Monday, January 19, 2009

Automobile woes

I had an interesting and enlightening experience with my local car dealer today. Well, with the service department, but it showed me some interesting facets of car manufacturers and dealers. See, I went on a loooong trip, and during that trip my car passed out of warranty. But! Before that, I experienced a malfunction of the cooling system. As soon as I could, I had the malfunction documented (I was at that time right at the warranty limit).
Today I went in with my documentation to get the car fixed. The person at the service desk, with a beatific smile, told me that, once upon a time, when XXX had lots of money, they could do "good will" work, and it didn't matter that I could prove the malfunction happened before the warranty expired, it was no go and so long loser. The attendant's attitude was so smug that I vowed then and there never to cross the door of that dealership for any reason whatsoever.
Now, I later found out that it's not enough that the malf happen under warranty, you have to tell them, though how I might do that from 2000 miles away is a little bit of a mystery. Would a phone call do it? "Hi, there. My car's not working and I'm about out of warranty." What do you think the response might have been (see the "So long loser" sentence)?
Here's where the enlightenment set it. If the attendant had said, "I think you're in the right. Let's do it" I would have been theirs for life. Oil change? Go to my dealer. Windshield wipers? Go to my dealer. Any loss in doing the warranty work would have been easily made up in future work.
So, point one: Someone needs to point out to the auto maker that a crucial item for success is that you don't consider your customers to be enemies. The one adjective that floats through most discussions of the auto makers bailout plan is "arrogance." But it's not just the arrogance of the big dogs at the top of the heap. It trickles down to dealerships, to salespeople, to service reps, to mechanics. Do you have any idea how successful a business could be if the bosses just told the employees, "Don't hate your customers"?
Point two: As far as I am concerned the auto makers can take a long walk off a short pier.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Fraternity redux

I keep coming back to the problem of the young man who died of alcohol poisoning. I think it's that I am having trouble picking out the threads that weave through it, and the motives behind the persons making decisions. One curious thing seems to be that the death of the young man and the allegations of hazing have drifted apart. It seems clear that the partying (or hazing) incident gave an opportunity for the young man to overindulge, but didn't actually cause it. This comes from a kind of grudging account in the newspapers, which early on quoted someone as saying that the young man was "made" to drink vodka to a later admission that he wasn't forced to do anything.
The charges that have been filed on students include hazing and offering alcohol to a minor. The second is almost certainly true. The first may be also, but I'd be interested in finding out just what happened. The young man was "abducted" by two coeds, duct taped, and painted blue, if I remember what the newspapers said. Is that all of it? And, more importantly, did he object? Fight? Cry for help? Or did he go along with it.
The laws against hazing are there to protect people from getting hurt. In the past people have been seriously injured or even killed as a result of hazing. On the other hand, the only real pain I see in this one is when someone rips the duct tape off. That stuff really sticks.
No charges have been filed in the death.
The university president has called for a "task force" to look into hazing practices. Well and good. We're facing a huge financial crisis and we still have time to worry about painting people blue.
The tragedy of the young man's death is already sinking beneath the froth of hazing charges. Those charged, by the way, have pleaded innocent. Now, if I were a lawyer for one of the people charged, and the city had a really good case, I'd recommend pleading down to a slap on the wrist and getting it over with. If, on the other hand, the city's case was lousy, I might recommend pleading innocent and fighting it out in court.
One wonders about all the fuss and bother. I simply can't see why so much of our resources are being spent on a bubble. On the other hand, I don't have all the information I need to make an informed guess, as I'm limited to what I get from the paper.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


When I was much younger than I am now, I got a job at a construction site. I was told that in order to work there, I had to become a member of the union. So, for about 1/2 month's salary, I became a member in good standing of the International Brotherhood of Hod Carriers and Common Laborers (true!). I didn't see that being a member of a union had any benefits for me.
Of course, I was young and dumb, and I didn't know how unions had been formed to protect workers from rapacious business owners, and had created a system with some muscle so that businesses had to pay attention to workers.
So, why is it that, having learned that, I still don't like unions much? The answer comes, as it so often does, from literature. George Orwell, in writing Animal Farm, has a group of animals who rebel, kick out the humans, and take over the farm. The pigs, being bright, kind of spearhead the thing and become the first among equals. At the end of the novel, the pigs invite humans onto the farm again, and the other animals, looking on, realize that they can't tell the pigs from the humans.
So it is with unions. The auto makers are run by arrogant, short-sighted, overpaid, and fatally stupid men, but my assessment of the unions is that you could swap CEO's about between auto makers and unions and not notice any change at all. So, if you don't like the auto makers, you also gotta not like the unions.
I think Orwell's choice of pigs in the novel is genius.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Time to start out the new year with a credo. “I believe.” I believe…..I believe… . I believe what?
Well, for starters, I believe that there is a lot of nonsense said about “I believe.” When I was a kid, a singer named Frankie Laine had a hit song named “I believe.” Some of it went like this: “I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows. I believe that somewhere in the darkest night, a candle glows” And then it went ta tum tat um, something something something.
Now I can’t blame Frankie for this song. After all, he didn’t write it. But even at age 13 I could see through the music-induced mental fog that the song was really really really dumb.
So, since I can’t equate rainfall and flower growth on a one-to-one basis, what do I believe?
Well, I believe that Mother Nature doesn’t care too much about morality but is very hard on stupidity. I believe in data. More than that, I believe in replicability. If you perform a study and gain some data, I should be able to perform that same study and get that same data. This lets out most of the “experiments” in ESP. I believe in Occam’s razor, that the simplest explanation that fits the data is the one we should choose.
This makes me sound like a “If I can’t see it, I don’t believe it,” person. Oh no, my friend. I believe in tachyons and quarks and neutrinos. I believe in the used-to-be planet Pluto. I believe that we are in the west wing attic of a huge galaxy. I believe that even now my bone marrow is making red blood cells.
I believe in accountability. I don’t believe that angels above us are silent notes taking. Nor do I believe that there is a great balance sheet for me in the sky, and that in the final analysis, everything on one side has to balance everything on the other, so that I am effect a zero-sum game.
I believe that people are pretty much people everywhere. That is, we are the products of a crazy-quilt, aimless, meandering evolutionary sequence that gives me eyes developed out of light-sensitive spots on some primeval planarium. At the same time, I believe that the world is becoming a better place (threats of planetary doom to the contrary).
I believe that sailing is the most civilized form of transportation.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


I wish we didn't need a free and unfettered press so much, because they are, by and large, a despicable bunch. I was listening to NPR today, then switched to the local paper, then looked at the news on my computer. All pretty much the same: Israel is killing civilians.
It really doesn't take too much smarts to work backwards from that and see an interesting and very effective Hamas strategy in all this. They hide behind women and children, hide in schools and hospitals, shoot rockets at Israel and when Israel retaliates, leave it to NPR to heap the blame on Israel.
The media people aren't stupid (I think). Surely, one muses, they must know that Hamas and the West have different strategies for war. The West says, "We will wage war as long as no non-combatant gets hurt, no religious edifices are destroyed, and humane help can still reach the country." Hamas' strategy is "Kill the unbelievers." The media must know this. Then why don't they have some sense of context when they report the news? Certainly it is a tragedy that a school was hit, but I will bet you a carton of doughnuts that a Hamas installation was nearby. It's like the kid who hits you with a rock and then hides behind the teacher when you seek him to reason with him.
I'm actually a lot more bloodthirsty about this than Israel is. My strategy, were I the man at the helm would be "Warn them, warn them, then turn their country into a pile of rubble." It is very strong medicine, but you'd only have to give one dose and everybody would be cured. Maybe it's a good thing that I'm not in charge.
But I digress. back to the media. I try to ignore the right wing when they say the media leans left, though the numbers seem to back this up. What I find difficult to ignore is that the media seems inclined to leave out all those little messy details that fill out the picture but don't have immediate impact. (For a discussion of whether "media" is singular or plural, check out my blog
The drinking death I've been commenting on is a case in point. The first few stories made it seem that a driven-snow pure young man had been forced to drink alcohol and died therefrom. Why, it was almost murder. As more and more details emerged, the picture was much different. So, why the starkness of the initial report? Drama, drama, drama. A schoolroom full of dead children is so much more dramatic than a sober analysis of the reasons behind their deaths.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Death by Vodka

The local newspaper had another story today about the young man who died of alcohol poisoning a few weeks ago. Seems like he was "kidnapped" by a couple of sorority girls, duct taped up, painted blue, and offered vodka to drink. Indictments are to be handed down: the fraternity and the sorority will be arrested for felony hazing, there will be a gaggle of arrests for hazing and for providing alcohol to a minor.
A number of things emerge from the murk that surrounds the story. First, the fraternity and the sorority had apparently knowledge of the hazing. If so, this is stupid almost beyond belief. Second, the young man was not forced to drink. He was offered liquor. Different thing entirely. Third, it turns out that the young man had a history, albeit not a long one, of binge drinking.
Taken altogether, it seems that the hazing incident and the death from drinking are only tenuously connected. That is, the young man apparently did all the drinking on his own hook, and might have killed himself at another time. It happens.
So, what about the hazing, that people are being arrested for it? It seems to consist of the "capture" of a strong, aware, alert, young man by two young women. Second, the program included stripping the young man to his shorts, painting him (it is to be hoped) Aggie blue, duct taping him, and letting him drink himself to oblivion.
One if tempted to ask, "What would have happened if the young man had not died?" The answer is, probably, nothing. No charges, no arrests, no really screwed up lives.
Hazing is a dumb activity. It can be dangerous. It can be fatal. However, in this case, it was only dumb. Certainly one would not choose to be duct taped and painted blue. The kidnapping is a little more problematical; I don't think I'd mind that.
It's the death that has engendered this lust for justice (read "revenge"). The boy died; somebody has to pay.
The charges brought against the people involved are "just." That is to say, they are within the purview of the law. It's the motive behind all this that is a little unsettling. That and the fact that the newspaper hasn't remarked at all on the evolution of the story as more and more facts come out.