Thursday, September 1, 2011

Pavlovian Shopping Experience

CartAimee and I went to pick some stuff up from Wal-Mart last night. Ok, it was a lot of stuff. So much, in fact, that when we checked out I grabbed a second cart to put our groceries into. While I was waiting for Aimee’s turn in line, I sat on a bench at the end of the checkout. It wasn’t long before my eyes wandered to the piece of metal dangling from the bottom of the cart to the floor. “What could it be?”, I wondered.

When Aimee finally arrived at the checkout, she caught me fixated on the bottom of the cart. “Are you ok"?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just wondering why there’s a lightning rod on this cart”, I responded. It was just a hunch but it was also the only logical reason for the piece of metal. It just wasn’t clear to me what it was for.

Aimee clarified that for me. “Oh! What a great idea! I hate getting shocked by the cart!” That solved the mystery. Wal-Mart found a way to ground its carts, despite their rubber wheels. It really surprised me that any company would worry about something as minor as an occasional static shock to its customers. It made me wonder if they are concerned that shoppers are being conditioned to experience physical pain when they shop at a Wal-Mart.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A phone for the rest of us!

John Doe,

This is certainly one of the more unusual requests that we've had in quite a while, but we appreciate your help in this regard. I'm going to go ahead and close this ticket.


-----Original Message-----
From: John Doe
To: Gary
Subject: Re: Supervisor Phone

I have no need for a supervisor phone. If my new phone could be red however with the words "Big Deal" on it, that would go a long way.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless Phone

----- Reply message -----
From: Gary
Subject: Supervisor Phone
To: Bill
Cc: John Doe


I don't see why anyone has to have access to the supervisor phone, perhaps we should move it from John's office to the server room?

John Doe, I'm assuming this won't hurt your feelings? If necessary we can buy a second supervisor phone, but since we intend to substitute data for a supervisor anyway, seems like a waste.


Sunday, June 19, 2011

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Parenting By Hockey

Everything that I believe to be a cornerstone of good parenting can be found in a well-officiated hockey game. If you have ever watched a game, you have surely borne witness to the tantrum thrown by many players on their way to the penalty box as they plead their case. You have also likely noticed that an official never says “well, you’re making me feel so bad, I’m gonna change my mind”. Nope. It is quite possible that the official will be more watchful of the play upon which the penalized player is blaming her folly, however officials never apologize for enforcing good conduct.

Officials stick together. When a linesman makes an offside call, players may attempt to argue the call with another official. They may earnestly plead their case that the call was wrong; perhaps they believe that the linesman doesn’t like them. I’ve never witnessed an official changing the call of another official, except on plays which are open to review (see below). No official has ever said “Yeah, I know, ole’ Joe really needs to get some glasses. You know what, let’s just go ahead and give you a penalty shot.”

The rules are allowed to change in hockey. Not over-night, not in the middle of games, but the rules do evolve. Different officials enforce the rules slightly differently. Amazingly enough, most players are able to adapt without too much trouble. Sure, there’s the occasional idiot that still doesn’t understand why he’s not supposed to elbow other players in the head. Most of today’s players have managed to get this change of acceptable behavior incorporated into their playing style. With reasonable notice, rules can change.

Reviewing the play. While most plays don’t get a review, some plays do. One of the great things about hockey is that an official can review the play and change his mind about the call. They actually say “Yeah, I thought there was a kicking motion too. As it turns out, there wasn’t and the goal is going to stand.” Officials can and do admit to being wrong. No hard feelings.

We use a penalty box, figuratively speaking. We don’t start the timer until our player has stopped futilely pleading her case. She sometimes argues that the linesman was wrong. Sometimes she is right. If it’s warranted, we’ll review the play and discuss the results after she has served her penalty. The officials never change each others’ calls. The call stands: even when there isn’t unanimity amongst the officials, there is a united front from the player’s perspective. If absolutely necessary, the officials confer between periods-but never within earshot of the player. Finally, the officials never forget that the player wants only to win the game. It is the job of the officials to make sure that the game was won in accordance with the rules.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Two Packs A Day

Aimee and I quit smoking (for the last time) about 9 years ago. Like many other reformed smokers, we sometimes smugly wonder how some people can tolerate a habit which easily costs them $150 per month. That money could be spent on so many better things.

Today, I realized how incredibly funny we are. Even though we don’t smoke, we’ve hardly put that extra (combined) $300 per month to good use. Really, we just developed a different but equally (or more) expensive habit. Coffee.

The weight of realization hit me today when I purchased my 16oz Saturday morning latte with an extra shot. After tip the total came to $4.98. Aimee and I each purchase three or four coffees per week.

I wondered why we haven’t purchased an espresso machine. We’d save money the first month. It isn’t as though we’re saving time driving the wrong direction to the coffee shop, waiting in line to order and pay, and then waiting in line for our coffee. If anything, that’s a net loss too. What other reasons would we have for continuing to frequent the local coffee shop? The only thing I can come up with is that we don’t want the responsibility of trying to service ourselves. We’re too specific and nitpicky about our orders. There’s too much of a chance we’d screw up our own orders, and then we’d have to start our days feeling inadequate. Perhaps we’ll leave coffee making to the professionals.

Monday, April 4, 2011


We were driving back to the cottage from Country Dairy today when we happened upon a truck moving slowly down the road. It looked as though the driver had a load of metal to recycle, and he was moving cautiously. As we waited for a safe opportunity to pass, I noticed a "Tapout" sticker in his back window. In the event that you have no idea what Tapout is all about, just think about the guys you see pummeling each other on national television from time to time. Someone has to make gear and sponsored clothing for these guys to wear while they attempt to inflict closed head injuries upon each other. That's what Tapout does.

When we were able to safely pass the truck we did so, waving casually as we eased by. Once we were safely around him, I glanced in my rear-view mirror and noticed the truck's vanity plate. It read "Jesus".

I had forgotten that Jesus was sponsored by Tapout.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

We already worked it out!

We decided it would be nice to get out of town for a couple of days, so we asked Mom if we could go to the lake house. She said sure, and here we are. Last summer Mom had a sign made that reads "Evy's Lake House". The sign is mounted prominently in front of the cottage.

Evelyn has decided that it means that the lake house is literally hers.This evening we were brushing her teeth when I said something about "Grandma's Lake House". Evelyn retorted "It's MY lake house." I suggested to her that perhaps she should work that out with Grandma as I walked out of the bathroom.

From around the corner came a defiant, impatient voice that declared "We already worked it out!"

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Disciples of the Free Market

We’ve all heard of the wonders of a free market. It regulates prices, produces superior products, and protects consumers from lousy products. In theory, I’m in agreement. In practice, I’m going to point something out using Michael Porter’s five forces.

imageLet’s consider an example. Restaurants in Eaton Rapids where you can sit down, eat, and get a beer or glass of wine with dinner. There is the English Inn north of town, however it’s very expensive and Evelyn isn’t quite ready to go there. We’ve got Abie’s, which is completely inappropriate for Evelyn. Then there’s Darb’s. That’s effectively the only local choice. This week we went in and sat for 20 minutes before anyone came to our table. Awesome. They are always full, even though their service frequently leaves something to be desired. They are conveniently located. They are also the only “family” restaurant left in town. As a result, there are few substitutes. It took Darb’s five years to turn a profit when they came to town, which is part of the reason that there aren’t more restaurants. They have to lose money for five years first. That locks out new entrants. There is very low rivalry. In this case, the bargaining power of customers is almost non-existent. We will probably continue to reward their poor service because we’re too lazy to drive to Lansing or Mason.

A second example is the Internet company we use at the office. They are reasonably reliable and offer co-location services that we use. Once again, their sales and service are terrible. We pay them $1100 per month for services, and their salesman returns my calls after three days. At that point, I’ll ask my question. He typically returns an answer after two weeks or so, once I’ve left him a half-dozen voicemails. More often than not, he answers a question completely unrelated to what I want to know.

In the past, they tried selling us a fiber-optic connection to their office. The value wasn’t quite right for us then, but we’re about to buy a new phone system. If we roll our phone, Internet, and co-location traffic onto the same piece of fiber, we may be in a position to get higher service levels at a lower cost. The only problem is that if we do that, I’m going to have to deal with our sales representative more. I refuse to encourage this company’s insistence on making us use a sales representative who is probably too overwhelmed to handle his territory.

Much like the restaurant situation, there are very few vendors in Lansing that can provide the array of services that our current vendor can provide. Barriers to entry are high. Switching costs are tremendous. There must be tremendous economies of scale in order for a competitor to make an entry into this market. In other words, the only companies which are likely to enter the market are ginormous, just the kind of companies that aren’t well known for their superior service.

Perhaps competition regulated markets in the past, but will it in the future? It seems likely to me that specialization, economies of scale, and available funding will regulate the markets of the future much more than customers will.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


I’ve done an awful lot to damage my karma. As a teenager, I was incredibly anti-social. As a matter of fact, I reviled in all things obnoxious. As an adult, I’ve tried to make up for my teenage years. I volunteer at Big Brothers\Big Sisters. I make a point of trying to be an understanding father, husband, and coworker. Sometimes it seems as though I’m making some karmic progress. Then there are other days.

This was a really long week. I came home sick on Monday afternoon. Aimee’s aunt passed away Wednesday morning. Friday we discovered a problem with a summary table that a consultant built for us at the office, and earlier today (Saturday) the firewall decided to stop working. Aimee is very, very sick today.

So, at 1:30 in the afternoon, when Aimee was finally able to rest, I sat down to work on the pile of schoolwork that I needed to get done. Just as I was easing into my chair I heard an all-too-familiar sound behind me. Perhaps the cat was identifying with Aimee; sharing her pain. Maybe the cat is evil. Perhaps my karma is getting back in touch with me.

As the cat started to settle in for a nap on Aimee’s office chair, she decided that it would be a good idea to lean over the side of the chair and vomit all over the floor. She’s a really big cat, and she can eat a lot of food. This was thoroughly evidenced by the magnitude of the mess she made all over the floor. She looked proudly down at her work, vurped a couple of times, and then nestled in and promptly fell asleep.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Most of us are forced to compromise at one point or another, because that's the the expectation of our society. Compromise is, however, the worst form of conflict resolution because everyone loses something. Instead of arguing through the differences and devising a rock solid solution, each party gives up their claim to perfection. It ensures sub optimality.