Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Caveat Excellence

There must be no term in the English language more likely to elicit general agreement than Excellence. We all wish and hope for excellence, surely. Well, unless it's the Wayne's World kind.

And yet our economy is organized now such that the only profit margins left are from gaming. You are being gamed each time that you agree to terms which cause draconian overcharges when you pass some limit. You agree that it will be your fault, and that is why and how, supposedly, these companies can keep their doors open now. They make their profits on the late fees, the over-the-limit penalties, the minutes you talk beyond your predictions or your rollovers, the number of people who don't know how to deny the denial of their health insurance payments, and then there's the porn which provides the profit margin for our various information "carriers."

What? What the hell am I doing talking about porn again? Hang on, I'll get to that. But I want to talk about slack. As in, how come the local banks can give you your banking for free, and yet we still flock to the mega-sized ones?

How come a local and marginally excellent carpenter can build your kitchen cabinets for less and better than the factory mass-produced ones - even at the top end, er, bottom end - and we still spend the endless amounts for the brand names? How come we drive by the local Mom and Pop restaurant and go to Denny's? How come we think it's worth our effort to let them give us a "free" grand slam, saving us the cost of the gallon of gas we likely spent to get there?

I guess we're scared. We're scared that we may not become our best self. We know that we cannot and never will be excellent ourselves, at least never to the extent of that super-star projected onto our various big and flat and palm-held screens. We want to know what everybody else means by excellence, and then we don't want to be left behind. I guess. But you know as well as I do that it doesn't make any sense.

They can make their profits without gaming you and me, but I guess they can't make as much as the next guy if he's gaming you, and so there is a race to the bottom, which ought to be considered the opposite of excellence.

A race of wall street money to find the enterprise best able to maximize the return. The gamers quickly learn how to overwhelm profit margins from sales almost instantly by profit margins from market share, and so that capital just floods the shelves even if they have to sell below cost to drive the little guy out of business to steal his market share, so that the big gamers of the system back on wall street will bet - and it's not a risky bet until the bubble pops and you know what happens then - that they will eventually get it all, especially as more capital becomes available for the predations.

This is not what should be called a virtuous feedback loop. And it's not the rich guys, it's you and me, by proxy from our retirement funds which we were hoodwinked into putting on the market. And then we can refund by tax payments what got ripped off by too much risk taking?? No wonder people are pissed off, but sure, yeah, it was our own damn fault for thinking that we could get as rich as the next guy who made a killing selling off his property. Investing in the market. Money in return for no work at all.

There is nothing which can't or won't be done to harness your guilty fear about overages. But really they're taking advantage of your terror at being left behind. At being reduced to less than nothing because you have nothing to show for what everyone else so evidently is. Nobody wants to be made an object of ridicule. Nobody wants to be made an object at all, unless you get told that you are really really excellent, and then, what? You don't have a rubber soul?

I think we can't help ourselves to want to eat just exactly what we see up on the screen, I think it gets our appetite going, and we just can't help, maybe a bit furtively, maybe with a touch of guilt, being lured in by that logo-subliminal message of sublime.

We can't help ourselves either, and statistics say that includes you, wanting to see what that superstar might look like undressed. And here's the really bizarre part, and I never did inhale, but still, there's no question that the young girls who do undress before the cameras are that much more alluring than ever the superstarlets could be, who probably have perfect titted body-doubles anyhow, most of the time, or airbrushing and tit-trainer workout specialists plus implants, but still people will pay the good money to see what they think might actually be the real thing caught on camera. By accident, theft or omission. Do you find this bizarre?

We treat each other also as though we must be psychopaths, out to take advantage, out to best you at some transaction. You know, I've worked the other side of that sales counter as a bicycle mechanic, a tech support guy, a salesperson, and sometimes you really do have to make up stories so that the buyer - the emptor if you will - will trust you and let you do your work. These might be lies depending on what your motive is, right? But if you bore them with the real story, they'll almost always walk right out the door and go get their bike preemptively at WalMart, which is just outrageous in every sense.

I guess you build trust over time, and every single person that you don't know is a psychopath by default, pretty much the way you should learn to ride a motorcycle if you want to stay alive. They would screw you if they could do it without your knowing about it. That's the story and you're meant to buy it.

No, I mean you're really meant to buy it, because that's where the profit margins are. You're meant to believe that any tiniest bit of excess price above whatever used to be called wholesale constitutes a kind of theft and so you'll troll the highways or the information superhighway to get that last penny of difference now.

And the joke is that almost every time by walking to the corner hardware store you can find something that does the same trick for maybe sometimes only half. Just like the local diner, if you even have local diners where you live, will cost less than the big box fast food eats. And might even come highly recommended by real people, if you can muster the nerve to trust their judgment. The way you do on the highway each and every day.

They gave me a game ticket when I picked up my prescription at the drug store the other day, and I wondered idly to myself if I should open it up and check up on the Internet. Which is the missing piece which will make up the million dollar prize in this Rite-Aid "game of life"? You know, there's always an oversupply of certain game pieces, and then the rare ones like Park Place or the Boardwalk (as I vaguely recall from Monopoly, or the MacDonalds version we played once driving across the country and then found out that it was rigged).

There's always the capstone piece, and knowing that I would never have the patience actually to set out the game board, assuming they are paying for my attention which I just refuse to grant them, I thought maybe I should just peek up on line to see what's the going price for the capstone piece. You know, there's a market for everything if you want to cash in now instead of waiting until you might have nothing left of interest, might have died while playing the game, might end up with someone no longer hot to look at.

But I don't even have that much energy to game them gaming me. Or Toyota now, you know, pundits wondering what's the connection among all these seemingly unrelatable failures; what could be the holistic issue which relates brakes to acceleration. Maybe it's the whole "drive-by-wire" concept, except how the hell does that relate to issues with the steering. Surely that part has not lost its literal connection to the wheels?!

That plane came down in Buffalo, they're determined now, because of "pilot error" despite the fact that the steering column was literally shaking in his hands, announcing an issue which just simply couldn't be ignored, where the idiot lights or warning buzzers or flashers just couldn't be counted on, and so what does he do but pull a deer in headlights move, and bolts in the wrong direction.

And so then it's the industry's fault, for hiring such an under-tried and trued guy in the first place? But why isn't it our fault for demanding no slack in the way that the prices get set. One only hopes that those teabaggers are happy in their caveat emptor nirvana (apologies bro). Let's whittle down our government now, which didn't even have enough regulators to be aware, much less to do anything about what was going on. Until after the fact and then bring on the multi-millions to investigate the obvious.

That there was a general systems failure, despite the need to assign blame. That Toyota, not the hot wheels label, the "good old reliable" label rather, just simply made the wrong decision at lots of little places along their line. No one of them seemed to merit coming clean, until they were forced to come clean and then suddenly a whole lot of little retrospectively wrong decisions are getting swept up into their mess, and so the holistic problem is what is it now about Toyota culture which has them protecting the brand at all costs so that, in the end, the brand might get, well, not destroyed exactly, but tarnished surely? What culture of deniability, exactly? Or who now will fall on his sword the way that they were traditionally meant to do in Japan?

It's a game now of find the least and fall on him.

How, then, can we protect against human error? How re-invite in the governors, who we now mistrust the most? How when at that pinnacle falling for any slightest temptation now can be more than enough to bring you down hard on usually your metaphorical sword, but you know what I mean, right? Dirk?

Some lowest common denominator always has the veto power now, and so Sarah Palin can say "retard" when she means it satirically, but not when she means it seriously, but seriously now, who can tell the difference from Tina Fey? There is no difference now between earnest and satire except in point of view. But nobody's really laughing. They're just fighting mad and desperate for an object. Even the satire is just biting as in "yeah, take that you bitch" and glad that I got mine. Got my dig in. Even when it's word for word identical, there's something wrong in it for the audience of people who won't stand up and say it themselves, out loud, in public.

Protect brand America, I guess, and when they market handguns and cigarettes to children - and you know "they" really do this - and our congressional representatives protect that right under some really stretchy constitutionality thingie, who really are you supposed to trust? Where should the outrage be, as though we can't ourselves decide where that boundary ought to be, and which way we should turn.

Will we make stone soup then, the way they did here in Buffalo when the superstars came to town? Or will we just grab for the bowl to see who gets it first and fastest, and then let the tears come flowing out when we watch the story get retold up on TV or at the movies? Huh, which way, Precious, which way?

Excellence is what you've always had, inside, if you were but to nurture it. Choosing not to take responsibility for someone else's claim to excellence. That pilot could have used to read "The Message to Garcia". There's room for personal responsibility. There's also room for corporate responsibility. And you know, unions which protect incompetence ought to be ashamed of themselves too, but not quite so much as should their bosses for letting them get away with it. Which they're always happy to do so long as we the people are willing to believe that there's excellence only in comparison to life, the universe and everything. There's also excellence in comparison to you.

I only know that as General Motors goes, so goes the nation, and General Motors is dead and gone now, for all intents and purposes. Shouldn't we be looking for a different set of metaphors? They drive three-wheeled homebuilt electric cars in China now, put together from generic parts in tiny factories. These things drive right below the regulatory radar, and still if you need to get around and aren't yet part of the newly rich, what else would you do?

Why, really, do we have to go so fast? Why must we suffer sprawl and traffic jamming? Why not walk and trust our neighbors not to jump us, the way that we trust the other guy coming at us at something over 55 MPH? Why not, horrors, hook our cars together into trains where the failure of any one of them isn't the failure of them all, and the check on intervals is, well, mechanically obvious. Where the only real danger is going off the rails, and even that will be exaggerated to keep you afraid. Keep you very afraid.

I spent much of the day yesterday, and I'm not proud of this at all, trying to understand how I might take advantage of Verizon's newly discounted calling plans. Yes, I feel like naming names here. Just for shits and giggles, I asked the very nice lady on the phone, "so, um, like, why didn't I automatically get the newly discounted rate for my um,[gamed predictor of] my minutes?"

It wasn't fair at all on my part, because they'd already given me the answer by not giving me the new discount automatically, but still I had to ask, and the certainly highly scripted answer just got me laughing and I couldn't help myself. I really didn't want to hurt her feelings, and it must have taken a lot of practice and effort to be ready for every question, but the response was precisely as confusing as their website, where somewhere along the way terms had changed. I mean literally, the terms had come to mean something else, and the terms that I'd signed on to were no longer available, and they made it out to where I had been getting something for nothing which they now charged for, while raising the rate for something I never got, but if I did I'd have to pay double for it, so that I might be content to just stay right where I was, if I was even able to understand the terms.

Which is exactly what the nice lady was trying to tell me, very articulately and standing at my ready to do whatever it is that I wished for her to do. But I caught myself just in time, and realized that I would lose all 1200 contacts "in" my phone if I weren't careful. Which I would have if I had accepted the terms of the removal of what I didn't ever need in the first place, but which was free and now I'd have to pay for, was paying for actually, but hadn't realized they'd changed the meaning of the terms.

And if I'm not the only one to have figured this all out, I'm in a tiny minority, I'm certain of that, because I'm actually pretty good at this stuff, the tech support, guessing where the flaw may be learning how to game the system (and here I'm talking about the literal Operating System!) gaming me, and still you can't avoid the inevitable thing which isn't quite working the way that it should be but you just don't have the patience for yet another hard reset.

And I know it would be just paranoid to think that a company as large as Verizon would be deliberately slowing down their website to make it frustrating almost beyond endurance to research these questions, but it would be just as weird if a company that big did not have the wherewithal to make their website fast. And you know, you just figure it's something on your end, because when you do get to the part you were waiting for it's all cheery and helpful and complete with full disclosure.

And I've decided it's worth the $10 bucks extra for them not to game me gaming them so that they can charge me $.40 per minute which these days really is highway robbery considering how cheap talk has become, as they recently did at Christmas time, when they must know that everyone's going to go over their minutes, especially if they land in the hospital, which is kind of like, you know, a tax on happiness or a tax on misery, depending on how you might want to look at it.

However you want to look at it, it's unconscionable, and I don't even want to think about how much they make, indirectly and deniably of course, on porn.

And then I got another denial from the health insurance company, and here I really don't want to name names because they've been so nice about it, but I've faced them down three times already for three different categories of don't-land-in-the-hospital-on-Christmas-especially-when-you're-moving charges. Guilty!

And then, get this! It's really funny and you can try it at home, I mistyped as (missing a letter there, you see?) and I was instantly on AT&T's website, so then you wonder, hmmm, maybe this big Goliath is on his way down, if they can't even keep on top of AT&T gaming them. Who's number one now? And why is their website so slow? Isn't their gaming working for them any more? Or were they left behind in the big iPhone rollover minutes get it faster NOW sweepstakes, gobble gobble gobble?

So, what would be so wrong if, the way they used to do in France by fixing the price of bread, these companies were forced to compete on the actual terms of service? What if a per-minute rate were set, say, and what if over-the-limit blame-the-consumer predations were made illegal across the board, and what if logo value got collapsed by exposure of the vacuity and sweatshop cruelty underneath it - you know the assembly lines over in China were one stream gets the logo stamp and the other is for the local market, and sometimes for illicit boundary crossings to that undercover seller in the Queens, maybe?

What if the hardware vendors were forced to split from the carriers, what if the TV medium couldn't both charge for advertising and for the line in, what if the newspapers . . .STOP! We'd never be willing to pay the full price if we were to see it, right? You know, the maybe one buck that those Nike shoes actually cost? The nothing that it costs to get the signal right off the air? And the book companies complain that they won't be able to make any money on eBooks because what, you can't lend them to your friends anymore? Huh?

What if we just stopped gaming one another, then, huh? What about that?

Oh, sorry, just another rant and I can't seem to help myself, but this shit keeps happening in real life, and what else do I have to talk about?

1 comment:

Lex said...


(I paraphrase)

"You are exactly right sir, due to some miraculous and amazing circumstance we do have on file an agreement with the hospital in Buffalo, and they know the game. You are absolutely not liable for any charge and we ask that you call us immediately if they attempt to bill you."

me: "You mean you won't be paying them?"

"Absolutely not, they know the game they have clearly admitted hundreds of patients under this agreement, and it their job to notify us within 72 hours. Clearly this was a life threatening situation, and you are glad they saved you and you want them to be paid, but they know the game."

me: "I have since gotten my guest membership, but this happened during my move . . . "

"It looks like you have been extremely responsible and we appreciate that, and please call us if they dare to bill you .. . . "

me: "Can't you just pay them and get me out of the middle. . . .?"

"Well, sir, I don't know any hospital in the country which is just going to let this amount of money go, so they will probably grieve us, and we will look at the grave nature of the admission, and we will probably rule in their favor and probably pay the fees. But we really do thank you for being so responsible, and please call us *immediately* if they try to bill you.

. . . . Is there anything else I can do for you today . . . . . ."

me: dumbfounded and numbed almost beyond belief. Wondering how many other games are being played out on my behalf . . . . .