Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A Path of My Own

Recent debates and personal discussions bring home to me how hard it is to try to forge one's own unusual, if not necessarily unique, path.

It's not that I want to be different.

From childhood I yearned to be in a family like the Andersons in TV's Father Knows Best. In my youth I aspired to have a normal name and a normal place of origin, to be, say, Douglas, a Methodist from Lincoln, Nebraska. In my adult life, I tried to work in a regular newspaper, in a regular newsroom where rudeness and stupidity got you ahead. At some point I wanted a station wagon, a house and a dog.

I wondered what it would be like to see Paris for the first time at 25 or 35. To speak one language and only one. To have so fixed a sense of identity that I could not fathom Italian humor or Swedish epithets. What if I had grown up a Republican and inherited a seat at the local Rotary Club? Or married someone who grew up in more or less the same way I did and shared ethnicity and religion?

By now you've guessed -- I am and have been none of these.

There isn't a label for me and I won't try to invent one. To give you an idea, without getting tedious, until 2003 I had spent 25 years in a household without a car or a television: people of whom the same could be said represent less than 1 percent of the American population. And I'm only scratching the surface.

This gets expressed in ideas, beliefs, styles of life. I find myself at odds with the flavors available and I want to make myself a double-dip philosophy in a little sugar cone all my own.

Take the economic ideas of the day. In France they're protesting the first timid step toward dismantling a cradle-to-grave system of labor and social security. The step itself is a no-brainer in the USA: under a new French law young workers can be laid off more easily than experienced, proven workers.

My Menshevik instincts -- which I certanily did not get from my monarchist mother or similarly traditionalist father -- tell me the protesting Europeans are on the right track: give up one benefit and the entire house of social protections comes tumbling down. On the other hand, my American entrepreneurial experience tells me that in the world of work no good deed goes unpunished: employees treated generously cheat you and laugh at you behind your back.

The more I consider the great questions, the less certain I am that the major Answers are right. Socialism and capitalism both have flaws.

The same applies to the God questions.

In March 2002 I finally reached the conclusion that the vast majority of Catholics, among whom I counted myself, did not really believe -- a circumstance in which I included a fellow by the name of Karol Wojtyla, who was then pope, and another named Joseph Ratzinger, elected (was it the distribution of hallucinogens at the conclave of 2005?) to succeed him. Had any of these august men or their fellow bishops, let alone all the Joe and Jane Pews sitting in the churches, really believed in God and really taken the gospels the least bit seriously, they would have been quaking in their boots.

Yet there they were, appearing on television with mealymouthed press releases after U.S. courts forced them to acknowledge they had conspired to cover up the massive rape of children. And here we laypeople were trying to pretend that we didn't notice, after witnessing decades of every kind of equivocation and hypocrisy available. It wasn't just that scandal. Really.

In the accumulation of unthinkable and improbable developments, I decided I'd had enough: I would at least proclaim my unbelief openly. So sue me Papa Ratzinger. The pope is naked.

And yet ... I can't discount the notion that truth is more likely than not absolute. Truth, if it is A, cannot also be X, merely because I like A and my neighbor Emily likes X. (Note: I am right, no? Of course, I am right! Why would I believe she is right? If I did, I'd have to believe what she believes, right?)

Or, rubber hit the road, I do believe that guilt is good. Not the kind of guilt that immobilizes you and keeps you from doing the right or the wrong thing. Just the kind of guilt that makes you say, "Whoa, Nelly! I really screwed someone over here." Guilt when you've done something wrong is like pain when you're sick; it tells you that you need to get involved in some healing. Then after you're healed (and you've healed the one you screwed over), then, sure, get rid of that guilt.

These are Catholic answers right out of the textbook. But I'm an atheist, remember? I even wrote a whole godless ethic (see my blogs here and here).

Then there's the love question (I mean, besides "What do women really want?").

Is love a relationship bound by a set of rules and laws, such as I often feel should be avoided like the plague? (See my blog here.)

If so, why am I not satisfied with the Latin gentleman's lifestyle? You don't know the Latin gentleman? Here's how my father, who was a Latin gentleman, described him:

The Latin gentleman had seven sons.
The first was lawyer,
the second was a thief, too.
The third was a doctor,
and the fourth was a butcher, too.
The fifth was a priest,
and the sixth was a drunk, too.
The seventh, like their father,
was a bachelor.

Ha, ha! Isn't that a knee-slapper? No. It isn't. A priapic man devoted to fooling women is merely a waste, not to mention a scoundrel to his seven sons.

So here's the thing: I would rather find a path that's neither socialist nor capitalist, that's neither Catholic nor atheist, that's neither priapic nor hidebound. A path of my own.

Monday, March 20, 2006

On the hit parade

To judge by the reaction to my exercise in critical thinking about Osama, I am in the good company of many doubters -- but also on some people's hit lists.

One person warned me that to people who had no experience of the world abroad I'd be "a Communist." As if to prove that acquaintance's point, private e-mail warned me that I was on the wrong side of the fence.

Imagine them in Anti-Terrorism Central, somewhere in the third basement of the White House (only a stone's throw from my office). "Aha! We spotted one," says a clean cut agent, "shall we set the heat-seeking missiles on kill?" His boss chuckles and shakes his head, "Naw, let's just send Dick Cheney with his hunting rifle."

No, seriously folks ... the reaction reminds me of the warden in Cool Hand Luke. You remember the 1967 film set in a Southern prison, with chain gang and all?

Even if you don't remember the movie, you have surely heard about the chastising of the protagonist, prisoner Luke Jackson (Paul Newman), by the sadistic warden Boss Paul (Luke Askew) in the finest drawl that Askew, a native Georgian, could muster: "What we have he-ah ... is a fail-y-ah to communicate!"

Indeed, what we have here is most definitely a communication failure.

Acknowledging that the Arab World might have a legitimate gripe or two does not amount to conferring the Good Lefty Seal of Approval on suicide bombing targeted on Americans. Rather, it merely raises a few sorely needed questions concerning our assumptions.

There are many, many questions that need be raised and I can't promise to raise them all in one post.

Some of them stem from President Bush lying so spectacularly without being called to account that it becomes easy to doubt everything. For example, how the hell do we, the citizens of the United States, really know that al Qaeda actually was behind the September 11 attacks? Because Dubya said so? Hmm ... let me tell you about a bridge in Brooklyn I can get you at a bargain price.

Another set of queries arise from our overly literal belief in our national fairy tales. Does anyone out there still believe we Americans possess all we do merely by dint of hard work and "know-how" that somehow made this country "great"? No one else worked hard? How come our know-how can't extricate us from our worsening problems right now?

My sense of history tells me that the United States was handed leadership on a platter by a collapsed world in 1945; our country was the sole major industrial nation whose infrastructure was intact. And that was merely because it was too far from its enemies to be bombed.

This is all happenstance. Just as the sheer chance of being born here. Did any of us do anything to be born in New York or Poughkeepsie or Peoria? So what are we doing crowing about being "proud to be American"? We might as well be proud of the color of our eyes.

But there's more. Having been handed the crown of laurels, we acceded collectively to privilege beyond what any people has ever seen before. The overwhelming majority of humanity does not take for granted the embarrassment of riches and resources that we do.

Privilege carries obligations: noblesse oblige -- or as the Bible puts it " ... unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required ... " (Luke 12:48). This is something that the Patrician class of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and even that of George Herbert Walker Bush, for all their shortcomings, used to understand and live out to a mildly heroic measure.

Today's ruling class separates itself ever more from civic responsibility, shouldering a declining share of the burdens of citizenship, in taxes, in effort and in blood. Their poster boy is a sitting president who, unlike his father, cowardly evaded the battle he claimed to support, then shamelessly suckered the poorest, most disadvantaged youths to go die for his lies.

The world is not fooled. The world was with us on September 12. Then our government behaved like a petulant schoolyard bully and lost the respect and trust a leader needs.

In my criticism, I am still hoping there is a way to reverse course and live up to our national vocation, to continue to expand the democratic experiment and to lead world peacefully, by example rather than by force.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Real Secret of September 11

Even the families of Americans fallen in the suicide attacks of September 11 are wondering out loud what is really being hidden behind the smokescreen of Carla Martin, 51, the Transportation Security Administration attorney who has come close -- on purpose? -- to torpedoing the sentencing trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th conspirator in the tragic events.

That's not the real secret of September 11. Of course, the government knew. Of course, Bush became giddy enough in September 2001 at the prospect of uncontested political war power to joke to Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels like a college boy, "Lucky me. I hit the trifecta." (See Daniels' White House statement.)

We know this.

The real secret of September 11 is that Osama bin Laden has a point or three -- regardless of the obviously wrongheaded way he's gone about advancing them.

By "Osama," I mean to represent not merely one man, but the broad stream of Arab opinion that supports, in at least some vague fashion, what the man is to them.

A 2004 Pew Charitable Trust survey found that Osama is viewed favorably by large percentages in Pakistan (65%), Jordan (55%) and Morocco (45%). In Turkey as many as 31% say that suicide attacks against Americans and other Westerners in Iraq are justifiable, and that's a third of the public in a wannabe member of the European Union.

Let's be clear about this. These people are not stupid. They have reasons for feeling the way they do that make sense to them.

They see the effects of Western culture as it corrupts their societies. The poverty of the Palestinians next to the relative wealth of the Israelis who displaced them. The impunity with which U.S. troops sexually harass Arab women (and even men).

Osama bin Laden's famous 1998 fatwa against Americans fell on deaf ears in the West, but it made perfect sense to his audience. The charge?

"... [F]or over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples."

The fatwa goes on to cite the effects of bombing on Iraq -- when we were supposedly no longer at war -- in a tally it gives of 1 million lives. This may be inflated, but even half is ten times all the U.S. casualties n Vietnam. Finally, it cites the U.S. alliance with Israel and its support of the "occupation" of Jerusalem.

Turn it around for a moment. Imagine the Fedayeen in Rome, Canterbury or Jerusalem riding around as conquerors and setting up bases to attack London and New York, killing 500,000 in "collateral" effects of air raids, while remaining allied to the most hated enemy, Osama.

It takes a little imagination because we are so secularized that nothing is "holy" or sacred to us anymore. OK, so imagine the roughest, most dust-covered, bearded Arab ruffian -- a ruffian just as the U.S. Army has had in every war -- setting upon your daughter or your son. Close to home enough?

What doesn't make sense is not their perspective, but ours.

In a recent discussion with a professional who has lived in several continents abroad, I fell into a classic North-South debate -- "North" representing the industrialized First and Second Worlds and "South" the industrializing Third and Fourth. My friend was arguing that Western overseas development assistance makes life "better" abroad.

I countered that "better" is in the eye of the beholder. To Osama's buddies, I added, U.S. plumbing and automobiles comes with the baggage of U.S. culture -- to them, notably the proliferation of pornography, immorality, secularism, homosexuality.

Then my interlocutor, a woman, drew a line in the sand: their oppression of women is unjustifiable.

This reminded me of Vietnam War escalation architect Robert McNamara when, in his role as World Bank president in the late 1960s, he tried to sell the Latin American public on a subsidized birth control campaign. From the U.S. perspective, this seems like bringing "progress." (It's also cheaper than aid.)

But McNamara succeeded as no politician has since, in uniting the Brazilian Catholic bishops with the Communist Party in sheer outrage. The American was seen as proposing genocide.

Similarly, what a professional U.S. woman sees as "oppression" in the Arab World is a way of life whose evolution is best left in the hands of the societies in which it occurs, rather than the arrogant control of Western paternalism. I would not choose that way of life myself, but I am Western.

Also, it's not as if the West is oppression-free or does not exploit women in other areas of the world.

Let's look at the women who pick oranges in Florida and California before we get too outraged at the Arabs. Let's examine the "sex tours" and "foreign bride" businesses, the drug "mules." Let's examine just how many millions of women in the world have seen their families destroyed by Western weapons and greed.

My point is that, precisely because we are empirical-minded and supposedly more democratic, it does not make sense for us to determine a priori that everyone must embrace this or that non-negotiable item of our way of life. Especially when we don't show the guts to stop our own governments from waging war indiscriminately and unjustifiably against their populations.

Until we learn this, we will be stuck in a clash of civilizations that threatens both the West and the Arab World, with the same perversity of the Mutual Assured Destruction equation of the Cold War. The more each of us insists we are correct beyond discussion, the less a chance there is that either will survive.

Let's face it. Sooner or later, al-Qaeda will wipe out half a U.S. city with a dirty bomb or a virus or something even simpler of which no one has thought. And sooner rather than later, the White House will drop The Bomb somewhere in the Arab World in response. Then all bets are off.

As Albert Einstein famously remarked: "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

Is there a way out? Only if we take a good look at the real secret of September 11.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Customer Disservice: The Solution

My struggles with Apple, as we have seen, are only part of a very large and growing American folklore of customer disservice. One need not be obsessive about it, but this is no longer the country in which the customer is always right.

This isn't just Apple. It's Corporate America. As a business executive, albeit in a small company, I have a pretty good idea what has been going on. Let me blow the whistle from my corporate perch.

It's scarcely a secret that during the Cllinton Era boom the public became accustomed to prices of manufactured goods that went down or stayed the same. The Bush Era recession extended that through 2004.

What have companies done to squeeze those humongous profits?

Consumers know executives have tweaked the contents of products and played shell games with the terms of sale. Less visibly, they also cut costs. Products are shoddier, less well-made; hence the popularity of imports. Detroit hasn't made the best car in decades.

Lastly, they've increased productivity. Human labor is always the most expensive ingredient (although, as we shall see, not always reasonably so). Management has two choices: find some way to make it possible for workers to produce more in the same number of hours, or distribute more work among fewer workers. American companies have done both.

The result is a collective suicide of American business. GM, Ford, IBM, the airlines and more are filing for bankruptcy to avoid pay hikes and pension costs, while laying off employees by the tens of thousands week after week.

The problemo with the boardrooms, however, is that they're led by folks making 431 times what employees make. Yes, you read that right. The CEO-worker pay ratio reported last September went up from 301:1 to 431:1 (see my source here).

Executive pay has grown exponentially just as their companies have become ever bigger failures. To be fair, there are perverse economic mechanisms that actually force some companies into that juncture. Some companies produce more book value earnings when they are going down than when they are rising and profits are in the future.

But let's think the unthinkable for an instant, especially for publicly held corporations. Maybe if corporations fired one of these 431-ers, they could hire 431 customer service people.

Or, say, hire 215 workers paid enough that they'd care about a customer's problem; or 107 better paid customer service reps and 107 better paid manufacturing workers to make better made goods.

The possible permutations are endless. But maybe if we invested more in workers, more of them would care about what they make and more would care about keeping the customer satisfied. Maybe more of them could afford to be customers themselves.

Monday, March 13, 2006

No Problemo

My experiences with Apple illustrate a situation that has become commonplace in the 21st century.

You go to a store and buy gadget X. You go home and try to get it working and it fails to turn on. Or it works for a week, then it dies.

You go back to the store, where a twentysomething with a goatee smiles idiotically and shrugs, saying, "No problemo."

No problemo?

Let's first start by informing the public that "problemo" is not a word in any language. The English word problem, meaning "a difficult question proposed for solution," comes from the Old French problème, which in turn comes from the Latin problema (from which Italian and Spanish get problema).

The Latin came from Greek problema (transliterated from the Greek alphabet), which itself derived from
proballein "to propose," from the combination of pro "forward" and ballein "to throw."

So we have tossed the kid a hot potato and he smugly proclaims it's no biggy, we can get it fixed or get another.

Wait a cotton-pickin' minute here!

You paid the store good money. If you used a credit card, they checked and got the payment authorized.

The money was good the instant they got it. They didn't go to a restaurant get told that, "Sorry, those dollars just aren't working." They didn't have to take those malfunctioning dollars to the U.S. Treasury where some young thing named Tracy said "No problemo!"

Nope. So why is it not a problem that you had to go back to the store to repair or replace the shoddy machine even though you bought it with perfectly good legal tender?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Customer Unfriendly

Apple Computer, with its kindergarten sugarcoating of everything technical, popularized the term "user friendly," but don't be fooled. Apple products are no easier or effective, work no better, than any others.

As a matter of fact, Apple didn't invent the term "user friendly"; that was the work of the late architect and industrial designer, Ronald L. Mace (1941-1998), who pioneered buildings and devices accessible to disabled people.

More to the point of this essay, Apple customer service is decidedly unfriendly. Take my iPod. Please!

I was given the gadget as a present in the latter half of last year but have only been able to actually enjoy it for a few weeks.

First problem: you have to have a Mac (cough, sputter, spit) or Windows XP to load it. I had Windows 98. One of my sons had to format it and load my music on his laptop. Eventually I downgraded to XP.

Second: a couple of weeks into using it the thing simply stopped working. Wouldn't turn on no matter what I did.

I spent weeks trying everything imaginable. I even bought a new USB port card for my computer and downloaded, installed and uninstalled their software for, oh, a dozen times. I thought it was my fault somehow or that, as with most computing things, it was something I could fix.

I can fix most computer things -- short of a hard drive dying or a power supply melting down, in other words, things that you really need a factory to repair.

On the Apple Web site I put the problem and they sent a cute little box with foam in it to put the thing and have their messenger vendor take it back to Apple's Mecca in California's silicon valley. A couple of weeks later, they sent it back -- allegedly repaired.

Third: the iPod worked for a few days until it got a "sad icon." A computer with a frown on its monitor appears and points you to the support Web site, where they give you a list of things to try -- none of which worked.

So once again I played the cute-box game with Apple, this time with two or three of those oh-so-unhelpful corporate public relations e-mails in between, each saying essentially that very little was wrong their machine but they fixed it. The iPod came back in a about a week.

Fourth ... are you getting tired of counting? Me too, except that I'm living through the litany. So let's press on.

The "fixed" iPod worked for less then a day, sputtering between songs until it stopped and got "sad" again.

!@#$%^&* iPod!!!!!!!!!!!!

So I decided to call. (Stop laughing.)

I got someone who would not apologize, would not offer the slightest empathy. They got Bethany from Autism Casting Central -- zero emotion and totally wrapped up in her point of view of things. Bethany unhelpfully pointed me to the Web site, where they would send me a box and ...

I asked if she could actually help me. "I can fill out the Web form for you."

Sigh! Ok, so I answered her questions as she did. I spoke slowly, giving her time to type but she seemed baffled that there would be so many data elements.

"Does your address usually have all that in it?"

Bethany had been absent from school the day they explained that addresses may consist of name, organization, street address, city, state and zip (and, yes, country, continent, galaxy, ending with "The Universe").

Then she would lapse into silence without telling me what was going for two or three minutes at a time.

At the end of it she game me a "case number" ("Doctor, what do you make of this case of Sadiconitis?" "Oh, my, we'll have to fly in a transplant specialist.")

Fifth: My experience left me unconvinced that Bethany had solved matters. So I called their corporate headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.

I said I was a very dissatisfied customer who actually wanted to talk to somebody who would resolve my problem with some assurance that the person would understand and actually solve it.

I got Jackie. She was kind, said "oh, dear!" at appropriate moments, and generally seemed puzzled that the thing had been sent in twice and still didn't work. She suggested that I go to an Apple store and talk to a "Genius," which is what Apple calls its face-to-face tech support people.

Sounded like a plan. Jackie cancelled the cute box, which was probably already flying over Arizona coming my way.

Sixth: I looked up Apple stores. They have none in that remote, unknown little hamlet I live in called Washington, D.C., where there's a rumor of a village idiot named George B-something. Hmm ... but they have several stores in the suburbs.

The white suburbs, let's make that plain. Washington is 80 percent black -- no Apple store. Washington suburbs are 80 percent white -- 3 Apple stores. You do the math.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to the Apple store. You have to make an appointment on the same day and they will tell you when there are Geniuses available. I clicked on the Apple store closest to me and it went to a colorful Concierge page, then asked for my name and e-mail, then finished with a notice that they couldn't help me. Then it went back to the page with the store's address and phone number.

What? They won't serve me because they know by Web that I'm a Spic?

Seventh: I called the store. Taylor told me to "calm down." I couldn't be helped because the Bethesda facility is a "ministore" with only 1 Genius. (Somehow, I was not surprised that genius is in short supply at Apple.)

So here I am ... dreading the whole thing. I have to get up early one morning, log in, get an appointment for a time of their choosing, as if I have nothing to do, no work to do, no life to lead.

I don't even know whether the Apple Genius will turn out to be as genial as the iPod they sold and "repaired" twice or whether I will be forever trapped in the quest for the Holy Grail of iPod Repair.

No, that won't happen. One of these days, after my 17th cute box, 103rd telephone customer disservice representative and my 54th Genius, they'll say "The warranty has expired, sorry."