Tuesday, February 2, 2010

... people looking for racism when it isn't there?

Shine's Joanna Douglas is at it again.

This isn't the first time Ms. Douglas has written an article indicating that she really wants to see racism where, in fact, there is none. (I'm thinking of the ridiculous piece she wrote in which she mislabeled Vogue's spread of a white model in varying shades of dark and light body makeup as "blackface" and said that "it could ... be considered racist". Yes, it could, if the person considering it had some sort of agenda, or weren't thinking too clearly.)

So Ms. Douglas, please stop. It's not always about racism. You can't judge everything through that lens.

Ms. Douglas said it best herself: "Vanity Fair may have been looking for the most promising batch of talent for their issue, but they should have been looking for a diverse group of women as well." The point is, she's missing the point. It's not a spread about a diverse group of women; it's a spread of the most promising batch of talent. If Vanity Fair doesn't think that there are any non-white actresses who deserve to be included in that group (and as some posters have pointed out, maybe there aren't any of the same caliber as those pictured on the cover), then it shouldn't change the criteria it is using just for the sake of including some.

People know when they're being included because of their talents and they know when they're being included because of their race. The latter isn't a positive thing. Expecting less of people because they're not white -- what George W. Bush, in a rare fit of eloquence (ok, his speechwriter wrote it), referred to as "the soft bigotry of low expectations" -- achieves inclusiveness in the short run, at the cost of high standards and to the detriment of those being patronized.

And once again, Ms. Douglas: please stop the race-baiting. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, sometimes dark body makeup is just dark body makeup, and sometimes a bunch of upcoming stars who happen to be white is just a bunch of upcoming stars who happen to be white.

Monday, December 14, 2009

...poorly edited news articles?

Check out this gem from Reuters, "Berlusconi attack prompts Italy soul searching". (Emphasis mine in each example.)

The third paragraph decides certain prepositions are unnecessary when it tells us that Berlusconi "was complaining sharp pains in the head and face".

The fourth paragraph throws comma use out the window: "Some commentators said the attack would help Berlusconi whose high ratings have been hit by accusations of corruption and sex scandals."

In the seventh paragraph, we are given the following nonsense: "The word 'hate' was used in many headlines and commentators as Italy searched its soul". (To which Groucho Marx might respond, "Inside of a commentator, it's too dark to write.")

In the eighteenth paragraph (fourth from the end), someone decided that hyphens are now out of style: "Berlusconi allies strongly attacked Antonio De Pietro, an ex magistrate who now heads a small opposition party".

Meanwhile, AFP has run out of verbs for its first paragraph of "Greece readies debt measures, unions threaten action": "The Greek government is later Monday to outline measures to combat the worst debt crisis in the country's modern history but its plans are threatening to spark fierce union resistance."

Doesn't anybody read these articles before they're published?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

...journalists who abuse the English language?

The word "data" is a plural noun. The singular form is "datum". Why, then, are these Associated Press journalists writing "skeptics challenged how reliable certain data was" and "[i]t is not clear if any data was destroyed" (my emphasis)?

And take a gander at this sentence:

"And most of those e-mails, which stretch from 1996 to last month, are from about a handful of scientists in dozens of e-mails."

I'm curious: is the term "handful" so precise that we need the modifier "about" in order to add the required element of imprecision? And why the repetition of "e-mails"? Finally, can e-mails really "stretch" over a period of time?

I'd write this sentence as follows: "And most of those e-mails, written in a period stretching from 1996 to last month, are from only a handful of scientists."

Friday, October 30, 2009

... media outlets trying to get people upset about things they shouldn't be upset about?

Wednesday's episode of "America's Next Top Model" had Tyra Banks taking the six remaining contestants to Hawaii for a photo shoot which required each model to represent a different blend of two different races. To do this, the contestants had body makeup applied to change their skin tones and wore fashion interpretations of cultural garb.

Oddly enough, a number of media outlets are deeply concerned. Yahoo! News, AOL News, E! Online, and Entertainment Weekly all are trying to bill this as controversial and to encourage their readers to be worried about the deep racial insensitivity behind the ANTM shoot.

EW, for instance, tells us that "It's impossible to 'transform' someone's race without setting off some serious blackface alarms". Scott Harris at AOL Television writes, "Tyra Banks re-imagines the remaining contestants as biracial models through the use of skin darkening agents and ethnic costumes. Or, in other words, blackface."

The problem is, "blackface" is not actually another word for "skin darkening agents and ethnic costumes". The term "blackface" refers to a very specific type of entertainment aimed at negatively stereotyping black people; ANTM's photo shoot, as anyone would know who bothered to watch the episode, had absolutely nothing to do with blackface. In fact, even comparing the two indicates a serious lack of understanding on the part of all of these writers of the real issues behind why blackface was cruel and insensitive.

The idea of "blackface" that (rightfully) elicits negative reactions dates back to American minstrel acts of the 19th century in which white comedians would darken their faces (using burnt cork, greasepaint, or shoe polish), exaggerate the size of their lips, put on woolly wigs, and perform as clowns; the clownishness, the humor, of their acts derived from the caricatured features and the portrayal of negative character stereotypes (laziness, dishonesty, cowardice, etc.). So, too, did the racism. The issue, in hindsight, was that the blackface comedians were saying, essentially, "all black people are laughable because they look, talk, think, and act in this ridiculous way," a way that was negative and demeaning. The central problem of blackface, in other words, is in the representation of negative stereotypes for mockery and comedic purposes.

Tyra Banks' photo shoot had nothing to do with this. Did it portray stereotypes? Sure. The models wore colorful "traditional" outfits "inspired" by the clothing of the cultures they portrayed. But Tyra told the viewers and the models that "every outfit is not necessarily what people of that culture are wearing now... it might not even be a necessary exact [replica] of what they've worn, even in the past... it's a fashion interpretation of it." And, as fashion interpretations, the clothes were glamorous and beautiful. Did the models know anything about the cultures they were representing? Not really. (Erin, the contestant assigned a role as part-Tibetan said that all she knew about Tibet was that "it needs to be freed.") Did the models act in a ridiculous way? No more than they normally do to complete their photo shoots. Did they portray negative character traits in order to mock the cultures they were portraying? Not at all. There is no real reason why this photo shoot should at all be associated with the negative connotations surrounding the term "blackface" -- not unless those writing about it are looking for something to label as racism.

This brings to mind the "controversy" surrounding the recent French Vogue photo shoot, in which light-skinned model Lara Stone was photographed in varying shades and combinations of body makeup (including white makeup). This, too, was quite erroneously labeled as "blackface", and a number of "news" types got very upset about it. (Jezebel.com, one of the loudest complainers, very conveniently posted only seven of the fourteen pictures, leading the reader to believe -- incorrectly -- that the majority of the shoot involved Stone in dark makeup.) The spread, however, did nothing to further negative racial stereotypes; if anything, it just showed (as did the ANTM shoot) that skin color is irrelevant to beauty.

Some inanely asked why, if the editor and photographer of the Vogue shoot wanted a model with dark skin, they didn't hire a black model. A quick look at the pictures will show that the point of the spread wasn't "a model with dark skin", it was "a model in colored body makeup". In this case Vogue wanted to photograph Stone. Why? They like her. They dedicated a whole issue to her in March, and she showed up on the cover again in September. They used the model they wanted to use. If Lara Stone happened to be black, they would have used a black model. They would have put her in colored body makeup, too.

One of the funnier lines is from Shine's Joanna Douglas, who says, "While the photos are not necessarily portraying model Lara Stone in a negative way, it could still be considered racist." Yes, it could be... if one were looking for opportunities to consider things racist. Which, it seems, is exactly what Douglas, those at Jezebel, and all of the other wolf-criers are doing. Seek, and ye shall find.

So yes, the ANTM episode will set off "blackface alarms" if one is uninformed enough to automatically associate the changing of skin tones with blackface. Thus far, though, it seems that the only people so uninformed are the people who are writing these articles. Judging by the comments posted on most news stories about this, the bulk of ANTM viewers felt, quite rightly, that there was no reason for them to be in any way fazed by what they saw.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

... people who think they're being discriminated against when they're not?

Trevor Keezer, a cashier from Home Depot, was fired from a Home Depot in Florida for refusing to remove an item of clothing that violated the company dress code.

It seems pretty straightforward. Not particularly newsworthy, at any rate. Home Depot has a policy for its employees; an employee violated the policy; he suffered the expected consequence.

The reason we're hearing about this is that the item of clothing in question was a button saying "One nation under God, indivisible." Now Keezer's attorney, Kara Skorupa, is planning to sue Home Depot over religious discrimination.

What Keezer and Skorupa seem to be overlooking is the fact that company policy would have prohibited Keezer from wearing any button that wasn't provided by the company, regardless of the message.

Nor did the execution of the consequence come without fair warning.

According to Keezer, "... I was told it had to come off, or I would be sent home. So they sent me home for six straight days without pay. And then today they terminated me."

In case you missed the little gap in his story: given the option of taking off the button or being suspended, Keezer chose to keep his button on. Why did he refuse, you might ask?

"It never crossed my mind to take off the button because I'm standing for something that's bigger than I am. They kept telling me the severity of what you're doing and I just let God be in control and went with His plan," Keezer said.

It never crossed his mind to take the button off -- not even when he was told that it was a severe violation of company policy? Who wouldn't fire him?

If it was indeed God's plan for Keezer to be fired from Home Depot, then why, one wonders, is Keezer unhappy with the outcome?

P.S. Many readers who have commented on this story on other sites have been outraged that Home Depot is violating Keezer's First Amendment rights. This is, however, quite untrue.

First of all, as law professor Michael Masinter points out in the Yahoo! news article, the First Amendment relates only to the government's ability to restrict the freedom of speech -- not to that of private companies like Home Depot. It says, in full, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Notice that the Amendment makes no mention of private companies.

More importantly, though, to construe Home Depot's actions as abridging the freedom of speech in any meaningful way is simply going too far. Home Depot has a policy governing, and therefore limiting, the way in which its employees can express themselves. So do schools that require their students to wear uniforms. So do businesses that require their employees to wear suits and ties. So too, do the United States Armed Forces, whose employees must wear uniforms (and, although they certainly care about defending the United States, those employees are not allowed to wear buttons expressing that sentiment, either). In each case these limitations are intended to a) make the group governed by them more effective, and b) create a certain culture. None of these institutions is guilty of violating the First Amendment, or of abridging anyone's freedom of speech, as a result.

... automatic flush toilets?

Do these things ever work the way they're supposed to?

If you're like me, you like to put a seat protector on the seat before you sit down. You pull that paper thing out of the holder on the wall, you unfold it, you pop out the center, you lay it down on the seat, the center tongue thing hangs down into the water, you try to make sure that it's balanced just so so that it doesn't fall in. You have it in place, you turn around, you take off your pants, you're about to sit down -- splooooosh! The thing flushes, dragging the seat protector in with it. You're in that halfway crouch, you haven't quite sat down, and you think, "Nuts! Now I have to go through the whole maneuver again." So you stand up, and this time your pants are already down, and you yank the seat protector out again, and you're all flustered and annoyed so you rip it as you're unfolding it, and meanwhile -- splooooosh! This time you have to wait to put the protector on, because if you put it on while the toilet is still flushing, it'll drag it down there again. Meanwhile, don't forget that you are in the bathroom for a reason, and now that your pants are off, what you need to do is that much closer to the surface. You're getting impatient. You're muttering at the toilet, "Come on, come on!" It finishes flushing, and you get the stupid thing on the seat again, and then you're faced with a dilemma: Do you do a quick spin move to try to fake out the sensor, or do you try to turn around reaaaaallly sloooooowly so that it doesn't think you're moving at all? Either way, you're matching your wits against the machine. You're thinking, "sure, this thing is built to detect motion, but maybe I'm good enough, maybe it won't detect MY motion." Or maybe you think "maybe I should put my hand over the sensor, so it can't detect anything at all" -- so you have one arm in front of you against the wall, and then you're trying to twist around so that that arm doesn't move but is somehow behind you, keeping in mind that your pants are still down around your ankles.

Some people, in fact, would rather give up at this point. They say, "you know what, I'd rather soil myself than finish this." This is where the impetus for the adult diaper industry originally came from. But if you get past that part, and you're finally sitting down and taking care of business, inevitably you are going to need to shift your weight, and -- splooooosh! There it goes again. Of course, those industrial-strength flushes have a way of throwing the water out of the bowl. Isn't that a great feeling? "Hmm, some of my own waste just splashed up onto my body." That has to be one of the greatest indignities of our human existence.

So you're sitting there, and you're trying not to make the thing go off again as you're tying up all the loose ends, and then you're done. You stand up, and... That's right, nothing happens. You're pulling up your pants, you're turning around, clearly you're moving quite a bit, yet this motion sensor, which up until now was so sensitive that it could tell when you shifted your weight from both cheeks to just one -- this motion sensor now refuses to sense any motion at all. You're waving at it, you're gyrating, you're doing a little dance, you're doing the whole put-your-hand-really-close-then-move-it-back-again thing... nothing. It's like the thing is taunting you. Or maybe it's bored, maybe these obvious movements are too easy to detect, and it's insulted that you'd expect it to react to something that simple. It's just sitting there, watching you, thinking, "What is this idiot going to do next?" You know it's mocking you.

Finally, you give up, and you reach over and push the little button. The toilet has now flushed a total of seven times since you entered the stall, and only once was it actually flushing something meaningful away. These things are intended for what, saving water?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

... people who "clock out"?

About a year ago I encountered some significant problems while traveling with United Airlines to my Christmas destination. As reparations, they awarded me a booklet of travel vouchers, each good for a certain amount of money. Inconveniently enough, these vouchers cannot be redeemed over the Internet; the customer must phone in a reservation and then either mail in the vouchers or take them to the local airport to apply them to the price of the ticket. This past weekend I made my Thanksgiving travel plans and intended to use the vouchers. I made my reservations over the phone, and the customer service representative I spoke with told me that I would need to redeem them at my local airport within 24 hours or the reservation would expire. She informed me that the ticketing counter at my local airport would be open until 7 PM, and that the best time to be there would be after 2 PM.

The next day I showed up to the United counter at my local airport around 6:15 PM. The LCD display above the United counter said "This counter open until 7:30 PM". The counter was unstaffed when I arrived, but I waited around because I assumed that someone would notice a customer waiting and come by to help me. Eventually a uniformed United employee did arrive.

"Are you waiting for the United counter?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"The counter is closed," he said.

"I'm under the impression that that's not the case," I said, nodding towards the screen.

"Oh, that's a mistake," he said, "we close at 6 on Saturday."

"The people on the phone at United told me that you were open until 7."

"They're wrong. We're all closed down."

"You're here."

"I only came over here as a courtesy. I'm clocked out. You'll need to come back tomorrow."

"I can't," I said, "I made a reservation over the phone and I need to pay for it before midnight tonight or I'll lose it."

"I'm sorry," he said. "We're all closed down here. All the computers are off, they took the money away. I only came over here as a courtesy."

"I appreciate that," I said. "Since you're here, can you help me?"

"No," he said, "I've clocked out. You're going to need to call United on the phone and ask them to extend your reservation."

"Could you do that for me?"

"No," he said. "I've clocked out."

"I just think that they might be a little difficult," I explained. "They're not always that helpful. They might not just let me ask for an extension. Wouldn't it be better coming from you?"

"I'm sorry," he said, "I can't call them. I've clocked out."

"Can I call them and just put you on?"


"I don't understand," I said. "Are you legally prohibited from calling them after you've clocked out?"

"I'm not getting paid to work anymore," he said.

And that is the crux of the problem. Because he was no longer being paid to work, he ceased to think that he had any obligation to act as though he were working. I do understand that he never had to come over to the counter in the first place. I do understand that it was after hours for him. I do understand that dealing with United Airlines over the telephone can be frustrating and time-consuming. It pains me, though, that this man felt unable to do something if he wasn't being paid for it. (Not only did he not do anything to help me, he also did nothing about the screen that projected the wrong information. The computers may have been off, but he could at least have put a piece of paper across the screen. I pity the next customer who, misled by the same sign, waited for help at an unstaffed counter until 7:30.)

It reminded me of a time I was shopping at Wal-Mart. I purchased six of an item but the cashier charged me for seven; when I pointed out her mistake, she told me that I would have to go to the Customer Service desk to get my money back. When I arrived at the desk, one woman was being helped, and I was the next in line. I waited at least twenty minutes before someone helped me. Of course, it makes sense that sometimes we have to wait in line at stores. In this case, though, there were two Wal-Mart employees behind the Customer Service counter in addition to the one who was helping the first customer. Why, one might ask, was I forced to wait twenty minutes? The other employees were on their break, of course, so they couldn't do any work. They couldn't even lift up a phone to summon an employee who was working. (I haven't set foot in a Wal-Mart since, except to use the bathroom.)

What is the deal with this? Why do these people care so little about the impression they make on their customers that they so visibly demonstrate their indifference to their needs? Why are these people so lazy that they refuse to lift a finger if there is no monetary compensation forthcoming? Why do they take so little pride in what they do that they don't care whether they do it well or not?

Is this a question of corporate culture? Do these large, faceless organizations neglect to inculcate helpfulness in their employees because, due to the size of their market share or the nature of the services they provide, they have the consumer at their mercy no matter what they do? Is customer service not a priority to these companies?

Is this, perhaps, the influence of unions? Are the workers' unions at these companies so concerned about protecting employees from their employers' demands that they must commit to being entirely disengaged when off the clock? (As it turns out, Wal-Mart employees are not unionized.)

A couple of organizations at the opposite end of the spectrum stand out in my mind as modeling excellent customer service and as proof that things need not always be so awful. The first is Nordstrom department stores, where the employees (known as "Nordies") provide service to their customers beyond what any reasonable person would expect. Consider the following exemplars (originally described by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in Built to Last; quoted from p. 73-74 of Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath):

The Nordie who ironed a new shirt for a customer who needed it for a meeting that afternoon;

The Nordie who cheerfully gift-wrapped products a customer bought at Macy's;

The Nordie who warmed customers' cars in winter while they finished shopping;

The Nordie who made a last-minute delivery of party clothes to a frantic hostess;

And even the Nordie who refunded money for a set of tire chains -- although Nordstrom doesn't sell tire chains.

The second is the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) network of charter schools. KIPP teachers and administrators give their cell phone numbers to their students so that the students can call them in the evening for homework help. They stay after school during the week and come in on weekends to work with struggling students. Consider these stories from a local KIPP school:

The teacher who drove a student to school every day for months when she couldn't find a ride;

The group of teachers who drove to a student's house to intervene when he was exhibiting signs of gang affiliation;

The principal who sat with two students every night after school to ensure that they finished their homework;

The teachers who drove groups of students to visit a sick classmate in the hospital;

And the teacher who took a student shopping for new uniform clothes when his family couldn't afford them.

It is hard to imagine either a Nordie or a KIPP teacher ever saying "I can't help you because I've clocked out"; to the contrary, I don't think the latter ever actually do clock out. Why, though, are these wonderful people seen as unusual or extraordinary? Why are they the exception and not the rule? What is wrong with us as consumers that we are complacent enough to accept apathy and indifference as a substitute for genuine customer service?