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Did You Know They Can Do This?

June 5, 2017
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For some time, I’ve had a creeping feeling of powerlessness in the face of corporate bureaucracy.  Ever since Mitt Romney gave us that business about corporations are people too, it seems like they have more rights than me.

Things like phone companies not letting you carry over unused minutes come to mind.  You paid for it, but you didn’t use it.  Bye bye.

But phone companies are positively charitable compared to banks.

Banks seem to have this attitude that any cost they incur is supposed to be covered by customers.  Or, if the loss is big enough, the tax payers.

This was brought home to me recently when I received a $60 check from a Fortune 500 company.  Which I duly deposited in the bank.

A few days later I got an advice in the mail saying that the check had been returned to the company due to insufficient funds and that for trying to deposit a bad check I was being penalized $12.00.  The fee was 20% of the check amount.

My first thought was WTF, the economy must really be bad if blue chip companies are bouncing checks.

My second thought was WTF is the bank charging me for?  How was I supposed to know?  What did I do wrong?

I have to admit that the thought of trying to sort out the problem was terrifying.  But I girded my loins and called the 24 x 7 customer service line.

After pressing “1” for English and a few other numbers for other things, I navigated through the tense moments of trying to remember if my secret question was my first pet’s name or my favorite teacher’s name.  Duly verified, I then had the pleasure of telling a computer what my problem was.  You know that faux-friendly and encouraging voice that says, “Please tell me in a few words how I can be of help” and never understands what you are saying?

Because the conversation may have been being taped for training purposes, I didn’t say what came to my mind, but rather said, “Returned check fee.”

“You want to open a checking account?”

I’ll spare you the entire dialogue but after a few iterations, I wasn’t able to control myself and said “I want to talk to someone other than a ***** machine.”

“You want to know the location of the nearest ATM machine?”

At that point I was pretty sure that their strategy was for me to say “it’s only twelve bucks, forget about it.”  But this was getting personal.  I finally got “Press pound to speak to a customer service representative.”  Which is what I’d been trying to do for the past ten minutes.

I wonder if the people answering the phones at the bank call center know that the people they are talking to have just been subjected to an exercise in frustration guaranteed to put them in a state of mind that is not conducive to rational discussion.

But, again remembering that the call may be getting recorded for training purposes, I maintained a pleasant demeanor when a person came on the line and asked how he could help.  I was polite and friendly, asking about his day, the weather where he was and all that.

Then I got to the point.  I was reasonable, suggesting perhaps that a mistake had been made.

All to no avail.  I got a polite but stern lecture that as result of presenting the check to the bank, I had initiated a series of Herculean efforts on their part to process the check and they had incurred costs, only to find that I was wasting their time.  So not only did I not get the money I’d deposited, but twelve bucks was being taken out of my account to compensate the bank for me having inconvenienced them so thoughtlessly.  The semi-scripted lecture the guy gave me actually had me thinking I’d done something wrong.

I reasonably inquired as to whether the bank had in fact expended twelve dollars worth of effort during the process.  After all, McDonalds seems to go to a lot more effort to give me a burger and they don’t charge that kind of money.  Could he send me the details of the charge?

No.

At some point you feel as if you’re talking to the computer again and you don’t care if the call is being recorded for training purposes.  I asked the guy if he thought the charge was fair or reasonable.  I told him I didn’t think it was totally legal because there was no way I could avoid the fee.

He agreed that I couldn’t have known that a check from a Fortune 500 company would bounce, but I could have avoided the fee if I hadn’t presented the bad check.  Further, he advised me helpfully that if I maintained a balance over $200,000, all fees would always be magically waived.  That wasn’t very helpful!

We were at an impasse but I wasn’t going to give up. And we continued to talk.  Things escalated.  Over twelve lousy bucks!  I’ll spare you the details, but I played the let me talk to your manager card and voila, they finally reversed the fee.  It was the hardest twelve bucks I’d ever earned.

And of course, the conversation ended on an upbeat note “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

What scares me most about the whole thing is the way it unfolded.  First I interacted with a machine and communicated by pressing buttons.  Then I interacted with a machine which tried to guess what I was saying.  Then I had a lengthy interaction with a disempowered human and finally got someone able to resolve the situation.

When you consider that human jobs are being replaced by computers and robots, I bet you some cost accountant at the bank is looking at the customer interface process and putting their finger on a blip in the cost curve that shows that human interaction is the most expensive part of the process.

Can you imagine negotiating with a perfectly logical robot?

Welcome To The Future

April 9, 2017

I just read an interesting article that made me say, “OK.  I think that’s enough.”

The article was a breathless description of how technicians at the Stuttgart University Institute for Computational Design are at the leading edge of “the rapidly evolving field of robotic architecture.”

Apparently these guys have designed robots that “make not only the components of building but also assemble the buildings themselves.”  They claim that using the robots “could reduce the construction time and manpower by as much as 90%”

How cool is that?

Or not?  The pace at which human jobs are being eliminated, or are about to be eliminated by robots and machines is increasing.  No one is safe.  Excited technocrats talk about doctors, lawyers and even policemen being replaced by robots.  Even airline pilots may go the way of taxi and truck drivers.  If a robot doesn’t take your job, Big Data will.

What are all those people going to do? is a legitimate question to ask. And if you are comfortably confident that your job it safe, it’s easy to shrug your shoulders and say that they should go back to school or upskill.  Or worse, you may think that technology really will solve all our problems and come up with some new and exciting solution we haven’t been smart enough to foresee.  But that has a sort of “I’m not in Aleppo, why should I care?” attitude to it.

The fact that there are tons of jobs for new IT graduates does not solve the social problem of millions of unemployed and possibly unemployable people.

And that’s the other point.  This is a social issue, not a technical issue.  We can’t rely on the technocrats to solve it.  We can’t expect people who are comfortable and excited by technology to understand the two cultures that we are creating.

I know that arguing against technological advance is like peeing in the swimming pool.  Totally unacceptable and a sign of deep seated problems.  But is it so unreasonable to ask what people are going to do if machines are doing everything?

If all humans are equal and have human rights, it seems to me that when one group benefits at the expense of another, there should be some way to equalize things.  We aren’t barbarians who raid rival villages and kill and enslave our neighbors any more.  Are we?

The best solution I’ve heard is one that is both fair and makes sense.  If the people rolling out the technology are making the money on it at the expense of others, why not make it fair by taxing those gains and using the money for training or support to people who are adversely affected by the technology?  After all, if a person were doing the job, they’d be earning income and paying tax. So a robot doing an equivalent job should pay tax.  But since robots can do just about anything but pay taxes, the check would be written by the person employing or manufacturing the robot.

I can hear the weeping and gnashing of teeth already.  Another tax to transfer money from hard working innovators to the lazy.  Companies will tell us that it will make robots too expensive.  They will have to pass the cost onto us the customer.  And that  will make the technology too expensive.

I doubt if taxing technology will slow down the pace of change, but I’m not as concerned about that as I am about the social cost.  Remember, the economy is driven by consumption and robots don’t consume.  People do.  If they don’t have any money, that’s not going to happen.

Not only that–and here’s something to think about,–your pension gets funded by the contributions of current workers and I don’t think there are going to be enough programmers and server-farm tenders to keep Social Security running forever!  So maybe it’s not such a bad idea to have robots help out with that.

Robot Army recruitment

Some Ado About Something!

April 2, 2017

It may sound like heresy, but I think that some of the best live theater I’ve ever seen has been in Auckland.  I think it’s a combination of the English tradition combined with Polynesian humor and creativity combined with a willingness to take chances and be innovative.

All that continued last night at the Pop Up Globe where we saw Much Ado About Nothing.

Let me answer your first question, which I’m sure is “What is the Pop Up Globe.”  It’s a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre made of metal and wood scaffolding with corrugated iron walls.  They call it “the world’s first full scale temporary working replica of the second Globe.”  The term pop up comes from the fact that it can be taken down, moved and reassembled.  Last season it was downtown but this year it’s moved out to the suburbs where there’s more room.  And free parking!

We got to the theater and had a walk around.  It really does look like the Globe Theater.

And of course, it wouldn’t be the Globe Theatre without . . .

This year they are doing Henry V, Othello, As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing.   The company includes some well known NZ actors and the entire company performs in all of the plays.

The atmosphere was more like a rock concert than a Shakespeare play—the venue and the theatre helped to create a party atmosphere and the audience was definitely there to have fun.  The demographic was definitely not what we are used to when we go to the more mainstream theatre.  For once we were above the average age of the audience!

To be honest, the venue is suboptimal for sound and viewing.  But that didn’t matter.  It was more about the event.

To add to the fun, when local NZ companies do Shakespeare, they take huge liberties.  One time we saw an outdoor Macbeth in which the final sword fight took place in the seats among the audience.  Another time we saw a Taming of the Shrew which started outside in a field.  A pickup truck drove up hauling a trailer with a boxing ring.  Kate’s suitors all took her on in the ring and she knocked them all out until Petruchio showed up in a 60s surfmobile.  The play then went inside, but for the wedding scene moved into an auditorium and the audience were the wedding guests with the cast circulating among us.

It was no different for Much Ado About Nothing.  Ancient Messina became Samoa and the costumes were sort of a mix of Samoan and Renaissance.  For the wedding scene at the end they did this wild Polynesian dance complete with fireworks—which of course got everyone remembering that the first Globe theatre burned down because of sparks from cannon fire!

The character Dogberry, who is the constable, for some reason is portrayed as an airport customs officer with a (real) sniffer dog.  (For most of the play, the dog is “lost” and spends its time wandering among the groundlings getting petted.)  Anyway, at the beginning of the play, Dogberry pretends to confiscate a cell phone off someone in the audience and starts on what sounds like the usual make sure your cell phone is off reminder.  Instead he encourages everyone to leave their phones on to take pictures but to make sure they are on silent.  Then he says if you don’t put it on silent this is what will happen and throws the phone to the dog who destroys it.

Here are some of the authorized pictures I took.

This is the view from our seats—you can see the scaffolding the theater is built with.  And yes, they used all of the doors and windows and top balcony on the stage in the course of the performance.

This is the scene where Benedik is supposed to be hiding in the arbor and overhears the guys talking about Beatrice.  He’s really hanging from a swing which came down from above and which he has to tell the operator when to raise and lower it.  For some reason, Friar Francis is playing the saxophone to the right.

This is the final scene with the wedding dance. The fireworks are just starting on the sides of the balcony.

I’m sure some Shakespeare purists were offended but it was a lot of fun.  They use the same cast for all of the plays and it will be interesting to see how they do the history and tragedy plays because the comedy we saw was so irreverent.  There were references to contemporary events, digressions as the actors addressed the audience or consulted the crew on points of staging and of course a lot of audience interaction.

We took our nephews, ages 14 and 16.  Before we went the younger one asked “It is a comedy comedy or a Shakespeare comedy?” They both had a really good time and absolutely loved it and now actually want to read the actual play and see more live theatre.  Mission accomplished!

Congratulations and best wishes to the Pop Up Globe company for their rich addition to Auckland’s artistic life—a great way to get people interested in Shakespeare and live theatre!

New Review of I Too!

March 15, 2017

My recent novel, I Too, has been reviewed by Flaxflower, a New Zealand literary magazine and I’m happy to share it with you.  It also includes a nice synopsis of the book to give you an idea of what it’s about if you haven’t read it.

There have also been a couple of reviews posted on the Amazon and Book Depository web sites but I’ve gotten a lot of reviews privately via e-mail.  Many people seem to be too shy to put their thoughts out on the web, but if you’ve read the book, do please write a review on the web where you obtain the book.

Here is a link to the Flaxflower review.

Here is a link to the book on Amazon.

Another Thing I Missed

March 12, 2017

I’m the first one to admit that I’m out of the loop on social trends.

So it should come as no surprise that I was oblivious to the fact that one of the defining items in anyone’s wardrobe these days is a pair of Kanye West shoes.  Did you know he had a shoe brand?

I didn’t until I read an article titled “’Sneakerheads Camp in Nottingham for Kanye’s Latest Shoe.”

Before we continue, you should know, as I just learned, that “Sneakerhead” is a real term.  Apparently there are people so into shoes that they have evolved a specialized language and everything.  Carnegie Mellon University in the US has a course on the phenomenon called “Sneakerology 101.”

Anyway, last month these new shoes came out and the asking price was £150, which is about $260.  In order to part with that kind of money for a pair of shoes, “devoted fans” were lining up for “several days” in order to access the limited number of shoes that would go on sale.  According to someone who was waiting in line, “As you get close to release time you get a real buzz around and people get real excited.”

The shop selling the shoes explained demand as being due to “. . . the power of the brand.  Kanye is a giant of popular culture – and he is married to Kim Kardashian – so the hype around his brand is huge.”

The article didn’t delve into the demographic of the assembled crowd but it’s fairly clear there were two classes of people.  One were those who could afford to pay that kind of money for a pair of shoes and had nothing better to do than camp out on the sidewalk in winter weather for a few days.  The other group were people who were probably used to camping out on the sidewalk in winter weather but generate their income by buying Kanye shoes and turning around and selling them.  Apparently these things are such a hot commodity that they can be resold for a more than 100% profit on the same day.  Not a bad day’s work!  I don’t know all the details of how the aftermarket works but Kanye shoes have been known to sell for “thousands of pounds.”

This shoe is priced at NZ $3,240 on the Internet

Some retailers, and Adidas, who make the shoes, in particular discourage this. They will only let you buy one pair at a time.

In case you are wondering why the shoes have such value, here is the explanation from an 18-year-old aficionado: “You need style if you are an 18-year-old boy – you look at people nowadays and everything is about what you look like.”

I do remember various “must have” things over the years, but reality has gradually made me immune to the exhortations of advertisers.

However, while I’ve been quietly living my life, a whole alternative culture of brand identity has grown up.  Around clothes in general, but definitely with shoes.   There are whole websites (and apps) devoted to notifying people of product “drops.” A “drop” is a product release.  Times were, bad, underperforming product lines were dropped by manufacturers but now hot new stuff is dropped, as if from heaven.

And once you get your hands on a coveted new drop, life really gets complicated.  I saw an article entitled “Sneakerheads:  Stop Wearing Good Shoes With Trash Outfits.”  Why should you do that?  “Because the virtues of a good sneaker are endless,” and “. . . your shoes deserve so much more than the stylish equivalent of stepping in dog shit.”

This pretty much sums it up: “And you want your sneakers to be happy, right? You didn’t shell out a whole month’s paycheck on them to make them neglected, right? If you truly want to show your appreciation for your footwear game, pay them a compliment: Style them correctly.“

The article closes with the warning: “Because even though the clothes don’t make the man, the clothes and a good pair of sneakers might.”

This is serious business.  I found out that there is even a hashtag #NTDenim where people who wear the wrong kind of jeans with their sneakers are photographed and shamed.  To help others from making “the same regrettable mistake.”  To help you, there are also websites and apps that “curate” all these must have things.  Incidentally, however, another website urged people not to use that hashtag because people were purposely assembling hideous insults to their sneakers and posting them “in order to be famous on the Internet.”  Another thing I missed.

In a radio interview, after being asked about his priorities, a young man said, “Don’t judge me.  I can spend my money however I like.  These shoes define who I am.”

One can only wonder, who these people are and where they go to see and be seen and what they value other than their shoes.

Try This Look Instead!

Peer Gynt (Recycled)–Auckland 2017

March 10, 2017

Two days ago, I saw an amazing play by a talented young New Zealand playwright, Eli Kent.  It was called Peer Gynt (Recycled).

I make it a habit of not researching plays before I see them because I like to be surprised, and anyway, it would have been pretty hard in this case because the play is new.  I had a vague familiarity with the Peer Gynt story by Henrik Ibsen and remember hearing the music by Grieg.  So I figured the play was going to be a modernized version of Ibsen.

The first hint that we were in for something different came when we parked the car and the attendant told us that he had seen a rehearsal and “it’s not for everyone.”  That was a pretty promising endorsement.

He wasn’t wrong.  The theatre was noticeably emptier when the curtain came up for the second act.  The triggering mechanism for the exodus may have been the closing scene of the first act in which the playwright, who is a major character in the play, is stripped and secured to a table by a group of enraged Ibsen academics for desecrating the master’s work.  The first act closes with the academics performing an impromptu caesarian on the playwright and the result is a mature but baby-sized Henrik Ibsen (complete with the cool facial hair) who, with the academics, embarks on an orgy of cannibalism.

(Incidentally, the academics aren’t the only outraged people in the play. In the second act, a full grown Henrik Ibsen himself appears and confronts the playwright and accuses him of “shitting on my work.” The playwright says he has done nothing of the sort, “I’ll show you what shitting on your work looks like,” he says as he drops his pants, moons the audience, and squats over a copy of the original play).

If all of this sounds like gratuitous shock theatre, I’ve given you the wrong idea.  I thought it was one of the most creative, innovative, timely and challenging plays I’ve seen in a long time and my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It had a really important message and spent three plus hours reiterating it to make sure you got it.

I did my research after the fact and found out that although today the original Peer Gynt is considered pretty much a classic and national treasure, original audiences were almost as baffled as we were.  The play is considered to be one of the first examples of Modernism and surrealism in theatre and Ibsen ignored a lot of conventions, like limitations of space and time and chronology.

Norwegian postage stamp commemorating Peer Gynt

Not only that, and this is what made Peer Gynt (Recycled) so interesting to me, is that the original Peer Gynt character is what we would call a narcissist today and the original play was considered to be, in part, a satire on that kind of behavior.

Eli Kent has “recycled” the story into the 21st century and created a thought provoking critique of how we approach life today.  In some respects, there are two plays in one.  One, the weird one, is about Peer Gynt and his adventures, each of which is a surrealistic mini story on self-importance and ego.  In one scene, the mature Peer is a successful porn producer and is meeting with his publicist and biographers in a Dubai penthouse.  A disgruntled former employee, who is now, somehow appropriately, a Starbucks employee, bursts in and holds them at gunpoint.  Peer lives, of course, but when she kills everyone else Peer laments, “You can’t kill him, he was going to write my biography.”

Lack of empathy and egotism show up everywhere.  After a shipwreck, Peer is floating on a door and a famous Hollywood director, clutching an Oscar, demands to be saved because “I’m James Fucking Cameron.”

But the real story to me was the one involving the character of the playwright.  He’s a twenty something loser who has decided to write the play in his own image and likeness.  He has no frame of reference beyond himself.  In other words, he’s a modern Peer Gynt.  Any reference to classical literature or history is mediated through himself and the play is only important in terms of how he sees it and how he feels about it.  He spends a lot of time talking to—make that lecturing—the audience about his deep ideas.

We learn that he is so addicted to internet porn that he can’t function normally and he tries to get an old girlfriend to help him with the play only if she agrees not to take any credit.  He also spends a lot of time talking about the play to his mother who has a hard time figuring out what’s going on.  Like Peer Gynt, he’s a classic narcissist with no empathy for anyone, a huge ego and an exaggerated sense of his importance and talent.

Near the end of the play, Peer and the playwright, Eli, become essentially the same person and Eli is forced, on pain of death, to prove that he is special.  He goes in search of some of the characters Peer has met during the play but no one can find anything special about him.

Throughout the play there have been numerous references to getting to the heart of something by “peeling the layers of the onion.”  Ibsen appears and gives Eli an onion to peel and when he does it, there is nothing inside.  Eli can’t accept that he’s just some guy rather than the special creation he has come to consider himself.  He’s also desperate to find a way to end the play in a meaningful way and he and his mother start to read from the original to get some ideas.  The play ends with Eli asking his mother (appropriately because she is complicit in having made him the narcissistic millennial that he is) “If we all believe in the lie together, isn’t that as good as the truth?”

Sort of a timely warning for everyone around the world, isn’t it?

I Too – A New Novel

December 20, 2016
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For the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a novel which has come to be called I Too. 

The book grew out of feedback I got on my last book, Identities.  Younger people who read Identities told me they really liked its message of making the world a better place, starting with the work place.  But they felt they had limited opportunities because, for example, they were new in their careers or had a new family or mortgage and felt that they were too busy or weren’t in a position to make changes.

At the same time, like everyone else, I saw the further polarization of society along all sorts of fault lines—political, ideological, religious, racial, and also read daily headlines about growing inequality and its negative effects on society.

I Too is an attempt pull these issues together and to make people think about these issues and how they can do something to make the world a better place and a micro level.

I Too is now available from Amazon both as a paperback and in a Kindle version.

i2-cover

Here is the back cover blurb:

Ben, Paul, and Ridge were best friends growing up, but after they went off to college, their lives began to diverge. When they reunite at Ridge’s twenty-eighth birthday party, they find that if they want to remain friends, they must confront some major differences.

Ridge is materialistic and career focused, and he has a glamorous and rich girlfriend, Julia. But he’s discovering Julia’s values and priorities don’t mesh with those of his friends, and she wants him to choose between his past and a future with her.

Ben’s life is completely different from Ridge’s. He teaches history at a community college but longs for an academic career at a more prestigious university. What will Ben have to give up for success?

Paul always feels like he is caught between Ridge and Ben. He shares some of Ben’s ideals but also has some of Ridge’s desire for material success. Will a mentor and a new love interest help him find the balance he craves?

Through Ridge, Ben, and Paul, author T. E. Stazyk encourages readers to challenge accepted norms and values and think about how they too can make a difference and change the world.

You can find the book on Amazon here.

I hope you enjoy I Too and share it with your family and friends.  Let me know what you think.

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