Wednesday, November 5, 2014

My Disappointment in Politicians is Infinite

The repudiation of the president is now complete.

The Republicans repudiate him because of their not-so-latent racism (and the need to prove everything he does is wrong).

The Democrats repudiate him out of sheer cowardice. (Do they assume no one remembers the bailout from a Republican-led banking disaster or that health costs are one of the key factors crippling low- to middle-class families?)

All this, and four billion dollars, while doing nothing to address the day-to-day problems of the American citizen.

I voted. I will continue to vote. But it looks more and more like it will take Constitutional amendments — driven by grassroots petitions in every state — to achieve any significant change in the privileged, self-satisfied country club that our government has become.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Customer Survey Apocalypse

 I recently bought a fairly expensive item. I shopped around, decided what I wanted, and then went in to finalize the deal.

As I was completing the purchase and was shaking hands with the sales person, they leaned in and in a confidential tone told me a story. I would receive a survey through email in a week or so asking about my experience buying the item. The survey would cover a number of topics, including how clean was the showroom, was I told about all the options, was the sales person helpful, etc.

The reason for telling me this, he explained, is that the sales personnel are rated on the responses they receive. What's more, if they receive any responses less than "exceptional", they are considered to have failed. So, if I was happy with the purchase, could I please make sure I marked everything as "exceptional" on the survey?

There are so many things wrong with this experience it is hard to know where to begin. But what spurred me on to write about it is because this is the second time this has happened to me in the past year — dealing with completely different companies and different services!

So where to begin?
  • First, I actually did have a good experience with the purchase and would, without prompting, have given a good review in response to the survey.
  • But having been prompted, I am tempted to not respond to the survey at all rather than deal with the pressure to up my score.
  • I don't blame the sales person. If he is being judged on each survey, why not try to game the system and improve the scores?
  • I do blame the company. They have soiled what was a pleasant experience and made it seem seedy and somehow underhanded.
  • I understand the need to stay in touch with the customer experience. And as problematic as they are, surveys are one mechanism to achieve this. Especially for large national or multi-national corporations
  • But having said that, conflating customer awareness with personnel management is a disaster waiting to happen!
 I know people (and I am not far from being one myself) who would, under some perverted sense of justice, actually lower their scores on the survey in response to the request to score high. There are others, obviously, who would go along to be friendly and up the scores, regardless of what they might have given as ratings without external prompting.

Survey results are problematic enough to start with. 10% return on all surveys sent out is often considered a "good" percentage. Add to this limitation the fact that often those who hold the strongest opinions — either for or against — are the most eager to express their opinion. And now you further skew the results by having employees pushing participants to either extreme.

So rather than get an accurate (or semi-accurate) picture of the customer's experience,  they have invalidated the entire process and skewed the results. At the same time, they are using a completely spurious method for assessing their employees. Don't assess your customer facing employees on what the customer says! It is like telling the cleaning service their pay is dependent on how clean the bathroom sink is. You can be sure the bathroom sink will be clean -- even if the rest of the house isn't touched!

If you are going to rate customer-facing employees on what customers say, base it on the aggregate, not on individual scores. You are still going to sabotage the accuracy of your customer responses, but at least you would reduce the damage. And, possibly, not disillusion the customers you rely on to spread positive word-of-mouth about your business.



Wednesday, December 4, 2013

My letter to Pentax/Ricoh: When Customer Service Fails

I recently had a bad customer service experience.  Such things are unavoidable. In this case, the warranty repair of my brand-new camera was delayed by warehouse closures, lack of parts, etc. These are things I understand.

The bad part of the story is that — although the basic problems were unavoidable — the overall experience was eminently solvable with just the slightest bit of customer awareness and contact. Over the three and a half months my camera was gone, No one from Pentax/Ricoh contacted me. Not to tell me they had received the camera. Not to tell me it was delayed. Not to tell me they were replacing it. Not  to tell me the tracking number when they sent it back. All of these things I had to find out by calling them, repeatedly.

But to make a bad story worse, I wrote to the company (see below) suggesting they would do well to keep customers (who may already be annoyed that their new equipment doesn't work) informed of basic status information, via emails, phone calls, or post cards.

That was three weeks ago. Today a representative of Ricoh called me (a first!) to explain to me:
  1. I had written to the wrong person. Their executive VP doesn't handle issues like this. (Well, duh! But since their website doesn't provide any information on who to contact, I had no choice.)
  2. Once again, he explained why the repair of my camera had been delayed. (Something I had been told, many times on the phone when I called to ask where my camera was.)
  3. Their repair department was in another state entirely. (How does that matter?) And that it was very small and the staff did not have time to be corresponding with customers.
It was that last statement, along with the reassurance that my letter would be "kept on file", that really confirmed that Ricoh, as a company is fostering a culture devoid of empathy or care for their customers. 

Well, if they are going to "file" my letter and do nothing about it, I guess I will too. So I am filing my letter here, online, as a cautionary tale for any other customers who might unfortunately ever need support from Ricoh/Pentax. Better yet, someone considering purchasing any of their equipment might also want to consider their customer service history and attitude before making a decision about what brand to buy.

November 10, 2013


James Malcolm, Executive VP
Ricoh Imaging Americas Corp.
633 17th Street, Suite 2600
Denver, CO 80202


Dear Mr. Malcolm,

Earlier this year my wife bought me a Pentax X-5 camera as a present. I was thrilled. Unfortunately, the camera had a problem that caused it to freeze randomly. What happened next makes me wonder why anyone would purchase products from Pentax or Ricoh. What is worse is that the entire affair was easily avoidable had Ricoh taken just a few simple steps to demonstrate an interest in its customers. The damage to my opinion of Pentax/Ricoh may be irreparable. But I would like to offer some suggestions to salvage your reputation with others.

First let me explain what happened. I started by going to your website to see if the issue with my camera was a known issue. I was told I should send it in for repair under warranty, which I did. Over three months ago.

Since that time, Pentax/Ricoh has never contacted me directly. No notice that the camera was received. No message that it was accepted as being under warranty. No information about when it might be returned.

In that time my wife and I have called your support center at least five times. Each time the support personnel were extremely pleasant and accommodating. Even apologetic. Each time we were told a story about how parts were ordered, supplied were delayed, or some other action was pending. As pleasant as your representatives were, they never were able to give me a clear idea of what was wrong with the camera in the first place or when I could expect to get it back.

After two and a half months, they finally told us “management” had approved replacing the camera.  (Why? Who knows.) Since then we’ve called every week to find out where the replacement is, only to be told that they couldn’t say until they got a tracking number from “the warehouse”.

It is over three months since I sent my camera in, As I said, Pentax/Ricoh has never initiated any communication with me. Everything I know about this story comes from my wife and I dogging your support department on the phone. If I had thought there was any chance of this happening, I would never have purchased a Pentax camera to begin with. And knowing what I know now, I would never recommend Pentax or Ricoh products to anyone else either.

But for the sake of your current and future customers, I would like to suggest the following small changes to your procedures that could make a tremendous impact on overall customer satisfaction:

  • When a customer sends in a product for repair, notify them (by email or postcard) that:
    1. It has been received.
    2. Whether it is accepted as a warranty repair or not.
    3. Ideally, tell them approximately how long the repair will take.
  • If there is any delay in the repairs, contact the customer again explaining the delay and giving a new estimate for completion.

What hurts most about this experience is that we deliberately chose a Pentax camera over other competitors based on the Pentax 35mm camera we have used for more than 25 years. I will never think of Pentax in the same kind light again. And that is sad because the entire episode could have been so easily avoided.



Sincerely,



Andrew Gent


Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Prerequisites of Poetry

I read lots of modern poetry. I enjoy it. I also write poetry. However many, if not most, of the people around me do not read modern poetry and, in fact, will cringe if I suggest it. Why this fear and revulsion?

The situation raises a question: what are the prerequisites for reading and enjoying modern poetry? Do you need to write it to read it? I doubt it. (I hope not.) But there is clearly some sensibility, some "training" involved before people appreciate what modern poetry has to offer.

Or perhaps it is the other way around. Perhaps people are trained to not appreciate it. 

The fact is that we, as a culture, (I am speaking of western, particularly North American, culture here) have a distinct bias against fine arts. Oh, we fund NEA and such. But making fun of the arts and artists as pretentious, self-important — even fraudulent — poseurs is a popular pastime.

This aversion to the arts is not restricted to poetry. The same applies to the other "fine" arts such as painting, sculpture, and dance. The only arts that seem to be immune are fiction, music, and video (TV and movies) — those arts with a significant populist market. And even those arts are immune only in a narrow band of marketable styles.

We are often told that this rejection of art is a specifically American phenomena. The story goes that early in the Russian revolution, Vladimir Mayakovsky gave readings to stadiums and halls packed with fervent poetry fans. I am not sure how much I believe this. The same could be said of Alan Ginsberg who participated in Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. However, I suspect that many in the crowd were not as avid for poetry as they were for the music and the overall event.

How did we become acculturated in this way?

I believe there are a combination of factors that make poetry (and other arts) outsiders to popular culture. Some historical, some societal, some the responsibility of poets themselves.

Historically, in western society, the arts have been reserved for the upper classes. In the past many arts and artists were dependent on benefactors for their survival. Michelangelo, Mozart, Rilke... Only the wealthy were able to afford the arts and so funded (and sometimes interfered with) their creation. Even today, many art initiatives, museums, and exhibits are funded through private, wealthy benefactors. And when wealthy individuals aren't available, there has been a recent influx of well-healed corporations — oil companies, banks, telecommunication giants — willing to pick up the tab in return for the residual advertising opportunity the association creates.

Even when there have been more populist versions of the arts they were kept separate, such as the distinction between concert halls and music halls, theaters and vaudeville, literary fiction and dime-store novels.

I suspect this heritage of the patron, begun out of necessity, has permanently marked the arts as an object of suspicion to the common populace. Anything out of the ordinary or obtuse is suspected of holding itself up as too intellectual, too well-crafted for common people to understand. Sort of like the emperor's new clothes come to life.

This suspicion is exacerbated by a native cultural proclivity to "normalcy". Outsiders are shunned not so much because their behavior in innately distasteful, but because it goes against the urge to maintain the fabric of societal norms. Norms are, inherently, fragile since they rely on a shared, often unspoken, agreement to what is expected. The only way to maintain that center is by identifying (and rejecting) behavior that falls outside of the norm. And artistic endeavors, almost by definition, fall outside the norm in their effort to refine, heighten, and highlight specific moments, emotions, or predicaments.

Finally, artists themselves have a corresponding proclivity for "acting out" in opposition to traditional mores. In dress, behavior, and opinions, artists often go out of their way — consciously or subconsciously — to set themselves apart. Nerval had his lobster, Dali his mustache, Warhol had his... well, Warhol made himself into the extravagant mask he used to protect his own sensibility.

There are many possible explanations for these excesses. At least in part they are a disguise devised to distract us (and the artist) from facing the inevitable question of whether their work is any "good" or not.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of art is the lack of objective criteria for judgment. Oh, art criticism creates frameworks for assessing value and worth and explanations for why we respond to certain works differently than others. But ultimately it is the individuals who decide for themselves whether something is worthy of the moniker "art".

Even when an artist is successful, doubt shadows their success. Recognition by the establishment can as easily acknowledge a shallow stylist toeing the prescribed avant garde line as it can identify actual depth and artistic skill.

Without recourse to external validation, the artist is driven forward purely on the bravado of believing they are doing something worthwhile. When they are unknown, it is a belief that their brilliance is unrecognized. When they are famous, it is a belief that their true talent extends far beyond simple "popularity".

The will power needed to support this unprovable theory over time is hard to maintain. As a defense, external extravagances help draw the discussion away from relative worth to questions of sanity or propriety, which can be easier for the artist to deal with.

Finally, there is the work itself. For the past hundred years or so, poetry — like many of the other arts — has been at war with itself. The rejection of historical models for new forms (what the art critic Robert Hughes refers to as the "shock of the new") has left many readers confused. The rejection of rhyme for free verse, the oral tradition for concrete poetry, the tactile oeuvre for performance art... Each step forward baffles, and disconcerts the uninitiated in the audience. To those not "up" with the latest styles, it all seems more like hijinks than high art.

So here we stand — artists and audience — on either side of the chasm. The artists sneering at the "popular" audience, as a preemptive attack against their likely response. And the audience poo-pooing the artists as haughty and incomprehensible, for making them feel uninformed.

The common factor in this Mexican standoff is that the disdain on both sides is based on a purely superficial interpretation of the other party. Yes, modern poetry can be incomprehensible, if you just look at the surface and don't take the words on their own terms. And, yes, plenty of people still refuse to accept anything as poetry that doesn't rhyme. But perhaps jumping straight from Robert Frost to Michael McClure is more than can be expected of any human.

The fact is, modern poetry and poets, like artists in other art forms, have over the past hundred years stripped away the traditional scaffolding (such as rhyme and standard meter) to try and understand the true nature of the art itself.  And in its barest form, there is opportunity for both amazing achievements and failure. Because without the support of a recognizable structure, the work either succeeds or it fails miserably. There are few just plain "good" poems nowadays.

There are poets that are "easier" or "harder" to interpret for first time readers. This is as true for experienced poetry fanatics and novices. But many non-readers won't give any of it a try, waving it off with a dismissive "I don't understand modern poetry."

No, they don't. And they won't unless they try. Even an avid poetry reader such as myself can have a hard time reading through modern poetry magazines. As soon as you hit a poem you don't like or find inferior, the other poems start to blur together as some sort of indistinguishable, unappealing fog.

The fact is, it takes a considerable effort to read poems by different authors in one sitting. Imagine if you squished War & Peace, Joyce's Ulysses, and a Danielle Steele novel into one book and had to read it in one sitting. Now intermix the pages. At some point, things that might have seemed evocative, illuminating, or simply enjoyably escapist become a painful, unrealistic slurry of words you must slog through.

That is often the experience when reading poetry magazines and anthologies.  The fact is we are taught to read for content: quickly skimming the page for key facts or phrases. But each poem is a world unto itself, with its own syntax, its own landscape, its own leaps and limitations. Trying to "read through" multiple poems guarantees you miss the poetry and only notice the peculiarity.

To have any chance of appreciating poetry, you not only need to pause between each poem, you have to literally reset your expectations, your compass, as if entering a new country with new laws and a new language. Make no mistake, this is not an easy thing to do. We, as members of society, aren't used to it. In fact, most writing (magazine, newspapers,  advertising) works hard to avoid your having to do any work or make any adjustments.

But each poem is a separate entity, designed to be viewed on it own separate stage.  And if we are to understand and appreciate it we need to give it room to breathe. This is what makes poetry poetry instead of prose with line breaks.

So the only true prerequisite for reading modern poetry is to stop, take a deep breath, and approach each poem as a new and completely unique experience. Does that mean, if the non-poetry readers of the world do that they will enjoy the poems they read? No. The fact is, there is a frightening amount of bad poetry out there, even among the "sanctioned" literature of modern anthologies and text books. Besides, we all have different tastes. Not everyone likes every popular novel or movie, not everyone likes the same poems.

But if you are ever going to like poetry, or even understand it, you need to read it on its own terms. It's what we do for movies. As the lights go down and the trailers begin, we clear our minds and get ready for a new experience . It is almost a Pavlovian response. This is the same response we need to learn to practice at the beginning of each poem we encounter.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The $99 Device

I have lots of electronic gadgets around the house. Laptops ($600-800), TVs ($200-300), cell phones ($100-200 plus contract), video game consoles ($200-300), handheld game consoles ($150-200), tablets ($300-400), etc. With one or two exceptions, they are all quite impressive, heavily used, and worth the investment.

Mind you, that is no accident. In most cases, we spent a considerable amount of time analyzing whether we actually needed a new device, comparing options available on the market, and evaluating pros and cons before the purchase.  It's not that we can't afford these items. But they represent a significant cost — especially since they often require additional accessories to be useful. (More on that later.)

But not all my gadgets face the same scrutiny. A couple of years ago I bought a new digital camera.  I didn't need one;  I already had a perfectly good, if slightly older model.  But the new one was smaller and lighter with three times the resolution. More importantly, it was on sale for $80. So I bought it.

The fact is there is a tipping point below which an item becomes discretionary — throw away — a toy rather than a necessity— something you can buy on a whim rather than after careful consideration. I find from experience that for me that point is around $100. And, based on recent events, I suspect the same is true for many other Americans.

There has been a recent surge in sub-$100 electronic gadgets. All but the best smart phones advertise themselves that way (although that price point really is a sham since they require a contract that can exceed $100 a month).  The glut of Chinese android tablets sold through Amazon and Walmart are aiming at this market as well.

But what really caught my eye were two new, innovative gadgets coming in at this lower price point. First, is what Tadhg Kelly refers to as the video game "microconsoles". First among these is the Ouya, priced at $99 and targeted for general release in June.

The Ouya is not a copycat device; it is an entirely new concept entering a market dominated by entrenched, high-cost devices. Rather than using custom high-end components, Ouya uses largely commodity hardware and an open source operating system (Android) to build a low-cost, open platform for gaming. Even business-wise, it is different, since the focus is providing a competent platform quickly (and frequently) rather than expensive hardware plus expensive games on a 5+ year cycle.

Will it succeed? There's no way to tell. I think there's a good chance it will. And I hope it will, since I think there is a desperate need for some middle ground between high-end dedicated consoles and, quite frankly, sub-par cell phone/touch pad experiences. But there are plenty of unknowns involved. Not the least of which is: what games will be available on the Ouya?

But at $99 for the console and one controller, It is a very appealing item, which I am likely to buy just to see how it works. Its success in the market  would be an added bonus. But not even that is necessary. Because of the open platform, I could still use it as a sandbox for building my own games if I want.

The second gadget is Dell's Project Ophelia, and its competitors such as the S21H and MK809 II. These items all represent a new type of device, what might be called a PC-on-a-stick. They are not much bigger than a USB thumbdrive and serve as a very portable laptop replacement.

The Chinese entries, such as S21H and MK809 II, actually act as a portable computer; just plug them into a monitor or TV  and connect a keyboard and mouse and... voila!  Instant computer! 

Now, there are obvious drawbacks. The operating system, Android again, is designed for touch devices. So it is unclear how usable most apps will be with a mouse. But again, these devices come in around $60-80, making them an attractive "experiment".

This is particularly true of Project Ophelia, which takes a slightly different approach. Rather than providing a complete computer on a stick, Project Ophelia provides remote access to more powerful computers running familiar OSes. 

 Now, there are even more questions about these laptops-on-a-stick than the microconsoles. Details such as how much storage, boot time, power supply, and the most obvious: how large is the audience that has monitors, keyboards, and mice at all the appropriate locations? Be that as it may, it is still an intriguing option that solves problems tablets and smart phones do not today — e.g. "serious" computing that requires more accuracy than touch screens and more text editing than IMs and short emails.

So, will I get one? Not sure. I'm tempted.  If I had more faith that the wifi was reliable on the Chinese models, I would. Even at $50 or so, these devices must work properly to be worthwhile, even as a toy. And, although  I have more faith in Project Ophelia, it looks like it is largely an entry device for a cloud service, which — like smartphones — where the subscription fees would quickly exceed the initial outlay in cost.

So Ouya is clearly in my sights as an impulse buy. Even if Project Ophelia isn't, just its presence in the market — and the interest it inspires — indicates there is both an opportunity and a problem to be solved in the computing ecosystem somewhere between the ease of smartphones and tablets on one side and the heavy-duty computing of laptops and desktops on the other.


Friday, October 12, 2012

The Poetry of Regret

Our interpretation of literature is heavily influenced by our own experience. Nothing surprising there.

I have been reading Chinese poetry (in translation) for a long time. The experience is sometimes baffling, often discordant, and at times even cartoonishy funny. This has far more to do with the sad state of translations than the poetry itself. Lines like the following are unlikely to be seen as poetic by either English or Chinese readers:
Alone with my zither I wait...

However, recently I've begun to see the classic Chinese poets as poets of regret.

Now, regret is a common theme in poetry across cultures and throughout time. Certainly, the Chinese poets, such as Li Po and Wang Wei express regret. But what makes that an identifying characteristic of their work for me?

For example, The Italian hermetic poets express plenty of regret. Even picking poems at random, they ooze a sense of loss:
Distant into a distant land
like a blind man
they have led me by the hand.
— Guiseppe Ungaretti, trans. by Patrick Creagh
(Selected Poems, Penguin Books, 1971)

But this is really a poem about loss, not regret. What could the narrator have done differently? What, ultimately, is the event the catalyst to the poet's fall? The fate that the Italian poets depict is global and uncontrollable. It is mankind's fate they envision, not a specific set of choices consciously made and their consequences faced. There is sadness at the outcome, but there can be no real regret because there is no personal responsibility in play. It is a poetry of loss, not regret.

On the other hand, Chinese poems tend to be clearly focused on personal choice and its outcome:
Away from home, I was longing for news
Winter after winter, spring after spring.
Now, nearing my village, meeting people,
I dare not ask a single question.
— Li P'in, trans. by Witter Bynner
(The Jade Mountain, Alfred Knopf, 1929)

Any sort of generalization about literature is inevitably wrong in the specific. Not all Chinese poets or poems speak of regret. Not all Italian poets speak of loss. It is a tendency, the idiom of their time, that we sense and identify as such.

It is also the tinted hues of our own experience we see it through. As I say, I have read Chinese poetry for years. But now, as I stand examining my own actions, I see the tenor of their poetry, the moral and aesthetic  leanings more clearly.

I can read and appreciate the Chinese poems, despite the clouded mirror of translation I must peer through, because I am looking backwards myself. I am watching a boat that has set sail and  I am thinking of someone I won't see again. And today the poems talk to me more easily than they could ever have in the past.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Silence

It is hard to believe it has been almost 6 months since I last posted anything to my blog. I was aware time was slipping away, as each week I didn't publish anything. But 6 months goes by very quickly.

Not that I have abandoned the blog, as it might appear. I just found it difficult to finish anything. I have the usual excuse: not enough time. But who doesn't suffer that? What was more crippling was an inability to feel satisfied that any post was "done".

I have more than 30 posts in draft form and I tinker with them on a weekly basis. But nothing ever gets completed.

So if I had a resolution for the new year, it would be to be more "sloppy" — be satisfied with things the way they are. The rough, the incomplete. I can always add more later.

But the truth is I go though this dilemma cyclically. A rush of euphoric publishing, feeling confident, but it soon slows to a crawl as I start to second guess myself, comparing the present to the past. (Preferring what I did last week to what I am writing this.)

So, no promises. I may publish more — I want to publish more — and clear my "drafts" folder! But having seen this movie before, I cannot realistically guarantee that the ending won't be similar to one you have seen  before.