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Friday, October 16, 2009

Splendid Open Office-ism

“The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.”
Robert Frost

The last time I sat in something that resembled and open office plan but with cubicles, I had an ashtray stacked full of cigarette butts next to me, plastic coffee cups spilling over the side of my wastebasket, a fully stocked bar in my desk, and had to share my desktop computer with the person sitting next to me. Suffice it to say it’s been a long time. In fact, over the years, I have grown so unused to the idea of sharing my work space that my primary reason for choosing the last two places of employment was based on this criterion alone. Yes, I actually turned down jobs at companies that proudly boasted of their open office plans and instead chose agencies that had the old school, civilized, quiet, private and individually allocated office space, with a door. And this is where I have been hiding for the last fourteen years of my career. Now, back from a year long sabbatical, I find that not only are all the job offers I am getting from open office style companies, but even my previous employer, the last bastion of old school advertising has decided to go the open office route…I have nowhere to hide. So I took a deep breath, accepted a job offer and will now have to face the inevitability of an open office after years of carefully and deftly avoiding it.

Most people feel some sense of trepidation when starting a new job because they won’t know anyone, have no established track record, or because they will have to prove themselves afresh to a new boss and group of people. These are all good reasons to feel some healthy sense of fear on your first day at your new job. I found myself worrying about none of these things, but did feel like I was about to be tested like I have not been in a long time. Not because I was changing roles and doing something completely different from my core experience and something well outside my comfort zone, in a place where the average employee age is around twenty-four years or that I was about to face a huge learning curve in a very short period of time. Nope. My only fear was that I was going to have to sit in an open space where I was going to have to share my personal work space with other persons. Share my thinking space with other thinkers, my eating space with other eaters – this was my one and only concern.

First day at work, I admit find that I love the wide-open space, the floor to ceiling windows, the light filled rooms and the glass door conference rooms; even though I am unable to get any work done during the day. However, as my first week progressed it began to dawn on me that the open office might have a number of amazing bi-products that are rarely ever mentioned when people wax eloquent about all the positive aspects. The following, in no order of preference or importance, is the list of three positive things that might one day be attributed largely to the consequence of working in an open office; which some might argue will make up for all that loss of productivity.

The first that comes to mind is the effect this style of office will potentially have in reducing the obesity rate, while simultaneously increasing dining etiquette. Since the vast majority of people in our generation no longer have the time to sit and eat in the company cafeteria or go out for a leisurely lunch anymore, we are all forced to eat at our desks. Which in an open plan also means that we have to be mindful of the fact that not only are we are eating in the open, but also openly in a space filled with our co-workers. No longer does one have the luxury of quietly shutting the office door, in order to loudly chew one’s food, or eat while gawking open-mouthed at the latest breaking celebrity gossip on TMZ. One has to be on one’s best behavior and put one's best table foot forward or risk having to bear the brunt of our shortcomings being known, publicly. And with cell phone video recorders and other such devices at arm’s length, the word publicly also has all sorts of new and global connotations. As if this is not a big enough reason to applaud the open office, there is a greater one yet. We are now forced to be more conscious of what we are seen putting into our mouths and therefore into our bodies, now that it is in plain sight of virtually everyone in the office.

Every day I notice people hesitate to pick up that slice of pizza or cheeseburger in the cafeteria. I can see them think about what their office mates will make of their junk food addiction or say about them behind their backs. It seems to be giving people pause where they once used to just dive hand first into the fried food bar every day, devoid of guilt and freely exercising their right to choose. So, while we can all mourn the loss of this precious freedom and kick and scream about it, we should not underestimate or overlook the long-term benefits that come with the loss of one’s ability to make one’s own dietary choices – a less free but healthier you.

The second benefit, also greatly overlooked in my opinion, has to do with the positive impact it is going to have on the environment. All because office printers are no longer surreptitiously tucked away in some dark corner of some dark hard to find room. Instead, they are proudly placed in wide-open spaces, in full view of a large number of prying eyes. All of whom are just waiting to out those people who feel compelled to print every email they receive, every internet article they want to read, and especially those perennial printers who send hundreds of pages to the printer, and then rarely ever come to collect them. Yes, all you wasters and tree killers out there beware, for your paper wasting days and ways are numbered. Additionally, the rain forest also benefits from a massive reduction in the number of Post-its used (sorry, 3M but your lead product’s days are also numbered). We no longer need to rely on these little bits of paper, to leave non-phone related messages for people. In part because during the last round of cost-cutting most companies got rid of all their secretaries, assistants and support staff, considering them non-essential. And partly because there is a now a new way to deliver these messages.

Allow me to demonstrate by example how this plays out in an open office setting, based on my personal experience. The other day a person stopped by to see my cube-mate, who happened not to be at his desk. Of course, I had the option of pretending that I did not notice what transpired, but that takes some skill and practice in an open environment, and one that I have yet to master. And this visitor made it even harder, since they decided to mutter loudly (and supposedly) to themselves, “Oh, Joe Bloe is not here.” Now, even though I had my back to this person I could not help but hear them muttering, which naturally made me turn and look for just a split second. That split second was all it took for this visitor to make rapid eye contact with me and then proceed to make me feel guilty for potentially trying to ignore their presence and dilemma.

So what option did I have now, other than doing the polite thing and offering to take a message for my missing cube-mate? I admit that this, even if the correct thing to do, was terribly distracting and a led to losses of productivity, as it happened six times that day alone (approximately six minutes of productivity lost). However, I did take consolation in the knowledge, as I am sure will you that I had personally contributed to six post-it notes not being used in the world that day. Which led me to quickly calculate that if I were to take three messages a day, minus time lost for weekends, public holidays, vacation and sick days; I would be able to save one tree every three years. Which no doubt makes up for the six months of lost productivity during this same time period.

The third benefit society will gain from this wonderful new open world is the eradication of those time wasting and productivity sucking gatherings at the famed water cooler. Gone forever are those days when you and your co-workers mingled, while gaining and dispensing hot office gossip along with cold filtered water. It’s hard to gather when your boss is not only potentially watching, but quite possibly within earshot. In fact, we are also no longer encouraged to walk over to one another’s desk like we used to, in order to follow up on something or just catch up on your colleague's last weekend trip away or their kid’s third birthday party; we are asked to IM (Instant Message) directly from our computer now. We no longer need to leave our seats in order to break bread while getting work done. Along with the loss of these old office rituals we will also see the office gossip, that one person in every office who always has the juiciest bits of information on everyone, soon become extinct. It’s hard for gossips to survive when there is nowhere to gossip and nobody to share it with.

Another thing that is frowned upon is people making or taking personal calls at their desk. We are encouraged to leave our desks and walk over to a small private room or an empty conference room to have this conversation. Given that there are only two such phone rooms and up to one hundred people on each office floor, and most people will not take up a whole conference room (with glass doors) to have a personal conversation, it effectively prevents us from having any type of remotely personal conversation during the day, or to face the risk of being overheard by your immediate neighbors and chastised by your superiors.

Hooray for efficiency, technology and a complete loss of productivity - I am sure our Master Houyhnhnm will be proud!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

One Man’s Case against Healthcare Reform

“The trouble with always trying to preserve the health of the body is that it is so difficult to do without destroying the health of the mind.”
G.K. Chesterton

I come to praise the healthcare system in the United States, and not to bury it. Mine is a story filled with all the trappings of a Hollywood medical drama, one that involves a mysterious, undiagnosable illness, a sports injury that refused to go away and got aggravated across continents, midnight trips to the Emergency Room, 911 calls and a myriad of specialists in various fields of medicine. Last year, almost the day after I quit my job, to take time off to travel and spend with my wife, family and friends I developed a sudden breathing problem. Of course, for the 37 years of my life that went before this, I had pretty much managed to stay away from doctor’s offices and hospitals. And the truth is that I rarely ever fell ill despite always having great medical insurance, which I cried about never really putting to any good use or getting my money’s worth; little did I know that in one short year I was about to make up for the last 37.

The week I handed in my resignation letter, we made our first trip to the ER courtesy of a hospital hospitality vehicle known more commonly as an ambulance. Yes, my wife actually called 911. I am not a hypochondriac, or someone who panics about things, ever. So, naturally when I started to have trouble breathing one night, and it got progressively worse to the point where I was leaning out our fourth floor window gasping for air, unable to speak while slowly turning blue, my wife made the call. I was discharged a few hours later after a series of test that included a chest x-ray, an EKG and blood tests, all of which the doctors said were clear. Their best offer of a diagnosis was a bronchial spasm, resulting from a recent case of the flu. I was asked to report to my General Physician for follow-up. We left the hospital without so much as having to part with our co-pay, having been told that they would bill us later. Rather wonderful, I thought to myself, not only the ER’s thoughtfulness and hospitality, but also this insurance coverage of mine. Because I was painfully aware that a trip to the ER in New York City is far from cheap. In fact, it rivals a night at the priciest 5 Star hotels in the world, without even including the added luxury and cost of getting there in an ambulance. I am reliably informed that the total cost of such a trip can be as much as few thousand dollars – again I say thank god for insurance. Now, this is not to say that I was never going to be billed any amount. In fact approximately a month later I received a notice from my insurance company saying that the hospital was entitled to bill me $100 for my share of the co-pay and they also informed me that they had paid 15% of the total cost submitted to them by the ER. Again I marveled at the fact that I had such great insurance. Not only was my share of the cost less than 2% of the total, but my insurance company was also refusing to submit to daylight robbery and pay the hospital the true cost of my care. Bravo, I say. In fact I had to make two additional trips in the months that followed, and am still to receive a single bill from this hospital, one and a half years on.

The other gratifying thing I learned in my subsequent trips to the ER is that nobody is turned away or denied care. A number of people in the ER waiting room said they did not have any insurance, and instead of being turned away as one would have expected, the hospital attendant said that it was not a problem and that once they filled out a form stating a lack of insurance, they would get access to the care they needed for free. While I was still pondering this it dawned on me that this might perhaps be the reason my insurance premium is so high, and continues to increase each year even though I have not availed of it in the years prior. Perhaps, I am paying for the poor families who cannot afford insurance (and out of work actors, unemployed graduates, couples who just chose a more expensive mortgage over insurance, etc.) and that would certainly explain the high cost of my premiums and continual increases over the years. This realization made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, as I sat there clutching my Gold plated insurance card, waiting to hand it over to the registration clerk, confident in the knowledge that I was doing my bit to help society.

Anyway, my story and praise for the current system is far from over. Another great relief with the current system has to do with the safety net they provide when one becomes unemployed by accident or by choice. This marvelous little provision is known as Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act or COBRA. Anyone who was previously covered under their company’s group insurance is eligible and cannot be denied continued coverage for a period of eighteen months. The only difference is that the cost of the premium, that was being covered by your employer, must now be paid entirely by you. Due to this the monthly increase is roughly two to fourfold depending on how generous your employer was. There are those who grumble and complain about this increase, they say that it comes at a time when you can ill (no pun intended) afford extra costs, now that you are no longer receiving a pay cheque. But I say pish-pash to them, for one has to pay for such privileges. And besides, it is only in moments that one is less busy that one typically has time to linger on ailments that otherwise may never have surfaced. As a result, one can argue that unemployed people are more susceptible to health issues, as they have more time on their hands to dwell on small ailments, making of them bigger things and thus spending more time visiting doctors and hospitals. I am a case in point. I had been to the doctor maybe 12 times in last 37 years and the moment I quit my job I must have made, without exaggeration, at least 37 visits in less than 12 months. It would have been grossly unfair for me to expect my previous employer, the government, or worse yet, the poor taxpayer, to have paid for my health trespasses. My GP directed me to visit an ENT, who sent me to a pulmonologist, who in turn directed me to a gastroenterologist and so on. After each one conducted a battery of tests, often repeating the same ones done by the previous specialist, they ruled out a number of things, but none of them could figure out what was causing my continued breathing problem. Oh, and did I mention that along the way I even had to meet with a foot specialist? Not that this was in any way related to my mysterious breathing problem.

Which brings me to our world travels, during which time my right foot acted up, and I also needed to have emergency eye surgery. I knew something was afoot when my right ankle swelled up during a visit to San Francisco. We iced it and got an ankle brace and in a few days I felt much better. The next time it acted up again was when I played a round of golf in Rajasthan, a few months later, and then it finally came to a head while I was trekking in Bhutan. All this while I had managed to deftly avoid another doctor visit, but after the Bhutan trip, when I was walking with a knee brace, an ankle cast and a walking stick I could no longer avoid the inevitable. Now, as it happens we were in India at this juncture, where my insurance was neither valid nor accepted. I hobbled to the nearest highly recommended orthopedic surgeon, who naturally ordered a battery of x-rays and tests. At the very same time, again right after I quit my job of course, the sty on my eye had also reached a critical stage, and besides the pain my vanity was also now at stake. So we found a well-regarded local ophthalmologist who, upon his first examination of my eye, declared that I would need surgery to remove the now errant sty. The pain in my foot and eye both dissipated as I began to think about the strain my unemployed wallet was about to feel. Needless to say that I could not live without the services of my foot or eye, and opted to go ahead with both the surgery and the long list of tests the orthopedist had ordered. When I received the bill, for both the tests as well as for the eye surgery, I did a double take, because the total cost, including a series of x-rays, blood and urine tests and an outpatient surgery, were less than the cost of a single co-pay for a specialist in the United States. I thought at first that it must be a mistake, but then I realized that this was India. Of course, the equipment that these doctors use is probably much older and not the same state-of-the-art equipment used by the medical fraternity here. Plus, these Indian doctors don’t have fancy Harvard or Cornell medical degrees. And the biggest reason is that these Indian doctors are not made to pay for medical mistakes. Indians are generally quite a forgiving people and nobody sues a Doctor because they save lives, and are well meaning and only try to do the right thing by their patients. So, naturally with their older equipment, lesser degrees and more forgiving patients they can afford to charge much less for the same services. I realized that it was really not a fair basis to make any kind of comparison between the costs of care in these two countries, and besides, the issue had more to do with the people who sue at the drop of a hat, and not the fault of the private health insurance industry in America. So, I happily paid my 100% share of their bills and rushed back to the protective cover of my Gold plated insurance in the U.S.

The next few months I spent running from specialist to specialist, in-between my physical therapy appointments, which I had to do twice a week to heal my still injured right foot. Just around the time I could no longer bear the thought of another hospital waiting room or the sight of a person in a white gown, my wife suggested I try one last person, her allergist. Thankfully, I had enough breath left in me to see the man who finally diagnosed my problem, and sent me to the head of one of New York’s most prestigious hospital’s Otolaryngology Department, to ratify his hypothesis. I had laryngeal neuropathy. The new specialist prescribed the necessary medication and sent me to a Voice Therapist to help strengthen my larynx. With my breathing issue under control my right foot seemed to be getting worse. My doctor ordered an MRI as he said that x-rays do not always tell the full story and that it should have been well on the way to recovery by now. So I called the MRI place to make an appointment and set it up for a week from that date. The day I was supposed to go for my MRI, I got a call from the place and they told me not to come as the insurance company had not yet approved the request for my MRI. At first I was shocked and confused about why my insurance would deny something my doctor felt was necessary. Ultimately, after another week passed and my Doctor even called the insurance company to re-iterate the need to get one but to no avail. Instead, I got a letter from their cost consultants saying that after reviewing the necessary data on my condition (not sure what they looked at) they felt that an MRI was not called for and they added that this was done primarily for my benefit. It seems, in their experience Doctor’s often order needless tests, which ultimately wastes money, and only serves to raise the cost of my care. Gosh, not only was my insurance company looking out for my well being, from errant Doctors, but they were also looking to save me money, to say I was touched would be putting it mildly.

Based on my yearlong odyssey, I don’t understand what the entire hullabaloo is about, in terms of the Democrats’ urgency to fix the US healthcare system. I am living proof of the fact the current system works, and works rather well with all its meanderings, negotiations, graces, and non-billing after traumatic ER experiences. In fact it seems to work to everyone's advantage; except maybe the doctors, but then again we all know that doctor’s are overpaid anyway…right?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Julie vs. Julia: The generation gap

“The only time to eat diet food is while you're waiting for the steak to cook”
Julia Childs

“Butter makes life worth living,” sounds like something Julia Child would have and should have said but that is my sentiment and how I have always felt about butter even though I cannot claim to be a Julia Child fan. That is, not until I met my wife. It was my wife who helped me discover the joys of Julia’s recipes and the fact that someone else in this world felt the same way I did about butter and for much longer than I have been alive. Needless to say that my wife is a huge Julia fan and I became one after sampling some of her wondrous fare in my wife’s most talented and capable hands (I secretly believe my wife is a better cook). Thought, I do have to admit that Julia had me at butter. So, as you would expect, we set out this past weekend to watch Nora Ephron’s new movie. We had been told that Julie & Julia is both a glowing tribute and a shallow disservice to Julia Child, depending on who we spoke with, so we decided to find out for ourselves.

Overall, I really enjoyed Julie & Julia. I think the word that best describes the film is delightful. Light, fun, funny and poignant at times and Meryl Streep’s portrayal, even if seemingly a little exaggerated and hyperbolic, was spot on and very memorable. No doubt Ms. Streep will be garnering her thirteenth Oscar nod in short time. I left the theater feeling rather happy with life and also rather hungry. However, there was one particular facet of the film that caught my attention and really got me thinking. It had to do with the stark contrast between the two generations that were portrayed by the two characters. I am not sure if this was intentional or an unintended consequence of simply presenting the two stories, in an honest way, but nonetheless it turned out to be a fascinating and eye opening comparison on all the things society seems to have lost in just about one generation. To begin with I found Julie Powell, and her character portrayed by Amy Adams (of Junebug and Doubt fame), not only shallow but whiny, annoying and I don’t know how else to say put this, but down-market. On the other hand, I felt Meryl Streep’s, Julia, was stoic, elegant and a woman of depth and great substance. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Julie who, in my mind, personified a telling commentary on our generation, complained about absolutely every aspect of her life. She just never seemed to be able to see the bright or light side of her life, in any aspect. From the beginning, with her move from Brooklyn to a new apartment in Queens, she complains about how the kitchen is too small. Then there is her crappy job at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, where she describes herself as a “government drone, and a soulless bureaucratic goon.” Her job entails talking with the surviving relatives of 9/11 and helping them navigate through the city’s bureaucratic maze, and answering questions about proposed re-development plans. Albeit she sits in a small crammed cubicle and probably does not get paid anything close to Wall Street wages but surely the nobility of what she does every day, the lives she touches in a meaningful way, make up for all or some of that? But I guess that is not nearly enough for Julie, as she finds nothing but fault and negativity with her profession. Then as if we have not yet been shocked enough by her seeming shallowness we are introduced to her friends. They are even more vapid and vacuous than Julie, which one would not have thought possible. But there is one other explanation for this, which my wife pointed out to me. Julie’s friends are portrayed as even more wrapped up in their own self-indulgence and self-pity so that we are able to relate to Julie by thinking her a little less inane by comparison. Thank god for small consolations.

With regards to her great challenge, the premise of her blog - taking on the whopping 536 recipes in 365 days while still keeping her day job, one cannot help but feel (and hope) that perhaps this might be a noble cause after all. She has admitted to the audience that she has never finished anything she started before and plans to make this her first completed endeavour. And she talks about how the whole process of getting to know Julia Child, in the bargain, is making her a better person, thereby benefiting not only her perspective on life, but her relationships with people that matter. This is all splendid and one begins to feel some sense of redemption for our generation that is until you realise that her primary and only motivation seems to be notoriety and cash. When readers comments start to pour in on her blog posts, and she is beginning to get noticed we see the real Julie step from behind the shadows of the words and thoughts on her blog that almost have us fooled. The other telling note is that every time she has a meltdown (which are quite frequent) and is ready to give up, her husband eggs her on, not by words of comfort or a gentle push to finish what she has started but by telling her either to cheat (as nobody will ever be the wiser) or how fame and celebrity are just around the corner.

We then get to contrast all the above to Julia Child, whose motivations seem to be completely the opposite. She discovers cooking, or more like it discovers her, while she looks for things to do to fill her time while her husband is posted in France. She finds that it is a great way to express her larger than life personality in a completely male dominated society and also, a way to fit in, in distant, foreign lands. She has to work five times as hard as any man in her generation would for everything she achieves. Julia even has to fight to take her Cordon Bleu exam, in a male dominated chef’s world, where women are frowned upon. Never at any point during her many trials and tribulations do we feel like her efforts and motivations are a way for her to be famous or make a fortune. You also never see her whine about anything. When we find out that her greatest sadness is that she will always remain childless, it’s a heartwrenching, poignant moment in the movie. And when her cookbook and life’s work is rejected, her answer is to hold her head up high, and re-write the whole thing to make it better. Even with seemingly insurmountable odds, we never see Julia cower. Nor do we witness her lay on the floor, kicking, screaming and crying, while shouting at her husband, the way Julie does every time the stuffing falls out of a chicken or one of her sauces burn. Julia’s world continues stoically just as often as Julie’s falls apart for the slightest of reasons or seemingly none at all.

It made me think how differently we approach life today, even when it comes to the simplest things. We rarely see the joie de vivre that is so present in Julia’s world, despite arguably greater odds, in Julie’s world. I don’t think that life got much harder. Certainly, the challenges we face are different, but I am talking about the manner in which we choose to face and overcome those challenges. If Julie is telling of our generation’s attitude to life, then it feels like we make life much harder on ourselves, and that our success and happiness have become equated squarely with fame and fortune. So I urge you to go and watch this movie, to be delighted and feel famished but also to consider these thoughts. If you agree with me, then you will also feel that we have lost much over the last generation and that there is a lot left to be desired.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Toys R Not Us

“Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure.”

George. E. Woodberry 

On our godson James’ fifth birthday we sent him a Transformer toy, which had been his secret birthday wish. I had to scour the city’s toy stores to find Optimus Prime, which I believed to be the gold standard in transformers, being the leader of the Autobots, which are the good robots. However, there seemed to have been a run on this toy in New York City because store after store I left empty handed. Finally, when I could take no more disappointment or thronging crowds, I bought Bumblebee, the second most famous transformer (and the only other one I knew). As I prepared to leave the store, partly dejected, and partly elated because this was the last crowded store I would have to visit, out of the farthest corner of my eye, all the way across the store I saw it. It was Optimus Prime and seemingly the last one in this store and quite possibly in the city of New York, sitting on a shelf on which he did not belong. It was fate. I walked over, grabbed it and ran to the cashier before any one of the million screaming kids noticed my precious find. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of a journey filled with great frustration, not just for five year old James, but also for his father, Roger, and his godfather.

One day after we shipped the toy, we got a thank you call from an elated James. Exactly 24 hours after that I got a distress call from his mother. She told me that the boy and now his father had driven themselves to distraction trying to transform the simple little toy from the current shape to the semi truck that it is supposed to become. Of course, at first I laughed, but when she told me that she had just sent James’s dad off to have a shower to cool off, after he had been trying to transform the toy rather unsuccessfully for over an hour, I knew she was quite serious. I laughed again, but this time because I knew that I would need precisely ten minutes with Optimus to accomplish the task, even if Dad was not able to make any headway. Luckily for little James, the wait for the final transformation would not be a long one, as we were due to visit them the following week. At this point Roger, now cooled off, got on the phone to hear me laugh and taunt him by telling him how I would only need a mere few minutes to ‘not disappoint’ his son. Roger also laughed, saying I had no idea how complicated this toy was. He proceeded to bet me $100 that I would not be able to complete the simple transformation in forty-five minutes, leave alone the ten that I felt I needed. Mano-a-machine - we had a bet.

Oh how I laughed silently on the plane ride in, as I thought about my easy $100. I almost started to feel bad about taking money from James’ father, who had just resigned from his job a few months earlier and remained unemployed. Almost. Roger and James picked us up at the airport and of course the first thing we discussed was how I was about to take some money from our host. He seemed pretty confident that I was going to be paying him. All this while poor little James was rapidly losing interest in his un-transformable birthday present, which seemed to have been completely taken over by Dad and his Uncle Nik’s obsession. When we reached the house, I greeted mom and godson number two and went straight to the task at hand. I sat down at the kitchen table, Optimus Prime in hand, and decided to take a stab before lunch. I was supremely confident that I would finish much before the waffles came off the waffle iron, perhaps even before the batter had been fully spread. This was it, the moment when all those years my mother said I wasted by not reading a book and playing with various action figures instead, was going to come to fruition. This is the day I had been training for.
For the first five minutes it was just Optimus Prime and me, in that kitchen, in that house and in all of California. We stared hard into each other’s eyes and knew that there would be only ONE left standing. I twisted, I turned, I bent and I clicked and felt I was making rapid progress, much to Roger’s dismay, and James’s glee. However, Roger continued to hold fast that I would not be able to complete the task, no matter the extent of my early progress. I had solved the Rubik's cube when I was barely ten, and three years before that I had fixed a digital clock on my parents’ fridge in Hong Kong after my Dad, the handyman and three electricians had failed. I was not about to let some plastic Hasbro-been get the better of me. I swear it felt like just fifteen minutes had transpired when Roger sounded the bell, but my forty-five minutes were up and Optimus Prime was no closer to looking like a semi-truck than he was when I started. I stared in disbelief, even as Roger said, “I told you it was impossible” and our young godson looked like he now had not one, but two inept male role models in his life. Both defeated by none other than Optimus Prime, who was not even a Decepticon, the evil robots.
I do not exaggerate when I say that this thing was a beast. I tried the entire four days that we were in California, setting aside at least an hour each day to transform my new nemesis. I came really, really close. So close that only one piece would not fit, but the point is that I was unable to complete transforming a toy that said in bright, bold letters on the box for “For Age: 4 yrs +”. As for the instructions, they were about as helpful as a blind person giving directions. I want to know who Hasbro has hired to create these new toy Transformers, I have a feeling they are either nuclear physicists of rocket scientists. I am a pretty intelligent guy, as is Roger and we are both toy obsessed and mechanically minded, but neither of us could transform this little plastic toy robot, so what chance will little five year olds have I wonder? I guess all that is left to say is that the cheque is in the mail.

Friday, July 10, 2009

PC versus Mac

"Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people."
David Sarnoff

Sadly, this quote seems to ring true of Crispin’s new work for Microsoft Windows. It seems their run as the hottest advertising agency has come to an abrupt end. I will admit that this is not a blog topic I had ever intended writing on but the more I am forced to see Microsoft’s new TV campaign aimed at making Windows “cool” again, the more I cringe and the more I feel compelled to break my silence.

My pain first started with Windows’ answer to Apple’s ‘Hello I’m a Mac’ campaign, which personified the PC and Mac cleverly using humor, even if it did represent the actual facts in shall we say, a rather liberal manner. But the “I am a PC” campaign that ensued as a fight back had neither humor, nor wit and only served to make me cower in shame at every new PC user it identified; or more appropriately one that I would rather not want to be identified with. I don’t know about you, but it seemed to have quite the opposite effect on me – I was seriously considering switching to Mac or at the very least lying about being a PC in public. Many words come to mind when I think of Deepak Chopra, spiritual, healthy living and Guru are a few of them but ‘Cool’ is certainly not one of them. Besides, I have always felt that taking a bunch of really famous people and getting them to simply admit that they use your product smacks of defensiveness and desperation not confidence and cool. And then there was the Seinfeld and Gates advertisement. Take it from a career ad man that screwing up a commercial with the ability to feature both Jerry and Bill Gates takes a lot of hard work and a serious lack of talent. Thankfully, someone at Microsoft no doubt saw their dominant market share rapidly decline in the near future, along with the current fear and embarrassment in many PC user eyes and put the kibosh on that bit of wasted Eastman Kodak film and then they came up with something completely different.

On winning the Microsoft Windows business, Crispin’s CEO said, “There was a time when it was Avis against Hertz, Coke against Pepsi, and Visa against American Express. I think Microsoft is at the epicenter of the great brand challenge of the next decade - or millennium.” Based on this quote alone, forget Crispin’s recent track record, I was rather hopeful that the first campaign was merely a rough pitch placeholder, even if soulless and creatively void. A momentary lapse of advertising reason, a blip on the path to the sublime, as it were, while Crispin was hard at work on the real campaign, which like ’The Burger King’, would make Microsoft's operating system King of computer cool.

Alas, it was not to be, as the “I am a PC’ campaign was replaced after a brief interlude with a really confusing advertisement about some ‘Mohave Dessert Experiment’ (which I thought was a reminder about how we must be careful not to let our PC’s overheat, to prevent the batteries from catching fire and exploding again) by an even more soulless and mind numbing ‘$1,000 PC shopping challenge’. So the whole point of this campaign is to proudly proclaim to the world that if you pay someone $1,000 cash to buy a PC, for up to or under a $1,000, they will end up buying a PC for up to or under a $1,000…Pray, someone please tell me, am I getting this right? Ok, so maybe I am being a little facetious but was ‘bribery’ the most interesting and imaginative way to inform less than 10% of the world’s non-Windows using population that PC’s offer a range of features at under $1,000…it also tells me that Mac users are willing to pay more for their machines, and don’t even need to get any cash in return.

The reality is that my wife’s Mac has crashed far more often than my PC. I even have Windows Vista, Microsoft’s biggest OS failure to date, and still have a less frustrating time with freezing screens and involuntary shut downs than she does on her Mac. Also, it’s a myth that Mac’s are immune to viruses. Global market share data for 2008 put PC’s at 90.73% and Mac at 8.03% and this is the reason why hackers spend countless hours devising nasty viruses for PC’s and not for Mac’s – lack of impact. At less than 9% global share, it would cause little to no disruption in the general population and virtually no chaos in the corporate world. And have you ever tried playing 3-D or Internet games on a Mac – there is a reason why most gamers use a PC.

I am not planning to list a long and laborious set of comparisons here but my point is that if in the space of 5-10 minutes and a few clicks on Ask (I don’t use that other search engine) I found some interesting things to say about my PC, versus a Mac. Then why, with a $300 million ad budget and countless creative superstars at their disposal, was a highly paid agency unable to find even ONE single remotely compelling or evocative reason to buy a PC?