a peep — undoubtedly because a dictionary has not yet taken notice — of complaint out of McDonald’s about the word McMansion. McJob just makes a point about the quality of employment at McDonald’s — which even the company would have to admit is pretty low. But McMansion calls into question everything about the company.
A McMansion is a suburban house, usually constructed on speculation by the builder and as part of a number of other similar houses. A McMansion differs from ordinary suburban tract houses simply by being much larger and fancier than tract houses have traditionally been.
Until fairly recently, tract houses have mostly been aimed squarely at the middle of the market. As this middle’s requirements have changed and as their wealth has grown, trace houses have changed over time, adding bathrooms and ‘great rooms’ and growing larger kitchens, but they’ve retained their relative place in the market. In the past, if you wanted a house that went beyond the basics provided by a tract house, you hired an architect and a contractor and built a house yourself.
A great many people could afford a tract house; a fairly small number of people could afford the enormous capital investment and risk involved in a custom-built house. There was a gap, which the market has now efficiently filled. You can now quite easily buy a house that can only be called a ‘mansion’, and you can buy it as easily as you can a three-bedroom, two-bath tract house, provided you can pay for it.
These new tract-mansions are well-adapted to their purpose. They tend to be plunked down in the middle of nowhere on the edges of suburbia, and their design takes this into account. When you live miles from the nearest restaurant, you’re more likely to eat at home, and so you want a nicer kitchen in which to cook. When you live miles from the nearest cinema — and when the experience of going there is getting worse all the time — you’re more likely to want to watch movies on a giant screen at home. And when you’re driving all over the place to things that you can’t bring in-house (so to speak), you’re more likely to have more and better cars, so you’ll want at least a three-car garage.
I’m not saying that I’m a fan of this state of affairs; on the contrary, I think most people would be much happier living in denser surroundings with a meaningful community around them. For a variety of reasons I’m not going to go into here, living like that generally isn’t possible in the United States. What is possible is suburban tract housing. Along with the benefits of living in the suburbs — fresh air, quiet, low taxes, etc. — come certain disadvantages, like an almost total lack of society. The physical form of most tract-house-heavy suburbs cuts people off from one another, and from communal amenities like restaurants, bars, and cinemas.
We accept the fact that the Kennedy family retreats to their famous ‘compound’, and while we might goggle and feel envious, we don’t question the sense of the people on MTV Cribs when we see that they have equipped their residences with movie theaters, basketball courts, nightclubs, and other things that are normally thought of a public facilities. Big-enough celebrities can’t go to the movies, for instance, without being so hassled by fans that it’s not worth their trouble to go out — and, what’s more, big-enough celebrities have the money to solve this problem for themselves.
Well, the fact is that a lot of middle-class, non-famous people now can no longer go out to the movies without being hassled so much that it’s not worth the trouble. In this case, it’s not autograph-seeking fans who are the problem, but traffic, endless ads before the movie, rancid popcorn, sticky floors, limited parking, and ever-rising prices. While the cost of going out to the movies has risen, the cost of staying in has fallen, thanks to new technology. Where once only people like Hugh Hefner could afford private screening rooms, now nearly anyone with a job can. So people buy bigger houses and build their private home theaters. They invite their friends over, and feed them from that giant showplace of a kitchen. The suburbs don’t have decent public space any more, but the human needs that gave rise to the pub etc. are still there; so in the absence of other options, suburban man creates in his private realm the spaces that his emotions require.
There are some people who are are bothered by this. Most of them seem to live in small apartments in the city, and they appear to believe that everyone should do likewise. Whatever the merits of their arguments — there are some, in fact — city living in the United States is fantastically expensive, largely because there are artificial limits on how much ‘city’ space there is. There’s a lot more demand for dense, livable areas than there are dense, livable areas; and so the old cities, within which most of this dense area exists, are free to charge high taxes, deliver little in the way of effective services, and generally make life difficult. The cities can stay ‘in business’ this way because their relatively rare older, denser communities are a big draw. But the fact that the supply is artificially limited means that only the people who most value this kind of thing, and who are willing to make substantial sacrifices elsewhere in order to live in this environment, will live there.
People who are less enamored of the city — or people whose needs are not well-met in the city, skewed as it is toward the particular demographic that’s willing to make sacrifices to live there — move to the suburbs and adapt to life there. For those who can afford it, this adaptation involves, in part, building large houses.
People who don’t like these houses derisively call them McMansions, which is more accurate than the complainers probably even mean.
McDonald’s has its origins in 1937 as a hot-dog stand with carhops in Pasadena, California. The initial restaurant, and its larger replacement in San Bernardino, were financial successes, but the management of the company was complicated and the costs were high. By switching, in 1948, to what the McDonald brothers called ‘Speedee Service’ — which involved eliminating carhops, dishes, and the like — they were able to lower their costs, and thus the prices they charged. McDonald’s was not then and is not now elegant; but it’s inexpensive as a result of cost control, economies of scale, and industrial production methods.
So it is with ‘McMansions’, except that elegance is a component of the product there as much as it is not in a McDonald’s restaurant. The anti-McMansion crowd seems to mainly be motivated by envy and aesthetic horror. That is, they seem to think that the people who can afford these houses don’t deserve them, and that this is made plain by the fact that a lot of these ‘McMansions’ are ugly. There’s also often more than a hint of class warfare.
One satirical website, Swineopia (I’ll have to get around to suing them, soon, over the name), bills itself as ‘A home on the web for the clueless rich’. It has a section on McMansions that reads thusly:
This person — who appears to live in Reston, VA, by the way, a whole town built out of sawdust and glue — appears to see the entire world through the lens of class and money. Furthermore, he assumes that people who have more money than he does are also Marxists, and that they choose the house they live in and the car they drive not because these things are well-adapted to the way they live, but rather for the benefit of chance observers.
There are certainly elements of truth in what he says. I’ve never seen a tract-mansion development called “Le Duke of Earl at Stoat Mews”, but the actual names of some of these places are not significantly more literate or tasteful. There certainly is an element of the pretentious and pointlessly ‘impressive’ about a lot of these houses, but this comes less from some deep-seated insecurity on the part of the people who live in them than it comes from the fact that these houses are products that have to be sold, and so they have perhaps a bit too much of what real-estate agents call ‘curb appeal’.
The Marxists appear to not like these houses because they see them as a mechanism for class mobility, and class mobility scares Marxists to death. The Marxists, though, have it wrong as usual; these houses are profoundly middle-class artifacts, but they’re artifacts of a middle class that is choosing to use its increased buying power to live more comfortably.
And this is what McDonald’s should be worried about. Jobs at McDonald’s are lousy jobs, and everyone knows it. Nobody really has any problem with this, as is made clear by the fact that people keep applying to work there. The description of large tract houses as ‘McMansions’ strikes much more of a blow at what McDonald’s stands for, and much more nonsensically.
Posted by tino at 17:32 9.11.03
Friday 07 November 2003
Ach! Wee Turtles!
I’ve written a few things in the past week or so, but they’ve all petered out after a while. In between, I have been continuing our war on soap scum; we’re still losing, I’m afraid, despite having deployed non-conventional weapons .
There’s also been an onslaught of wee turtles here in the past week. I managed to get a shot of one of them as he raced away from me.
Posted by tino at 16:12 7.11.03