Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Two-way Street:

The local university is crowded with buildings. Every bit of roadway that lets you get around with a truck or a car is precious.

A few months ago, a work crew began to pretty up a short, straight lane, about a hundred yards long. They cut up and removed a strip of asphalt and laid down white stone brick to make a sidewalk. While they worked, they reduced this lane to a one-way street, leaving them some room to work. They chopped away enough road to make a handsome sidewalk, and a curb to separate the sidewalk from the roadway. The stone brick did not extend into the space they left for a curb, however. That was apparently a job for other workers.

Every week, I walk down this lane to the radio station, and I worried about this curb. It would narrow the lane enough to turn it permanently into a one-way road, and neither direction would be adequate. This lane faces two important buildings and connects the biggest parking garage to the rest of the university; better to leave it two-way if possible. But one day another load of brick was delivered, and another group of workmen came with it. I expected that the following week, I would find a new curb jutting up into a now-permanently one-lane road.

The next week, there was still an open space to build a curb, but the brick to fill in the curb was gone. The following week, the space in the road for the curb was filled in with asphalt. So now we have a nice brick walk that will be shared by the cars and trucks that use this lane. And it will remain two-way. A good decision, I think.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Don't Give me Static!

Our home phone line had a loud background noise. It had been this way for a while. I finally decided to get it fixed. It took me an hour to arrange for Verizon to look into it. Here's why:

First, I tried to find Verizon's customer service number by Googling. This was hard, because many web sites collect complaints about Verizon, and they all show up in searches for Verizon phone and service. Now you might think I should go to Verizon's main web site and check out the "Contact Us" page. I eventually did that, but I had to make some guesses, because Verizon has a different "main" web site for each of its different services. From now on, I might remember the number for local customer service: 800-verizon.

Second, I called them and went deep, deep into a voice phone menu. It's always tempting to say, "Damn, I know more than this automated idiot" and break out, but often it's best to relax and stay with the menus as long as they offer reasonable choices. This menu was helpful. It isolated my problem and told me how to troubleshoot it before asking for a service call. They wanted me to do two tests, which the automated system was happy to tell me and retell me until I admitted that I understood them:

(A) Disconnect all phone devices and try one phone on the land line. I had already done that.

(B) Go outside my house and connect a phone to the network interface device that I would find on my outside wall, near the electrical service box. I could not believe that this device existed, but I looked and there it was.

Now I had to find a phone I could connect to this outside box. Most of our phones are wireless (no connector at all), or use A/C electricity and do not easily work outdoors. Our regular land line phone is attached very firmly to a wall. But I remembered something: an old phone in our attic that I was keeping for purely emotional reasons: it's a wonderful red color, and it looks like a Princess phone (it's more modern though). It's a simple, inexpensive two-piece telephone. I found it and took it outside.

(4) The Network interface device had jacks for six phone lines. It took me awhile to figure out which one was our land line. I disconnected it and plugged my red phone in. That's when I noticed that the red phone's headset was not attached to its base, so I couldn't hear anything. This connection requires something that looks like an RJ-11 standard phone jack, but it is narrow. My heart sank. Where would I find that in my house? I wondered if I could borrow this cable from our land line phone that's firmly attached to the wall. I went to look at it, and at once I realized I was in luck: the wire on that phone was RED! It was in fact the exact wire that was missing from my red phone.

(5) I plugged the red phone in outdoors, made a phone call and heard the bad background noise. Excellent! According to Verizon, I had just proved that it's their problem, not a problem in our house.

(6) I went deep into Verizon's menu again. It gave me a human who scheduled the work to fix the line. On the scheduled day, we got a phone call from a computer, telling us – correctly – that the problem was fixed.

In the good old days, you called a local service number and scheduled a fix in minutes. But phone calls also cost more in those times.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays!

“Happy Holidays” is a nice, safe greeting for this time of year, but, really, it's not distinct enough. Greetings like “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Chanukah” are reasonably unique. But 'Happy Holidays' isn't even unique in its first three syllables, as I discovered the hard way today. I'm still cringing, every time I remember what I said to my supermarket clerk this morning: Happy Halloween!”

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Acting alone ...

As I started reading about Bernard Madoff, I told my wife that something didn't make sense here. The guy's seventy, but he would have to be a computer whiz to pull off what he did. But it seems he probably IS a computer whiz. He was an important pioneer in forcing the the big exchanges to computerize trading.

But I do not believe he acted alone. Sheesh!

Just so you know where I'm coming from: I don't believe in big conspiracy theories. If more than a few people are involved, the whole thing becomes known. But I don't believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, either.

Oh, one more thing: Someone tell the New York Times to stop using that Hang Dog Picture they keep using of Madoff. There have to be pictures that make him look as evil as he's alleged to be.

And one more thing: Keep your eye on that $50B estimate of how much money his scheme was worth. That estimate comes from the master of befuddlement himself, Bernie M. The real number might have a different number of digits.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

I come to bury Car Czar, not to bail him:

I come to this party a little late, but I want to complain about the idea of a “car czar”, because you can rule this silly idea out on purely managerial grounds.

The American automobile companies are large companies. Companies. I'm emphasizing this for a reason. They each have a fairly hierarchical structure that enables them to make decisions with an audit trail for responsibility. As everyone who has studied companies knows, it's important to avoid kicking decision-making high up the ladder. Empowering lower level managers enables the people who understand the problems to solve them efficiently. If the leader of your company (or division) makes all the important decisions, then the whole company (or division) cannot advance faster than the work of that single manager. Requests for decisions pile up and the company plods along like a tortoise.

Now you may be asking, what about the president of each company? Doesn't the buck stop with him? (Or, outside the American auto industry: her?) No, most of the bucks stop way below the top. For example, Peter Drucker has said that the job of the president of a large company is to decide what that company should be doing in five or ten years. That's plenty of work right there.

If we have a car czar, then some of the most important decisions of the three large companies will get stuck waiting for his or her attention. These won't be simple decisions requiring a quick flip of the coin, either. The Car Czar is likely to give each issue the attention it deserves, plus the coming-up-to-speed that it deserves. You can pretty much guarantee that any auto company waiting for the car czar will fall far behind the rest of the industry.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A simpler way to elect the president by popular vote:

In a Nov. 20 editorial, “Flunking the Electoral College”, the Times asserted that in order to ensure that presidents are elected by the majority popular vote, we must amend the constitution. But that extreme action is not needed. Instead, both the Democratic and Republican parties can require their electoral candidates to take a pre-election oath: that if they go to the Electoral College, they will vote for the winner of the popular vote. Electors have great freedom in exercising their vote. If the majority of electors keep this oath, the popular vote will decide the election.

Now the really neat part is that both parties should be willing to do as I suggest. Election by popular vote means that each party can campaign where its votes are, instead of campaigning in the swing states. That's got to be cheaper to do, and a lot more fun for the campaigners.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Podcast Parity:

I've been following the podcast world for almost three years. The podcast universe is a trifle more organized than the blogiverse, because it takes more effort to assemble a podcast item than a blog entry. There are incredibly casual podcasters, but at the other extreme, there are podcast people who are trying to get enough respect to monetize their casts.

Remarkably, those serious podcasters have caught up to the more traditional print media. Here's how things stand: podcasters are making little to $nothing$, while newspapers and magazines are losing hundreds of million$. Not bad, not bad.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The passing obituary:

If the newspaper business starts to die, one of its terrible casualties will be the star obituary. You've surely noticed, unless you can't bear to read an obit, that as soon as a famous person dies, newspapers print a wonderful, long, well-researched obituary. These articles are prepared in advance, and kept up to date, by reporters who somehow have time to work on them. In many cases, the featured people have been contacted about their obits, and may even have helped to write them. These short bios can be quite wonderful to read, so I'm sorry to say that I don't know who will write them in the future. Perhaps Wikipedia will fill this void, but even then, I doubt it will be the same.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Entertainment Value:

The goal of professional sports leagues is to make money by providing entertainment. The sports rulers have thought up some beauties for us to enjoy, but it's not easy to top the Plaxico Burress adventure. We will have a few months to wonder why he is pleading Not Guilty to shooting himself in the leg. Theories abound.

We can discard the idea that since his leg was already injured, he had to put it down. A more logical possibility is that he was wrestling with himself, trying to take the gun away when it went off. Or ... gee, I don't know. But the next time I'm stuck on a long checkout line at the supermarket, I'll be trying to think of some reason, instead of planning my next novel.

Plaxico, you have the best name in professional sports; maybe you have the best name, period. Why did you have to try to top yourself?