Tuesday, October 31, 2000

I Feel Your Pain, Al...

"And the awful truth is that America doesn't like knowledgeable, well-educated white guys who preen visibly over their grasp of detail. If it did, Al Gore wouldn't be fighting for his political life."
--Marjorie Williams, The Breakfast Club, Slate

Monday, October 30, 2000

Why Me?

On my recent flight to Chicago, the woman in the adjacent seat woke me up to ask me to hand her my copy of the in-flight magazine. I was so stunned, all I managed was to be as surly as possible while handing it to her.

Wednesday, October 25, 2000

I used to be scared of 8th grade girls, too..

This made me laugh.

"Speaking inside a middle-school gymnasium in the Chicago suburbs today, George Bush tried out what seemed a clever new way to contrast his proposal for "tax relief" with Al Gore's. The distinction collapsed, however, under tough questioning from a girl in the eighth grade."
--Jacob Weisberg, Slate

Read the whole article here.

Saturday, October 21, 2000


"After many false starts and delays for reasons beyond telling, there is now a Mensa SIG* for prisoners: Mprisoned."
--Mensa Bulletin, October 2000, p.5

*Special Interest Group

Thursday, October 19, 2000

Why Service Stinks

''We're just putting more of our energies into rewarding our best customers.''
--American Airlines

Business Week has written an article addressing the topic of why customer service has gone downhill in recent years. I've felt that this was because the cost of providing it has gone up (or at least, hasn't gotten cheaper as fast as other things). But this has some good points about market segmentation I hadn't taken into account.

The first part of the article paints a bleak picture of a world where only the wealthy get good customer service. But continuing on, there are some bright points worth noticing. First of all, "Thanks to the Internet, for example, consumers have far better tools to conveniently serve themselves." I get far better customer service from Amazon than I've gotten through most off-line bookstores, all without interacting with a human being. And don't get me started on bad travel agent stories.

But the most interesting part is the admission that companies may not be doing such a great job in their market segmenting. "The problem, of course, is that what someone spends today is not always a good predictor of what they'll spend tomorrow." Nationsbank (now Bank of America) doesn't have me as a customer any more partly because of how they treated me when all I had to deposit was my grad school salary. But I think the best hope may be embodied in this sentence: "In the future, therefore, the service divide may become much more transparent." Somehow, it's not so much lack of service that's annoying -- it's bad service. If companies admitted, "Hey, you're on your own," we might all be a little happier.

Wednesday, October 18, 2000

Name changed to protect the clueless

Date: Wed, 18 Oct 2000 19:34:20 EDT
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Sunday, October 15, 2000


Today I woke up at around 8:30. Last Sunday, it was a different story. Up at 5:30, out of the house by 7. I was off to the Rock 'n Race. The goal of the Rock 'n Race was to raise money for and awareness of colon cancer. I must admit, though, it was the prospect of seeing Paul Simon at the post-walk concert that drew me in. That, and the 5K walk. I needed the exercise. In fact, my joke was that while everyone else was walking to fight colon cancer, I was walking to fight heart disease.

As the beginnning of the race approached, I joined the mob at the starting line. Looking around, everybody else had their number pinned to their shirt, like I did. But many people had placards pinned on their backs. "I am participating in memory of..." "Mom"..."Uncle Joe"..."Grandpa" Wow. That really got to me. Eventually I looked around and saw that some of the placards said, "I am participating in support of..." That made me feel somewhat better. Of course, eventually I noticed someone whose placard ended "...myself." Wow, and I was just out for a walk.

Then Katie Couric fired the starting airhorn and we were off. Shuffling very, very slowly. Was the whole walk going to be this slow? No, it turned out, it was just as we were passing by Katie Couric, and everybody strained to get a look, or a picture or an autograph. Once past her, the pack spread out to a reasonable pace, it was time for a nice walk around DC. We walked to Union Station, then swung back and walked up and down the mall. Beautiful day, nice and invigorating.

Then it was back to plop down on the mall for the entertainment portion. I munched on the breakfast provided for me. (Hey, between that and the t-shirt, I hope they saved some money out of my registration fee to fight colon cancer.) I listened to the Max Weinberg Seven and profiles of people who had survived colon cancer...and those who had lost loved ones to the disease. Again, pretty moving. And I should mention, it's worth reading up about colon cancer. Something like 90% of all cases are cureable if caught early enough, so if you're at risk, it's really worth it to get checked out. Please.

After that, by 11, it was time for the main attraction...Paul Simon. This summer I went through my entire CD collection and listened to all of the CDs. I realized how great Paul Simon was. Wow; the guy put out wonderful music from his work with Garfunkel in the '60s until 1990's The Rhythm of the Saints. (I wasn't familiar with the Capeman, and I don't have his new album yet.) And here was a chance to see a living legend for far less than a concert ticket. And get a free t-shirt! And fight colon cancer! How could I pass this up?

Anyway, it was a really nice experience. For an hour-long concert, he played quite a number of songs from Graceland...4, I believe -- Boy in the Bubble, Graceland, Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and You Can Call Me Al. He also did Bridge over Troubled Water, a very different version of Kodachrome, The Boxer and three songs from the new album. His encore was Late in the Evening.

As I shuffled off to the Metro to get back home in time for the Redskins game, I was pretty darn happy with what I had gotten accomplished by noon that day. Today, I'll have to settle for writing this as my accomplishment.

Saturday, October 07, 2000

England Pictures

I've uploaded pictures from my recent England trip here.

George Hits Japan

And now for the final entry in the George Trilogy, as our hero arrives in Tokyo...

I can't remember the last time I was doing something peaceful like getting off an airplane that I got shoved so many times. Then the cab ride from the airport to the hotel was damn expensive and the parts of the city that we drove through didn't look like a place worth driving through. But things get worse...

The meter on the taxi is ticking away, the city is just a mass of concrete with no style at all, and we finally get cleaned out of cash when we get dropped off, and the ride cost us 25000 yen. 25000 yen is roughly equivalent to 250 dollars. The hotel looked ok from the outside, but it had all the signs of being a low budget place to stay. There was no driveway to the main lobby, no doorman, and no bell boy to tote the luggage upstairs for us. All of these things were standards on my previous trips for this company. At check in we learned that the front desk staff doesn't speak good English, and you guessed it, we don't speak good Japanese. We get checked in after a while and head upstairs. The room looks like a jail cell. Very small box of a room with a crapper that spit at me when I went to use it. When I got into bed I found that the pillow must be stuffed with beans, and then the whole thing smelled of cigarette smoke. Needless to say we moved to a better hotel the next day. This one had all the features that I expect to have on business trips.

Saturday, without checking out the weather we joined a bus tour to Mt. Fuji. Along the road it started to rain pretty hard. No problem, it will probably blow over. No such luck, we get there in a serious rain. No problem, I've been wet before. Boy did I get wet, and although I was standing on it, I never actually saw it. The clouds were so low you could see about 20 feet in front of you. The next stop was lunch. They took us to one of the traditional places where you sit on a mat on the floor and cram you legs under the table. It was ok, but being far from decent plumbing I wasn't going to take any risks and didn't eat much of it. After that we went to The Valley of Big Hell. This is where an ancient volcano had collapsed upon itself and now it smokes and bubbles up hat springs of water high in sulfur. Just in time to hike around here the rain started to come down like crazy and we got soaked through and through. The thing to do here is hike up a
bit to this shack that boils eggs in the hot spring water and eat one. Supposedly it gives you seven extra years to live. They looked pretty bad but tasted like normal eggs. The trip back to Tokyo was on the bullet train. I was a bit disappointed with its speed because it didn't feel like it was going fast, but it shortened a 3 hour drive into 36 minutes. Not too bad. We had to walk back to the hotel from the subway station that evening. You guessed it, raining even harder now. Joining the rain were high winds and lightning. We looked like we had been through hell when we got to the hotel.

Sunday I found out why the weather just got worse as the day went on. Typhoon #17 approached Tokyo on Saturday and passed by just to the east on Sunday. Sunday was boring as a result of the weather. I did the next best thing and hung out in the bar.

Friday, October 06, 2000

George and the Singapore Sling

The second of three installments from my friend George...

A great thing happened the same day I sent my last report. It was my last
night in Singapore and I still had not been to the Long Bar in Raffles Hotel
for my Singapore Sling. Now, for all of you who don't know the importance
of Raffles (I was one before heading on this trip), The Long Bar at this
hotel is where the Singapore Sling was invented. Being here for so many
days and not having one was eating at my conscience. So after work off we
went. A pretty good drink too. Didn't taste too fruity, and packed a
decent punch. A few went down and the guy I'm travelling with got a bit
tipsy. Next thing I notice is this bar menu telling me that the kitchen is
about to close and lo and behold they have hamburgers for $13 and it costs
an additional $1 for cheese and an additional $1 for bacon. Hell with it
all, I want two with both cheese and bacon. The tasted good and were a good
size so I didn't mind spending that much.

Anyway, we had to leave the hotel at 4 AM to get to the airport for our
flight to Tokyo so I got loaded on Singapore Slings and stayed up all night.
Singapore is a nice place, and I finally felt satisfied with my stay there.
I would go back if anyone comes up with a reason.

Thursday, October 05, 2000

George in Kuala Lumpur

Well, I've run out of England stories. For your vicarious traveling pleasure, however, George has agreed to let me post his Tales of the Mysterious East. Today: Kuala Lumpur.

Greetings from the other side of the world. Everything is going along mostly on schedule down here. We have made it past Kuala Lumpur and are pretty much finished with Singapore now.

We only had one day free in KL and pretty much got lost walking around the city. We walked over to the Petronas Twin Tower (tallest building in the world), and then proceeded to get lost in interesting parts of the city. Not necessarily parts we wanted to see, but definitely educational. I don't think I had ever seen so many chickens running around in a city before. Malaysia appeared to be a country desperately trying to not be third world, but at the same time definitely is third world.

Singapore though is completely modern. Heavily influenced by the Chinese, and somewhat enjoyable. For a place as small as it is, there seems to be a lot to do. Just don't go to the beach expecting to see Singaporean babes in bikinis. For some reason they wear more clothes to the beach then they do to go shopping. It's been fun though.

The food is killing me though. I'd had enough of oriental foods before I got off the plane in KL. By the time I reached KL I had endured two days of nothing but curried chicken or Chinese food of some sort. Last night we attempted to eat hamburgers, but even these were Japanese style with some kind of onion/tomato/gross stuff all over it. When this trip is done I might not eat Oriental for a few years.

Wednesday, October 04, 2000

Who Won the Debate?

I watched the presidential debate last night. I admit, I thought Gore won, and Bush looked out of his depth. But then, I went in with that expectation. So I turned to the commentariant to tell me what the "consensus opinion" was. In Slate, Jacob Weisberg explained that "Bush got his clock cleaned." So I was right. And in Salon, Andrew Sullivan concludes, "It was a knockout." For Bush. Hmm. So maybe this debate just did confirm whatever expectation people went in with.

Here's what confirmed mine. After Bush suggested getting the Russians to mediate in Yugoslavia, the following exchange ensued.

GORE: ...But I think we need to be very careful in the present
situation before we invite the Russians to play the lead role in

BUSH: Well, obviously we wouldn't use the Russians if they didn't
agree with our answer, Mr. Vice President.

GORE: Well, they don't.

The "Well, they don't," just had this air of, "Is it too much to ask you to pay attention?" It cracked me up.

The Two Noble Kinsmen

I wondered if I could walk to the hotel and back to the Globe in time for that evening's performance of The Two Noble Kinsmen. It pretty soon became apparent that I couldn't. Well, no problems -- I'd just catch a taxi on the way back from the hotel. Unfortunately, I didn't see one near the hotel. So I walked towards the Globe and tried to hail the various cabs I saw on the way there. No luck -- they were all occupied. Eventually, I made it to the footpath along the Thames...and realized I wasn't going to catch a cab there. Oh, well, I hoped they'd still let me in. I eventually got there about 15 minutes late, and stood in line behind people buying last-minute tickets. I eventually picked mine up and slipped in the back. Looking at the play now, I think I showed up towards the end of Act I.

The Two Noble Kinsmen, unlike The Antipodes, was actually written by Shakespeare. Well, sort of. OK, co-written. Sigh. It's "by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare." But still. It counts.

Anyway, it's the story of these two cousins...nobles, in fact. They're thrown in jail for something or another (look, I got there late). I think 'cuase they lost a war. They don't seem to be too annoyed by this fact until they cast eyes upon Emilia, King Theseus' sister-in-law. They both fall for her, for no particuarly good reason. They scheme to get out of jail (free?) and fight each other over Emilia. Is it a tragedy? A comedy? I dunno, but it was another fun play. At the end, the artistic director thanked us for filling the house for one of Shakespeare's less known plays as the cast threw red roses.

After that it was off to bed, for the next morning I had to take the Tube to Heathrow. The ride was nice enough. There were a couple of Americans sitting across from me that were comparing the size of "the gap" (as in "mind the gap") at the various stations we passed. It was kind of amusing until they started saying things like, "Wow, that's really uneven. Can't these Brits do anything right?" Sigh. I like my country, just not all of the people from there.

At the airport, somehow I got selected for the extra hassle treatment. You know, extra X-ray of the baggage, rifling through my carry-ons, stuff like that. The actual hassling of me didn't take long. The problem is that there's only one person to hassle all of us, and the people in front of me just seemed to need more hassling. Like the guy who seemed to have his entire life wrapped up in his carry-on luggage. Oh, well. After the security guy made a joke about confiscating my sunglasses, I was through and back on my way to the USA.

Sunday, October 01, 2000

Tate Modern

The Tate Modern was my next stop. Truthfully, I could have spent the whole weekend there...4 1/2 hours seemed very rushed. Going in, I had very little familiarity with modern art. Coming out...well, I guess I now have some familiarity with it.

The Tate Modern opened earlier this year in what was formerly a "redundant" power plant on the South Bank of the Thames (right next to the Globe). It's a huge building. It has three main floors of exhibitions. The third floor alone took me two hours to view, and I didn't linger for all of it. One of the nice features is a digital voice player you can rent for a pound. When you see a number underneath the description of a work of art, you can punch in that number and hear a curator or an artist speak about the work. That's a good improvement on the self-guided tour with the tape player.

One of the photographers whose work I liked the most was Andreas Gursky. In particular, I liked Rhein II, which you'll have to picture as an oversized landscape rather than a...er, image in a browser. He also does some pictures with interesting special effects.

Some of the works I saw fell into the old "Is it art?" category. For example, one picture (Lucio Fontana's "Spacial Concept 'Waiting'") was just a blank canvas which had been slashed. I think the artist was trying to make some sort of point about getting beyond the traditional two-dimensional canvas. OK. Interesting-looking, actually. But now that you've made the point... Also in that category, I'd put Yves Klein's "IKB79". "IKB" stands for "International Klein Blue," a color he "invented" and patented. And I must admit it's a pretty neat color. I'd love a shirt in that color. But do I really want to see a canvas painted completely in that color? More than once?

I particularly liked their Dali paintings, such as Autumnal Cannibalism and Metamorphosis of Narcissus. There's something about the surrealist pictures that really strikes a cord with me. Some of his other work, however, I just found odd, such as Lobster Telephone. According to the Tate Modern, Dali found both lobsters and telephones to be erotic, so he liked the juxtaposition. I think that tells more about Dali than anyone else. And more about Dali than we need to know.

Speaking of Surrealists, I was interested to see a painting by Rene Magritte. Not because I have a particular interest in Magritte's work. In fact, not because I knew anything about Magritte. I just knew the Paul Simon song "Rene and Georgette Magritte with their Dog after the War". So that's who Rene Magritte is. Incidentally, there's a pretty interesting interview with Paul Simon where he describes how he came to write that song. "It doesn't actually make sense, but why should a song about Magritte make sense?"

Duchamp's "Urinal" was interesting. Some of the story is told here; basically, Duchamp bought a urinal, signed it, and entered it into an exhibition that was open to any artist who would pay 6 bucks. The urinal mysteriously disappeared before the exhibition. Once again the question is, "What is art?" "Is it art if an artist says so?" Good questions, but too much navel-gazing can become tiresome.

I think that's one of the things that makes Gilbert and George (warning: naughty language at their site) so enjoyable.

"We want our art to speak across the barriers of knowledge directly to People about their Life and not about their knowledge of art. The 20th century has been cursed with an art that cannot be understood. The decadent artists stand for themselves and their chosen few, laughing at and dismissing the normal outsider. We say that puzzling, obscure and form-obsessed art is decadent and a cruel denial of the Life of People."

OK, still pretentious, but "speak...directly to people about their life and not about their knowledge of art" is a worthy goal.

Which is one of the fun things about Andy Warhol. You don't stare at his pictures and say, "What the heck is that?" It's Elvis! Two of them! Or Marilyn Monroe. And, yes, it's more complicated than that, but at least you don't have to worry that you're missing everything because you don't know about his strange relationship with lobsters. For the Andy Warhol room, the digital voice player had David Bowie's "Andy Warhol" which I cranked up to maximum volume while walking around the room to the disconcerted looks of other patrons.

On the other hand, sometimes things may speak too directly to us. Sam Taylor Wood's "Brontosaurus" features a film of a naked guy flailing around while classical music plays. She explained that she had a friend dance naked to techno music while she filmed him. When she played around with things, she said she found that the slowed-down images without the original sound looked alien to her. I don't know; the first thing I thought was, "Hmm. Naked guy dancing. Probably to techno music, but it's been slowed down."

Anyway, I look forward to future visits to art museums a little closer to home, now that I have some exposure to twentieth century art. After touring two floors of galleries and taking the voice player's recommended "architecture tour", I visited the gift shop and hurried back to my hotel to drop off the day's purchases.