Thursday, July 24, 2008

I did it! This is a landmark day!

This morning I stopped off at Starbucks on the way to work as I am wont to do. As always, I ordered in English: a "large" iced coffee with soy. Today, I got a newbie Starbucks person and when she relayed the order to the person who was making my drink, she also said it in English! She said a "large..." and then corrected herself and used the Starbuckese fake word for "large".

What a victory!!! Today one new Starbucks employee, tomorrow the entire chain!

Note: Look folks, in America, there are 3 sizes: small, medium and large. Small has to be bigger than what would be considered large in France. And large has to be really huge. If you're going to add a 4th size it has got to be XL. Your 5th must be XXL and so on. But you're really better off sticking with 3 sizes and using the word "small" to signify what anyone with eyes can plainly see is gargantuan. This way, we can all tell ourselves that it's really small and we're not pigs but really actually be pigs.

And when I say that the sizes are small, medium and large, I also mean that those are the words used for sizes in this country. Period. I have lots of respect for Starbucks' ability to get people to pay $4 for what they used to pay 50 cents for. But we can't have any more words. We already have too many words in this country. Bringing in phony words from somewhere else is exactly the opposite of what we need!

Frankly, if Starbucks really wanted to be extraordinary, they would make great coffee AND eliminate words from the English language. They could have a calendar with a word of the day, but the word of the day was the word that was being excised from English that day. And it would have no definition because you don't need to know it anyway because you are prohibited from using it ever again.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

New poem

From a city tree (7-15-08)

Let me breathe the air I was meant to breathe
I am not your plaything
Nor your prisoner

The captive wind you let through
Is not enough for me
Or for you

And I can see what you won't let me see

Let us be free

Monday, July 14, 2008

Don't start out on the wrong foot

I work for a very large company. Many agencies and consultancies want to work with us. I met a consultant at a conference some weeks ago and we talked for a few minutes. He then reached out to me via email to ask if we could meet. I said yes and we arranged an appt. All good so far.

This morning he sent an email confirming the meeting (still good) and asking for directions to our office.

Now we hit the problem. He didn't tell me where he's coming from. So I have to send him an email asking where he's coming from. He responds, but doesn't give me specific enough information to suggest proper directions. So I have to send another email.

Not good. I'll be meeting this guy tomorrow and already I'm annoyed. He could have demonstrated how together he is and how unbelievably helpful he can be to me by telling me he is coming from Manhattan and will take the George Washington Bridge and needs directions from there. Or, better yet, he could have just asked for our address and used Mapquest, Google Maps...

These little things contribute to the impressions people have of you. They are part of your brand. And this fellow is coming to see me tomorrow to talk about his branding firm!

Bring your A game if you want to survive

I had to pickup a prescription for someone today at a small independent pharmacy. I didn't know when they opened but I figured 9am was a reasonable bet. And I figured if it was 10, I could hang out and get some work done at the Starbucks down the block.

I showed up at the store at 9:11am. The lights were mostly off and the door was locked. And on the door was a sign with the store's hours. They were supposed to open at 9am.

I thought the story was that the big bad national chain box stores were destroying Main Street and the personalized service and attention that only the small independents could give us. I guess not.

Now to be fair, the guy at the store was nice enough. The transaction was fast and efficient. And it might also be true that they do provide great personalized service. But that is not going to be enough. When I show up at my local CVS first thing in the morning, they are open. Period.

If you are a small independent, your B+ game is not enough. You A- game is not enough. You need to show up every day with your A game.

Oh no! I'm draining the reservoirs!

I've been working out the low tech way for a while. A regular pair of shorts and a cotton t-shirt. I finally decided to jump into the 21st century and bought a pair of workout shorts and a t-shirt made out of some material that wicks moisture away from the body.

I have to say they are definitely comfortable. And shiny. Which might make it easier for snipers to see me but could also help me catch the eye of a supermodel who's looking to slum it for a while.

Anyway, I had them in the dryer and noticed that for such thin material, they were taking a long time to dry. And then it hit me. This stuff was designed to wick moisture away from other things. This is a fashion oxymoron. Or one of those crazy riddles like whether god can invent a rock that he can't lift. How is it possible to dry a garment that is designed to pull in moisture?!

While I am drying these garments, they are struggling mightily to fulfill their mission - to wick moisture. And with no moist body on them and no other source of moisture in the dryer, it has become clear to me that they pull in moisture from other sources.


So to all you drought stricken folks in Arizona, my sincerest apologies. Take it up with Reebok.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?...

OK folks it's on!!!

I wrote in May that we should boycott movies. They've gotten too expensive and the prima donna actors are rich enough.

You can see my two posts on this topic here:

Well now the movement has doubled in size. There has been a new comment posted in support of the movie boycott!

You're all going to want to get on board here. One day, when we bring the massive entertainment-industrial complex to its knees, you will be able to say "I was a part of that."

Friday, July 11, 2008

eBags, I love you but you're actin' weird

I have posted several times now about eBags. I like them. I like the site. I love the products. But I've had a couple of relationship glitches with them that I truly hope they fix. (* eBags: If you're reading this, see my note to you below. If you're not reading this then stop reading this.)

Well I just placed another order with them. I had a promotional code which I entered at the end. After doing so, I got a page that offered me two discount options: One was the 20% based on the code I had entered. And another was a free shipping option. For both options, they transparently showed me what my total cost would be. And, as it happened, one was more expensive than the other.

Huh?! Why not just ask: "Adam: Are you an idiot?"

I understand offering customers different discounts. Some might benefit over the long run from a 20% discount more than a free shipping discount. And choice is good. But once I have placed an order and the choice results in a transparent difference in cost, why would anyone pick the more expensive "discount" offer?

Am I missing something folks? Is this any different than going to a bricks and mortar store, bringing your items to the counter, having them ring you up and then offer you an option of getting nothing else extra but paying a few more dollars?

Here is the text from the page they showed me (italics added):

The coupon code you just entered can not be combined with your current discount.
Please choose which discount you would prefer. See all discount details below.
Option A - The coupon code you used (CC203NYJ06) offers the following:

"20% off your purchase."

Your order total with this offer would be:

($43.97 + $6.95 shipping + $0.00 tax)

Continue with this coupon

Option B - Your current discount offers the following:

"Summer Sale: Free Shipping on Orders $50 and Over"

Your order total with this offer would be:

($54.97 + $0.00 shipping + $0.00 tax)

Continue with my current discount

(*eBags: You screwed up my last two orders by leaving out an item despite showing it as having been delivered. Your customer rep provided a vague assurance that this would not happen again. If it happens with the order I just placed, you will be placed on the banned list until you earn my love again.)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

What the hell are they smokin' in Ohio?

I recently wrote about an incident where an Ohio public school science teacher was fired for preaching after repeated warnings and using some sort of device to "burn" an image of a cross on the arms of several students. [See my original post.]

I don't really care what you think about religion in the public schools. I would think the burning of a cross on a kid's arm would pretty much be a deal breaker.

Apparently not in Mount Vernon, Ohio. According to the AP, the town is split over this.

Are these people nuts?!

It's your birthright

In my last post I wrote about how we size people up by asking the wrong set of questions. I suggested a few questions that I think would be better ways of truly understanding people you meet. Examples: 1) What is your life's ambition? 2) What makes your heart sing?

You can see Tom's comment on Plaxo here.

Jeremy commented and made a very good but sad point. You can read his full comment at the bottom of my post but here's the critical part: "you are right, but my hunch is that few would know how to respond to your questions".

Jeremy is right. Few people would know how to answer these questions.

But that is the problem. We have been told for too long that we are nothing but our skin color, our genitalia, the shape of our eyes, our country of origin... that we have forgotten our own souls. It's not that we don't have them. We do. They lie beneath the surface and periodically remind us that they have something to offer. But we have learned to ignore them.

Well it's time to reclaim our birthright. It's time to acknowledge that in addition to the DNA that defines certain parameters for us, in addition to the nurture that has helped craft what we are, we have a soul. And if we let it, that soul can propel us to great heights and help us develop excellence in us and in that corner of the world that we can touch.

Perhaps by asking the questions I have proposed (or anything in that vein), we can help people get used to the fact that there is something more to them. Something much more valuable.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Since we're not sniffing each other...

Have you noticed that when people meet others for the first time they tend to ask a very small set of initial questions? Where are you from? What do you do for a living? Do you know my buddy Bob? Where did you go to school?

I have always felt that these were such small questions. They don't capture the essence of the person. The question about employment is particularly egregious. Most people would, if they won the lottery, run from their job as if from a burning building. Most people are employed because they have to be, not because they feel their job defines them and represents their highest ambitions. And yet, even though so many people consider their own job to be highly unrepresentative of their own essence, they usually make that the very first question when they are trying to size up a new acquaintance.

The other questions are also misguided. But we ask them for very understandable reasons. They are atavistic impulses. We have very ingrained approach and avoidance mechanisms by which we seek to maintain the proper distance (spatial and social) from other people. We want to feel safe around others. And we default to base tribal instincts in our effort to do so.

You work in my industry? You come from Sheboygan? You went to Jefferson High? You do know Bob?! Ah, well you're "one of us". You're safe. People will often play this game until they can find some common ground. And of course I'm not even mentioning the search they do without opening their mouth like looking at skin color, attire, shape of the eyes, etc.

But is this really common ground? I don't think so. I think we are more evolved than this. So since we're not literally sniffing each other, can we not move away from these base criteria when sizing up other people?

I'd like to suggest a few new questions to ask people we meet. I think these are better ways of determining whether they are "one of us" and whether we'd like to hang out with them. [Note: I make an exception for specific interactions like job interviews and if you live in a jungle where you really do need to rely on your atavistic instincts to survive.]

So here are my questions:
1) What is your life's ambition?
2) What makes your heart sing?
3) Who do you most respect?
4) What is your most important trait?
5) How are you different?

I think you get the idea. We are not just pieces of meat. We have souls. We are capable of sublime thinking and behavior.

So let's move beyond caveman thinking and start elevating ourselves and the people we meet by seeking to define and understand each other in terms of our capability for beauty, wisdom and excellence.

If you have any other ideas for good questions to ask, I'd love to hear them.

Stop and Shop, tear down this wall!

Every one of these automated checkout machines should be torn down. With great fanfare. Have a parade. Throw out sweets to the youngsters. Let the adults beat them with their shoes. Just like the toppled statue of Saddam.

Or, you could just make them work.

Not sort of. Not mostly. All the time. I have never seen such a poorly implemented technology. It would be as if the people responsible for helping me with my transaction didn't speak English half the time. Oh wait, that happens too.

Easily half the time I use these machines there is some glitch. The damn thing tells me to take items off the scale when there aren't any there. Or the buttons don't work. Or it gives me some weird error message thereby necessitating a visit from their roving expert.

I can't tell you how it makes my blood boil to go to the automated checkout lane that is supposed to make the process more efficient and convenient, only to be thwarted by the very solution that has been designed for my benefit.

Why hold out the promise of convenience and fail to deliver?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Maybe I didn't ask the question well

I had a great day with my kids. We went to the Liberty Science Center which is a really nice museum in Jersey City. I get in for free and get free IMAX movies - a very nice corporate benefit.

We then went out for dinner. During dinner, I asked the kids what their objective in life is. OK, it's a tough question. But I wanted to see what they would say. And all of them basically said they wanted to be rich.

The psychologist part of me knows very well that the first person who answered the question biased the others. And that a vaguely worded question like that is tough to answer and the wording of it may have primed professional and financial answers because that's typically what people mean when they ask others what they want to be when they grow up... (Wow, that was a sick run-on sentence! Sorry.)

Still, I'm disappointed. This isn't what I was hoping to hear. Sure, I hope they all turn out to be billionaires. I may live a long time and Depends ain't cheap. But I hope that isn't their mission. I hope they have a more noble purpose ahead of them. Spreading happiness, wisdom, beauty... Ennobling their own souls and the souls of all they touch. Bringing peace to some corner of the world...

Well, looks like I have some educating to do.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Are the Danes really that happy?

Reuters is reporting that Denmark is the world's happiest country. At least that's according to the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research (ISR). [Click to read the article I just read and a press release from the institute.]

The ISR makes the point that happiness is increasing which is probably a less sexy headline than "Denmark world's happiest country, survey finds."

This survey has been conducted since 1981 and uses just two questions to create a composite measure of subjective well-being. The questions are: "Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, rather happy, not very happy, not at all happy?" And, "All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?"

I don't quite get it.

It would seem that anyone who majored in any social science at even a 3rd rate college would know better than to assume that people in all countries will give equally veridical accounts of their happiness. There are different cultural norms regarding such self-reports. Or, at least, there is reason to suspect that there might be. Some cultures may consider it bragging to say that you are happy...

So isn't it entirely possible - or at least worth ruling out - that cross-country differences in the ISR's happiness index are mere cultural artifacts and not genuine differences in happiness? I am much more comfortable with their use of the data within a given country as opposed to across countries, because in such analyses the cultural bias is greatly reduced. But even intra-country analyses are influenced by demographic and sociocultural shifts. Migration and even demographic shifts (like the aging boomers in he U.S.) could potentially sway these scores.

I hate to argue with something like this. The folks who run these surveys are social scientists who do this for a living. But as far as I can tell, this is a fatally flawed research methodology.

What am I missing?

Friday, July 4, 2008

A slice of heaven

One of my favorite pleasures is to lie out on my deck with a nice cigar, a good scotch and something intelligent to read - with no wife or kids around to make noise and ruin it.

I just spent an hour lying out on my deck enjoying a nice breeze, smelling the fragrant applewood smoke wafting from my smoker, smoking a great cigar purchased for me by my son, drinking a good scotch (Talisker) purchased for me by my soon to be ex in-laws and poured by my daughter and enjoying the company of my 3 wonderful kids.

I'm not sure it gets any better than that.

[If you're female between the ages of 23.7 and 40, highly intelligent, a nonconformist, very good looking, and you think that experience could have been topped, I'm open to being proven wrong.]

Thursday, July 3, 2008

An ontological problem

I was having a very interesting discussion a few nights ago. Somebody asked the question "what would you do differently if you didn't care what people thought of you?" In one way, this is a silly question. Because the ability of a person to answer it completely may presuppose that they already don't care what people think of them. If I place a high value on what people think of me such that I haven't already behaved publicly in a certain way, I'm not that likely to tell you about it. So I would not have answered that question in this group of people by telling them that if I didn't care what people thought of me I would strip off my staid Banana Republic cargo shorts and my basic t-shirt to reveal the hot pink satin matching panties and bra set that I like to wear underneath my clothes for kicks. Ooops. Have I revealed too much? You see? I wouldn't be any more likely to reveal that as an answer to a hypothetical question than I would be to reveal it by simply doing it.

Anyway, people answered the question is unsurprising ways. I made the point that the question is very complex. Because the you that is answering the question has been designed to care about the opinions of others. Nature and nurture both conspire to make you care deeply about how other people think about you. Even before you emerge from - well, you know where you came from - you already seek comfort in the voice of your mother. So how exactly are you answering this question in the first place? The question assumes that we can peel away the part of you that cares what other people think, to reveal your "true" self. The one that would do all sorts of things if only that pesky need for approval could be eliminated. The question assumes that there would be a you left if we peeled away the need for approval.

But it's not so clear that this is the case. It might be true that your regard for the opinions of others about you is part of the fabric of your self. That inherent to your self is the need for the approval of others.

Well this is problematic for me. Because I passionately believe that every person is sui generis. That we each have a unique soul or mind and that we are obligated to let our own unique beauty illuminate the world (in a responsible way of course). I believe that both we and the world are better off when we all pursue truth and beauty as we feel we must and when we act in harmony with our inner dictates rather than conform to social pressure. [Subject, of course, to the sorts of limitations that John Stuart Mill would have felt comfortable placing on individual liberty.]

So how can I continue to so passionately believe in Emersonian self-reliance when it is not entirely clear - even to me - that our most precious and deeply personal self can even exist in the absence of conformity?

I don't know yet. But some answers are starting to take shape.

1) We do have a pure soul that is not composed in any way of our regard for the opinions others have of us. Our need for approval is, in fact, a layer placed over that (at a very early age - even before you are born). That layer imperfectly covers our soul and it covers it in different ways for different people. So at times our uniqueness shines through and it does so more for some people than others. This may help explain why, as a fellow in this discussion pointed out, old people tend to lose their inhibitions and just don't care about what others think. Perhaps this layer erodes as people age. Perhaps there's a neurological explanation. Or maybe they just have fewer friends left alive and they don't really care what other people who aren't their friends think (and they're retired so there are no professional consequences).

2) We do not have a pure soul that exists apart from any need for approval. But our uniqueness (which may be a constantly evolving emergent phenomenon) can include the aspects of our soul for which we seek approval, and the manner and degree to which we do so. Clearly we all feel and suppress urges from time to time to express certain thoughts or emotions that we feel would earn us the disapproval of society. So our soul cannot be just a conforming approval-seeker. But it does include that element and that element is wrapped up with the individual element. They live together in a truce. For some, that truce is stable. For others, it is in perpetual upheaval as the need for approval and the need for individuality vie for supremacy.

Alright. Enough for now. But this is an interesting topic and I was glad to have reason to think and write about it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A poem in honor of mothers

I write poetry fairly often. I have no idea if anyone else would think it's good but I don't really care much. I mostly write it for myself as a means of catharsis. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. It's usually quite personal and I'm not comfortable sharing it with the world.

But a few days ago I had lunch with my friend Tom. Tom's mother recently passed away and I decided to write a poem about mothers. This is not specifically about me or my own mother (who I think is a great mom). It's about mothers in general. I am posting this in honor of Tom who I think is a generally inspirational guy. And, of course, in honor of my own mother. If I didn't think she was great, this poem would have come out very differently or not at all.

Incidentally, you can read Tom's eulogy for his mother on his blog. I have thankfully never had to think about how I would eulogize anyone. But I find this eulogy so powerful in its simplicity. And I can imagine Tom delivering it with magnificent pathos.

Mother's Footsteps (6-28-08)

The craters were massive to my young eyes
Each held my whole world
And I glided above
In the hands of love
Untouched by the dangers below.

In time my eyes grew older
My feet hit the floor
And with affected resentment
I filled in those craters
With ersatz omniscience.

Years passed and I forgot
That I knew what I didn't know
My massive feet stamped holes
In the unforgiving soil
But they always seemed smaller
Than the craters of my youth.

And now between dusk and dawn
I see those craters stretching
For miles ahead
And hope I can fill them
As once I was taught.

Outlook: A serial killer of time

Outlook is a mass murderer. It kills people in increments of anywhere from 1 to 29 minutes.

When you click on the Outlook calendar to setup an appointment or meeting, the default is a 30 minute meeting. And the calendar is setup in half hour increments. So what do people do? They create meetings that start on the hour or half hour and that are some multiple of 30 minutes in duration.


Isn't it possible that something will take 5 minutes to discuss? Or 27? And why must everything start on the hour or half hour? That's just weird! It kills time and it makes it harder for people to think about the value of their time or the time they are asking for from others.

What if you had to type in the minutes? Maybe you'd stop and think about how much time you really need. Maybe 13 minutes will do.

So I propose we all start setting up meetings that start at strange times. Like 11:47 (which I think all can agree is objectively weird). Or 1:23. And make them as long as you think you need.

It's your time. Use it wisely.

Dear customer: #$%@ you!

I really like eBags. I like the website - it's my favorite shopping site. And I really love their house brand. The products are terrific.

But they've now ticked me off. I've recently ordered a few items from them. And the last two orders were messed up. With the same problem. Both times, their website listed the order as having been delivered. Both times there was a list of items that had been in the order with a tracking number for each item ordered. And both times, even though the site listed an item as having been delivered (with other items), it was left out. In other words I didn't get all the stuff I ordered even though their website told me I had.

If I didn't already like them so much they would be on the banned list. But I do like them. So I asked the online chat rep what was going on and what they would do to make sure it didn't happen again. And I got a totally lame scripted answer. You can read the transcript of the chat session below. I'm noticing more and more customer service reps are following a new script which includes over the top politeness. I suppose that's OK. But that needs to be layered on top of functional delivery. Answer my damn question! I'd rather have a surly rep answer my question than a sweet one evade it.

Chat InformationPlease wait one moment and our specialist will be right with you. We thank you for your patience!
Chat InformationYou are now chatting with 'Smith'
Smith: Thank you for using eBags Live Chat support. May I please have your name to make this session more interactive?
you: Adam
Smith: Hi Adam!
you: I am inquiring about order XXXXXXX
Smith: How may I help you?
Smith: Please give me a moment, let me see what I can find here.
you: I received everything but the packing cubes. The package was delivered. Your website tells me that the packing cubes match with a tracking number that had a bunch of other items as well. Those items were in the box and the cubes were not.
Smith: I am checking on that.
Smith: Please give me a moment.
Smith: Did you receive all the items except the item - eBags - za Portage Mini Toiletry Kit - Denim ?
you: I got that kit. I didn't get the packing cubes
Smith: Oh ok.
Smith: Please give me a moment.
Smith: I have sent a request to our warehouse to confirm that the missing item - eBags - Packing Cubes - 3pc Set - Titanium can be shipped out. We will follow up with an email once we have confirmation.
you: Thanks. This is now the second time this has happened to me. Twice in a row actually. Why?
Smith: I sincerely apologize for any inconvenience and frustration this has caused you.
Smith: We will contact you with the exact status of this missing item via email as soon as possible.
Smith: I appreciate your patience in this regard.
you: OK. Apology accepted I suppose. But something is broken in your supply chain. Can you tell me what will be done so that this doesn't happen a third time to me?
Smith: We will make sure that this issue does not happen in future.

I think my GPS is stupid

I've got a lower end Garmin Nuvi. I love having a GPS. It makes me feel all-powerful. Oh man. I just revealed my innermost weirdness to all 3 people who read this blog. Anyway, I think my GPS is stupid.

My GPS has a great feature. It predicts what time I will arrive at my destination. And it updates this from time to time. But here's the problem:

I live very close to New York City. Often when I plug in an address for directions, I get ridiculous predictions of my arrival time. As if Garmin hasn't got a clue that there is such a thing as traffic in major cities.

I know that higher-end models have a traffic feature where they access a traffic database and can route you around traffic. Maybe these models are more capable of predicting arrival time because they "know" where there is traffic. And I'm sure some techie will tell me how hard all of this is.

I don't care. When I look at my GPS screen and right off the bat it tells me that a trip from New Jersey over the George Washington Bridge and into Westchester will take 15 minutes, it makes me think that someone wasn't thinking. The device seems to predict arrival time based on the distance and the speed limit on the road (it knows the difference between a highway and a local road). But not all miles on 55 MPH roads are the same. Driving from Fort Lee, NJ right over the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan can easily take 20 minutes. Driving that same mile west rather than east would take 1 minute. We all get this. It's obvious.

So I would suggest that if Garmin can't make this feature work intelligently on my low-end device, that it shouldn't offer the feature at all. It makes them look stupid and incompetent. And for what? The core functionality (i.e., telling me how to get from one place to another) works wonderfully. Why sacrifice your image for a nice to have?