Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Economics of Error

Econ 101 was quite a while ago but, as I recall, rising costs result largely from inflation, currency inequalities, supply issues and demand issues. Rising prices flow in turn from rising costs and, I suspect, rampant inefficiency and the occasional irresistible price-gouging opportunity. My recent experience indicates that the cost of having to do everything twice in order to get it right might also be a significant factor here in the 21st century.

I wrote not too long ago about the trials and tribulations of an attempt to get new glasses. That finally came out OK late last week, but only after the vision center rechecked my prescription, confirmed that it was in fact wrong, and then remade the glasses. I have no doubt that the glasses for which I paid multiple hundreds of dollars cost only a fraction of that to make, but still - having to do the entire process twice must have cut into the profit margin.

We decided a few weeks ago to refresh the paint on our exterior shutters, pillars, fasciae and so forth. The painting outfit we selected to do the job had all the basics of marketing and selling down pat: good ads, great brochure, an exceptionally convivial and knowledgeable estimator/salesperson who came the very day we called and was able to do the estimate on the spot, and a quick scheduling process. They even had an owner from the East - an intangible that we've learned from bitter experience is very important. Home service people from the Midwest and East have been great; those from Utah, Oregon and Washington are also good, but to steer clear of serious annoyance, it's necessary to avoid the ones from California and Nevada like the plague.

Anyway, once the actual painting job was done, it fell short of what had been advertised. We called to request a review, the owner of the company came out, looked things over, agreed that it wasn't up to "our usual standards" and apologized profusely. The redo is scheduled for Friday.

And this morning I opened an email shipping confirm of an order I placed with a food retailer. This is a joint with wonderful foodstuffs and exorbitant prices. The prices are almost OK given the extraordinary quality of the food, but I usually get tripped up by the shipping costs. They are
outrageous. (Excuse me, but things like a tin of Spanish tuna and a box of licorice do not require the same shipping protocols as live lobsters.) I rarely order, but they sent me a "How about 20% off?" email and I figured the 20% off would cover the shipping.

(I know, I know. I'm a sucker. I'm aware that these emails are based on classic drug dealer behavior: give them a taste for a bargain price and they'll be back for a boatload at full price as surely as night follows day.)

So the shipping confirm email this morning gives me a tracking number for the package, which is supposed to be delivered today. The confirm has all the right info (including the shipping address), but imagine my surprise when I click on the tracking number and learn that the package is "out for delivery to Wilmette, IL."

I lived in Wilmette, IL, until January 2005. I have ordered from this retailer three times since I moved to Nevada, twice for myself and once as a gift. Nowhere
in my account information on their website is any address in Wilmette, IL. This could be a bizarre coincidence, but I'm betting they have an outdated shipping database that doesn't tie to account information or, apparently, to actual shipping invoices.

How on earth can these companies have respectable profit margins? It's not like they don't know mistakes cost money. That's the whole point of best practices benchmarking, TQM, Six Sigma and whatever new flavor-of-the-month "quality" initiatives have taken their place since I left the corporate world. I don't know which is more alarming - the possibility that companies have built the cost of redoing everything into their price structures (kind of a preemptive price-gouging) or that these constant mistakes come as unpleasant surprises that require steadily increasing prices to offset.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Casino Reality

Casinos are packed full of things I can't stand, but I have never once wished I could gamble without entering one. I simply love them. The sound of that crazy Super Mario Brothers music emanating from the slot machines, the feel and smell of the aggressively air-conditioned smoky air, the over-the-top decor, the absence of natural light, the bustle at every time of the day or night - it's like entering an alternate reality. There is nowhere else on earth where I remain blissfully untroubled by too much smoke and too much noise. Nowhere else I revel in crowds of people, most of them some disagreeable combination of rowdy, drunk, cranky, brainless, angry, depressed, overly familiar, even desperate and showing all the signs of having lost next month's rent money.

The only places in the world where I can walk vast distances without hating every step are European capitals, particularly Paris, Berlin and London, and casinos. (Sadly, walking in Paris Las Vegas is not doubly fun for me. The Paris aspects are very cool, but that casino's blackjack rules are terrible; they increase the house advantage and no self-respecting gambler is willing to put up with that. So my trips to Paris Las Vegas are actually kind of frustrating. When I go to a restaurant there or to buy some of the best bread around, I have to ignore both the blackjack tables and the itching to play that walking past them arouses in me.)

As I left a local casino last night, trailed by a gaggle of very obnoxious, very drunk 20-something men shouting profanities at one another (and, fortunately, paying absolutely no attention to me), I wondered why I love these places. The newly-won money in my wallet didn't hurt, but the money isn't the best part of gambling. It's obviously more fun to win than to lose, but losing is part of the experience. You have to make your peace with it. I know several much less risky ways to make money, so if that's what I were after, I'd be doing something else.

The game itself isn't particularly challenging either, although it's endlessly fascinating. I'd have a lot of red chips - the gambler's equivalent of a nickel - if I had one for every time I or someone else said "What are the odds?" in response to someone (usually the dealer) pulling a 7-card 17 or having 20 four times in a row or getting consecutive blackjacks or suited pairs. It's amazing how intriguingly 104 cards (I play double-deck pitch) can behave. There's a lot to watch and learn even for someone who's played 3-4 times a month for over 3 years. And my money management strategy evolves every time I play; I'm always trying out some new wrinkle gleaned from the last experience. (I'm pretty certain I'm onto something great at the moment since the last time I lost was 7 sessions ago.)

OK, I guess it's obvious that I love to play. It would be easy to conclude that the reason I love casinos is simply because that's where you play. But I loved doing the work I did, too, and that didn't stop me from affirmatively disliking some of the aspects of the places in which I worked. Work environments offer plenty of equivalents to too much smoke, too much noise and disagreeable people. So do other parts of life that I love easily as much as gambling. While I grew competent if not proficient at tolerating these other irritants, I never remained blissfully untroubled by them. I guess I have to conclude that my serene love of casinos is innate and involuntary or, possibly, a happy byproduct of advancing age.

Friday, May 2, 2008


I've been invited recently by a bunch of different people to join a bunch of different so-called networking websites. Once I joined, a different bunch of people I've met over the course of my life turned out to be on those sites, too, and invitations poured in. This was exciting; I liked the idea of getting back in touch with people. The preponderance of sites is sort of annoying, and some are much better than others (Biznik hilariously proclaims itself as "business networking that doesn't suck," but it totally sucks - takes forever to load and, possibly for that reason, generates basically no activity). But how fun, I thought, to post a profile, which is easy enough, and then reconnect with people.

It hasn't worked that way. With a few notable exceptions, the people on these sites (including me after a few months) are incredibly passive. It's as if the goal were to have the highest number of "connections" without regard to quality of communication.

I was surprised by how many people request connections without writing any sort of note at all. I was even more surprised by how many
accept invitations without penning anything in response to the note I wrote them. Evidently, this sort of connection feels adequate to folks with nothing in the way of personal communication other than the lame little sentence LinkedIn, Plaxo or what-have-you offers as a default. Call me old-fashioned, but when I'm reconnecting with someone I haven't been in touch with for a decade or more, I'd like to do more than add their name to my list of connections. I'd like to know how they are, what they've been up to - you know, reconnect.

In the course of browsing Gmail's new features this morning, I realized what the problem is. Gmail is now offering more "emoticons" with the suggestion that we "start sending richer expressions to [our] friends." Huh? How do generic little pictures constitute "richer expressions?" That's what words are for.

Genericism is exactly what's wrong with the connection sites, too. They're not for making connections. They're for making "connecticons," which, like emoticons, are meant to stand in for the real thing. Makes me wonder what's next in our virtual lives.