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Friday 30 April 2004

New phonecam feature

The Tinotopia Multimedia department has been hard at work, and as a result I at last have a use for the terrible camera that’s built in to my mobile phone.

The archive interface isn’t yet complete, but for the time being the latest picture taken with the Tino phone-cam will appear in the column on the left side of the main Tinotopia Log page. I take the photo with the phone, and then send it from there, so it can be updated at any time, from any place.

Posted by tino at 15:26 30.04.04
Tuesday 27 April 2004

Spring Has Arrived

It’s officially been spring for some time now, but for me it still feels like winter as long as you can see the road from the house. The trees have gained enough leaves now that you can’t. Huzzah.

Amazingly enough, I don’t actually have many photos of the view from the front of the house, and it’s too overcast today for me to bother.

The ‘winter’ picture includes far more of the sky, and the ‘summer’ one more of the lawn. The lawn isn’t much to look at when it’s at it’s best; in the winter, it’s best tactfully avoided all together. Both of these pictures have pretty much the same horizontal field of view, though.

winter summer
Posted by tino at 18:29 27.04.04
Monday 26 April 2004

Means and Ends in Retail

This morning to 7-Eleven. I don’t like even going into 7-Eleven, because when I come out, I find that I smell like the place. The smell of burnt coffee and elderly hot dogs sticks in my hair. An hour from now, if I run my hand through my hair, a little puff of 7-Eleven will escape and I’ll get indigestion all over again.

Anyway, so I’m in there, merchandise and a $20 bill in hand, waiting at the counter to pay. There are three people working in the store, two behind the counter and another screwing around with the magazine-delivery guy. One of the people behind the counter is wearing a necktie and a 7-Eleven cardigan, so I assume he occupies some position of authority. There’s one woman in line in front of me.

The employees ignore this woman for a while — thirty seconds or so — opting instead to chat with one another. Thirty seconds doesn’t sound like a long time, but it’s an eternity while you’re standing there waiting to hand over money. Eventually they reach a break-point in their conversation and deign to deal with the customer. Things go smoothly, and I advance to the head of the line.

It’s time, then, for a drop into the safe. The cashier — the one not wearing the necktie and the cardigan — takes a $20 out of the cash register, laboriously stuffs it into a little brown envelope, and walks over to the safe. Done; the $20 is safe from miscreants now.

The cashier comes back over to the cash register, and I think I’m finally going to get out of there. It’s not just my time that I’m concerned about; 7-Eleven smells awful.

But it’s not to be. There’s something very complicated going on, and it involves the half-empty bottle of Mountain Dew that the cardigan guy is holding. The inventory is out of whack or something, and fixing the problem involves ‘selling’ that bottle of Mountain Dew several times.

“We’ll be with you in a moment,” cardigan-man says to me, without looking up. He and the cashier start screwing around with the bottle, a bottle cap, and the UPC scanner. Maybe one of them had won a free Mountain Dew or something.

I stuck around for a while, but as it became clear that this was going to take a while, I put my merchandise on the counter, turned, and left. It will be a while before I return to that particular 7-Eleven.


It took me longer to go to another store and get my stuff than it would have had I just stayed at 7-Eleven, but I would have hated myself for giving them money.

7-Eleven — particularly the one I was in this morning, it’s far worse than the other two in Front Royal — has forgotten its purpose. 7-Eleven’s purpose is to part me from my money: that’s all. In order to do this efficiently, 7-Eleven has instituted a number of procedures and policies, involving things like stocking magazines, dropping cash, keeping inventory, and so on.

However, in chain establishments where nobody present has much of an immediate stake in the success of the business, the focus is invariably on the business’ internal procedures. The employees are rewarded and punished based on how well they hew to the company’s policies, so, as far as the employees are concerned, that’s what the job is: the means become far more important than the ends. Customers truly are an unwelcome interruption in a place like that.

The trick, I suppose, is to get employees to both follow the company’s procedures and policies — they’re there for a reason, after all — and to recognize that the entire purpose of the procedures and policies is to facilitate getting the customers’ money. I am not sure this is entirely possible.

Posted by tino at 12:57 26.04.04
Monday 19 April 2004

Back at Tino Manor

I have been out of town for a week, and as I’ve been busy nothing’s been written here. Give me a few more days and something should appear.


Posted by tino at 08:36 19.04.04
Thursday 15 April 2004

Nation Nation

After picking out a number of books the other day, I happened to notice that the three I was ultimately marching off to the cash register were Asphalt Nation, Fast Food Nation, and Corporation Nation.

I quickly put Asphalt Nation back, not only because I didn’t want to be seen buying three books with similar titles (what would people think?!), but because it seemed to spend most of its time pointing out the painfully obvious. (After having read the other two books, I’ve concluded that I should have put them back, too; they’re not well-written, they’re incredibly biased (thus throwing everything they say into doubt), and in general not worth their inflated prices.)

The whole experience got me thinking, though, and a little bit of web searching turned up what I was afraid of.

There is an incredible surfeit of books on the market with titles of the form of [Noun] Nation.

The trend seems to have been kicked off by Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation in 1994. This was a well-publicized and successful book, to put it mildly. Apparently authors and publishers around the country determined that it was the snappy ‘nation’ as the second half of the title that made it so. They then all set out to imitate it.

(I found only one book with such a title published before Prozac Nation. It’s Redeemer Nation, by Ernest L. Tuveson, and published by the University of Chicago Press in 1980. I doubt whether Ms. Wurtzel or her publishers were aware of Redeemer Nation, though, and in any case Prozac Nation was published almost fourteen years after Redeemer.)

In the almost seven years since the publication of Prozac Nation, though, there have been at least thirty widely-distributed books with titles of the [Noun] Nation form, from Adoption Nation to Viagra Nation.

In my search, I deliberately excluded titles like Cherokee Nation or Pueblo Nation or anything that appeared to be using the word ‘nation’ according to its dictionary definition, and not as a marketing gimmick.

Apparently, I am the only person in America who finds all this just a bit disturbing.

Here I’ll write some capsule reviews of these books. Some of them I’ve read, some I’ve glanced into, and for some I’ve only read the publishers’ blurbs. My opinions are still valid.

Suburban Nation, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck.  This is actually an excellent book, despite the stupid title.  It concerns urban planning, and what’s wrong with the urban ‘planning’ that has resulted in American suburbs.  Definitely worth a read, and probably worth the price of purchase.  There are a lot of little pictures illustrating various points.
Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser.  Eric seems to have a love-hate relationship with the fast food industry.  On the one hand, he likes Big Macs and Whoppers, and he admires the entrepreneurial spirit that has resulted in these huge multinational corporations being built out of literally nothing in a very short period of time.  On the other hand, he seems to be a bleeding-heart liberal who would prefer to pretend that the entire fast-food concept is impossible without exploiting people who can’t get better jobs.  He does make some good points about the U.S. government being essentially for sale to the highest bidder, but overall the book in a bit uneven and does not progress in a straight line toward his conclusion.
Asphalt Nation, by Jane Holtz Kay.  Admitting We Have A Problem.  I have not read this book, though I glanced into it.  It appears to point out a lot of the things said in Suburban Nation (above), but specifically dealing with cars, i.e. cars in America have ceased to make life better in a lot of cases, and are actually making things worse.  
Free Agent Nation, by Daniel H. Pink.  About the reaction of the employee class to corporate downsizing trends: companies are not showing loyalty toward their employees, so people are no longer showing loyalty toward their employers.
Adoption Nation. Presumably it’s about adoption.
Corporation Nation. I am currently reading this book.  Its general thesis is that corporate power has grown too great in the USA, and that we are going to hell in a handbasket as a result.  I vaguely agree with that (though not in the way the author would like me to), but I still have to say that the book is a good cure for insomnia.
Credit Card Nation. About credit cards and how Americans are using them too much.
Database Nation. Presumably, privacy fearmongering.  Expect at least one chapter on the Dangers of the Internet.
Salmon Nation. Fishermen in the Pacific Northwest, and how tough things are for them.
Gunfighter Nation. How the Wild West really wasn’t, and why guns should therefore be banned. This thesis has since been discredited.
Joystick Nation. How kids are paying too many video games, and why they should be stopped.
Alien Nation. I think this is a tie-in to the TV series of the same name.  Or possibly the book on which it was based.  Whatever.  Title ends in ‘Nation’.
Cinema Nation. Movies in America.  This book stands out as being one of the very few -Nation books that is not advocacy for one cause or another.
Buffalo Nation. Presumably about a nation of people living in western New York.  Or just possibly about American Indians and now noble they were before Europeans came.
Adventures in a TV Nation. By Michael Moore et al.  This is a tie-in with Michael Moore’s TV show, TV Nation.  The book does not precisely fit the title requirements, but the TV show does, and so the book is included here.
Restless Nation. About insomniacs, or possibly American rootlessness.  Might actually be good, if it’s about the latter.
At Fenway: Dispatches from Red Sox Nation.  Does not precisely fit the requirements for the list.  Included here to illustrate the contemporary tendency to divide people into ‘nations’ (which is what I believe this phenomenon with the book titles is about) based on something as trivial as what baseball team they support.  (Note to Red Sox fans who are tempted to write about how Red Sox fandom is not trivial: shut up.)
Ritalin Nation. Presumably about Americans’ tendency to pump their kids full of drugs if they don’t "behave".  (After all, if the kids don’t "behave" they could fall in with a Bad Crowd and wind up — gasp — taking drugs.  Um..
Hispanic Nation. I was ambivalent about including this one, because you can make a very good argument that Hispanics actually do form a legitimate nation of people.
Comic Book Nation. About comic books, oddly enough.
White Nation. Essentially, a book about why Jews, Blacks, and everyone else not exactly like the author are just terrible, terrible people.  I think that the fact that the cover photo is of a Normal Rockwell-type baby holding what looks like a noose is about all you need to know.
Cafe Nation. About cafes, I think.
Film Nation. Do not confuse this book with Cinema Nation, above.  
Warrior Nation. The only non-American book in the lot, this one is about Britain’s military tradition over the past few centuries.
Condom Nation. They get some points for making a semi-clever pun.  I think that it’s about the idiocy of government bans on handing out free condoms.
House/Garden/Nation: Space, Gender, and Ethnicity in Post-Colonial Latin American Literatures by Women.  Ahem.  Beware of book with oblique strokes (i.e. /) in the title.  Beware of anyone who pluralizes ‘literature’, which is already a mass noun.  Beware of this book.  It will melt your brain with postmodern idiocy.
Private Nation. I cannot figure out what this is about.  A photographer is credited, so presumably it has pictures.
Carnal Nation. Recent federal anti-obscenity laws prevent me telling you what this book is about.
Radio Nation. About radio.
Viagra Nation. The socially-acceptable version of Carnal Nation.
Posted by tino at 10:11 15.04.04
Friday 02 April 2004

Culture Pays

James Surowiecki writes in the New Yorker about Ecuador’s Campaña Contra la Impuntualida, or campaign against lateness. Ecuadorians are, it appears, stereotypical South Americans in that they tend to be late for everything. This is estimated to cost their economy about 10% a year, so they’re trying to change their habits.

The one-page article is particularly interesting in that it more or less plainly states something that you’re not supposed to talk about, particularly in a left-of-center magazine like the New Yorker: that culture matters, and that the wealth of nations is tied to the national habits.

What Ecuador really has to overcome is the idea that culture is destiny, that showing up late is just what Ecuadorans do. In the past two decades, great attention has been paid to the economic significance of cultural predispositions—to the role, for example, of trust and risk-aversion in the old Soviet-bloc countries’ fitful attempts to adapt to capitalism. Culture, we have discovered, matters more than many bondholders wish it did.
We are constantly being told, about social norms in places like the Middle East, “That’s just the way it is.”

The danger is that this might lead to people thinking that the United States is wealthy because the United States’ culture tends to produce wealth, rather than that the United States is wealthy because of systematic oppression of the downtrodden flavor-of-the-month. It also would seem to imply that any nation, or any person, can improve their or his lot by simply adopting values that lead to betterment. How about that.

Anyway, it’s a good article and worth a read.

Posted by tino at 14:00 2.04.04

Old People’s Foibles, Courtesy, and the Boomers

Soon, we are told, we’ll be up to our ears in old people. Even copious drug use and motorcycle-riding haven’t thinned the Baby Boomers’ ranks enough to make up for the Boom itself, and for advances in medical technology.

There’s no shortage of commentary on the effect this is going to have on economics, but I’ve seen very little on what social changes this is going to bring.

Old people have traditionally been accorded a certain amount of respect simply because of their age. To begin with, truly old people were, until recently, pretty rare; and it’s generally assumed that old people are wiser as a result of their longer experience. In my experience, old people are idiots at about the same rate as the rest of the population, but you might be able to say that the ones who aren’t idiots are the least idiotic of all. They’ve managed to beat the actuarial tables, at least.

But as a larger and larger portion of the population has gray hair, and as Buick’s sales figures rise into the stratosphere, this is going to have to end.

Today while I was at the post office, I happened to notice this car, this Mercury Topaz, in the parking lot:

The Front Royal Post Office parking lot

This isn’t an action shot; the car is parked like this. It was in this position when we went in to the post office, and it was in this position when we came out. The little old lady who was driving it finally managed to get out of the car and walk inside just as we were leaving — or trying to leave. The parking lot at the Front Royal post office is pretty bad at the best of times; this morning they were doing a lot of business, and this woman was complicating matters, to put it mildly. The way she was parked, several parking spaces were usable only with difficulty, and the entire time I was there, there was a line of cars out onto the street because of the resulting backup in the parking lot.

Now, this isn’t that big of a deal. For less than a half-hour, there was a parking-lot traffic-jam at the post office in a small town. One woman and her obliviousness to her surroundings — if not her contempt for other people — was the cause of it, but because she was old, nobody said anything to her, and nobody honked their horns. Perhaps everyone was thinking that they would want everyone to be nice to their own grandmothers, should they dodder around and make life difficult.

All of this is very fine and noble, but this courtesy is a luxury we will not be able to afford much longer. When one old person is unwittingly throwing a monkey wrench into the works, we can be courteous and accommodating. When half the population is old enough to not be aware of the problems they’re causing for everyone else, we will not be able to extend them the courtesy of allowing them to be such a pain in the ass, no matter how much we’d like people to be kind to grandmothers.

Or, possibly, old people could themselves start to be more courteous. Old people can be a pain in the ass no matter how well-intentioned they are; when they’re in line in front of you at the grocery store, they can’t see as well, and are not as flexible as the average person. It’s going to take them longer to get their wallets out and pay. Fine; I’m willing to cut them that much slack. But I see no reason why they should be permitted, without social sanction, to pay for purchases with exact change involving more than fifteen pennies while others are waiting. There’s no reason they should be able to ‘park’ their cars wherever they happen to stop them. There’s no reason why they should drive down the road at a (low) speed of their own choosing, wandering back and forth from lane to lane.

We have tolerated and we continue to tolerate the eccentricities of age until now; but no matter how we feel about it, this will have to change before long if society is going to survive the aging of the Boomers.

Posted by tino at 13:20 2.04.04