Friday, February 11, 2011

Because your phone isn't really a phone anymore.

I'm not sure what has happened to customer service. I think it's floating out there in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Two recent incidences make me think that the old ways of doing things are fast falling by the wayside.
I'm also not sure what has happened to telephones. It seems as though the "phone" function is an afterthought, and that they are for web browsing, text messaging and running applications. Using it to actually speak to someone is a nice ancillary benefit.
I filed my Federal income taxes last night. They make it sound like the e-filing process is the easy way to do it. It is, to a point. To the point that you need to finish it, that is.
Just before I hit the "click here to send" button, I was told that I needed a PIN to file the forms with the IRS. They don't tell me what the PIN means or what its significance is, just that I need it. When the IRS tells you that you need something, you tend to believe them because there is no arguing with them. The phone number that was given seemed to be the best way to get it. After struggling with the slow recorded voice instructions, I was eventually sent back to the starting point, at which time the electronic woman told me that I could also visit and get the PIN there.
The web site visit took me about 30 seconds, after which I had my precious PIN and quickly filed my taxes.
A similar experience occurred with the gang at FedEx. Maybe it's the "Federal" part? I have to send a package, and I needed to find the nearest FedEx location. Once again, the telephone option proved to be a nuisance, and like the IRS experience, a trip to the FedEx web site gave me the answer in less time than it took to dial the phone.
I think it's their subtle way to wean us off of actually dialing a telephone to get any sort of information. E-mail, web visits and e-everything are the cost-effective solution for companies to do business. They are conditioning us toward that, and they can do it in a way that aggravates us and satisfies us at the same time by providing an alternative to a solution to something that they know doesn't work. Slowly, they are getting us off the phone and onto the Internet as a permanent solution to any customer service or product ordering portal.
It's the kind of genius marketing that makes me proud to be an American.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Trouble with Ramparts

Rampart (n) A defensive mound of earth or a wall with a broad top and usually a stone parapet. An embarkment for defensive purposes.
Even before the Super Bowl got started, there was excitement. While Christina Aguilera was singing "The Star Spangled Banner," something didn't sound right. Like you, I've heard the song hundreds of times, and when a word (or five) is misplaced, it's noticeable. You have all seen it and read about it, so I'll spare you the analysis. Suffice it to say, Christina is proud of our ramparts.
Later, she would say that "I got caught up in the moment of the song and I lost my place." I suppose that would be a valid excuse for a person who has never been on a stage or sung in front of people, but she is supposed to be a professional, and as such, shouldn't get "caught up" in anything.
Other than her goofy rendition, the thing that I got caught up in was that she said "Thank you" after she finished singing. That's a violation. One does not thank the audience after one sings our National Anthem. You aren't singing for the people, you're singing for your country. Surprisingly, (or not) nobody mentioned that part, but I found it offensive.
The funny thing about the anthem (other than the tune itself) is that singers really aren't allowed to mess with it very much. Occasionally, you'll hear a Jose Feliciano-style version at a smaller event, but generally it's acceptable to sing it "straight," and to spare us the vocal gymnastics.
Unfortunately, people like Aguilera seem to think that we're impressed by making one word sound like a paragraph. The best renditions are always the most simple ones. Get in and get out quickly and spare us the embellishment. It's not about you, it's about the song and your country.
Likewise the half-time show, which has become something of a major entertainment event. The best ones are simple. Musicians with guitars, keyboards and amplifiers playing familiar songs. Sunday's Black Eyed Peas and their space-alien costumes and glitzy production just invites trouble. The more complicated one makes music, the better the chance that something will go wrong. Fergie's microphone was off for part of it, we had trouble hearing Slash's guitar (after he inexplicably appeared from under the stage) and generally, the production was so complicated that the music appeared to be a sidelight.
Since the game has become a collection of TV commercials, big production and more of a television show than a football game, it isn't surprising that almost everything about it gets more complicated as the years go on. Except the game. The game is the only thing that doesn't change, and perhaps the NFL and its entertainment organizers could learn something from that.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Super Bowl Party

On the ION Television channel, they're showing "The Right Stuff." I have chosen to watch it, even though I have the DVD on my shelf. I do that a lot - watch movies and shows with commercials when the non-commercial version is sitting not 5 feet from the TV.
I saw it in the theater when it was released in 1983, and it's still one of those "stop the clicker" films. It's about a great time in our history, which overshadowed a horrible time in our history. The glamour of the manned space program made us forget about the Vietnam war, major assassinations and a lot of unrest at home.
Films like "The Right Stuff" give dead people short shrift. Particularly, Gus Grissom and Lyndon Johnson, both of whom are not portrayed in a flattering light. One would figure it's because they're incapable of defending themselves, so the filmmaker can ... um ... tell the truth as they see it.
The film makes it appear as though Grissom panicked and blew the hatch of his Liberty Bell 7 craft, thereby sinking it into the Atlantic Ocean. The fact is that it was determined that the hatch was faulty and Grissom was later exonerated. Being dead leaves a guy in the lurch sometimes, and great art seldom allows facts to interfere with telling a great story.
One thing I found interesting is a scene when some of the Mercury Seven are hanging out in a hotel bar when two women walk in who presumably are out to have sex with all of them. One of the women says, "Four down, three to go" as she spies John Glenn and Scott Carpenter sitting together at a table. That's convenient, since it leaves the shadow of doubt upon who is the one remaining astronaut of the three, and gives them all the ability to say "it wasn't me" since they were careful to show just two men at the table.
I remember that the film was released while John Glenn was trying to gain his party's 1984 nomination for president. Since Glenn is portrayed as the central figure of good and patriotism in the film, some believed that it was unfairly casting him in a favorable light. The heartwarming scenes between he and his wife are particularly flattering. Since his candidacy was not successful, that criticism was short-lived. One can only imagine how he would have been portrayed had he been dead when the film was produced.
I watched the film and reflected on the relative innocence of three TV networks, no Internet and merely the daily newspapers and some magazines to report on their activities. Had the same thing been going on now, with the raft of 24/7 news and the over-saturation of ... um ... everything, I figure that those bar scenes would have been on TMZ or one of those cable channels for all the world to see. But, like a lot of things, it's a part of our history that will never be replicated, and whether that's good or bad is up to you to decide. I think the loss of innocence and the awe of achievement is more bad than good. We're numb to such things now, and I wonder what it will take for us to be impressed.
Anyway, there's a big football game on TV tonight. Other than some numbers in an office pool, I couldn't care less who wins the stupid thing. I suppose it matters to a moderately small group of people in Green Bay and Pittsburgh.
When asked who I thought will win, I replied, "Television." It might not be the television in my house, however.