Monday, May 2, 2016

Book Review: A Town Like Alice

Nevil Shute's "A Town Like Alice" is one of those rare books that hooked me from its first words and upset me simply because at the end, it was over. Among its many qualities (like excellent writing and a sense of humor) it has three distinctive attributes that made it difficult to put down: it's an excitingly heroic story, it's a three-act play, and that a large part of it has to do with Australia.

Firstly, I'm a sucker for heroic stories, and this is certainly one. It's a story of leadership forged in the fire of desperation, anguish, and against impossible odds. This might seem like many other "hero" stories, but it isn't. In "A Town Like Alice" the author wraps the characters in an ever-tightening blanket of misery and only then gently peels back the folds. There is no moment when Jean, the hero, bursts forth in sudden acknowledgement of her purpose. It's a slow, organic process. It started when, in an attempt to deal with the discomfort of the stifling Malayan heat, Jean wore a sarong - an action heavily scoffed at by the other British women. But they eventually followed her in this and other "non-British" actions necessary for survival. They made Jean their leader without ever saying so, and without her ever meaning to be. After the war, Jean's leadership qualities lay dormant, stifled under the proper British code of conduct, until she acted upon her true potential. Not once, but at least twice more. 

The fact that the story is actually a three-act play is very appealing to me. I thoroughly enjoy novels that move you through time and space from one era and setting to another, and then to another. Whenever I reach some point towards the end of a book, I like suddenly realizing that the author has taken me on a journey, that I have traveled with the characters from one place and its challenges, to other places and their challenges. It feels good to believe that I have had a part in helping the characters grow, just by reading the words and turning the pages. "A Town Like Alice" plunges you into the World War Two Japanese occupation of Malaya, and thrusts you into a whirlwind of events until you somehow find yourself sitting on a deck chair under the shade of gum trees in the Australian outback, drinking a respectable cup of English tea.

Since reading "A Town Like Alice", I've found myself saying things like, "Bonza, mate!" and "My word, it's a fair cow". I never lived in the outback, I never spoke with a slow talking broad Australian accent, and while I understand Aussie slang, I never used it in everyday speech. But Nevil Shute really nails the accent in his writing (which is no mean feat) such that those expressions and idioms feel so familiar. What's more, reading "A Town Like Alice" makes me want to visit places like Coober Pedy, Broken Hill, and Wagga Wagga. I want to knock back a few coldies in a pub in Broome, and say things like "fair dinkum" and be perfectly understood.

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Sunday, March 13, 2016

It's Business Time

The New Zealand duo, Flight of the Conchords, sing a hilarious song called "Business Time" about an awkward husband in the mood for love when his wife is more interested in sorting the recycling and going to sleep.
You know when I'm down to my socks its time for business.
That's why they're called business socks.
But that's beside the point.

Really, though, it's business time because for the last few months, my wife and I have been working on getting our new business up and running. Finally, last week, our website, www.stringbridgekids.com, went live and we are open for business. Yes, folks, it's business time.

As you can probably imagine, the whole process has been a huge learning experience.

www.stringbridgekids.comWe learned to revel in the small victories, like finding office space that is almost perfect, to bigger victories, like convincing suppliers to sell us stuff, to even bigger victories, like finally getting our website up and running. We do a lot of high-fiving in the office.

We've also had disappointments, like time and cost overruns that have slowed us down, and incorrect deliveries that put us behind schedule.

However, now that the preparation is out of the way, it's time to get down to the nuts and bolts - selling product and making money. After all, that's why we're doing this, right?

So hop on over to www.stringbridgekids.com and take a look at our amazing Jewish craft subscription box for kids. Your kids (or grand-kids, or friend's kids) will love the stamping, gluing, cutting, and creating as they learn about the Jewish months, festivals, and places of interest in Israel.

Oh, and visit us on Facebook and Instagram.

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Sunday, January 3, 2016

All Roads Lead to Trump

On 12 December 2015, the world celebrated what would have been Frank Sinatra's 100th birthday. The Chairman of the Board, The Voice, crooned his way through the second half of the 20th Century until he passed away in 1998. Frank Sinatra sold over 150 million records worldwide, and won an Academy Award for his performance in "From Here to Eternity".

I know this because I Googled him, and then searched for some of his classic performances on YouTube.

Once you start with Frank Sinatra, you cannot avoid meeting the great Dean Martin - a fellow member of the Rat Pack and a top-class entertainer in his own right. According to his "pally" and long-time stage partner, Jerry Lewis, Dean was not just a magnificent singer; Dean possessed a natural gift for comedy. His comic timing was impeccable and Jerry claims that even when he went completely off-script, Dean never skipped a beat. A hard drinker, he once quipped to an audience, "You know, I feel sorry for you folks who don't drink because when you wake up in the morning, that's the best you're going to feel all day!"

If you've stumbled upon Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, YouTube will undoubtedly direct you to clips of the famous Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, where famous personalities would poke fun at and (sometimes not so gently) insult the guest of honor for the audience's amusement, and their own. If you're watching a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast after having watched clips of Frank Sinatra, YouTube will inevitably guide you to the famous roasting of Mr. Sinatra by Governor Ronald Reagan.

Reagan had a magnificent wit and sense of comedic timing envied by many stand up comics. If you're already watching Reagan performing at the Roast, then it's only natural that you'll click on the link to watch Ronald Reagan's funniest comments. Once there, you'll come across a really interesting clip from a documentary about Reagan where they discuss The Great Communicator's comedy. You'll learn that Reagan had a funny quote, joke, or quip at the ready for any event - scripted or not. And the reason he was able to fire off one-liners so effortlessly was because he secretly collected them and wrote them down on index cards, which he reviewed regularly. Which is why during a 1984 presidential debate, when asked if his age was an impediment to his ability to run the country, Reagan so easily retorted, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

The clip of Reagan at the presidential debate prompts YouTube to suggest that you watch the 1988 Vice Presidential debate between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen, when Bentsen coined the famous put down, "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" (referring to JFK). That remark has become a way for one candidate to put down any other candidate who thinks too highly of themselves (especially during a debate).

If you are already watching presidential or vice-presidential debates, YouTube guides you inexorably towards clips of the best lines from the latest GOP presidential debate. And before you know it, you're watching videos of Donald Trump doing what Donald Trump does, the way only Donald Trump does it. Why? Because all roads lead to Trump.


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Sunday, June 7, 2015

Phone Review: Motorola Moto G (Second Generation)

After over three years with my Samsung Galaxy Note 1 - or may I call it "TIM"? - I have finally moved on to a new phone. The Note was a good phone, for the first year, before things started to go awry. Some of the problems were my fault (such as upgrading the operating system to various versions, none of which worked well on the hardware), some of the problems were Samsung's fault (such as low-quality hardware), and some of the problems were Android's fault (darn Google for releasing so many versions, leaving my Note in the dust!)

Despite the good times I shared with the Note, it finally gave up the ghost when the charging port refused to accept the cable. I was going to send it for repair (again) but when I realized my 3-year-old daughter had learned the phrase "stupid phone" from me, I knew that enough was enough.

The Note cost a pretty penny, and a pretty penny I don't have to replace it with something of equal standing in the current phone rankings. The LG G4, Samsung Galaxy Note 4, and Samsung Galaxy 6 Edge (among a slew of flagship phones from competing vendors) were all out of my price range. Besides, my Note only lasted a little over three years, so it hardly seems worthwhile spending all those pennies on a device that depreciates to zero in such a short time.

With a more modest budget, I set out to find a replacement phone. I settled on the Motorola Moto G (2nd Generation). The salesman in the store suggested that the Galaxy S III, which he was still selling, was a better phone. In terms of hard-cold specs, he was probably right, but I was done with Samsung - at least for now. Besides, the Motorola Moto G (2nd Generation) had great reviews and is a current phone, still being marketed by Motorola. The Galaxy III is three generations behind the current offering.

When I un-boxed the Moto G, it was loaded with Android KitKat 4.4.4. However, as soon as I connected to a wireless network, it prompted me to load Android Lollipop 5.0.2.

The Moto G is an easy phone to use. It fits nicely in the hand and the pocket. The screen is big enough without being huge. It is bright and responsive. Lollipop works really well on the Moto G. The phone is snappy and handles transitions between programs effortlessly.

The hardware seems reasonable. The rounded back makes the phone easy to hold. I'm not sure what the back is made from, but it is comfortable to grip and is not slippery. On the inside, there are slots for two sim-cards, although I only have use for one right now. There is a removable battery and a place to insert an SD card. I like that you don't have to remove the battery to take out the SD card.

Call quality is good, and the cellular, GPS, wireless, and Bluetooth connections seem to be strong. I had problems maintaining a connection in some parts of my house with my Note, but not with the Moto G. So far, the battery has lasted all day and a bit under medium use, a smidgen less than a day under heavy use, which is fine.

The camera is decent, although it won't win any awards. I'm not sure if the camera software is Motorola's or Android's, but I really like the "tap-anywhere-on-the-screen" to shoot feature and the "tap-and-hold" for multiple shots feature.

There are a few things that bug me about the phone. The power button is located on the right-hand side of the phone, just above the volume rocker. The problem is that it is difficult to activate the phone with one hand (say, when I'm driving - I know, I know...) Also, the volume rocker is positioned at almost exactly the place where the brackets of the car-phone-holder grip it. If I drive over a bump, the brackets sometimes press on the volume rocker and my podcasts fade out into nothingness. This is not an intrinsic fault of the phone - I might just need a new car-phone-holder - but it is annoying.

I still need to get used to using Lollipop, and I am glad that Motorolla didn't pre-load a bunch of junk to clog up the phone. There are a few Motorola apps that come with the phone, but I am yet to explore them and determine their usefulness. But it seems that Motorolla has left the OS to speak for itself, which is a refreshing change from Samsung's penchant for unremovable bloatware.

In summary, the Moto G is a decent phone and I just hope it lasts me another 18 - 24 months. Anything more than that is probably a bonus. I have been using the Moto G for less than a week, but I enjoy the fact that it is built to run the latest operating system and that it handles all of the tasks I use it for effortlessly. For a phone in its price range, so far, so good...

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Short Story: To Get to the Other Side

Miles looked up from his phone in just enough time to see the car that was going to kill him. He gripped the phone tightly—he was standing in the middle of the road and needed something to hold on to. Also, he paid a lot of money for that phone and wanted to protect it. It was a gift to himself from his annual bonus. He worked hard; he deserved it, but he couldn’t afford another one.

If I die, then Emily can use my phone. Hers is so old. I’ve asked her a million times to get herself a new one but she hasn’t. She’s always so stubborn about it. If I can just protect the screen from shattering, then she can use it. Do you think she will? Probably not. It will remind her of me, and she’ll refuse to turn it on. She’s so sentimental. What a waste of a phone. I’ve only had it for a few weeks.

The car’s fender inverted his knee and Miles doubled over. The three protective shields of the Buick logo plowed into his groin.

At least it’s American. I’d hate to get run over by a Japanese car. They’re everywhere. Cheap imports are killing the economy. We have to do something about that. Anyway, weren’t we at war with Japan not too long ago? Now we buy their cars? I guess there’s a dying minority of patriots who still refuse to buy them. The irony is that all those American war films are probably shot using Japanese cameras.

The Buick’s hood scooped him up and rolled underneath Miles at tremendous speed.

There’s dried bird poop on this car. That’s disgusting. Doesn’t the owner ever clean this thing? That reminds me, I need to wash my car. I probably won’t ever get to wash it again. I knew I should have done it yesterday when I had time, but I was too lazy. Maybe it's time I listen to the advice I give the kids: never waste an opportunity. Well, yesterday I had the opportunity to relax and do nothing, so I was kind of taking my own advice. Someone else will have to wash the car now. Emily won’t do it. She’ll probably pay some kid down the block to wash it, or worse, she’ll take it to a drive-through. I hate those things. The car never gets a proper clean, the pink, gluggy soap they use smells something terrible, and I’m sure the rotating brushes scratch the paintwork.

Miles tried to lift his arm to protect his head. He glimpsed the driver’s white knuckles on the steering wheel, and smashed into the windscreen. It didn’t quite give way, but Miles left a spectacular impact where his elbow and shoulder slammed full-force into the glass.

Man hands. The driver is a man. Or a woman with man hands. Probably a man. What was that statistic? Oh yeah, 5,000 pedestrian deaths a year in the US. Imagine that, 5,000 people every year get up in the morning, perfectly healthy, drink their morning coffee and then, boom, dead before reaching the other side of the street. Did I have a coffee this morning?

Miles’ body splayed out in mid-air and smacked down on the edge of the car’s roof. The trees flipped over and the sky was where the ground should have been. He felt the metal roof depress uncomfortably under his weight. His back cracked.

How is that woman’s handbag suspended in the air like that? Is she upside-down, or am I? Oh, look, she dropped her papers and they’re blowing all over the place. She’ll never find them all again. That’s so inconvenient. I hate it when that happens. Maybe the papers were important. Maybe it was her PhD thesis, or the manuscript for her first novel. Nah, that’s ridiculous. Nobody prints manuscripts anymore. She would be carrying it on a disk-on-key, or have it saved on the Internet somewhere. Everything is digital. Why do we even need bags?

The gushing air suddenly calmed and Miles descended quietly through it. The Buick fishtailed elegantly past, its tires leaving inaudible skid marks behind them.

This is just like when I was a kid and built ramps for my bike using a couple of old bricks and a plank of wood. I’d ride really fast up the ramp and fly off the other end. Being completely airborne even for that one moment was freedom. This is that feeling.

Hey,where’s my phone? Oh no! I dropped it! Maybe they’ll find it. Will they still be able to identify me without it? Do I have my wallet? I don’t remember putting it in my pocket this morning. Is it still on the dresser? There’s $100 in there for Emily. She asked me to take out some cash, but I forgot to give it to her. I should have given it to her when I had the chance. She’s not going to be happy with me when I’m dead. Yes, I know it was my fault. Just because I didn’t look up at the right moment I’ve become a statistic on an Excel spreadsheet, saved to an aging PC in a joyless, grey government office somewhere. I’m a pie chart.

The blood had barely started to pool around Miles’ head before the woman with the papers reached him at full gallop. She gesticulated wildly while yelling into her phone.

That’s funny, I have the same phone. Wait, that’s not mine, is it? No, mine’s black. Hey, can you call Emily? I think she has a similar handbag, but she has so many, who can keep track? She’ll want to know where I am. We were supposed to have dinner tonight at a restaurant to celebrate something, I forget what. That’s why I was looking at my phone when the Buick hit me. I really liked that phone. If you can find it, that would be great.

The woman bent down over Miles. She turned frantically to the gathering crowd and shouted something.

Look at all these people. Lots of brown and black shoes, but not many other colors. I wonder what’s more popular, brown or black? I always wanted a pair of brown shoes, but black is more practical. I only have four pairs of shoes: a black pair of day-to-day shoes, a pair of dark-blue hiking boots, my running shoes (also black), and sandals - black. I can’t really justify buying another pair of shoes. If I did buy a brown pair of shoes, I’d have to make sure that I have the right pants to wear with them. Not everything goes with brown, right?

The ambulance arrived. The woman with the papers backed away. Miles lay motionless and his head was angled awkwardly to one side. His eyes were half closed. His mouth was half open. The paramedics knelt by him and searched for signs of life.

Hey, buddy, can I get up now? Listen, I’ll be okay. Give me a couple of day’s rest and I’ll be back to my old self. Really. I promise not to use my phone while crossing the road again. Deal? Can’t you just let me go home? I’ll chug down a well-aged scotch or two, take a long, hot shower, and all’s well that ends well. What do you say? I guess you don’t get hit by a poop-covered Buick, driven by a white-knuckled man-hands driver and live to tell the tale. I’m kidding. Come on, seriously, that’s for other people. We’re talking about me, here.
========
Dennis took a step towards the curb. The mildly bitter after-taste of coffee luxuriated on his palette. The sunset cast a quiet glow over the high-rise buildings. The cars pushed softly through the orange shadows on their way home. He loved this time of day. He usually didn’t work the night shift, but he agreed to cover for Will at the last minute. Something about his brother being in an accident. The street lights flickered on and Dennis had just started to cross the road when a glinting object near the gutter caught his attention. As he bent down to pick up the phone, a calendar reminder for dinner with Emily slid onto the screen.

Fancy that, I’m off to work and this guy’s at a restaurant enjoying his anniversary dinner. New phone, this. Nice screen.

Dennis looked up from the phone in just enough time to see the Toyota that was going to kill him.

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

4 Things I Would do to Improve Retail Customer Service

I went to a sports store today to buy soccer shoes for my son. After about ten minutes of perusing the footwear, we decided to go to a different store to compare prices. Not once during that ten minutes did a store employee approach us - they were too busy talking in the corner about something obviously more important than making sales.

As it turns out, the competition wasn't much better in terms of service, and their merchandise was more expensive. Upon returning to the first store, I hoped that the sales staff would notice that we had come back and help us choose the right pair of shoes. Instead, they continued to stand off to the side and chat among themselves.

We asked for a pair of shoes to try on and it was my turn to stand off to the side and chat. I whispered to my wife that if I was the store manager, I wouldn't have been pleased with their apathetic attitude. She replied that they probably don't feel that they get paid enough to be helpful.

It was then that I remembered an article that I had  read in the Atlantic in 2014 about what it is like to work in retail. The upshot is that the workers are on their feet for the entire day, they are distrusted by their employers, they have to be nice to customers who aren't nice to them, and they are paid very little.

While all that might be true, what is the point of being a retail sales person if you don't try and sell? How do you justify your salary? What excuse should a sales person give to their employer if a potential customer walks out of the store to go to the competition?

It boils down to attitude. It is a failure of the store manager, the chain, the franchise executives, and whoever is in charge that the sales people don't care enough.

So if I was in charge, what would I do?

Training
First and foremost, I'd give my employees the tools to be better at their jobs. I would teach them how to make customers feel that the sales person is there to help them. Sometimes customers will be willing to pay a higher price if they are sure they are buying the right thing.

Environment
I would improve the work environment and culture to encourage a more customer-focused attitude. If everyone working in the store is similarly highly engaged in their jobs, the culture will change for the better and the work ethic will improve.

Incentives
I'd offer incentives for reaching sales targets and give bonuses to employees for solving customer problems that result in sales. Being penny wise and pound foolish is, well, foolish. The basis of economics is incentives - what's in it for me? Make it worth their while to go the extra mile.

Consistency and Improvement Programs
Lastly, I'd engage a Mystery Shopping service provider, like Glassfish Customer Service Professionals. Companies like these can help to obtain measurable data and implement programs and systems to improve customer service and maintain it at a consistently high level.


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Thursday, March 26, 2015

You've Been Targeted

If you've ever used Google to search for something, odds are that you've been targeted. Web sites and services feed advertising to you based on your searches - and in some cases, based on the content of your email or social media messages. This sounds intrusive, but it could actually be a win-win situation. From your perspective, if you are searching for a romantic Parisian hotel for your second honeymoon, advertisements for holiday deals in the French capital might be interesting to you - as a consumer, you win! From another perspective, you are more likely to click on "Romantic hotels in Paris" than you would on "$200 diesel lawnmowers" - advertisers win!

Shall we sit around the browser, hold hands, and sing Kumbaya? Not quite. This cozy consumer/advertiser arrangement does have a few flaws. For starters, targeted advertising is based on search history. Most often, the advertised products and services are those I have already considered. What I really want are purchasing options similar to what I have already searched. So if I searched for "Dell Latitude" laptops, serving up more advertising for "Dell Latitude" might not be particularly helpful. But if the advertising was for "HP Elitebook", or "Lenovo 410", and the advertising mentioned that they are similar models to the one I've been searching for, I might be more inclined to click through.

So much advertising - targeted or not - forces its way onto my websites that I no longer see it. The ubiquitous nature of the advertising has made them invisible to me.

Another problem with this advertising model is that quite often, targeted advertising is completely off the mark. For instance, there was a time when I was doing a lot of uploading to my site, hosted by Bluehost. A lot of my Internet browser history had URLs ending with bluehost.com. Before I knew it, advertising for Bluehost displayed on almost every web site I visited. I already have a Bluehost account. I already know about the services they offer. I certainly don't need to see the special prices they are offering first-time members.

Then there's the big one: privacy. For targeted advertising to work, your online habits need to be analyzed so that meaningful advertising can be pushed to you. The fact that a third-party has this kind of information can be disconcerting. However, the data is completely anonymized. As explained in the following video, the advertisers are not concerned with what your name is, or where you live. Rather, they are solely interested in what interests you. Once they know that, they can advertise those things to you.


You can't outrun advertising. Most companies offer you the option to opt-out from targeted advertising, but that won't stop them from collecting data about you. Opting out just stops them from using your data to advertise to you. You'll still get ads, just not advertisements that are even of the slightest interest to you whatsoever.

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