Cutback? Or just a knife in the back?

09.12.2009 | Author: Eric Reiss
Hi Eric –
Bad news. I’ve been laid off due to cutbacks. That said, the company just hired two new people in my division and our profits are the highest ever recorded. In fact, my division now has sales of EUR 35 million. So let’s assume there are other reasons for letting me go.

I still need another year and a half of salary to make ends meet, so I’m desperately looking for a new job. Now most folks think it’s impossible for a 67-year-old to get a new job, but as you know I’m used to dealing with impossible challenges. I’m looking for something either in Denmark or abroad that lets me use my marketing talents, and maybe even do a little Flash programming if need be. Even jobs that only last a week or two are welcome.

If you hear of something, I hope you’ll keep me in mind.

Cheers,
S

Damned right we’ll keep him in mind!
Here’s some background on this fellow:

The incredibly narrow-minded management of this company has never really liked my pal’s out-of-the-box thinking. So each time he’s built up a profitable new business area (he’s created several), they take away his department and send him out to do something else. Recently, to get him away from headquarters, they packed him off to China. He taught himself Chinese and built up a multi-million Euro business selling his company's products in a completely new market segment! When he needed interactive marketing materials and was denied a budget, he taught himself to program Flash (and he’s pretty good at it).

I’ve worked with this man for almost 20 years on a variety of marketing projects. He’s a real gentleman, his professionalism is exceptional, and he’s a seasoned innovator who produces measurable results. Not surprisingly, we’re going to try and work him into the FatDUX family. But in the meantime, if you hear anything, let me know and I’ll pass the word along.

Three short service stories

09.12.2009 | Author: Eric Reiss
Three service experiences from a recent trip to Miami, FL.

At Whole Foods in Pinecrest
Me: “Hi. I’m looking for vermouth.”
Whole Foods: “That’s like beer, right?”
Me: “It’s like a strong wine.”
Whole Foods: “This is the wine department.”
Me: “Yes. I know. Where do you have stuff like port?”
Whole Foods: “Which port? Is this something you got on a cruise ship?”

At Macy’s in Dadeland
Me: “Hi. I’m looking for black, canvas tennis shoes.”
Macy’s: “Canvas? Is that a kind of leather?”
Me: “No. It’s heavy cloth. Like what they make sails out of.”
Macy’s: “Like nylon? We have Docksides. But they’re not made of nylon.”

At Staples office supplies
Me: “Hi. I need an At-A-Glance calendar refill.”
Staples: “What year?”
Me (biting tongue): “2010″
Staples: “But that’s next year.”
Me: “Er…yes…I need a refill for my current calendar.”
Staples: “We don’t carry that brand.”
Me: “You have an At-A-Glance display over there, but there’s nothing in it.”
Staples: “That’s a mistake.”
Me: “That you have the display or that it’s not filled?”
Staples: “Yes. Sorry we can’t help you.”

And we web designers wonder why folks can’t fill out online forms…geez.

Why I hate the United Parcel Service (UPS)

12.09.2009 | Author: Eric Reiss
Wednesday
FatDUX needed a book – fast. Amazon US had it, Amazon UK didn’t. So, we ordered from the American .com site and paid a fortune for two-day, international courier delivery. This was last Wednesday.

Friday
Friday comes and goes. No word. No tracking number. No joy in Mudville.

Saturday
Saturday, a disturbingly thick envelope arrives via snail-mail from UPS. Tanya Neerskov from UPS Danmark A/S has determined that FatDUX Copenhagen ApS (an officially registered company in the Kingdom of Denmark, with a completely legitimate tax number), is not registered as an “import organization.”  Er…well…no. We design websites and such.

The thick envelope contains masses of paperwork that will need to be filed before we can receive our book (to be sent via snail-mail - "changes will be effected within 14 days"). According to Tanja, FatDUX Copenhagen must be re-categorized as an "officially registered importer of goods from outside the EU.”

There is a telephone number I can call for assistance. I call Saturday morning (about five minutes after the letter arrives). A recording tells me that if I really am desperate (I am) I can call another number (I do). The second number also tells me that I am out of luck until Monday at 8:30 AM.

Sunday
Sunday, I write the client report that might possibly have benefited from the knowledge purported to be in the book we ordered from Amazon.

Monday, 08:32
I call UPS. Unfortunately, Tanja is out sick that day. But Charlotte is very helpful. She explains that we need to pay sales tax on the book (normally, we do this at the post office and it takes no time at all). But because UPS has set these strange procedures in motion, we must now go to our “local tax office.” (Jeez, the total charge is only about USD 12) Good news: if we pay this today, UPS will send the book the very next day (Tuesday).

Charlotte explains that Tanja certainly must have called our office to determine the best way to expedite this package (she didn’t – I questioned everyone at FatDUX who was near a telephone on Friday when the book arrived at the UPS terminal). Also, Charlotte reminded me that we really should re-register our company so that we can avoid these problems in the future (er…I paid more for shipping than for the book and suddenly the delays are my fault???)

Next task - finding out where the local tax office is - we've never had cause to visit them. It turns out, the "local" tax office is about as far from our offices as two locations can be within the confines of Copenhagen County. But WTF…

Monday 12:16
Just after noon, I've now fought my way across town, arrived at my “local” tax office, and paid my sales tax (12 damned dollars). The genuinely charming woman behind the counter at the tax office explains that she must now fax (yes, fax) a note to the customs officials that the sales tax has been paid. “They go past the fax regularly. Your book will be released from customs very soon.”

Monday 13:55
I call UPS to hear the status. I am transferred to the sales department. But they need a shipping number, which I don’t have – only my customs number. No. They cannot transfer the call. No. Their system cannot access customs-clearance numbers. No. This is just not the right number for any help whatsoever.

Monday 14.01
I  call UPS again and am transferred to the customs department. I get the proper freight number. No, they cannot transfer me to the sales department. No. They cannot expedite the package. No. This is just not the right number for any help whatsoever.

Monday 14:05
I call UPS again (the operator now recognizes my voice). The sales department checks my freight number. No. The package has not cleared customs. Sorry, nothing they can do about this. I will need to take this up with the customs department.

Monday 14:07
I call UPS (the operator and I chat about bureaucracy and the limitations of modern technology). The customs department asks me to fax my tax receipts to them. After some negotiation, we agree that a scan sent as an e-mail attachment is also a viable legal instrument.  At any rate, UPS promises to send a reminder to the Danish customs authorities.

Monday 14:11
We scan all our documentation and send it to the e-mail address provided by our new friend at UPS, Hinna Somia. She (and the operator) are the first sensible people we’ve encountered at UPS.

Monday 14:13
Hinna forwards our mail to Kim Andersen at the tax office.

Monday 17:25:36 +0200
Kim Andersen announces that our book has cleared customs. Clearly, it took Kim from three to five hours to take care of this major task.

Tuesday (all bloody day)
We wait. No book. No e-mails. No nothing.

Wednesday 08:31
I call UPS. Message? The book went on the truck at 06:47 this morning “This is an express package, so it’s getting special priority”.

And I’m silently cursing, “don’t pee on my boots and tell me it’s raining…” Define "express" please...and "priority" too.

I then ask, “Why didn’t the book go out yesterday as you had promised?”

“Promised? Who promised? UPS can't make promises. We cannot be held accountable for unforseen delays. Besides, your company isn’t registered properly. And even after it cleared customs, we had to wait for an inspector to come by and approve the package.”

"Er...someone from the tax office came by to inspect the package? Yesterday," I ask, slightly astonished.

"Yes," came the cocky, self-confident reply.

"Why? I'd expect an inspection to take place BEFORE I paid import duties and tax.

"Don't tell us how to do our job!" The UPS phone didn't slam down, but it came damned close...

"Hello??" I asked...but the line was dead.

Wednesday 10:54
The book arrives. The package is unopened. Not sure what any "inspection" might have consisted of...

Aftermath
Gosh, I’ve been receiving books in my company’s name for almost a decade. No problem – the customs people ask me to pay sales tax or import duties and I do. Simple – I do this at the post office when I pick up my package and it takes no time at all. And no one has ever asked my to reregister my company! Why should the procedures for importing a book be so much more difficult when a courier service is involved?

Honestly UPS, how could you possible waste so many people’s time? My goodness, the Kingdom of Denmark has actually lost money on this deal. My tax was DKK 79.70 or about USD 12. But if you work out the salaries for everyone involved it must be at least 10 times this amount). And UPS, why did you lie and say you had “agreed on procedure with my office” when you never called? And I strongly suspect you of lying again when you tell me that a package needs to be inspected after it has been released from customs.

Most importantly, how can you, dear UPS, rationalize delaying a priority shipment for five days after its arrival? What authority have you given Tanja Neerskov have that she has the audacity to tell me my company is improperly registered? (Tanja and Charlotte are what we used to call "skrankepaver" in Danish.

And Amazon.com. Are you aware that I will NEVER EVER EVER use this service again?

Some thoughts on immortality

22.08.2009 | Author: Eric Reiss
My grandfather had a long, good life. He had a successful professional career. He was respected by his peers. He was married for 50 years and raised a fine family.

Carl E. Zibold died in 1965.

Apart from my vague childhood recollections, I have little to remember him by – a few photos and his wallet (I have no idea how I happen to have his wallet). The wallet is a curious microcosm – a driver’s license, an insurance card, a lodge membership, and professional accreditations – the paper ephemera of a distant era.

As is often the case, after a generation or two, folks from the pre-digital age are quietly forgotten, even though they may have impacted on many lives. The artifacts are few, the memories faded. There are only five living family members who ever met my grandfather.

We continue to experiment with social-networking tools, yet I can’t help but wonder what effect this will have on our own “immortality”. Will our digital personae last longer than a human generation or two? Will we be remembered beyond a small family circle? If so, how? And why?

Will we be judged on our number of LinkedIn connections? Or friends on Facebook?

Will we be remembered because of our profile on Crowdvine? Or our musings on Twitter?

What legacy will we leave?

Perhaps some of us will achieve wider recognition because we left the world a better place. Because we contributed actively to moving mankind in a positive direction. Because we understood that personal priorities must ultimately sync with the greater good.

Perhaps immortality depends on the value of our ideas, not the breadth of our network.

What do you think? What DO you think?

 

wallet


"Hi Grandpa! Welcome to cyberspace. Who knows where we'll end up? I miss you."

 



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Sex in centre court: user experience at Wimbledon

27.06.2009 | Author: Eric Reiss
Let me make this clear: I have no intention of making this post politically correct. If you’re easily offended, click off now.
 
CNN Sports just aired a weird report about the women tennis players, currently slogging it out on the three courts at Wimbledon. The “centre court” is the most prestigious place to play. And yet some major tournament winners (Svetlana Kuznetsova, for example), have been relegated to side courts while lesser players are being showcased in centre court, such as Denmark’s Caroline Wozniaki (Danish born of Polish parents, if you were wondering).
 
Now Caroline ranks number nine on the WTF’s list for women’s singles, so she’s clearly no slouch (Svetlana is ranked number five). But it was fascinating to see CNN work so hard to avoid mentioning the obvious: the good-looking women are getting centre court exposure. Caroline ranks number three on cutiepietennis.com. Svetlana didn’t make the cut.
 
“I don’t understand this scheduling,” asked Svetlana with innocence in her voice and daggers in her eyes. Great CNN interview where a picture was truly worth a thousand words.

 

tennis 

Caroline (left), Svetlana (right). Images borrowed from cutiepietennis.com and svetlana-kuznetsova.com]


Wimbledon is about user experience
Although no one will ever have proof, it would seem the organizers of this tournament have considered that sex appeal will create a better user experience and raise more cash. And centre court is the pricy ticket (and where the TV cameras are). Now this theory is just guesswork on my part (wink, wink), but the strategy certainly makes sense. The fact that this story made it to CNN suggests that there is something to it.
 
Political correctness doesn’t always mean good business
Here in Denmark, many people still believe it is bad manners to discuss money. This is also an example of political correctness – at least in terms of our local culture. For decades, “profit” was a dirty word, never spoken in polite society. This started to change in the late 80s and early 90s. But the problem still lurks just under the surface.
 
Problem, you ask? Yes, that’s exactly what it is. You cannot run a business without thinking about profit. And you cannot make wise decisions if you avoid discussing profit with your colleagues and advisors. Or avoid talking about the use of sex as a commercial draw at Wimbledon.
 
And this relates to the web…how?
When FatDUX pitches new Danish clients, you can almost hear the gasp when we suggest that a website should become a profit center. There are three things at play here. First, older business leaders still think that a website is just an electronic brochure, so using the web in a more proactive manner is a very hard concept for them to grasp. Second, how can a site become a profit center? (“We’re not an e-commerce company. We don’t sell online.) Third, it’s still rude to talk about money.
 
The first issue is tough. But as the economic situation becomes more and more dire for those companies that have dropped their advertising and fired their sales force, some business leaders are starting to see that a good website is a must-have asset.
 
The second issue is even tougher. If people are not willing to talk about profitability, it’s difficult to formulate an effective internet strategy. This has very little to do with online sales. Rather, it’s about building trust, creating the shared reference that helps potential customers make the decision to contact your company. And ultimately, it’s about improving the bottom line, no matter which revenue streams are in play.
 
It’s not particularly difficult to create a useful website that supports business goals. But if this is what you need to build, then take my advice: get past the internal politics and forget political correctness.
 
And as to the third issue? To paraphrase the American advertising guru Rosser Reeves: “Do you want to be politically correct or do you want the damned sales curve to go up?”
 
Wimbledon seems to be getting it right. Are you?

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Eurocard - inconvenience disguised as service

26.06.2009 | Author: Eric Reiss
I’ve used Eurocard (the European equivalent of MasterCard) for about 20 years. That's why we also chose Eurocard for the FatDUX corporate cards. My particular card was set to expire sometime in 2010. So I was surprised when I got a new card in the mail with a nice cover letter already in April 2009:
 
“Here’s your new Eurocard Corporate Gold”
 
“New card, new name, same code…”
The letter went on to tell me that now that they had added the word “Corporate” that it would be easier for me to distinguish this particular card from the others in my wallet – not really a problem as far as I was concerned. Buried among the other services that were promoted (none of which were new), the letter discreetly suggested that I contact any companies that had my card number on file and let them know that it had changed.
 
Yikes. I could barely remember all of the places this particular card is registered. Why couldn’t they simply let the card expire normally? Was there a security issue? I could understand that. Or an improvement to the built-in chip? Who knows?
 
Bother disguised as improvement
I asked the company. After all, there was basically no advantage, just a lot of bother to me.
 
Janni Hansen of Eurocard Customer Service wrote back to tell me: “We had to make new cardnumbers on all Eurocard Gold Corporate cards, because of ‘Corporate’ had to be on the front of the card.”

No word as to why “Corporate” had to be on the front of the card. Or why the company had to issue new card numbers, etc. You'd think that if they could retain the PIN, they could also retain the card number.
 
And then the fun started…
Having missed the really fine print that explained the old card was soon to be cancelled, I unexpectedly found myself barred from the Copenhagen Airport Business Lounge.
 
Our electronic pass that automatically paid the toll-bridge to Sweden no longer worked.
 
Basecamp wrote a nasty letter:
“This is your first failed credit card transaction. You have 6 more days to update your credit card information before your account is frozen.”
 
I’ve since talked to a dozen different business entities. And I keep finding new places where our card number no longer works – from Amazon to Avis. Honestly, Eurocard, I’m so irritated this may well mark the end of a long and profitable relationship for you guys.
 
As I generally say when people disguise inconvenience as better service, “Don’t pee on my boots and tell me it’s raining.”

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Customer-service reading list

22.06.2009 | Author: Eric Reiss
After my talk on e-service, many folks have asked me to recommend books written by those "middle-aged guys in white shirts." Well here they are.
 
E-service: 24 ways to keep your customers - when the competition is just a click away
Ron Zemke, Tom Connellan
(Amacom, 2000)
 
Zemke has written 27 books on service management since the mid-80s, so it was only a question of time before he got around to the web. Apparently, he has conducted extensive usability testing in which he examined e-mail response time, shipping time, quality of product packaging, on-line help by actually having professional testers order products from Amazon and other on-line companies. Good stuff on hockey-stick satisfaction. Interesting reading for 35 year old managers who were too young to experience the service revolution in the 80s.
 
E-service: eat or be eaten – speed, technology & price build around service
John Tschohl
(Bestsellers, 2001)
 
Another of the off-line gurus makes his mark. For the most part, Tschohl applies typical off-line techniques to improving help desks and other semi-on-line activities. Not a bad book, but not as great as it could be. I really got the impression that he simply doesn’t understand either the UX or usability communities.
 
WAYMISH: why are you making it so hard for me to give you my money?
Ray Considine and Ted Cohn
(Waymish Publishing Co. (Pasadena, CA), 1996)
 
Considine was one of the great pundits of the service world and a personal friend. Alas, he died on Thanksgiving Day back in 2006. In WAYMISH, he describes a litany of service-related crimes caused by uninformed, inflexible, or just plain stupid service providers. A must read for all middle managers, and very useful for the UX crowd, too. I think a newer edition is available.
 
Customers.com: how to create a profitable business strategy for the internet and beyond
Patricia B. Seybold, with Ronni T. Marshak
(Times Business, 1998)
 
This high-powered CEO of the Patricia Seybold Group was one of the early proponents of business-process integration and has consulted extensively for Fortune 500 companies. Her observations are sharp, her sources are impeccable. Don't let the 1998 publication date put you off - rarely have the ground rules for e-commerce been explained so clearly. There is also some food for thought from a UX/customer service perspective, although this isn’t the main thrust of the book.
 
Service America: doing business in the new economy
Karl Albrecht and Ron Zemke
(Dow Jones Irwin, 1985)
 
This was about the first “new economy” not the digital revolution. I mention the book here because there’s some good SAS / British Airways stuff, plus Don Porter’s stats on customer surveys at Heathrow. Time Manager International and Scandinavian Service Management are also mentioned.
 
Dazzle Me! – how to deliver uncommonly good customer service every time
Editors at Dartnell
(Dartnell, 1997)
 
A little too much hype for my taste, but a typical book for the off-line crowd. Actually, if you can get beyond the noise, there is a lot of good advice. However, it will be up to you, the UX professionals to apply this knowledge in a meaningful manner when designing on-line ventures.
 
Improving Customer Satisfaction, Loyalty, and Profit
Michael Johnson, Anders Gustafsson
(Jossey-Bass, 2000)
 
Very solid old-school style textbook from the University of Michigan Business School. Good stuff on customer satisfaction surveys and defining usable metrics.
 
Talk to the hand: the utter bloody rudeness of the world today, or six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door
Lynne Truss
(Gotham, 2005)
 
Not exactly a service book, but brilliant nonetheless. Ms. Truss knows exactly what ticks people off – and that’s exactly the kind of stuff we want to avoid when designing an on-line experience.
 
Why we buy: the science of shopping
Paco Underhill
(Simon & Schuster, 1999) 
 
The most authoritative book on shopping ever written. I’ve learned bunches from Paco.
 
 


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Microblogging: the graffiti of cyberspace?

13.05.2009 | Author: Eric Reiss
The FatDUX site is overdue for an overhaul. Microblogging will be one of the new features. Our Duckmaster, Andrea Resmini, has asked that I work out some guidelines for the FatDUX family.

As practiced today, I think microblogging is being abused by self-promoters and debased by people who have absolutely nothing worthwhile to say. This is a shame - microblogging has great potential as a communicative concept.

What is microblogging?
For those of you who aren’t familiar with “microblogging,” it’s based on short (max. 140 character) text messages, sent to a group of predetermined subscribers, often via a mobile phone. Twitter is the application of choice (but Jaiku, Qaiku, and Plurk are also popular). Facebook and other social networking sites have similar functionality, generally termed “status updates.”

“Eric doesn’t get it”
I’ve been accused of not understanding the value of Twitter. And perhaps my critics are justified. On the other hand, let’s not confuse my personal dislike for the way Twitter is used and for the application itself, which I think is great.

Here’s my situation – I generally keep pretty busy and don't need microblogging to combat boredom. But most “tweets” add little value to my life. For example, travel is stressful enough without having to hear folks on Twitter announce “In a taxi on the way to the airport.”, “TSA folks can be such pricks” or “My flight is delayed”.

I’m not very interested in the doings of one’s brood either: “What’s suddenly wrong with Cheerios for breakfast?” “Just picked up the kids from school”, “Little Sarah won’t go to bed.”

On the other hand, I enjoy the backchat (backchannel chatter – and I don't necessarily mean negative remarks) at conferences. This is the kind of stuff that does provide me with vicarious value. The blow-by-blow reporting from presentations-in-progress is particularly useful. (Even so, I dislike the behind-your-back sniping, “This panel just crashed and burned. I’m outta here.”)

I realize these are my own views and that other folks probably love gossipy tweets. (Hmm…did Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame” just get reduced to 15 seconds?) But please give me better mechanisms to filter out the chirpchaff and give me the warblewheat. Happily, Qaiku is doing this by encouraging thread-based conversations. Twitter lags sadly behind in this regard.

Signal to noise
Let’s face it, some folks take pride in posting 5,000 - 20,000 updates (tweets) a year. But do you really want to receive all of them? Some come from twitterholics who feel the urge to make noise. Others are incorrigible self-promoters who think noise somehow equates with thought leadership. Please, work to improve your signal-to-noise ratio. The medium is NOT the message - don’t confuse the two.

There are also the self-promoters who are merely people collectors, such as actor Ashton Kutcher (first to gain a million Twitter followers). But with fairly little to say, I can’t imagine his following will last; if there is any long-term impact, it will probably be because he was able to get new users to sign up for the Twitter service. Oprah Winfrey falls kind of in the same category - I guess followers get a lift from Oprah's deep philosophical missives like "Hey tweeters, hope you're loving your Sunday as much as I am."

Twitter as a debate forum?
The news media, CNN in particular, have been good about using microblogging as a debate forum. Since many full-scale blogs are also debate fora, this activity would seem to be part of a natural evolution. (CNN competed with Kutcher in the race to 1 million followers).

The problem is that like all politically heated environments, microbloggers are already subject to bullying, online threats – and offline violence. The debate rages as to whether user-based moderation of such discussions works.

In the recent South African election, the ANC used Twitter fairly effectively as a debate forum – a good gimmick in a country where text messaging has exploded in recent years. For an excellent account of the election activities and some good discussion of the pros and cons of political twittering, check out the superb Voice Of Africa blog.

One of the more interesting points related to the limits to message size:
“But, does [Twitter] add value in this case?  Most people in South Africa are probably familiar with the ANC’s policy positions already.  A 140 character recap of the standard positions (140 characters is about 1 sentence) can’t really tell you anything deeper.”

Nevertheless, the medium does seem to lend itself nicely to discussions of current events – even on a very local level (a conference, for example).

Keep it short
Keeping messages to under 140 characters does have one key advantage: it forces people to get to the point. This assumes they actually have something to say.

The French philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal (of triangle fame) once remarked, “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” (I made this letter longer than usual because I didn’t have time to make it shorter.)

If people want to be true thought leaders, my advice would be to tweet less and think more.

So, when the FatDUXlings start to microblog, our guidelines will be simple: say something relevant to our fields of interest, say it gracefully, say it in as few words as possible. And stop.

Don’t tweet when you’re mad or drunk or…
At a conference recently, someone Twittered “I think Eric Reiss just lied to me during his presentation.” Since I hadn’t lied, I was momentarily offended by this tweetshot until I realized it was juvenile self-promotion. But, I’m both thick-skinned and ethical, which helps me ignore the slings and arrows of outrageous Twitterers.

Rule Number One of Twittering: Don’t tweet when you’re mad, drunk, or under the influence of your own ego. Stupid comments live forever. And although microblogging can be fantastic, reducing this elegant concept to that of mere electronic graffiti is truly a waste.

Diamonds…and tweets…are forever
Here are some publicly available musings:

“On April 19th, I made bread.”

“XX got me pregnant.”

Today, almost identical comments can be found in two places: on Twitter and the walls of Pompeii. (the name of the purported father-to-be changed from Atimetus to Dave.)

Caveat Twitterati: you never know when or by whom your musings will be seen. So say something worthwhile.

pompeii

Graffiti at Pompeii.


A visit to the Reichstag in Berlin
Sir Norman Foster, the British architect, reworked the Reichstag (parliament) in Berlin, which reopened in 1999. It had been abandoned since 1933 - the Nazis burned it as an excuse to arrest Communists and other political opponents.

After the Battle of Berlin in April/May 1945, Soviet soldiers “decorated” the surviving walls of the burned and bombed hulk. Sir Norman felt the graffiti was significant in terms of the building’s history and preserved it (after translators censored the obscene comments).

Twitteren erwachen: do you want to go down in history as a social commentator or as a vandal? Stealing my time is vandalism.

reichstag

Graffiti at the Reichstag.


A visit to Charlottenlund Station outside Copenhagen
The train station in Charlottenlund, Denmark, just north of Copenhagen, features a lot of graffiti. Not gang-tags or spray-painted innertube script. Rather, these are names and dates written in pencil, which have surprisingly survived for many decades.

Charlottenlund Station in Denmark, built in 1895.


station

Graffiti at Charlottenlund Station


nielsen

Ms. Nielsen's message has survived an entire century.

In the last photo, you’ll see a young lady’s tag from October 1909. It is slightly obscured by a modern billboard. In a few weeks, the advertisement will have changed. But Ms. Nielsen’s tag will live on. I wonder if she could have imagined that her spontaneous scrawl would survive an entire century? Or be blogbeamed around the world?


Twitter-folk: if you want your name to live forever, choose a resilient medium. Although pencil on brick sometimes works, ideas are truly immortal.

More ideas, please.

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Busy booksellers in Montana

01.05.2009 | Author: Eric Reiss
I bought an interesting book in the United States a few weeks ago. It turns out, it is the second volume of a trilogy – but the first volume is now out of print. So, I turned to Alibris, the well-known online used bookseller for help.

Since I live in Denmark, I naturally chose the UK site rather than the US version. And I found a bookseller, John B. Driscoll, Ltd, who had the book at a reasonable price.

On April 14, I placed my order.

And waited.

On April 23, I received an e-mail that my order had been shipped “today.” Except that according to the actual order, my book had been shipped two days earlier on April 21.

Upon closer investigation, it seems John B. Driscoll, Ltd. is located in Helena, Montana.

My book is expected to arrive on May 9.

So, here are my questions:

First, why did an American vendor get priority exposure on a UK site? Why even bother with a UK site if it isn’t selective?

Second, why did it take a full seven days to wrap a book and put it in the mail? It seems booksellers in Helena, Montana are busier than I would have thought.

Third, why did it take a full two days for Alibris to send an e-mail telling me the book was in the mail?

Quite frankly, I am seriously underwhelmed. I know that when I deal with companies online, I generally get a better selection than I would find at a bricks-and-mortar shop. And the tradeoff is that I accept having to wait for an order to arrive – no instant gratification here. But I do expect online service providers to make a modest attempt to keep my waiting time to a minimum.

order
"We shipped your order today" wrote Alibris - a full two days later on April 23. This gives a whole new meaning to the concept of "today".
Equal time to Alibris
Before publishing this post, I did pose exactly these questions to Customer Service at Alibris.

After the usual problems of finding a useful contact e-mail, which was buried somewhere in the FAQ, I did receive a prompt and somewhat helpful answer from Tim Garvey, Alibris Client Services. Here is his explanation:

"If you're ordering on our UK website to ship to an European address, shipping costs will be less than the US website."

OK. A thoroughly reasonable explanation. However, cognitively, this makes little sense to me as I don't understand Alibris' distribution routines. I would think that the company would always try to achieve the lowest shipping costs no matter which site I use.

Tim continues:
"The delay in shipping you saw was the seller sending their book to our distribution center for consolidation before it was shipped to you."

Again, I have no knowledge of distribution centers or other logistical elements within the Alibris organization. So, if Mr. Driscoll can't get his act together and send the book promptly, well, here's a customer-service aspect that is begging for improvement.

Tim concludes:
"I can't speak to the exact reason for the delay in shipment notification, but I'll be sure to look into that for you and make sure it doesn't happen again!"

Good, clean answer. But my advice would be that all three of the problems need to be addressed in some way.

Fix things BOTH ways
As is the case in every complaint situation, fix things BOTH ways. In other words, make sure to fix the root of the problem, don't just make me happy. Here's how.

The first action should be to ask John B. Driscoll, Ltd. why they waited so long to send the book to begin with. Next, find out what the average delay is across the board - how many other booksellers are equally slow? Then figure out if there's any way Alibris can encourage booksellers to expedite orders on a same-day basis - carrot (loyalty program benefits), stick (we'll kick you out of the system if you don't perform). Finally, follow up with customer satisfaction surveys to establish a baseline and revisit these issues regularly.

There's also a basic disconnect between what we customers perceive as happening when we place an order and what actually happens. If the point of the UK site is to reduce shipping charges to European customers, then this needs to be communicated more clearly. However, I do wonder if this is enough reason to justify the existance of a UK site. If I am to believe Tim Garvey's answer, this is pretty much the ONLY reason for this site - which, as a web strategist and businessman, makes no sense to me.

Do you have any other helpful suggestions to give these folks?

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A tale of two museums

23.04.2009 | Author: Eric Reiss
This past year, I visited two strangely related museums: the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, USA, and the House of Terror in Budapest, Hungary. Both museums are in historically significant buildings. Both deal with human oppression. Yet the experiences couldn’t have been more different. Let me share them with you.

The National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis
The NCRM opened in September 1991 as an extension built onto the Lorraine Motel. The Lorraine was where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April, 1968. The actual motel rooms used by Dr. King and his entourage represent the culmination of the museum's semi-chronological history of the civil-rights movement.

museum 

The National Civil Rights Museum built onto the Lorraine Motel, site of Dr. King's assassination.


The color scheme of the museum is drab – mostly brown and gray with dirty orange and a dusty blue for contrast. I was reminded of the colors perceived by folks who are colorblind. Perhaps this was a conscious decision. Nevertheless, the result is ugly. Worse still, the exhibits feature more flat paper reproductions of photos and newspapers, and more text than any other museum I have ever visited.

Because picture-taking was not allowed, please check out the museum’s own link:
http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/permexhibits.htm

Oddly, the disappointingly few physical artifacts were hardly labeled at all. I guess that the gaudy uniform once belonged to Marcus Garvey, but, well, this is just a guess.

The physical layout created numerous bottlenecks for the visitors. At one point, the whole place seemed so claustrophobic that I just wanted to get out. Happily I stuck it out and saw Dr. King’s motel room, which was exceptionally moving.

Across the street, the museum has a second exhibition in the boarding house where James Earl Ray, King’s presumed assassin stayed. But since admission to the second section required going back across the street to check my camera (but not my phone), I decided I’d had enough and left.

Too monochromatic. Too many words. Too boring.

I’m a child of the 50s. I grew up in St. Louis where the civil-rights movement and desegregation played major roles in my world. Yet I left the civil-rights museum without any particularly meaningful feelings (except with regard to the hotel room), and didn’t feel I had learned very much.

Information overload, plain and simple.

I was accompanied by a friend who is younger and has a very different demographic background. Yet his impression of the museum “experience” was virtually identical to mine.

Here's a YouTube video with the Museum's director, Beverly Robertson. Apart from a few artifact displays (and two busses), notice the amount of text there is in the exhibits:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NyxuAb_zlFE&videos=9dDJiUb9vH8

A brief description of video codecs
Video codecs compress television images so that they can be transmitted over great distances, on smaller bandwidths. The MPEG 4 algorithm takes the 24 frames-per-second of broadcast video and analyses the content. Unless movement is perceived, a codec will only refresh a pixel once every two or three frames.

What this means is, if you watch a football game, the pixels containing players and the ball will be transmitted almost all of the time. But the grass will only be transmitted a third of the time. Because players are important and grass isn’t.

So why do I mention this? Because the National Civil Rights Museum couldn’t distinguish between players and grass. The curators included every scrap they could dig up and they exhausted my cognitive bandwidth. A little MPEG 4 or feng shui would have gone a long way.

If it were up to me, I’d start over. I hope they will someday. How sad that such an important project was allowed to go so very wrong.

Terror Háza - The House of Terror, Budapest
Hungary had a disasterous 20th century. Most Central European nations did. But I didn’t really appreciate the plight of the Hungarians until I visited the House of Terror in Budapest.

Andrássy út (Andrassy Street) is Budapest’s finest avenue, leading from the center of Pest to the magnificent Hero’s Square and the city park at the other end. Of the street’s many notable buildings, number 60 is also the most notorious.

terror 

The House of Terror at Andrássy út 60 in Budapest, Hungary

In 1937, the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party (Hungarian Nazis), leased the building, which was dubbed the “House of Loyalty.” In 1944, when the Arrow Cross assumed control of the government, the House of Loyalty quickly became known as the House of Terror. After the defeat of Germany in 1945 and up to 1956, the building housed two murderous Communist organizations, the ÁVO and ÁVH. Both groups had offices above ground and cells and torture chambers in the basement.

The political persuasion of the occupiers - fascist or communist - made no difference whatsoever. Officers serving at Andrássy út 60 were masters of life and death.

In February 2002, the building was reopened as a museum, the exhibitions designed by the multitalented architect, Attila F. Kovács.

Once again, photography was not allowed, but do check out the gallery pages on the museum’s questionably structured website:
http://www.terrorhaza.hu/en/index_2.html

The outside façade has been restored to its pre-war glory. But the roof has been equipped with a metal “eyebrow.” When the sun is high in the sky, the ominous word “Terror” appears as a black shadow along the front.

Inside, the metaphors continue – with barely a written word to be found, or indeed needed. Instead, a simple descriptive sheet can be taken from a holder in each room. I collected these and skimmed them during my visit, saving them to read in detail later.

One of the most moving rooms was a long rectangular space with rough-hewn planks along the walls. The rug on the floor was a map – I entered the room in western Hungary. Along the walls, video screens show black-and-white movies of Hungarians anno 1950. Soft music plays in the background.

As I made my way through the room, I suddenly noticed that all the screens had changed to show a desolate landscape moving past, as though past the window of a train. The music had changed to the clackity-clack of the rails. I was in a boxcar being transported to a Soviet work camp. The map on the rug showed my progress.

I think this room is known as the "Gulag Room." I found a brief clandestine video of it on YouTube, but unfortunately without the train effects:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDqjfkmctuQ

The entire museum was one of personal discovery. It encouraged me to read more about Hungarian history. And it was tremendously frightening, despite the elegantly simple exhibits.

So why are these museums so different?
Only 11 years separate them in terms of age. Yet the National Civil Rights Museum is a catastrophe and the House of Terror is an artistic and educational triumph. Perhaps it’s because the NCRM tries so hard to provide a complete picture while the HoT lets our imagination do much of the work.

Could it be that we should be viewing more interactive media (e.g. websites) as voyages of discovery rather than merely informational repositories? Naturally, if we just want to know when a restaurant is open, the good experience lies in our ability to get this information fast.

But maybe we need to think about moving a little slower once in a while. For example at http://www.wordsatplay.com

What do you think?

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