Saturday, March 31, 2007

SERVICE (Or the lack thereof)

(News-Herald, March 29) How hard can it be to provide service?
You know. Just respond to customers as if you were concerned about meeting their needs and not treating them as time-wasting annoyances.
I am conducting an ongoing battle with my phone company. They would like me to answer some admittedly simple questions and make some reasonable arrangements. I would gladly do all these things—but only if I can do so by talking with a live human being.
I know for a fact that phone companies employ live human beings. Every time they’re interested in getting me to change companies or phone plans, they have no end of live humans who call me to chat about the various reasons I should want to give their phone company my money.
So when the phone company wants my money, they have live humans (in fact, live humans with American accents) in abundance. But when I want to talk to them about my service, suddenly all the breathing carbon-based life forms have vanished, leaving me to wander in an endless maze of automated replies.
It only adds insult to injury that these automated systems are now programmed for charm. The computerized conversation is peppered with little conversational touches such as “Now let’s see” or “I’d like to make sure this is right” or “Gosh, I can’t find the vocabulary you just used in my word-recognition software.”
I have to assume that my phone company thinks I’m too much of a moron to know when I’m talking to a computer instead of a human. Not a thought that endears them to me.
Talking to the software has actually made me nostalgic for calls to computer help lines and chatting with some charming young man in New Delhi. The accent may be impenetrable, and he may just be reading to me out of a database, but at least I know he’s real.
Incredibly, the organization that, for me, sets the standard for customer service is the government. No, really. I can hardly believe it myself, but there it is.
Because my daughter is in Austria this semester soaking up art and culture and visiting the places in Salzburg where they filmed The Sound of Music, I needed to make arrangements for her drivers license renewal and filing taxes.
At the state Department of Transportation, I got through directly to someone who personably and pleasantly answered my questions. I received the information I needed, and nobody tried to make me feel like an idiot for asking.
At the IRS, I experienced the most speedy, responsive and servicey service I’ve received maybe ever. The people I talked to gave me their name and badge number, told me exactly what they were doing if they had to stop talking to me for more than five seconds to do it, and repeatedly apologized for any delays, even though at no point did I have to sit through even a full chorus of “Guantanamera”. I was almost embarrassed to have federal employees try that hard to make me happy (almost--but I got over it).
It seems that customer service may be a new wave. Home Depot was recently shocked when an on-line column complaining about their service generated 10,000 grumpy “Me too” responses. Their new CEO immediately set up a direct complaint line and e-mail address, plus creating an in-house task force to address service issues.
One can only hope that other corporate giants deduce that it might be a bad idea to save money by cutting staff until a store only has one employee per 62,000 customers.
It is a bit amazing to realize the degree to which we have to come to expect poor or non-existent service, the resignation with which we assume that whatever business we deal with will not be interested in helping us (and that’s before we get to the truly awful examples like health insurance companies who use poor, unresponsive service as a regular strategy to make more money).
Here’s one of the under-sold selling points of small businesses in a market like ours—deal with a business where you actually see a real face, talk to a real human, and get assistance as if you were not an enormous bother. It’s one of those clich├ęs about small town life that’s true. Even if you’re dealing with someone who’s strange, obnoxious or cantankerous, you’re still dealing with a human, one person to another.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

SERIOUS BUILDING

(News-Herald, November 2002)I learned a few things on my recent jaunt to New York City.
First, I learned a relatively easy way to get there. I now recommend driving to the Newark Air Port and taking a bus (or other ground transportation) into Manhattan. It was quick and simple and not too expensive.
Unexpected though it may be, my trip also gave me lots to think about regarding Venango County.
There’s the speed thing. It’s common to talk about life in small towns being slower than the fast-paced urban life. But New Yorkers must have to develop a sort of mobile patience, because it takes comparatively forever to get anywhere. An hour in mid-town Manhattan traffic would have one of us praying for either a bazooka or a small tank.
Manhattan is foot-traffic territory. There are cabs everywhere, carefully observing whatever city ordinance requires that each cab horn be tested roughly every twelve seconds. I did not notice many overweight people in Manhattan.
Not that they don’t respect our way of life. I stumbled across the Amish Market in Manhattan. The Amish in Manhattan seem to be a bit different from our Pennsylvanian Amish; Manhattan Amish, for instance, speak a great deal of Arabic. The market did include many Amish staples—virgin olive oil, salsa, hot sauces, and votive candles.
And if you’re taking the foot tour, you can’t pass up Times Square. There are, of course, the nightly light displays sucking up enough gigawatts to power Venango County for a decade. But there are other treats there as well. The night we walked through, a man in front of MTV studios was attempting to sell information on 429 sex positions for $1.
There was also a six-piece group of street musicians of some native South American extraction (Peruvian, maybe?) playing with recorders, pipes, guitars, and drum. They played what sounded like traditional music, with the traditional open guitar case in front, while another walked through the crowd selling traditional CD’s. It was a bit odd to be looking at a canyon of neon and super-lit advertising set to a soundtrack from a National Geographic special.
But most impressive to me this trip was Grand Central Station. The sheer giant awesomeness of the main concourse, framed by columns and stone and chandeliers, is impressive in its own right. But spend some time in the station and what starts to impress is the attention to detail.
Loading platforms are framed with carefully detailed mosaic work. Air vents in alcoves are set in finely wrought sculptures. You cannot find a place in the whole building that has been simply slopped together.
What slowly begins to sink in is that this is a piece of public construction built by people who were serious about what they were doing. I think, sometimes, that we have somehow become a culture that is no longer serious about making things.
Being serious about building is not a matter of money. It is not serious to throw money indiscriminately at a project; neither is it serious to search single-mindedly for ways to avoid spending money.
What’s serious is to concentrate on doing the project right, which means making the project as if it counts, as if it is going to be a real and significant part of peoples’ lives. Grand Central Station reeks of that sort of seriousness, just as the Belmar Bridge does. These are structures that were built as if they would be important, as if they accomplished goals that were worth doing and therefore worth doing well.
Our most serious structures in Venango County are our churches. They’re built to matter. They were built with the purpose of worship in mind; no church brags about how cheaply or expensively it was built, but shows how well it was built to its purpose. The county is chock full of serious churches.
Sunday night I stood by the site of the World Trade Center. Years ago I stood atop one of the towers and felt as I did Sunday; that it was too large for my brain to grasp. New York is still struggling with the question of how to fill the site with a serious structure.
We are too rarely serious about our purpose. We allow ourselves to be defined by our limits instead of our vision. We slip into worrying about our wallets, our egos, our fears, or any number of things that are beside the point, as if the purpose will somehow take care of itself. But what we learn over and over again is that it won’t. Know your limits, but live by your vision.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Friday, March 23, 2007

VEGANS (OR NOT)


(News-Herald, March 22) I have to confess that I am happy to be at the top of the food chain.

The vegetarian world has become more complicated than it used to be. If you’re Of A Certain Age, you may think it’s pretty simple—vegetarians are people who don’t eat meat. Well, there are still vegetarians, but in recent generations some refinements of the movement have occurred.

There are varieties of vegetarianism. We’ve got lacto-vegetarians who won’t eat eggs, but will eat dairy products. There are ovo-vegetarians who will eat eggs, but won’t touch dairy products (PETA has some charming posters to accompany the slogan “Dairy is rape”). And there are lacto-ovo-vegetarians will eat both eggs and dairy.

None of these eat meat, though there seems to be some disagreement about what constitutes “meat.” Some vegetarians only include products of the mammal world, while others include any fishy type of creature.

But that’s just the start. For instance, we also have fruitarians, who eat only fruits, nuts and berries- essentially parts of the plant that can be harvested without actually damaging the plant (presumably that refers only to physical damage and not emotionally traumatizing the plant, though given some of what I’ve read on the subject, I may be jumping to an unwarranted conclusion).

At the top of the ethical food pyramid, we find the vegans. Vegans (pronounced VEE-guns) are not just about diet—their goal is to avoid all food, products, and activities that in any way exploit animals from actual meat to leather to cosmetics tested on fluffy bunnies.

On the one hand, I give the vegans credit for consistency. There is a troubling inconsistency in the person who doesn’t want to chop Bossie up for hamburger, but is happy to slice up Bossie’s skin to make a stylish purse. In some parts of the world, veganism is a reasonable extension of religious faith.

On the other hand, vegan websites contain lines like “veganism…is an integral component of a cruelty-free lifestyle.” And dandy quotes about empathy for animals.

And surfing vegan websites inevitably leads one back to PETA. I know many very nice, decent people who belong to PETA, and God bless them all. But the organization itself is a fine example (like the ACLU, the NRA, and the Two Mile County Park Rescue) of a group that has focused so narrowly for so long that it has lost some of its sense of reality.

So we have the spectacle of PETA throwing blood on fur coat wearers while vegan websites talk about developing empathy for fellow creatures. What exactly am I to make of people who can empathize with furry animals, but not actual humans.

Well, as I said, I am happy to occupy the top of the food chain. I like meat, and if you try to tell me that my children have no more value than a cow or a dog or a lobster, I have no trouble telling you that you’re wrong, and possibly a bit silly as well. There’s something disturbing about the level of species self-loathing that some activists express.

Like any group, vegans are not all wrong all the time. I have no doubt whatsoever that if we all had to watch where meat comes from or, worse yet, kill and butcher it ourselves, the number of vegans converts would multiply by a few zillion overnight. As with our inexpensive trinkets and cheap clothes, we are a little too happy to let someone else wade into the dirty work for us as long as we don’t have to see, hear or think about it.

That’s why I think animal rights folks are completely wrong to oppose hunting. I don’t hunt, but even I can see that hunting and killing your own meat creates respect for the animals that can never be gained by harvesting steaks in neat plastic wrappers.

As with many movements, it’s the most vocal fringes that get the attention. There are plenty of vegans and vegetarians living pleasantly meat-free lives among us without creating an enormous fuss. You can actually find one local group online at http://www.geocities.com/the_vword/events.html . As lifestyle choices go, it certainly beats playing heavy metal music in the back yard at midnight before making blood sacrifices to Baal.

The irony is that I know enough the horrific meat-packing industry and sympathize enough with furry beasts that I might inclined to become a little vegetarian-ish. But the knowledge that there are people out there working diligently, doggedly and obnoxiously to support the cause only makes me feel that I don’t need to bother, and I will feel better after I grill a nice steak.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

WHY IS THERE A CYBER SCHOOL MARKET?

(News-Herald, March 15) When I swiped at cyberschooling last week, a reader suggested that I had missed another side of the issue. And he’s correct. So let me take off my public school cheerleader hat for a moment.

Public schools create a market for cyber- and home-school by being inflexible and unresponsive to their customers. If public schools were a restaurant, they would offer only three menu items, and serve meals only four separate hours during the day. If you don’t want to eat what they’re serving when they’re serving it, well, tough.

Most people have kind of a notion of what the mission of a school district should be. Many school districts have even written it down somewhere. The general notion is that a school’s mission is to educate students.

That might lead one to expect that in school systems, people are constantly trying to answer the question, “How can we best educate students?” And I believe that many school systems really intend to get around to answering that question.

But instead of defining themselves by what they do to educate students, many school districts define themselves by what they DON’T want to do.

Don’t cause trouble. Don’t get parents upset. Don’t spend money. Don’t do anything that might rile up lawyers. Don’t attract the state’s attention. If trouble does raise its ugly head, don’t make any sudden moves that might stir it up more. Don’t rock the boat. You don’t get awards for mediocrity, but you don’t get in trouble, either.

What creates such massive inertia? State and federal unions don’t help—they’re don’t like to rock the boat either—but they get blamed more they deserve. The old complaint that you can’t fire a teacher because of the union is a crock. All you have to do is document and demonstrate their incompetence. But that would require someone to make a fuss and rock the boat.

It may be a certain amount of shell shock.

Those school system restaurants? They would be restaurants that are forced to serve everyone, even the people who aren’t hungry. Some of the customers would demand their meals for free and some would demand exotic Eurasian squid flambe; other customers would complain loudly that there is no need for fancy meals. The government would tell the chef how he had to cook, and require that he serve filet mignon but only pay him for hamburger.

School systems contain people at all levels who really mean to be active advocates in pursuit of education, but by the time they’ve dealt with a succession of daily crises, they’re just out of time, energy and patience. Many are hidden, like guerilla fighters in the educational underbrush.

Understand, I offer these only as possible explanations for the public school system mindset. Explanation, not excuses. There are no excuses.

When the feds and state stomp in with their big boots to demand actions that we know, as professionals, are bad education practice, we ought to stand up to them. And there are school districts that have turned down federal money because it came tied to government-pushed rotten replacements for district policies with proven success. But mostly we don’t do that.

We are great at dragging our feet. New principal, new programs, new co-workers, new kid with a new learning challenge—we can drag our feet every step of the way. Sometimes it’s easy to understand why—we sit in committees planning the same stuff over and over again, knowing that we just have to wait, because none of it will ever be implemented.

We resist all manner of change. We continue to operate our school schedules as if all families have one working dad and one stay-at-home mom. We never bend to accommodate one customer, because then we might have to accommodate another customer.

If we all sat down with a blank slate to design a system for educating every child in this country to become a capable, good, productive citizen—if we designed that system from scratch based on what makes sense and would work, we’d design a system that looked not at all like the one we’ve got.

If you ask us in the school system why we tend to be so inflexible and unresponsive, we can give you a long list of reasons. And many of them are really good, legitimate reasons.

But here’s the thing—a whole bunch of folks aren’t that interested in the reasons we don’t budge much. They just know we don’t budge much, and eventually some of these folks think, “Well, I could do better than this myself.” And that’s why there’s a market for cyberschooling. Now I’ll put my hat back on.

Friday, March 09, 2007

CYBERSCHOOLING


(News-Herald, March 8)
I work in a public school. And I work in public education because I believe in public education, not the other way around.

There has been more squawking lately about cyberschooling. You will not be surprised to learn that I have an opinion.

Cyberschools have vocal defenders, and some of them have good and valid points to make. Traditional public education has a tragic inclination toward a one-size-fits-all model, and the No Child Left Standing meddling of the federal gummint has only made that particular problem worse. If I were the parent of young children right now, what would trouble me most about putting them in public school is that most school districts are either unable to protect their students from politically-based idiocy or simply unwilling to even try.

There are some real needs that cyberschooling can fill. Most obviously I think of all the students over the years who became ill and, because they were bedridden, missed a year of school. With computer technology, there’s no reason for that to ever happen again.

There are students, particularly in smaller districts, who could have cyber-access to exciting specialized learning opportunities. Cyberschooling could be a good supplement to “regular” schooling. Having a variety of available options has to be a good thing.

There are also some real needs that cyberschools don’t help in the slightest.

A student who opts out of regular school because he finds it hard to put up with a regimented day and the imposition of teachers telling him to do stuff often fails to thrive when put in a situation where there is no regimen at all. If all of your work is due “whenever you get around to it,” it takes a lot of self-discipline to stay on track. And if you had that sort of self-discipline in the first place, school wouldn’t be all that hard to put up with.

As with home-schooling, I regret the loss to the school community. If all the best trumpet players are at home, the school music program and all the students in it suffer. Ditto for writing programs, science programs, etc.

I believe that one of the values of public schools is that it puts a wide variety of young people together in a small community, gives them the chance to learn how to cope, to struggle, to work out differences, or to stand up for those differences against the crowd.

I think it’s ironic that Pastors are among the many home- and cyber- school boosters. I suspect that if their parishioners came to them and said, “You know, I’m not going to come to church any more because some of the people are hard to get along with, I don’t like the pews, and I think I can best meet my worship needs at home,” the pastoral reply would not be so supportive.

Additionally, cyberschools, like school voucher programs, disenfranchise whole chunks of the community. As a taxpayer, you may think that your local district spends too much on frivolous waste (like teacher salaries) or not enough on important essentials (like teacher salaries), but either way, there are elected officials who have to take your phone calls and win your votes. They are accountable to all the taxpayers in all decisions.

But parents who cyberschool are accountable to nobody. If they decide to take your tax dollars out of the school district to pay for their child’s cybereducation, you don’t get to say a single word about it.

And cyberschools themselves are barely accountable. Are the students learning? Who’s to say. Some parents are enormously, completely, painstakingly responsible in monitoring their cyberlearners. And others wave “Seeya honey—go get smart today” on their way out the door. Nobody is watching to see which are which. Apparently, the state doesn’t even have anyone auditing cyber school financial books.

Cyberschoolers have a variety of responses to these criticisms. They say cyberschool doesn’t take that much money away from schools (it does), and taking the student out of the school reduces district costs (it doesn’t). The most common internet argument boils down to “It’s my kid, so I should get to educate him however I want.”

That’s wrong, too. Education is not a service provided for parents alone. Employers, neighbors and fellow citizens all depend on the products of public education. And cyberparents are wrong to make the argument in the first place.

If they ever manage to drive home the point, “It’s my kid’s education, so it’s nobody else’s business what I do” the next voice in the conversation will be the throngs of retirees replying, “Fine. If it’s all about you, YOU pay for it.”

Sunday, March 04, 2007

This has been a week of major computer headaches for me-- all people who write viruses and malware should roast slowly in Hell. My apologies to both of my loyal readers :)

PERFORMERS IN VENANGOLAND

(News-Herald, March 1)How does an artist make a life in Venangoland?

For some, location isn’t critical. A painter’s work can travel to the audience, and a writer can work in any remote cave that has internet hook-up. For those folks, an area like ours offers the advantage of living cheaply. It’s more of a challenge for performing artists, like musicians or dancers to locate, or relocate, to these parts.

It’s a challenge, first, to find people with serious backgrounds willing to relocate. With luck, we get a John or Susie McConnell or a Susie Daniels with real experience in the Big World, but who have roots that bring them back here. We’re also fortunate when an Ed Frye, a Don Cochran, or a Bob English decide to stick around rather than take their talents Out There. Occasionally someone turns up in these parts just because—well, we get lucky.

You remember the song: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” The song is talking about New York City, and it’s dead wrong. It’s hard to leap from small-town performer to big city success, but it’s not easy to jump the other way, either.

It’s hard to make a living in a small setting. “Show up, amaze the rubes, collect bushels of money” is not much of a business plan, though we have certainly seen people try it. Two things inevitably scuttle that plan—first, we rubes aren’t as easy to amaze as big-city hicks imagine; and second, if you’re a pompous jerk, it doesn’t take very long for word to spread through the entire not-very-large, well-networked musical community.

Even with a good plan, it’s tough. Dan and Patty David tried as hard as anyone in a while—they had some talent, some skills, and willingness to invest time working their way into the community. But in the end, they still couldn’t gather up enough money to make a living.

It’s not just the money that makes settling in the small city a difficult choice. People rarely go into performing because they have small, easily-fed egos, but small town settings rarely gush fat fountains of adulation. It’s part of our charm—no fake-smiling cheek-smooching hugfests, but when someone does applaud your work here, you know they mean it.

At the top in the Big City, you get fame and bales of bucks. Small city performers need to be more self-directed, willing to keep plugging because they either believe in the work or just plain enjoy it.

When artists do bring big city performing and teaching skills to the small city, everybody benefits.

First, other performers step up their game. Hackers like me have a little talent, a few acquired skills, and that most important hacker quality—a sense of my limitations, so I don’t bite off more than I can chew. The chance to work with big guns is always a chance to get a little better, and pass that on. It’s the reverse of the Bad Apple principle—a few talented performers can elevate a whole community of artists.

That, in turn, benefits the whole community. The arts don’t make a good substitute for shelter, clothing, and a well-filled dinner table. But I do believe that being surrounded by the arts in action, the chance to be witness to something beautiful or powerful or moving, makes being human a bit better. Otherwise we would all be eating our plain baked potatoes while wearing a plain white t-shirt and staring at the bare walls of our crate-furnished homes.

For the performers, the last big benefit is the chance to do what they do. A Marc Holland could still be in the big city, dancing on the Broadway stage and making his way in the rough and tumble world of the Big Time. Would he get to stage three or four shows a year and run his own studio, while still living a comfortable, relaxed life? Probably not.

What these folks give up makes the last benefit for us natives. Here, they get less attention; we are likely to take them for granted. Our children grow up thinking it’s just normal to live in an area with active theater groups, gifted dancers, talented performing groups, live music. Years later, they may realize their luck—but in the meantime, they enter life thinking that a life filled with art and beauty and music is how things are supposed to be, not some exotic luxury. I think that’s a Very Good Thing.

One of my plans for improving the world: take unemployed performers working in big city obscurity, waiting for one more chance to do what they love—send them to small places like Venangoland. They get to do what they love; the rest of us get to live richer lives.

From my Flickr