Archive for January, 2013

January 27th, 2013

Bad Systems Often More Frustrating Than No System At All

On January 23rd, I received an email from Delta airlines about my flight from LaGuardia on the 26th. The subject line was “Confirm Your LGA Terminal 24 Hours Before Departure,” and the gist was: Delta now operates out of two terminals, so check before your flight and we will make sure you get to the right one.

As a frequent traveler, I appreciate this sort of thing. Racing from one terminal to the next to catch a flight is exhausting, and I thought it was great that instead of forcing me to guess or sort it out when I got to the airport, Delta was telling me ahead of time.

Unfortunately, the email was about as good as it got. Yesterday, I looked at it again, in preparation for today’s travel. The Delta website link helpfully took me to a page where I could access flight schedules–but not directly info about my flight and its terminal. The Delta mobile app–otherwise helpfully designed–showed me my boarding pass, but no terminal or gate info. The “Flight Status” function showed gate C29–presumably Terminal C–but since getting this info was otherwise difficult, it was hard to know if that was accurate.

The app included a link for easy Tweeting to Delta (@DeltaAssist) so I did. The response did not confirm the terminal–the whole point!–and instead said “@DeltaAssist: My apologies for the inconvenience. Some flights are not assigned a gate until the day of departure. Thank you. *CS”.

So here’s a tip, Delta: good on you for trying. But either take the user directly to a page with the relevant info–clearly marked and displayed–or just send a letter saying “Heads-up, we run out of two terminals, so leave yourself extra time because we may not assign a gate until shortly before your flight.” I would rather spend 10 more minutes in the airport to make sure I have the time I need than 20 minutes trying to sort through multiple computer systems for buried or unavailable information.


Speaking of systems and airlines, TripIt is a great system–web, iPad, iPhone, etc.–for those who travel a lot. Itineraries are automatically uploaded just by emailing them, and the “Pro” version tracks flight delays, can provide directions, and links to relevant travel providers easily.

So it is a real shame that Delta, United/Continental, American, and other major US airlines refuse to let TripIt users have access to their mileage point systems via the app. Given the level of hostility towards airlines, because of their often poor service and even-poorer communications skills, it seems like a ridiculous step to prevent flyers from using this tool to track their points in one place. Especially when more than 100+ other airlines and systems are part of the system. What gives?

Probably that they don’t care, much the way airports don’t, as astutely noted in this recent post by Seth Godin.


January 26th, 2013

Shitty Shoes, Part “Deux”

This morning, NPR correspondent Eleanor Beardsley weighed in with an important story for those of us who do not live in Paris and are in need of a solid rationale to defend such a decision: “Not Just A Fashion Hot Spot: Paris Is Also The Capital Of Dog Mess“. It is an instructive story, not only for bringing us knowledge of the French term for dog poop–they call it a “canine ejection” or “d’éjection canine,” which sounds better in the way that so many things sound better in French, though I cannot think of any others off the top of my head except, perhaps, “tant pis” for “too bad”–but for highlighting an important distinction in political world views:

“There are people who think because they pay taxes, the street cleaners should clean up behind their dogs,” he says.

This is clearly a contrast with much of the United States, at least the Red State parts, where there can be little doubt that people would rather pay less in taxes and be responsible for not picking up dog poop themselves instead of assuming this should be a government responsibility not to do. Where I live, in New York City, we have a more communitarian sensibility (of course). Many dog owners are quite good about cleaning up after their pets, but for those who do not there seems to be a common understanding that one of two things will happen:


1. Building superintendents will expend significant water resources to pressure-spray the poop off the curb, where its bio-degradation will be enhanced as it is run over by cars parking along the streets.


2. Citizens of the City will help with the bio-degradation by stepping in the poop and then spreading it in increasingly thin layers around other parts of the sidewalk, at which point it will be easier to wash away naturally after four or eight rain storms.

Personally, I have always seen Paris as one of those “It’s a nice place to visit, but…” cities. I would much rather move to Berlin, even as I recognize that it has its own problem with canine ejection.

January 24th, 2013

Not So Hungry Games

Last May, I bought a copy of the book The Hunger Games at Costco. The movie had been released and the frenzy had mostly passed, but seeing the book on sale I decided to investigate–and I was especially intrigued by the blurb on the inside back cover:

Suzanne Collins is the author of the bestselling Underland Chronicle, which started with George the Overlander. In The Hunger Games, she continues to explore the effects of war and violence on those coming of age.

The book sat until recently, and then I finally got around to reading it–having forgotten all about that dust jacket description, and most of the hype about the movie, too.

If you’re looking for an extended summary of the plot, go check out the book’s Wikipedia entry. Here’s a short version: a boy and a girl from each of 12 districts of the country of Panem are chosen at random to compete against each other–to the death–in a fantasy land arena that in some ways resembles the Holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The losers die and their districts get nothing; the winner gets fame, some fortune, and good things for his/her district. The entire proceedings are broadcast on television to the nation.

Collins borrows from all sorts of sources: We and 1984 created the framework for the kind of controlling, monolithic police state in the book; there’s a slightly post-apocalyptic feel that has resonances of A Canticle for Leibowitz, with its knowledge lost and re-gained; and the themes of violent children come from sources as varied as the Grimm Brothers and Shakespeare to Lord of the Flies. Not to mention the many stories of star-crossed (young) lovers have we all read, including those with twists that give the girls a more tomboyish demeanor and the boys a quieter, SNAG-like feel, as well as those (such as in 1984) who find ways to try to subvert the oppressive regime under which they live. Katniss (the girl) and Peeta (the boy) are composites, and don’t add much new by way of character development.

And this is where I disagree with the blurb. Perhaps what Collins intended to do was explore how young people relate to and respond to violence, but this is not what emerges. If anything, while there is some rejection of and sadness about all the violence and death in evidence from Katniss and Peeta, they seem to adjust to it–to its necessity, to the feeling of needing to inflict it–with the ease that comes from a will to survive. The reader roots for them because, well, of course we do: isn’t that the point?

The radical part of what Collins does is mix all these things together into a new stew with a distinctly 21st century twist: the reality show. This is also the part that gets the least exploration in the book, and deserves the most examination from the perspective of its social impact. Katniss, Peeta, and the other forced “contestants” are aware of being watched by their families and districts. They can play to the cameras for support–often literally, in the form of supplies that get dropped into the game for them–and they wonder occasionally about the reactions of those at home.  Yet we get virtually nothing from the audience’s side of the story except the imaginings of those in the game, who presume there to be shouts of glee or signs of sadness when players die or survive. (The one exception is a gift to Katniss that she thinks comes from the members of another district, in recognition of something nice she has done, some subversion of the power of the state.)

It is frighteningly easy to see how we, as a society, could make the transition from the current entertainments of Survivor and The Biggest Loser to the genuine violence and death of The Hunger Games. We accept the former already, not just as entertainment but as a social structure: people are inherently in competition; their achievements in a (probably rigged) game constitute an acceptable judgment of their value; and teamwork is itself a fleeting concept, with alliances formed and reformed until ultimately abandoned in favor of a single victor. (If this sounds both vaguely Darwinian and vaguely like the Republican party platform for the 2012 presidential election, I will let you sort out for yourselves the irony of a party pursuing a Darwinian strategy while denying Darwin’s most important evolutionary insight.) This separation, this distinction between an audience and its entertainment, is dehumanizing, tapping into our basest instincts–to see harm done to those we think we don’t like–while further inoculating us from taking too seriously the reactions of those who are physically or psychically wounded. Collins’ book is no great piece of literature, but in revealing this point so clearly she may have done something good for her “young adult” readers, if only they step back long enough to see it.

January 10th, 2013

This Is Not About New Year’s Resolutions

In 2012, I went to the gym 118 times, and wrote a total of 18 blog posts. In 2002, I wrote 39 blog posts and didn’t go to the gym at all.

Things change with time? Yes, probably; I was ten years younger, relatively newly married, and childless. I had more free time, and more time to invest in sharing my intellectual energy and outrage about the world. There was also no Facebook, no Twitter, fewer mechanisms for sharing “thoughts” (is that what we’re doing there?) in ways that–for me, at least–sometimes feel like they undercut the investment required in really thinking and writing something out beyond its 140-character Twitter limit.

Still: there are 365 days in 2013, and even if I go to the gym 120 times, that leaves 245 open days. My goal is to do a better job balancing those items this year, which won’t mean 245 blog posts but should mean inching closer to 42. It will likely mean more regular social media “vacations”–planned getaways from the incessant and sometimes distracting stream–and at the same time, a renewed emphasis on using those tools to share with a purpose (“speak softly, and carry a big stick”).

This is not a resolution for the new year, it’s just an articulation of a goal.


I laughed recently when a colleague reminded me that during her interview several years ago I had argumentatively proposed that “blogging is dead.” She had come well-prepared to talk about blogging, since she had seen my blogs and thought this would be a good discussion topic for an interview at a communications agency. She wasn’t wrong.

I don’t know that blogging is any more dead than anything else. Long-form journalism? Facebook? (You’ve noticed all those cranky users leaving Facebook in droves, right? Headed over to Google+, right…) Sometimes I think what has died is the capacity for sustained, rigorous, and self-confronting analysis of both facts and opinion. There is no shortage of content in this “user-generated content” world of ours. What I have always wanted was content that said something different, something that mattered, whether in 39 posts or just 18 of them.

I guess you can call that a resolution for 2013 if you really want to.