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28 November 2006

Not Fast Enough, It Seems

Yesterday's New York Times reminds us of the drudgery behind fast-food jobs.

From the car window, the whole fast-food experience is a numbing routine. Pull up. Order from the billboard. Idle. Pay. Drive away. Fast food has become a $120 billion motorized American experience.

But consider the life inside that window on Loop 12 in West Dallas. There is a woman with children and no health insurance, undereducated, a foot soldier in the army of the working poor. The fry cook sneezes on the meat patties. Cigarettes go half smoked. Cameras spy on the employees. Customers throw their fries and soft drinks sometimes because they think it's funny.

"I hate this job," Ms. Castillo says with a smile. "I hate it." It is her third drive-through job. First it was Whataburger. Then McDonald's. Now here. It is becoming a career.

But the same paper, several months ago, reminded us that the drive-through job is, thanks to the wonders of technology, getting more and more replete with drudgery thanks to outsourcing the ordering process.

Customers pulling up to the drive-through menu are connected to the computer of a call-center employee using Internet calling technology. The first thing the McDonald's customer hears is a prerecorded greeting in the voice of the employee. The order-takers' screens include the menu and an indication of the whether it is time for breakfast or lunch at the local restaurant. A "notes" section shows if that restaurant has called in to say that it is out of a particular item.

When the customer pulls away from the menu to pay for the food and pick it up, it takes around 10 seconds for another car to pull forward. During that time, Mr. King said, his order-takers can be answering a call from a different McDonald's where someone has already pulled up.

The remote order-takers at Bronco earn the minimum wage ($6.75 an hour in California), do not get health benefits and do not wear uniforms. Ms. Vargas, who recently finished high school, wore jeans and a baggy white sweatshirt as she took orders last week.

The call-center system allows employees to be monitored and tracked much more closely than would be possible if they were in restaurants. Mr. King's computer screen gives him constant updates as to which workers are not meeting standards. "You've got to measure everything," he said. "When fractions of seconds count, the environment needs to be controlled."

And the trend is continuing, if this Boston Globe story is accurate.

Fritton [a Wendy's franchisee] eventually agreed to fly to Colorado and sit for an hour in a rival's parking lot and see what the technology could do. He watched car after car zoom through a McDonald's drive-through at a rate he'd never seen—more than 125 cars during lunch hour. At the time, Fritton's stores were doing about 85 cars an hour during lunchtime.

"Using call centers allows us to provide a high level of service and be able to do that from a remote location in an environment where the crew can be much more comfortable," Don Thompson, president of McDonald's USA, said in a recent interview. "What it allows us to do is to use the same crew person who was taking orders to go out to be much more hospitable to guests."

What a country. Fast food already bleaches, blends, steams, microwaves, and mechanically separates all of the soul out of food. Fortunately, technology allows two speed-ups in one: orders can be placed with one set of lowly workers, who are timed down to the second, and fulfilled with another, who are both carefully monitored and easily replaced. And the customer, who might occasionally sympathize with the workers involved, has no idea that the speed-ups took place at all.

Posted by Tim W at 11/28/2006 09:02:00 PM

27 November 2006

Remedial Math

When there is a squabble over voting machines in Katherine Harris's old Congressional district, one should expect reporting on the election and its aftermath in the local paper. (The Boston Globe reprinted this from the Orlando Sentinel.) In the 13th Congressional district race, Christine Jennings points out that undervotes in her election—when lower-profile races had far fewer undervotes—probably cost her a victory.

A paper trail might have provided clues to what happened Nov. 7, but Florida officials have balked at requiring such backup. The state Legislature repeatedly has killed measures to require a verifiable paper trail, and neither Governor Jeb Bush nor the secretary of state's office has pushed the idea....

Earlier this week, state officials certified Republican Vern Buchanan the winner over Democrat Christine Jennings by 369 votes, or less than 0.02 percent, in the 13th congressional district.

Jennings has contested the election, arguing that touch-screen voting machines had malfunctioned and asking a judge to order a new election. State officials said Wednesday they would test voting machines, including five used in Sarasota County on Election Day, for accuracy.

The "0.02 percent" meme appeared in several stories since the election.

The certified totals are 119,309 votes for Buchanan, and 118,940 votes for Jennings. The difference, 369, divided by the total number of votes, 238,249, is 0.001549 or 0.1549%.

To all journalism majors, and all editors out there, to get percent (shorthand for the Latin meaning "for every hundred"), multiply by 100. Not 10. Not 1000. One hundred. And it is especially important to get the math right when mathematics is at the crux of one candidate's argument for special consideration by the courts. That is all.

Posted by Tim W at 11/27/2006 01:07:00 PM

22 November 2006

Pick the Surprise

Which of these three recent happenings is truly surprising?

That a detailed report explains that substantial portion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank comprise land either privately owned by Palestinians or seized by Israel through dodgy means?

That the source of the report is a group of well-meaning Israelis?

Or that the release of the report actually made it to the front page of an American newspaper?

The answer is, of course, the third one. It should surprise no one that two generations of Israeli governments have viewed the West Bank and Gaza Strip as extralegal fiefdoms. The closest modern equivalent to the settlements in these regions are the infamous Bantustans of South Africa; the comparison between Israel and South Africa would be completely unfair, except that during South Africa's tenure as a pariah state, Israel was one of its only political and military allies.

And it should come as no surprise that Israeli policy toward the Occupied Territories is a matter of full and frank debate in Israeli society. Thousands of loyal Israelis, Jewish and Arab both, would eagerly welcome a Palestinian state with actual sovereignty over its territory, with actual revenues, and actual prospects for the future. Other loyal Israelis, Jewish and Arab both, would instead welcome a secular state that would encompass both Israel and Palestine.

Finally, it is quite surprising that a major American newspaper would dare to highlight the real divisions in Israeli society about its politics and policies. Whether the question is Israel's recent military rejoinders against Hezbollah in Lebanon, or its longstanding occupation of its neighboring territories, opinions that are mainstream in Israel are somehow outré in America. And provocative but constructive opinions in Tel Aviv are somehow beyond the pale in New York. With any luck, that dichotomy will disappear.

Posted by Tim W at 11/22/2006 04:46:00 PM

20 November 2006

Recommended Reading

I have not had the pleasure of reading the recent book by biologist Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. But I can report that if past actions have any parallel, then this letter to the editor means that the book must be excellent:

Congratulations to Jim Holt for his penetrating review of Richard Dawkins's "God Delusion" (Oct. 22). He has clearly exposed the shallowness of Dawkins's position and left room for mystery—for the important questions we all ask but for which no definitive answers are possible.

No serious thinker should treat either scientific or religious issues with the cavalier superficiality and downright ignorance revealed in Dawkins's discussion of religion.

John Silber

The writer is president emeritus of Boston University.

All that one needs to know about Massachusetts politics and culture in the past twenty years is that by doing the exact opposite of what John Silber did, or wanted to do, one would have led a useful, ethical, and moral life.

Posted by Tim W at 11/20/2006 01:11:00 AM

Ownership Society

Why does it takes someone like me to remind the New York Times that what corporations "reward shareholders" by buying back stock, they reward shareholders who are cashing out, not the shareholders who stand pat? (To be fair, the article in question noted that some companies use stock buybacks as a conduit to give buckets of shares to top managers.)

With more space, I would have gone on to write that when a corporation buys back stock, it also penalizes those shareholders who might want to buy more stock by making the stock just that much more expensive.

And with even more space, I would note that rare to nonexistent is the company that actually allows shareholders any real voice in corporate governance. The "ownership society" so beloved by conservatives is an objective boon, as long as the universe in question comprises corporate board members and corporate officers.

Posted by Tim W at 11/20/2006 12:59:00 AM

Great Moments in Advertising

The latest issue of Business Week has a puff piece about the online game Simple Life and how real-life businesses are using it for advertising and promotional purposes. Except that there are, well, a few hitches.

None of the companies spending real money to launch campaigns can yet gauge how successful their efforts will be, and virtual campaigns aren't without their own unique dangers. One problem is hackers, who periodically shut down Second Life....Annoyed vigilante residents have set off bombs—via malicious computer code—that destroy virtual buildings or cause the application on your computer to freeze....And there is one weird technical glitch: When a space is swamped with visitors (more than 60 to 90), a bug in the system can make avatars' clothes disappear.

And yet Business Week devoted a slew of glossy pages to this amazing advertising opportunity. Here, for example, is how Major League Baseball used Second Life to reach a whole new set of fans:

Why: Promotion, social marketing.
What: Built a virtual version of the new Yankee Stadium with avatar players whose movements real game play; streamed in Home Run Derby in July and a New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox doubleheader in September.
Rivals: None yet.
Facts: Drew 60 avatars—a virtual full house—for all three games.

So, Major League baseball spends a big chunk of programming time, and certainly a healthy chunk of money, to attract 180 potential fans? And this is a success story?

Some fools will believe anything.

Posted by Tim W at 11/20/2006 12:46:00 AM

13 November 2006

Economies of Scale

On the evening 9 November, two days after the Democrats somehow manage not to lose an election to the Republicans, the editorial page editors of newspapers are eager to find pithy, insightful letters for their pages. And, lo, the New York Times found a nice letter from Bruce Barnbaum of Granite Falls, Washington:

The election is over, and the Democrats have won a major victory. The interminable campaigning has finally ended.

Just a week ago, during the campaign, President Bush said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was doing a "fantastic" job and would remain in his position till the end of his administration.

On Wednesday, with the election results in, the president promptly announced Mr. Rumsfeld's resignation, saying discussions of his resignation had been going on for some time.

We have just witnessed the latest of a continuing series of lies and deceptions by this president. Now, after six years of Republican control of Congress in which Democrats were considered little more than a nuisance, President Bush is suddenly talking about bipartisanship.

Does anyone think that this is anything other than his next lie in the continuing series?

And lo, with very minor editing, the same letter from the same correspondent appears in the Boston Globe.

Why the two papers cannot do something similar with, say, David Brooks and Cathy Young, I do not understand. Perhaps this was just a test case, to see if anyone would notice.

Posted by Tim W at 11/13/2006 11:46:00 AM

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