Customers Aren’t Idiots

While driving home over the Thanksgiving weekend, Megan and I talked about our respective retail experiences. I had worked at Waldenbooks/Borders for several years, while she had worked at Borders, Fashion Bug and Weis, a grocery store in the Pennsylvania area. It’s not a stretch to say that we’re both fairly disillusioned with how things worked in each of the stores, but I don’t believe that the retail experience has to be bad for either the customer, or the people working there. There are certainly plenty of examples of places that are fairly decent to work for, and there were points in both of our stores where we felt that we enjoyed what we did.

The crux of the problem seems to lie in a band between the upper management to direct the strategic concerns for whatever company you’re working with, and the people on the ground level: the middle manager level seems to be the biggest issue, because it allows for the priorities, directions and strategy from the upper echelons to be interpreted, translated and carried out, and in each of our cases, this was where things went very wrong.

We both had several stories of how our individual stores had fairly competent people working in them: employees and sales people who genuinely wanted to sell the products that we were selling, with a number of additional requirements handed down from up on high. In my own experience, booksellers had the directions to not only greet a customer when they entered the door, but to follow them around the store to be available. If a person asked for a book, we were to lead them to the book, place it in their hands, and do the same for any number of recommended titles. At the register, there was the usual script of asking if the customer had a loyalty card (Rewards Card, sorry), and if they were interested in any of the numerous ‘key items’ that were located near the register.

If I was a customer walking into the store for the first time, I’d never return.

Stores that sell non-essential items like books, films, clothing and other related things generally mean that the customer isn’t pressured to buy something – they’re there voluntarily, rather than by necessity, and as such, the customer should be treated as someone other than a source of income for the company: stores such as Borders, F.Y.E., Fashion Bug and numerous others have the wrong approach by forcing items into the hands of customers. The difference that I can see here is in how the customer is viewed by the respective companies: rather than a sales focus, the people on the ground, in the stores should adopt a better customer service model that would allow them to accomplish the same goal without harassing the customers.

I cannot begin to count how many people refused, and have gotten annoyed, or even angry at me for asking if they had the Rewards Card. Several years ago, Borders began their rewards card system, which allowed someone with a card to accrue a certain percentage of their purchases for the holidays and for every hundred dollars, they’d earn $5 back. It’s a good system, and I can see the logic behind it: people who use a card will have an incentive to return.

The problem here comes with the requirements and quotas laid down by the company: with a finite pool of people to receive the card, the percentages of new signups will come down over a set period of time. The opposite reaction occurred: quotas went up, and several of my friends were fired as a result, for either signing up blank cards, using the same one over again, to keep up with the demand. Looking back, it’s a problem that existed within the company, without taking into consideration the human element: the program turned from something that enticed customers (and continued to do so for the people who did sign up) but also estranged those who weren’t interested in the card from day one. The card and the policy behind it failed to adapt to the changes in the environment: as more people signed up, better, more realistic expectations should have been set, and further goals for retention should have been examined.

The problem here, and with the instructions to place books in people’s hands, seem to have come from a company that looked only at the numbers, rather than the people who were coming into the store. While I suspect that such practices worked; pointing out books to customers will gain a couple of sales, and should be continued, this only further reinforced the idea that more aggressive policies will equal a resulting sales figure. That comes across to me as being extremely shortsighted: costumers, fatigued with pressure from an aggressive sales front, will go elsewhere, so that they’re not bothered or pressured into getting things that they don’t want. From where I stood in the company, it seemed as though the management on the district level used a heavy hand when it came to selling their products: push as much out through the door, rather than retaining a population of customers that would return to the store because of the selection of products, the attitude of the sales staff and someone who was satisfied out the door.

As an employee there, I had very little customer service training: no poorly acted videos, program, probationary period, with little idea of the goals and ins and outs of the company as it stood. Quality customer service comes with the people at the front, and the goals that were established for them. Essentially, we were the people handing over the books to the people who wanted them, with little interest in anything else.

There are other companies out there that have done things far differently: Apple, AT&T, Zappos and Netflix all come to mind, as their models are more oriented towards customer satisfaction, rather than sales. Through the job that I currently have, I’ve attended several webinars and read up on the subject, and it’s clear that any business – especially in an environment where consumers are more discriminating with their money. These companies, either in their stores, or over the phone (AT&T is horrid over the phone) are generally very good with their front of the line sales – this breaks down a bit depending on the issue, but for the most part, these places are ones that I’ve had fairly pleasant dealings with.

Such interactions, with people, rather than an anonymous sales figure or customer service representative are essential. People react positively within their own networks, and generally trust sales and information received from people who they know personally: this is one of the biggest strengths of using social media (and utilizing it well), because people will listen to their friends, and will talk about issues. The same logic can be applied in stores, with a customer sales person that works to make the customer happy, rather than simply filling the company’s bottom line. Essentially, information and innovation needs to move from the sales floor up, with a staff that has the latitude to work as needed, rather than from top down requirements. Store and company policy should be informed by the experiences that the employees see.

One of the reasons, I suspect, that the larger book stores are facing hard times is because they haven’t needed to understand this dynamic when it comes to their customers, because of their size, and as such, haven’t fostered a loyal following. People don’t tend to stick with the same stores out of loyalty: prices will help, but the experiences that a person has at any given store will help more. If they’re not satisfied, they’ll move to a competitor. As such, companies need to be able to adapt to the changes in the market place, and the changes in customer requirements. I suspect that sites such as Amazon.com have raised these expectations somewhat: having pretty much every item ever produced available, not to mention remembering what you purchased and searched for last time. This isn’t practical in a brick and mortar store, when it comes to stock, but what stores should be doing is focusing on creating a loyal base of customers, one that caters more to what they are looking for, with the intent on bringing them the best experience possible, and going about that in an intelligent fashion. The bottom line comes down to understanding the customer: they’re not idiots.

Understanding good customer service is something that will be essential in the future: companies that can’t adapt will simply fade away, while others, with more flexibility, will earn the money that the customers are willing to part with. At the end of the day, Megan and my experiences were similar: the front-line sales staff weren’t able to contribute or implement changes that were needed on our level, changes that could have contributed and translated to a better customer experience. It’s no wonder that some of these places aren’t able to compete.

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The Green Mountain Parkway and Vermont’s Future

I heard a ridiculous commentary on the radio on the drive in this morning. As I cut through the hills between Montpelier and Northfield on Route 12, I listened to a comparison between the Green Mountain Parkway and a road that has been proposed in Tanzania, which would cut across the Serengeti.

In 1931, a highway was proposed the length of the state, similarly to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina, and had the backing from various federal and state officials, while it was opposed by groups such as the Green Mountain Club. With a couple years of intense debate, the state voted in 1935, with the proposal failing in the House of Representatives, and going down again on town meeting date in 1936. Since then, the state has remained with two segments of highway: I-89, which cuts across West Lebanon and winds its way up towards Canada, travelling through Montpelier and Burlington on the way, while I-91 comes up from Massachusetts and shoots to the north. The Green Mountain parkway would have begun at the bottom of the state at Massachusetts and worked its way up through the middle of the state, connecting the western part of Vermont a bit more efficiently to New York and its namesake city.

I for one, would like to imagine what the state might have been like had the road been built. The 260 mile highway would have likely brought a number of needed jobs to the state during the Great Depression, and would have provided a massive infrastructure base for the future of the state. As the road never progressed beyond the planning state, we’ll never know for sure, but after seeing the state have its own issues over the last couple of years, I would have imagined that such a project would have been heplful in the present day. The major population center, Burlington, is serviced by a small international airport (it goes to Canada), but is otherwise difficult to reach because of the lack of direct flights beyond some of the hubs, while reaching Burlington from somewhere like New York City by car means that someone has to drive up through Connecticut, Massachusetts and across the state in order to reach or, or up through New York and over some of the slower state highways. The short version is, it’s not a quick trip.

Currently, the state has a difficult time retaining businesses. Companies such as Ben & Jerry’s has remained in the state, but with most of its operations outsourced to other states or countries where regulations are a bit more lax. Burton Snowboards has relocated to Switzerland, and years ago, Mad River Canoe relocated away from its namesake Mad River Valley years ago. IBM has downsized some positions, and there have been rumblings that the company might leave at some point in the future, while a major startup, Dealer.com might put its expanding workforce in another state. It’s difficult to grow a business here in the state, because of the location (NeW England is somewhat remote anyway), climate and terrain (Cold and mountainous) and its regulatory nature (fairly strict, geared towards preserving the state’s image – Not a bad thing). One less avenue for transit is just one more thing against the state’s own economy growing.

The reason, Dennis Delaney notes, is that the state would have destroyed a key part of the state’s environment and natural beauty in order to make life easier for people. It’s an easy enough reason to understand, and something that I support. I love how rural the state is, that its resisted the growth and population that New Hampshire (a state of similar proportions) boasts and that I can look up into the sky to see the stars without an incredible amount of light pollution. That being said, all of those benefits are able to be enjoyed because I’m employed and can enjoy Vermont for what it is, as well as the major source of income that comes from tourist dollars to see the state as it is.

What really gets me annoyed is Delaney’s assertion that while infrastructure in Africa would likely help poverty (my understanding is that roads are bad, and much needed) in the continent, this major road project is something that should be shot down because it will harm the beauty of Africa, and the Serengeti. I can understand that to a point, but I would have to ask: how much does beauty compare to the human cost of poverty in the continent, and does the cost of keeping the African wilderness absolutely and completely pristine balance that? I’m not suggesting that the entire region be bulldozed and paved over, nor do I think that Western values will solve all of the problems overseas as a concerned liberal. Natural surroundings are important, should be preserved and protected, intensely. But at the same time, I believe that if there is something that can be done that will positively benefit the lives of people who have very little, it should be done, but it should be done intelligently. Create a roadway that will minimize the impact on the environment, put together protections for the herds that will travel across the road, create an engineering and technical marvel that will leave the road suspended tens of feet in the air.

I have heard the same arguments recently in the state (and out of state) when it comes to wind power farms that could reduce, in part, our dependence on energy technologies that are truly destructive, such as the failing Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant or coal plants that leaves us with acid rain in the hills. People place the intrinsic beauty of their surroundings over projects that are likely essential to the growth of the state and that support the well-being of its citizens. The alternative could very well be something that would be far worse to see: a coal fired plant in Vermont? The expanding slums of a city? How about a state that is forced into further economic problems because it cannot retain a profitable base that would ultimately help the state and its people?

I, for one, do care about the environment of the state, as contrary as it seems to what I just said. However, one needs to be fairly realistic as how we interact with our surroundings, and realize in just what state we can enjoy Vermont’s natural beauty. I for one don’t believe that the state has to be abandoned and undeveloped to retain the mountains and forests of the state. We just need to be mindful of how everything fits together. Personally, I would have been interested to see a Green Mountain Parkway weaving its way up through the mountains: I-89 is already a gorgeous drive, and that doesn’t really take away from the beauty of the state as a whole. It certainly allows me access to the beauty of the state.

I Care If Han Shot First

I saw this earlier today: “I’m a diehard ‘Han shot first fan’.”

I couldn’t care less. Go away.

Last night, the news broke that LucasFilm Ltd. intended to re-release (rererelease?) the entire Star Wars series to theaters in 3D in 2012. There’s no further details beyond that, except that the first film to be released again will be The Phantom Menace. The announcement has the usual complaints and accusations coming, from: “George Lucas is raping my childhood!” to “How can they make it better?! Leave it alone!” which evolves into: “Han shot first!” I just don’t care.

Re-Releases aren’t intended to be better. The usual argument of any remake, reboot, or extra special edition looks to the quality of the film, which isn’t really the right thing to look at. In the case of a complete remake of a film, it’s a different interpretation of the same story, generally within a new context or with the new technology that’s available. In the instance of George Lucas’s updates to the film (or the other notable re-releases of Blade Runner, Abyss, Lord of the Rings and so forth) goes towards updating scenes based on new technology, or adding in deleted or altered scenes, generally to better fit with the filmmaker’s vision of what he wants the film to be.

This brings me to my point about Han Solo shooting first. I first saw the films with the special edition, but that one shot didn’t really leave any lasting impact on exactly which one shot first. The point is, Han kills Greedo. Lucas’s rationalization for the switch was that he wanted Han to be a more likable character by making him less of a ‘bad guy’, which has always struck me as odd: Han still fries the Rodian, kills several Sand Troopers in the spaceport (and later Death Star), to save himself and his friends. Making the switch, then, really doesn’t make any significant difference in what people thought of Han. He’s the lovable rogue, shooting first or whatever, and the only way to really make a major impact would be to turn Han into a vegetarian and someone concerned with the Falcon’s fuel mileage. The same goes for some of the other changes that were made: the run into Mos Eisley, the introduction of the digital Dewbacks, Jabba the Hutt and so forth: there’s nothing that really changes the film beyond its aesthetics. Similarly, I don’t believe that adding the third dimension into the mix is going to significantly change anything in the film, beyond the visual appeal.

The real question will be: will it look good? Star Wars was filmed in a certain style, and there are points where the new CGI sections look somewhat out of place, and the conversion over to 3D is a complicated, expensive process, and I’m not holding my breath that it will be as good as Avatar’s 3D, which was filmed natively. Still, it seems that the studio isn’t rushing into this conversion, but will be working on it over the next couple of years (if they haven’t started already).

Star Wars is a commercial empire: look at the recent diagram of where most of the money has come from for the franchise, and that’s from merchandising, which strikes me as a smart move: it creates an incredible brand that people continually go to for all sorts of different things, from playing with the toys as a kid, to wearing a shirt or reading one of the books. It acts as a self-replicating advertising machine, and looking back, there’s been a continual release of Star Wars works since the first movies were released. The prequels in 1997 set the stage for the prequel films, which in turn have been continued with The Clone Wars, bringing in a whole new generation to the franchise, who will be right at the proper age to enjoy the films in the theaters again in a couple of years. In all likelihood, we’ll see a whole new marketing campaign to go along with this. I wouldn’t be surprised if the live-action television series would follow in the mid 2010s, potentially with a new series of films following that. The long and short of it is, Star Wars isn’t going anywhere, and with the attention span of the average consumer nowadays, it’s no surprise that the franchise has kicked into overdrive. The franchise is now going into its 3rd decade, competing with films such as Avatar, which James Cameron has said is hoped to become a franchise on par with the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek. Economically, Star Wars has a major upper hand, but if given a choice, would the current rising generation go for Star Wars, or Avatar? I know which, and it isn’t Star Wars.

3D is the next logical step in this move, given that studios can make a couple of extra dollars per ticket, but also because I’ve thought that Star Wars would be a fun thing to watch in 3D, going back to the visuals over storyline. (And if you don’t believe me, go watch the prequels again) 3D films capitalizes on new technology, and will make the franchise grow even more: people will still going to go out and see them in droves, no matter the sputtering of the fanboys who can’t see that the films aren’t designed for broad introspection: they’re blockbusters on a military scale, and the studio executives who have kept Star Wars a house-hold name for over thirty years, and multiple generations are doing their job well.

This isn’t to say that everything that has been released with the Star Wars logo has been high quality: far from it. The prequel trilogy was lack-luster at best, with The Clone Wars series matching that for the most part. The books and comics have likewise been of mixed quality, but quality has never been a huge concern: it doesn’t have to be. (It should be, but that’s another argument altogether) The franchise has raked in billions (yes, with a B) based on the material that’s been released, under the current formula, because of the efforts that have been made when it comes to branding and its awareness, not to mention its large fanbase. It really has no equal when it comes to popular culture influence: the book that I’m currently reading, The City and The City by China Mieville, just had a main character drop the ‘Force is not with me’ line a couple of pages ago, and any time that I’ve been out in armor, I’ve found that even if a person hasn’t seen the films, they know exactly what I’m from.

To the people who say: “George Lucas is raping my childhood!”, I say: George Lucas is not raping your childhood. Your childhood was back in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and shouldn’t be defined by a single film series. Childhood is a series of rose-colored memories that include things such as Star Wars, and the impressions that you had of any film will change with time as you learn and actually grow up. The original films was something that I watched countless times after school, and over the years since, as I’ve graduated from high school, college and graduate school, has drastically changed as my outlook on life and the world has changed along with everything else. Attempting to hold onto the past through reliving it seems like a sad proposition. I certainly wouldn’t return to my childhood, as much as I treasure most memories. When all fails, there’s certainly nothing that compels someone to go and alter their impressions of the films, and you *don’t* have to turn over that $10-$15 for a movie ticket, buy the next book, action figure or whatever.

With that in mind, a lot of the arguments that people have made against the prequels, rereleases and upcoming rerereleases are essentially meaningless, simply because this franchise doesn’t really need, or really care about what the fans really are looking for in the series: they’ve put together a good product, and it’s something that people are willing to dump a lot of money into. While they’ve done so, they’ve found ways that the films and books have given them meaning, direction and inspiration in life, which is fantastic. But that meaning and understanding that people find isn’t what drives the bottom line: it’s their wallets.  Does it matter if Han shot first? Not really, in the greater context, and even then, it doesn’t impact the story in any significant way. So long as people are continually arguing and talking about it, LFL is happy.

Am I going to see the re-release in a couple of years? Probably. I distinctly remember coming out of Avatar thinking: Star Wars would look pretty damn cool in this format, and I think that the visuals will be worth it, especially on the big screen. Star Wars has always been about flash over substance, and watching the films again in theaters is easily worth my time and money for that thrill. Plus, it’ll more than likely mean some prime trooping opportunities for the 501st.

So, don’t tell me that Han shot first. I really don’t care; it’s irrelevant, annoying and honestly doesn’t have that much of an impact on the film’s story. There’s going to be more Star Wars throughout the rest of our lives.

* Required listening for this rant should be MC Chris’s ‘Han Solo’.

Banned Books Week

Today marks the start of Banned Book Week, a campaign to bring about awareness of works of literature that have been suppressed or authors who have been persecuted for their works. According to the American Library Association, the week celebrates the importance of the First Amendment, while “drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States.” Coming from a family that does a lot of reading, and from working within a couple of libraries, I detest the notion of banning a book for its content, especially in school systems, and I am continually worried when I hear of various books being banned by overprotective parents, school boards of bigoted, ignorant people who misunderstand the reasons behind education.

The ALA published a list of frequently challenged books from across the country. Looking down the list, I see a number of books that I read in high school, and on my own, that I both greatly enjoyed and/or read on my own: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell (the irony of this book being banned is almost comical), Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, The Call of the Wild by Jack London and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I know other books, such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series have also been burned or have been pushed to be banned, and I’m reasonably sure that numerous other science fiction, fantasy and other speculative fictions have been banned because of their content.

Education, I believe, is not strictly about the content that students are fed, but a way to understand the world around them. In subjects such as English, this is a paramount lesson to be learned, as books and stories pull specific themes and instances out for characters, and allows students to synthesize problems and see how characters are changed based on their experiences within the story. Within any story, conflict that challenges the characters should likewise challenge the readers, by looking at commonly held assumptions and continually questioning how they go about the world. This is where the greatest learning occurs for anyone.

The outrage here is that limiting the books that students can read traps them within a preset outlook on the world, where books that fall outside of the realm of political correctness, are ‘indecent’ or overly challenge assumptions are unable to do what they are intended to do. What bothers me even more is that a number of the locations where books are banned within the US come from traditionally right-wing regions of the country, regions where people claim to want to uphold the constitution, to ensure that freedoms aren’t limited by their government, while turning around and insisting that they do the very same thing within their communities. The hypocrisy of the situation is stunning, and I can’t help but wonder if our insistence on protecting our youth from things that we disagree with is hurting the country as a whole.

The argument against banning books is something that’s been out there for a long time, and there’s very little beyond my own experience and resulting conclusions that I can add to the situation. Looking over my own high school English experience (with some fantastic teachers in the humanities) I am shocked at how many of the books that I read are amongst the most banned list, and for fairly trivial reasons, such as language and content. Moreover, reading some of those books are incredibly valuable experiences for me. Some of the books, such as Of Mice and Men, The Lord of the Flies and For Whom The Bell Tolls, were ones that imparted a number of revelations and provided specific learning experiences that I was then able to build upon. These books are not easy to replace, and students do not read these simply for pleasure: the challenge is the object here.

Nor do I believe that reasons such as language and ‘obscene’ situations hold much water in this day and age, when students have access to the wider internet, where whatever is banned is conceivably right at their fingertips, where there is no guidance or supervision. Instead, parents should take the moral reins and instruction for their children, and teach them right from wrong.

Banning books isn’t the answer, or a good thing for any sort of quality education. Actually educating, challenging and extracting a reaction from students will bring about the proper understanding from students.

Rant: Education

As someone who studied to become a historian, one of the most frustrating things to watch unfold is the ongoing debate over textbook content that is happening now in Texas. School boards have opted to revise criteria in favor of modern political happenings, injecting their own preferences to combat the ‘liberal version’ of history as it has been playing out. The political as to how this will impact education aside, this seems to me to be a dangerous shift in how we will educate our younger generations.

In college, I studied both history and geology, and came away with a dominant feeling for context. While exploring vastly different subjects, both the study of prior human events and of geological happenings are linked by a couple of very basic things: they’re about actions, and how those actions affect other things down the line. Listening to the radio this afternoon, Vermont Edition talked about a recent landslide that consumed a home in Canada, and geologists on the show noted that there is a direct correlation between what happened over ten thousand years ago and today. Actions have a tendency, in both nature and human history, to have both short term and long term effects. Thus, the context of whatever one is studying is just as important as the individual figures and events that make up the present day.

History is the interpretation of the past. When I’ve talked about my degree, an M.A. in Military History, I usually have to preface that with an explanation that I’m not an expert in the specifics of World War II, Vietnam, the Napoleonic Era or the American Civil War. This was a degree that was designed to teach someone how to think like a historian, how to research like a historian and how to put together an argument, backed up with evidence like a historian – I can confidently say that I can talk about any number of military concepts, battles and figures, but more importantly, I know how to research those things, but also understand how to examine them within the context of history.

The founder of my alma mater, Alden Partridge, conceived of the school at a time when practical achievements were just as important as the theory behind the words, and as such, sought to educate the first Norwich University cadets in ways that encouraged them to see their teachings in practice, but also to formulate their own thinking based on what they saw when they were seeing. Where Partridge looked to more practical studies, such as Engineering, the same line of thinking applies to the social sciences field, which is where the worry about the Texas Board of Education comes into play.

History is not a static field, but one that is constantly growing and changing as different minds enter the field. Nor is history the study of the past: history is the examination of the past, and the interpretation of events as they happened. Thus, removing important figures such as Thomas Jefferson from mention as a founding father based on some of the things that he pushed eliminates the change to examine some of the context, and arguments, that have helped to shape the present. While teaching any sort of correct form of what happened in the past is far more preferable than teaching something that is ultimately incorrect, the problems surrounding the study of the past in this instance isn’t about correcting past mistakes, it’s about re-framing the past with a modern mindset, and patently ignoring the context of past events to suit modern political thought.

Removing elements of the past is harmful in a number of ways, going far beyond the individual figures: it not only impacts a student’s understanding as to what events happened, but why they happened. Removing Thomas Jefferson as a figure who had pushed for the separation of church and State leaves a void in the understanding for a student as to why the founders placed such a restriction within the constitution. Rewriting history in this manner will thus leave a flawed understanding of the past, which in turn impacts how we view and act in the present.

While that, in and of itself is frightening, what bothers me far more is that a trend towards intellectual backwater and restriction on thought has grown. Often, there are arguments against spending on scientific endeavors, because a practical use or result might not result, or someone cannot think of how any such argument or study can be useful. However, the progress of science and thinking cannot be directed, channeled or moved for convenient thinking: science and learning will ultimately find what it will find: oftentimes, the results and findings exist, but only through searching, will answers be found. The same applies to education, and restricting what people learn simply for the sake of political convenience is short-sighted, ignorant and downright offensive to anybody who wants to see this country grow intellectually, politically and economically in the future.

Structures in History

I’m continually astounded at just how few people really know how to put together a decent argument and work to convince someone of some basic fact or side of any sort of story, especially at a graduate school. I’ve always loved school, learning and writing, and when as part of my job, I was to take a graduate program; I jumped at the chance, entering a writing-heavy course that emphasized scholarly knowledge and being able to write a point down in a way that is designed to teach someone something new. History is so much more than merely an order of dates strung together; it is the interpretation of the events that happened at a specific point in time, designed to explain how said events occurred within a specific context.

Much of what I have learned at Norwich and elsewhere makes a lot of sense to me, in all manners of writing, from historical essays to fiction, and more and more, I’ve become far more aware of just how the structure of making a good argument can make or break the information that you’re trying to convey. Frequently, I’ve been paying far more attention to the books that I read, people I hear and television that I watch, and find that structure is everywhere in how we are trying to do things, and I’m beginning to realize just how this has impacted how I view things far beyond writing.

Most crucial is the intent behind a piece of interpretation. History is never a clear cut set of events, and often, the actions of people long dead are used to prove a theory or point in how they relate to the present day, the event itself or some other element that relates to a historical point. Numerous times, I’ve seen proposals for thesis papers that don’t set out to prove anything, but just examine a larger set of events in narrative form. When it comes to history, especially critical history, a straight up account of the events that transpired is the last thing that needs to be written about: it has no place, unless it’s a primary source of some sort, as history, because it does not examine: it shows, but doesn’t explain.

History is a way to interpret, and through that, explain what has transpired in the past. At a number of points, I’ve largely given up reading soldier biographies from the Second World War, not because their stories aren’t important, but because they do not do more than cover that soldier’s individual experiences and relate it to a larger picture. This is a general argument, and there are plenty of books that fall on both sides, but when it comes to critical history, the works of someone like Peter Paret are far more important and useful than those of Stephen Ambrose.

When it comes to the execution of the history, or any form of writing, one of the biggest issues that I’ve seen with my writing and others is that the argument is under supported by the evidence that the writer puts together. The basic structure of any argument is an introduction, where the writer puts forth their argument, and exactly what they are trying to prove. That introduction is then used to bring out the arguments that ultimately prove the point that the author is arguing, using evidence to support that basic argument. The conclusion is then used to tie everything together, utilizing the argument, what was found in the evidence. For some reason, this sort of format isn’t used very much, either in schools, or in stories, movies, television shows, and it undermines what the author or creator is trying to do. Ideas and intentions are good, but when they fail in their execution, it doesn’t matter how good the idea is; the entire effort fails.

I’ve found that I like minimalism, as an art subject, but also when it comes to writing. While there are plenty of writers out there who utilize a lot of words to get their point across, there is generally a purpose to that: they better explain what is going on, and help to create an environment that ultimately helps the book. When it comes to writing, of any sort, the main intent of any form of writing is to get the information across to the reader, whether it be fictional or coming out of real life. In that, every bit of historical evidence, from examples harvested from primary sources to other author’s words and analysis, must go towards proving that article, without extra stops along the way for an extra tidbit of information. In critical history, the main point is often a very small, dedicated idea that seeks to prove a specific point within a larger context.

If I was to select one lesson that I learned in high school as the most important, I would point to something that my Three Democracies (and later American Studies) teacher, Tom Dean, taught me: Microcosm vs. Macrocosm, i.e., how a small event can be taken out and applied to a larger context. The experiences of three men in the Philippines during the Second World War highlight some of the atrocities on the part of the Japanese, or the career of a race horse in the Great Depression as a way to look at the changing lives of people during the 1930s are two examples of this sort of thinking, and it goes hand in hand with how stories should be structured. Every chapter should work to prove the point of the introduction, while every paragraph should be used as a way to prove the point of the chapter, and so on. Books, in and of themselves, should follow this sort of microcosm / macrocosm effect, to the end. to prove the point of the author.

Stories are important, for the information that they contain, but also for what they teach us at the same time. Amongst the years of history are countless events, occurrences and actions that all have reactions and continued impact on each other and indeed, the present day. The execution of how stories are told is how history is remembered and thus learned.

Driving Like Crazy

Last Week, VPR’s Vermont Edition hosted a program devoted to recent legislative efforts designed to combat cell phone usage in cars. Why there is any sort of debate over this issue is beyond me, but apparently there is quite a bit of discussion over whether or not this sort of thing is necessary or right for government to do to individual citizens.

A while ago, I read and reviewed Tom Vanderbilt’s book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), which is, as the title suggests, about driving and how we drive. Prior to reading the book, I was not thrilled with the idea of a cell phone law in Vermont – it’s intrusive, it’s problematic and above all, it is possible to drive, talk, text or so forth while driving. That’s not the case, far from it, and recent deaths in the state suggest that this is only the start to a larger issue in the state.

Vanderbilt notes that studies show several things: it doesn’t take long for a driver to be distracted, and that even small amounts of time without one’s eyes on the road could mean the difference between continuing home and ending up in a hospital. While on the road, Vanderbilt explains, the driver is constantly taking in information about their surroundings – what’s in front of them, to the sides and the road conditions. Modern conveniences such as radios, CD players, and connections for phones only add to the things that drivers have to contend with. Furthermore, the human brain is fundamentally incapable of processing everything that comes in, and mental awareness of one’s surroundings drops. There have been occasions while driving that I’ve spoken on the phone or peaked at a text message and find myself further down the road, automatically steering around well known corners, but with little recollection exactly to what I just did. The same is true with any task that involves thinking. In today’s culture, drivers have far more to distract them on the road, and that’s what is getting scary.

The rise in texting (I remember reading something recently that noted that the average teenager sends around 40,000 words a month in text form) makes this all the more scary, because as drivers are increasingly spending some of their time looking at their phone, reading a message and then thinking about and typing a response out, their eyes are not where they are supposed to be: on the road. Normally, I would advocate personal responsibility for the driver and say that if they crash because they weren’t looking, well, it’s their own fault. However, the roadways are populated by everyone else on the road, in all directions, and the actions of one driver not paying attention can mean dire consequences for someone else on the roadway.

So what is the solution? Well, as pro-life people naively state: abstinence works. Well, yes, it does, but holding people to that sort of thing doesn’t necessarily work as well. Keeping teenagers away from cell phones (and adults, for that matter), is a huge problem, and merely telling people to turn off the phone and keep their eyes on the road isn’t necessarily going to work, even with a stiff fine from police officers. A law needs to be put into place, no doubt about that, with stiff penalties for any driver caught doing this sort of thing. But, in addition to that, money needs to be spent on educating drivers, young and old alike on one simple fact: driving is the most dangerous thing that you can do on a regular basis. Taken out of a normal, everyday context, you are climbing into a rolling collection of metal parts, fueled by a highly combustible fluid and set off along roadways with more people doing the same thing, at high speeds. If that isn’t enough to freak you out, now imagine that nobody is looking where they’re going.

eBooks & Value

Last week, Amazon.com and publishers started going head to head with the business model that Amazon.com has set up for their Kindle eBook store. With the recent release of the Apple iPad, new alternatives have been opened for publishers. With it, there has been a flood of problems and statements from all edges of public opinion about not just the power that Amazon.com seems to be able to field, but also to the very nature of the place of e-books.

The background of the story lies with Amazon’s preference for a lower price for an e-book on their Kindle device. Typically starting at $9.99, one of the major publishers, Macmillan, went to Amazon with new proposals for how to sell their books. From how I understand it, it would introduce a graduated pricing system, starting their new books at $15.99 and gradually dropping the price as demand falls away. This is something that’s already pretty well established in the book industry, with hardcovers of the really big books starting off at $25 to $30, before dropping down to trade paperbacks (Around $15 each) going to or going directly to mass market paperbacks, generally around $7.99 each. There’s a new, taller book (I’m not sure what it is called) that typically runs around $9.99 per copy.

A big part of the issue is that profits that go to the publisher, and eventually, the author, have been cut into, as it is a cheaper way to distribute the book. This made a lot of sense for Amazon.com, because after purchasing a multiple hundred dollar device, because it helps the more economically minded consumers actually use the device. While it’s just a little more than the mass-market paperback, buying a new release book that would normally be $30, for something between $9.99 and $15.99, makes a lot of sense, especially for the consumers who really matter – the ones who buy hundreds of books a year.

This makes good for the consumer, for sure, but it does impact other elements down the publishing line, and indeed, the bookselling line. Pundits, for years, have been predicting the demise of brick and mortar bookstores with the introduction of online bookstores such as Amazon.com, and with the slowly growing rise of e-books and the Kindle, it’s coming back, and for good reason: bookstores are getting hurt by this new competition. I recently was laid off from Borders when they closed down 200 of their smaller stores in order to consolidate to their larger ones. While there are other issues at stake there, it is clear that people buy far more off of the internet than from in a store. When given a chance, I’ll do the same thing – I can pick up other books cheaper from Amazon’s used bookstore, but also from used bookstores around the area.

This is all part of a larger consumer culture that seems to be pushed along by giants such as Amazon.com, Walmart, Home Depot and other stores: consumers want to pay the lowest possible price for what they want. Bigger stores can make that happen, and we’ve been conditioned to respond to that sort of thing. One of the problems, however, is in how the consumer values the product that they’re intending on buying, and how much the creator, whether it’s a publisher or manufacturer, and there’s a growing gap that’s pushed forward by these larger stores. It’s good for the consumer and good for these stores in particular, but it’s not good for the manufacturer of whatever good you’re trying to buy.

I’m not sure that that is a good thing, because eventually, the manufacturer’s ability to produce will have to be decreased due to lack of profits. In the publishing industry, forcing a publisher to take a smaller cut for their books means that less money could make it to the author, who will either need to sell more books or negotiate a better deal with their publisher. This is even more of a problem when stores, such as Amazon.com sell a majority of your books, and where your entire publishing company has been taken off, as is the case with Macmillan.

I think part of the issue is addressing just how much a publisher should value their e-books, and making customer expectations meet that. Books have a lot that go into them, from editing, layout, marketing and so on, and in a consumer culture where expectations towards lower and lower prices are pushed as well, that particular detail is going to be lost. It would seem that the publishing industry has reached a level where they don’t want to move any further.

How exactly does one value an e-book? I can say with certainty, that I will typically go with the price on the back of the book for a majority of the books that I purchase in a year. I try to find something with a discount, and made use of my employee discount, but once purchased, I know that the book was mine. When it comes to e-books, there are a whole lot of other options, especially with Amazon.com, which essentially sells you a license for the book, which can be revoked at any point. (This happened, somewhat ironically, with the book 1984, recently). This is the same with music and software, and has been around for a while, so I’m not sure why everyone is raising a fuss about it now. Thus, people purchase a product that they cannot transfer or resell as they could the physical product. Even if it is cheaper, I think that even $9.99 isn’t a good value for the consumer, as opposed to my feeling that $25 is a very good value for a physical book in some instances.

Who’s at fault for this? Well, everybody has blamed everybody. The publishers have been blamed for distrupting Amazon’s plans, the consumers have been blamed for wanting low prices, the publishers for demanding too much, and the authors have been blamed for whining and complaining about this. This has always been an issue with business, because there are numerous people who get different cuts, and everybody wants a larger piece of the pie. Personally, I think that the publishers are well within their rights to set the books at whatever price they want – how they value their product – because they are primarily in charge of the creation. Amazon has just enough leverage to force their own prices on the publishers because they account for large portions of the sales. Authors, I think are largely blameless in this, because they simply have no control over how these books are sold, marketed and edited. Consumers, I think, need to have a more realistic value in their heads for what they buy.

The bottom line that I see here is that this row isn’t the end, but in this instance, it’s not unreasonable for a graduated pricing system, as publishers want. While Amazon.com is looking to entice people to their Kindle, I think that there is sufficient momentum on their part for moving people to digital formats. People aren’t necessarily going to be scared away by higher ebook prices, because these higher prices will still be better than the alternatives. Just as casual readers will wait for a year for their favorite author’s book to come out in paperback, the buyers who really matters, the repeat customers who buy a larger volume of books will buy the books as they come out, generally at the regular price, or at the sales price that drops that just a bit. Unfortunately, as Amazon.com has moved to punish a publisher, the authors have been caught as collateral damage.

This, more than ever, just reinforces my desire for a hardcopy book, rather than an e-book. The tactile crap that a lot of people go on about just doesn’t figure into it. When I buy a book at a bookstore, that is my property, not just a piece of data that can be revoked by a company as it sees fit, and I can sell it and return my losses as I need. Plus, I don’t need to worry about a battery for any of the books that I own.

I Like That Old Time Rock 'n Roll

As the decade has begun to close with the end of the year, there have been a number of ‘Best of the Decade’ lists in the music blog world, and a number of them have gotten me thinking about music over the past ten years. Since the start of the decade, I would consider these past years as some of the most formative in my own tastes in music, especially during my years in college. During that time, the entire music industry has been changed, for better or for worse, and with these changes has come new opportunities, sounds and experiences for musicians and fans alike.

My own taste in music has varied over the past ten years, from radio top 40 hits to Indie-Rap and I’m very eager to see what comes next. Looking back, I found that it would be almost impossible to put together any sort of comprehensive list for the last ten years, simply because there is too much music, it is too varied, and there is far, far too much that I haven’t listened to. While computers have become paramount in the way that music is transmitted, shared and listened to, I can’t help but wonder if it’s harmful to the overall music scene.

Looking back over music of the 1960s and 1970s, the music is easily recognizable, memorable and classic. Looking back over the decade, I’m not sure that I can find a comparable number of bands that match not only the quality of the hits of prior years, but ones that have the same presence. With other years populated by bands such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, Eric Clapton and more, revolutionaries all in their own way, the past couple of decades have much bigger shoes to fill.

The formative years of Rock and Roll have been filled with epic tales of musicians gone crazy: smashing up hotel rooms and instruments on stage, getting arrested on stage, all the while pushing the limits of free speech and taboo topics to entertain the masses, who ate it up with relish. And, the music was good too – music labels, I think , didn’t quite know how to deal with all of the new sounds and styles that were coming out from aspiring musicians: all they could do was control the direction, like pointing a fire hose, hoping that the water inside was just right.

Since that time, music has become more refined. We’ve settled down, figured out what works and what sounds just right. Advances in technology, from the introduction of computers and editing programs allow musicians to put together a fantastic sounding album, cheaper, quicker and to an incredibly wide audience than ever before. Young people, ever the bright start of the music industry, have been freed, recording demos with cheap recording equipment and access to MySpace, and have the chance of finding an audience amongst the numerous people out seeking for new sounds, and even more obscure bands and singer/songwriters.

My music interests have ebbed and waned over the past ten years, starting with listening to 107.1, WORK FM (Now FrankFM, a Classic Rock Station) a Top 40 station, which effectively brought my music tastes to ’90s alternative/grunge. I didn’t get that much into listening to anything outside of that before a couple years into college. A friend of mine at the time, later girlfriend, now ex, introduced me to indie-rock, styles along what was heard in Garden State, which further influenced what I listened to. Artists such as Alexi Murdoch, The Decemberists, Spoon, Nick Drake and others entered my playlists. From that point, I began to listen to more – not only to new artists that were coming out, but also to bands that I’d grown up listening to: the Beatles, Gordon Lightfoot, Fleetwood Mac.

In listening to the old and new, there’s an incredible amount of influence that is held by artists from long ago, especially by newer artists. Folk-rock has undergone a huge resurgence among the hip, from artists such as Alexi Murdoch, Iron & Wine and Bon Iver growing in popularity over the past couple of years – in no small part, no doubt, to commercial placement of their songs in television shows and commercials.

While the music is fantastic – I count all of the above to be some of the best artists of the decade, but at the same time, I’ve become very weary and wary of the independent market for music, because of the sheer drive to feed the hipster masses by going completely out on a limb and doing something patently outrageous, but in a calm, civil sort of way. In a way, the kids who go out and record come up with some interesting stuff, but they don’t toe the line like musicians of old. The music that we have today, independent and commercial (although that distinction is flat out ridiculous in and of itself – all music is commercial) is sanitized, watered down and just too appropriate. Maybe I’m just listening to the wrong types of music, but a lot of bands just don’t have that raw energy and bite that the ’70s brought us.

We don’t have our Hendrix, our Lennon or our Jagger – instead, a lot of our front men are put together by their publicists, who put them up on a pedestal for their outbursts, poor judgment or incredibly noble deeds (I’m looking at you, Amy Winehouse, Britteny Spears and Bono). But in a way, they become products in and of themselves, sold to the public through the spin on their actions, rather than the popular judgment of their actions unguided by the invisible hand of a major marketing company. In a world where news is paramount, and any news is good news, it seems that the rash actions of the people we admire are more constructed, rather than heat of the moment rashness. I have a feeling that those individuals, who’ve built up their personas in the time before facebook and MySpace, will be longer lasting. Even the persona of avoiding a personality, or just trying to be different by wearing mismatched clothing, acting the awkward soul in a way to appeal to more fans who make it out to see them.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a huge difference between the personality of a band and the music that they play, but over time, how much of a band’s persona becomes intermixed with their music as a whole? In an age where the choices of music and bands is akin to water from a fire hose, the strive to be completely unique by adopting a certain persona for a band just seems shallow, fake. There are very few bands out there right now that I would label as being truly unique, focused on their music and presenting a fairly honest image all at the same time. At the end of the day, while there is plenty of selection – good selection – I can’t help but wonder if these musicians will really stand the test of time, or if they will just be lost in the multitude of other hipster artists who get their brief break of fame before realizing that they have to continue the act. At the same time, I wonder how many bands that have been sold to us will last in the long run.

Looking back over the music that I’ve accumulated over the past couple of years – and I’ve accumulated a lot – there are certainly bands that I go back to time and time again, while there are even more that I’ve listened to, and really enjoyed, but who soon become unmemorable. It’ll be fun to go back and seek them out in another ten years to see if anybody knows their name and see if their record deal through the strength of their MySpace page and website is really enduring. In some cases? I would bet so. In far more instances, I would bet that a lot of these bands will fail the test of time, only to be resurrected by lone fans with overburdened hard drives. In the meantime, I’ll take that old time rock and roll.

Your fantasies merge with harsh realities

The movie Toy Story had a profound effect on me as a child – for a little while, I had my doubts that toys were really inanimate objects, much like the same doubts about the validity of Santa Claus and god. I was pretty sure that they didn’t exist, but who knew for sure? Thus, I made sure to take very good care of what I had, lest they awaken in the middle of the night and try to exact revenge. Almost fifteen years on, and I know that’s an amusing quirk, but I did gain some useful skills out of it: treat what you own with some semblance of respect, and they last longer. As I grew older, I found that I applied this philosophy to other things – namely books. I made sure that they were kept in prime condition, even going to great lengths to ensure that friends didn’t abuse them while in their care. Even today, I’m still wary of lending books to people.

Thus, book stripping day is particularly troublesome for me at the bookstore, and even more so now that our store is closing for good. Recently, it was announced that Borders was closing 200 of their Waldenbooks stores in a response to the economy and to focus more on the bigger box stores that they have littered around the country. Our humble store is being shut down, and part of that entails scaling down our inventory in preparation for that. The Christmas season is a logical time to do that – there’s a boost in sales, and I’m sure that a lot of inventory will go. Still, there is a lot of books that we are returning, and even more that we are destroying. Mass Market paperbacks are those that the store has us destroy, rather than mail back to a central holding area in order to resell them. Other chains carry a similar practice, and books are stripped of their front cover and thrown into recycling or the trash, with the covers mailed back to be accounted for.

This bothers me, a lot, because I absolutely hate the idea of both books being tore up, but also that a perfectly good book is otherwise tossed in the trash. As I’ve written many times before, I’m an avid reader, and I hold onto my books. I like the idea of having floor to ceiling shelves packed to capacity for that occasional time when the power shuts off and I’m left with nothing to do but read. I rarely give away or resell books, even if I’ve read them before – there’s that niggling ‘What if’ in the back of my head when it comes to re-reading things, and I figure someday, I’ll have a great collection of books to give away to a library or something like that. The corporate policy in this instance particularly grates with my own beliefs when it comes to books, especially when these books could easily be donated to those in need of a good read, or to struggling libraries somewhere.

What is even worse, in my mind, is that many of the books that are being destroyed are books that would likely be sold in the next month – I pulled a number of reputable authors off the shelf and from overstock to put into the pile, only to leave a number of other books that I don’t think that I’ve ever sold or moved. It boggles the mind that we’re reducing the number of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s books to make way for David Weber. The end result is that our Science Fiction section is being diluted with crappy books, which will likely hurt sales even more. It’s frustrating to begin converting some of these genres to tie-in stories with huge, dedicated fan bases, away from some of the more ‘original’ SF/F that is far better in terms of quality and personal interest. I can understand the reasoning behind it, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a better.

The other problem that I have with this situation is that it’s an incredibly wasteful symptom of commercial policy that demonstrates a lot of the excesses that got the country into financial trouble in the first place. Borders sent our store too many books with every shipment – something that I’m assuming falls under the notion of: “if the customer wants it, it should be there”, rather than ordering the book for them, and having them either come in again, or pay for the book there and have it mailed to their home. The end result is a store that is packed to capacity – and most likely violating several fire and safety codes – with too much merchandise that is not going to move. This makes me wonder how much of Border’s budget is devoted to the shipping of books back and forth, not to mention the amount of money that is spent on books that will ultimately never sell.

The large chain stores are really not doing well, especially in the face of major sellers such as Amazon.com, and it’s no wonder, when you look at just how inefficient their business practices are. It’s even more of a shame when it seems likely that excesses such as these have helped to contribute to the closing of stores – it’s no longer cost effective to keep them in operation, but only because they have such a high push of merchandise that is designed to boost sales.

I’m annoyed that this is happening, and in a way, glad that I’m no longer going to be employed with the company anymore with the shutdown (or earlier, if some middle-management desk jockey decides that he/she’s offended by this) because I dislike the sheer industrial and commercial grinder that these stores have become. There’s no love for the books, for stories or for really retaining customers. It’s a business in a place where there should at least be some pretense of an institution that is at least interested in what they’re selling.