Monday, December 11, 2006


Digital Divide, Digital Magazines, Newspaper Death Spiral, Other Stuff, and My Adventure Getting to Atlanta

The digital divide.... between young Internet users and old ones. Good article, special emphasis on instant messaging, which I could not live without, but others my age (50) just can't seem to like it the same way. Part of it seems to be typing speed (I'm darn good for being a five-fingered typist), for others it seems to be a vision thing.

Digital magazines not doing as well as originally thought they would.

B2BOnline article discusses newspapers' imminent "death spiral"
The economics of social media will chip away at the newspaper business model just as readers are taking flight. The number of households in the U.S. has grown by 40 million in the last 30 years while newspaper circulation has actually declined. About half as many people under 25 read newspapers as people over 65. Readership is declining in all age groups... History has taught us that businesses based on scarcity collapse in the face of abundance. Ten years ago, information was expensive to gather and disseminate. Today, we're overwhelmed by information. Newspapers still operate as if they were the gatekeepers of news, but that gate has swung wide open... Over the next 20 years or so, most of America's 1,450 daily newspapers will die or be merged out of existence. They will be replaced by many thousands of special-interest online communities. The craft of journalism will change fundamentally in the process.
A longer article titled "The coming collapse and rebirth of newspaper journalism"is at
The author has a blog at
And they call me "Dr. Doom"

Margie Dana of the Boston Print Buyers was interviewed about small and micro-businesses using print

Wharton's Jeremy Siegel writes about Milton Friedman

Anyone using OpenOffice may benefit from the free manuals that are at

A discussion about incomes that Lou Dobbs doesn't want to hear. It reviews changes in spending, income, and as they relate to family size and other demographics.

Below is what is more typically called a blog, about my trip to Atlanta last week. My blog is usually reminder notes, mainly to myself, so that I have a central place to keep links to articles and thoughts that I can use and expand upon should I desire at some other time. I've described my blog as my refrigerator with an infinite number of cybermagnets holding notes onto its front door. Most blogs are personal, as this entry is below. But before we get there, I've been updating my personal blog about my study of karate and its assistance to me in living with and sometimes conquering prostatitis and chronic pelvic pain syndrome. I'm still working on some more current posts for that as I get the chance. Anyway, below is my blog of my most recent business travel adventure...

Victim of the Bean Counters

Companies are often fond of saying that theirs is a numbers business. They set up processes and structures and then get very good at measuring them, correcting as they go along. Then they teach people how to manage by the numbers, setting parameters that identify when processes are in or out of a controlled range, and when they are out, then they act. The business news of the past few years have been filled with stories of executive financial improprieties, but those improprieties are widely known only because they involve money. There are many other numbers that are abused in organizations.

The tyranny of numbers caught me the other day as I was attempting to make connections in Philadelphia to my flight to Atlanta. I'll leave names out of this, but this airline is large enough to make a bid for Greek Letter Signifying Change Airlines, and is otherwise USeless. It lived up to its reputation that it should be avoided whenever possible. It is possible to manipulate non-financial measures to make it look like things are in control but they are not.

My 6:00pm flight left early from Providence, as all passengers were on board. After we were in the air for a few minutes, we were told that Philly was in a landing delay, but it appeared that it would be lifted in time for our arrival. It wasn't. We ended up circling and touched down 20 minutes late. The position of the aircraft upon landing was such that we basically drove the full length of the airport to get to our gate. Blocked for about five minutes by the movements of another taxiing aircraft near our gate, we finally pulled up. The bell rang in the cabin that it was now safe to unbuckle, stand, grab our things, and prepare to disembark.

We stood. We waited. After another five minutes, the pilot announced that no one was there to move the jetway to the plane. A union jurisdiction issue, I imagined. He didn't say. We waited.

Finally, the problem was solved, and we began to leave. I had five minutes to go from gate B6 to C17, which I did. People movers certainly helped. I was confident I could do it.

I arrived at the ramp and an attendant was trying to solve a problem with another passenger's boarding pass. She seemed flustered as she poked at her keyboard and kept coming up empty. Some other Providence passengers arrived. We waited while she was helping the passenger. One of us asked if we could get on and we were told to wait. A door opened near the gate and another attendant walked in and said the plane had pulled away. I said, “but it's 7:55 and we were here from the Providence flight that just got in.” I explained the delay and the jetway problem. I asked why the plane was not held, since every passenger I've known has been on flights where we waited for “connecting passengers,” especially on the last flight of the day. She explained that the FAA made them do that (didn't Flip Wilson have a routine that sounded something like that?) and that it was out of the airline's control. I explained that I had been on many flights that were held for passengers. The deer was paralyzed, standing majestically over the faded double yellow line of the winding country road, the reflection of my headlights shining like bright stars in its eyes. We were told to go to the customer service counter a few gates away.

Told that there were no more flights to Atlanta, nor a way of getting me to a closer city that might have a very early flight the next morning, we were “offered” the opportunity to stay in a nearby hotel at a reduced rate. I called Marriott and found that all their properties were full. I accepted the “invitation” to stay at the Ramada Inn for $75 rather than sleep in the airport. I was told my baggage would be down at zone 4.

So much time had passed that I figured I'd get something to eat and let more time pass to let the bag get to where it should be downstairs. Stressful times require comfort food and a break to my low carb routine. Sbarro pepperoni pizza and a diet Coke were in order. I guess I could have eaten just the cheese and pepperoni and stayed loyal; I gave in and enjoyed the lush slice in the fullness its designer intended.

I went downstairs and saw the hotel phone bank at the bottom of the escalator and called the Ramada. When asked if I had my bags, I said no and was told to call back when I did. When the operator asked me, I immediately knew I should have done that, but I figured so much time had passed it just had to be there. I had waited long times for many “courtesy” vans before (the drivers are all trained to say “you didn't see me when I passed the first time, sir?”; adding “sir” to insults makes it a “courtesy” van). So I went looking for my bags and found the Providence carousel. The bag was not there. I walked up to the “baggage information” counter where there were four people sitting, and two other employees on the customer side chatting with them. I asked for help and was directed to the baggage service office at the other end of the baggage area. I guess that was the only information they were trusted with.

I went to the baggage service office, and a cheerful new employee, untainted by the intensive company training efforts she was to eventually endure, asked me a few questions. She made a call asking about the location of my B22 bag with Southwest Airlines ID tag, TSA lock, and blue tape on its feet. Ten minutes later, the call came that my bag was nowhere to be found. Another customer came in that my cheerful attendant started to assist. I chatted the more grizzled and methodical, but not unpleasant second attendant. She explained that the bag probably made the Atlanta flight. That was strange, I always thought because I could run faster than a Samsonite bag, even if it had the advantage of wheels. She checked her screen and said it indicated that the Atlanta flight had actually left at 8:30, not at its scheduled 7:55. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.

It was then clear what had happened. It was more important to shut the door of the plane, and possibly roll back (though if my bag made it, they probably closed the door and pulled the jetway back) just to claim that the flight left on time. Bean counters, I thought. The flight and bag left on time, but the passenger did not. Doesn't matter, the plane was on time; they don't report missed passengers, just bags and planes, it seems. She gave me an overnight pack with shaving cream in some foil packs, a short-handle toothbrush, and other essentials. I asked for a food voucher. She said I'd have to go to the baggage information counter. I thanked her and left, with the excited anticipation of finding out what those four people really did at that counter.

I asked for some help and said I was directed there because I needed a meal voucher. I was told she would have to go to another office to get it. I asked for two, and she said “two?” with great disbelief. She started to walk to the office. I interrupted one of the other employees, engrossed in a novel and asked if I could talk to a manager. She told me to follow the one who was working on my vouchers. I caught up to her and asked if she could find a manager for me, and she said she would. It was now clear what the four people at the baggage information counter do: they specialize in telling dissatisfied passengers to go somewhere else so they could get back to their novel.

We got to the office and she disappeared into a door behind the counter, emerging a few minutes later with a manager who listened to my story. I explained how I thought it was quite interesting that my bag could make a flight but I couldn't, and he agreed that they probably held the flight at the gate to load bags. The dumbness of the whole thing just seemed to get grow, and he knew it wasn't worth defending, only apologizing. I asked them to pick up my hotel cost, and he said he couldn't, but would try. He came back about 10 minutes later with a coupon for discounts on a future Bankrupt Airways flight. I said I never had these kinds of problems on Southwest, which I have flown almost exclusively for four years. I've never missed a connection, and usually arrive early. As I mentioned Southwest I thought about a line from one business book that the best customer service is to have a product that requires none, and that's what Southwest seems to have figured out, though they are not exempt from problems, they just seem to have reduced the frequency to be far less than others.

He told me I could give the discount coupon to anyone, which was a relief. Perhaps there is someone I don't like for whom it would make a nice meaningless gesture of friendship. I had already gotten my meal vouchers: $5 for breakfast, $10 for dinner. I thanked him for his help and called the Ramada again. I realized that I could have been at the hotel an hour before because I had no bag to wait for anyway, and perhaps this was all the Ramada person's fault... nah, they'd have to be really in tight with Foreclosure Airways to do that, and I was learning that was impossible. The operator said they still had plenty of rooms. Great, I thought, a hotel that no one wants to stay at.

The courtesy van arrived and we piled in. It smelled like a smoky bar, but it was getting me where I was going, and that was to sleep, so it was tolerable. Five minutes later we got to the hotel and I could see through the doors that the line for registration was about 10 or 15 deep. Luckily, there were three people working the counter. There are good airport hotels and there are bad ones. This was close to the latter, needing renovation about 10 or so years ago. But it had free wireless, it turned out. Kind of like someone pulling a rickshaw while wearing a Bluetooth headset to chatter on their cell phone. This was one of those places that specialized in “missed flight” stayovers and airline crews who are being punished. While I was at the counter, someone who had just checked in and came back down and said that their room had not been made up. Having that happen to me would certainly have made my day complete, I thought.

I got up to my non-smoking room by walking through the smoking hallway, and opened the door. It was in good order, right out of the set for My Name is Earl, on NBC every Thursday night. Their so called “distressed” rate for the room was a premium price for its condition. The rug was in decent condition because of its protective layer of dust. “Anyone can stay in a bad hotel for one night,” I remember being told early in my career. Since my computer charger was in my suitcase, soon to land in Atlanta, I hoped, I checked out the free wireless, which was slow, but still free, and reliable. My cell phone battery was dying, so I called home and asked Mrs. Webb to call back, and we reviewed the events of the last hour or so. She had canceled my hotel at Atlanta airport, for which they waived the cancellation fee, the only thing that had gone right in the last few hours, it seemed (though I am always grateful for landing safely, even if late).

I woke up about 4am and decided that getting the 5am van was probably a good idea, figuring the chance of bedbugs in an airport terminal was lower than at the My Name is Earl. The mildewed shower and its faulty drain compelled me to push up my scheduled exit from the hotel. The foil-packed shaving cream and imitation Trac-II razor did their work with a minimum of grimace, and bloodlessly. I left the room and headed downstairs for the van, and got to the airport in time.

The Forced Liquidation Airways kiosk did not let me check in, but the attendant at the counter figured out the problem, assigning me seats for my new flight and my return. What was supposed to be 18 hours in Atlanta was going to be seven, and I would miss my plant tours that I was so looking forward to making. I asked him to also check where my bag was, and he said that it was definitely in Atlanta waiting for me at the baggage services office. Good, I thought, I'll head straight there and then find a men's room and be spared of staring longingly at a moving luggage carousel.

I deplaned and made may way through the escalators and legendary Hartsfield Airport subway. I bumped into one of the other Providence passengers and we walked to the baggage office together. He did the talking this time. I was surprised we were in the right place at all without the Philadelphia baggage information desk to advise us. He told the smiling lady behind the counter that we had been bumped from the Philly flight last night but our bags were on that flight. She said that she had no bags for us, and that the only bags leftover from last night were by the window, and it was clear it was not mine or his. She got out from behind the counter and started to check the room next door, but stopped. “Can you check the carousel once more?” As I was about to ask why, there was my bag rounding the turn. The bag never made the flight last night, the Philly baggage handling crew had it all along. I could have had it with me at the Ramada Inn had someone found it. We thanked her and went on our merry separate ways.

After my consulting engagement, I returned to the airport and rather quick work of checking my bag and getting through security. My dinner voucher found me at Sbarro again... the lines were too long elsewhere. I camped out and did some more writing and then it came time to board my flight to Charlotte. All went well until we got to the runway when we learned we were being held 15 minutes as a traffic hold. Here we go again, I thought to myself, but we landed only 10 minutes late and I made my way from Terminal E (which looks disturbingly like the commuter gates at Dulles) to Terminal D and found my way to the flight to Providence. It's quite a difference going from a packed commuter jet to a half-full 757. I appreciate the latter, but I was impressed with the two commuter jets I had on this trip. We were all on board when we were informed that Charlotte had imposed a 15 minute wait to make sure everyone's bags made it to the plane. Gosh, that sounded familiar. This was after the door was closed. I wonder if anyone was stranded like I was. All I knew was I was headed home, supposedly with a tailwind that would make up the time we lost on the ground.

Well, so much for making the bean counters happy at literally the expense of the clients. I could have been in Atlanta on time, but my bag could have sitting in Philly. But I would not have been subject to the My Name is Earl Inn. That would have actually been better.

In the whole process I remembered the line Flip Wilson used more than 30 years ago while in his character of Geraldine: “If you can fly six hours in the dark from Los Angeles to New York, you can find my bags.”

I've had some odd reactions when I tell people I prefer to fly Southwest; some clients actually volunteer to pay more for my expenses so I could fly something else. I know the Southwest system quite well and how to get my “first class” seat most of the time (the emergency window seat 10A where I have real leg room). The airline has really transformed Providence, and everyone thinks it's their pricing. It's not; that's how they get you the first time. It's the fact that things work and you get where you need to be, and if you don't get there, they will find a way for it to happen. The expectations are set by what they do: it's a no frills airline but because they don't pretend to be anything else, you focus on whether they get you to where you need to be. You get the sense that the Southwest employees actually like working for their company, and that it's infectious. Their jovial manner comes from a confidence that they know what they are doing and that they like doing it. They are not there for the jobs, but to there for those jobs at Southwest. Back in the late 1990s when I was on the road more often and for more extended trips, I was always dealing with delays and missed connections, no matter what airline I took. Southwest had limited service in Providence, but was growing little by little every few months. Their system was not capable of supporting what I needed at the time. Now it is. Three cheers for Herb Kelleher's grand idea of an airline that works.

This airline annoyance capped off a week where a major multinational bank bungled the merchant services account for our new business, getting everything wrong including the most basic contact information, spelling of the name, phone numbers, addresses, which credit cards we would use, equipment, and other items, even opening a business Visa account we specifically said we did not want, despite filing of all of the proper forms with all of the information correctly supplied. None of these problems appeared all at once; they became evident a little at a time, the drip drip drip of a water torture. I asked the account manager who was so skilled at setting up the account incorrectly to close it for me. That, I was informed, could only be done by customer service. I told him that I was miffed that an assistant VP could open the account, but an 800 number clerk was the only one who could close it. He insisted; I complied. I called and immediately asked for a supervisor; there was no resistance to my request.

It turned out that the only thing that went well in the entire fiasco was how quickly and efficiently she was able to close the account, and ensure that it could not ever be used. I remarked to the person handling it that she was the only person who knew what she was doing, and that I really appreciated it. She apologized on behalf of the bank, sent me a confirming e-mail, and that was it: it was over. I wondered if I should consider opening another account so that she could close it because it was so refreshing and unfortunately odd to have someone do their job so well. Did I mention that the bank branch we use had ordered three sets of checks, and the format and style was wrong each time? We ended up ordering directly from Deluxe. They had also gotten the endorsement rubber stamp wrong; that only took one time to fix.

The big shots are all there for the glory of the sale, but you hear crickets in the corner office when something goes wrong. I think I'd insist that a VP close an account once in a while just to find out why it happened and what led up to it. That's just me. It reminded me of the bad resort stay that our family had one time, and when I asked the president of it when the last time was that he or anyone on his team stayed at their own resort he asked “Why would I want to do that?” Exactly my point.

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