Monday, April 28, 2014

Wing Nuts

A quick quiz: When it comes to customer satisfaction, what institution do American consumers loath most? (A) Airlines. (B) the Internal Revenue Service. (C) Cable television providers. (D) Social networking sites.
If you guessed all four, you are correct. You win a no-expense-paid trip in economy class for an audit of your last 10 tax returns while sitting between a Twitter fanatic and a Times Warner cable telemarketer.
It comes as no surprise that airlines finished near the top of this dubious achievement list, compiled by the American Customer Satisfaction Index travel report.
The last United Airlines flight I took was aboard a plane so old there was a copy of the Saturday Evening Post in the seat pocket.
Dinner was the legendary snack box containing cheese spread which contained no discernible cheese, crackers and a piece of fruit for 10 bucks.
To ease the pain, I washed it down with a half-bottle of Chateau Screw Top cabernet ($8) which had been bottled the week before.
According to the survey, passengers appreciate that airlines are mishandling fewer bags, although that’s slicing the baloney a bit thick. Nearly 1.8 million pieces of luggage were lost, stolen, or damaged by major U.S. airlines in 2012 — just on domestic flights.
Believe it or not, that’s a significant decline over previous years, but it’s not because the industry has all of a sudden decided to become vigilant.
No, it’s because high luggage fees have resulted in more and more passengers using carry-on bags. Which will work until the airlines find a way to install coin-operated overhead bins.
The flight itself is making some passengers unhappy, with seat comfort and in-flight service particularly dissatisfying. Seat comfort scored 63 out of a possible 100 points, while in-flight service rated an index score of 67 points, according to the survey. Hardly breaking news.
According to the Wall Street Journal, “New Boeing 737-800s now being delivered to American Airlines have the same-size cabins as the existing 737-800s in American’s fleet. But the new planes have 12 more coach seats, pushing the total number of seats to 160. Delta Air Lines has also added 10 seats to its 737-800s, raising the total to the same 160. So has Continental Airlines.”
You can do the math.
So which airline do fliers like least? The answer is less than eyebrow-raising: the aforementioned United Airlines.
Its 2010 merger with Continental Airlines is likely one of the reasons, ACSI explained. “We’ve seen time and time again the negative impact mergers have on customer satisfaction,” Claes Fornell, ACSI founder, said in a statement, adding that American Airlines could also see slumping satisfaction as it combines operations with US Airways.
But that didn’t happen in United’s combination with Continental. While it ranked dead last, United rose two points, probably because Continental’s traditionally high customer satisfaction buoyed United’s traditionally lower score, the study said.
For the record, JetBlue and Southwest are the airlines most in favor.
Back on the ground, what does the ACSI survey say consumers like best in the way of goods and services?
At the top of the list is television and video players, credit unions, soft drinks, personal care and cleaning products, automobiles and light vehicles, full-service restaurants, breweries and athletic shoes.
Bringing up the rear are wireless telephone services, health insurance, Internet news and information, gasoline stations and hotels.
An eclectic list if I ever saw one.
If you take this survey at face value, you could presumably launch a successful political campaign by promising even larger flat-screen TVs, tastier soft drinks, gentler deodorant and stronger tile cleaner, sleeker automobiles, more restaurants where people serve you, a brewery on every corner and sneakers that will allow each and every one of us to run like the wind and play above the rim.
These seem to be the things Americans care about.
But lest we demean the nation’s consumers, another ACSI survey disclosed that the company Americans hate most is McDonald’s.
With some justification. A recent study conducted by the National Employment Law Project found that McDonald’s employees rely more on public assistance programs than any other large fast-food company, with an estimated $1.2 billion in costs to the public.
Making matters worse, McDonald’s advised some of its employees to sell their possessions to make up for holiday spending debt. Recently, the fast food chain’s hotline designated to help its workers live on their modest incomes encouraged employees to apply for food stamps.
But no such Dumpster diving for the chief executive of McDonald’s. He earns more than $9,200 an hour, which is at least 1,000 times the hourly wages of their sales associates, according to published reports.
Against that backdrop, the fast-food giant reported that sales in the United States continue to decline. Its first-quarter earnings fell well short of analysts’ expectations.
Maybe, just maybe, we Americans get it right.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Read All About It

There were a couple of interesting developments this past week for those who prefer their news reported and written by skilled professionals.
First, there’s a new paper in town, the Los Angeles Register.   It's been a very  long time since anybody cranked up the presses at a new newspaper in this town.  So we welcome it.
But the reality is that its appearance is either insane or ingenious.
Insane, because at a time when print news publications are becoming as commonplace as the woolly mammoth, Aaron Kushner, the Register’s publisher, is betting that the future is bright. His plan involves lots of local news, conservative columnists and a paywall among other initiatives
He hit the ground running several years ago in Orange County, home to the parent Register paper, hiring 100 journalists, creating two dozen new sections, upgrading the weeklies he owned, and began publishing a new daily. In November, he bought the Press-Enterprise of Riverside for about $27 million.
This against the background of a profession that saw 17,000 reporters and editors laid off between 2006-2012, according to the Pew Research Journalism Project.
Since Kushner’s splashy arrival, however, 35 people have been laid off in Orange County and 39 at the Press Enterprise. Most of the 50 journalists staffing the Los Angeles operation are migrating from Orange County.
Ingenious, because the Los Angeles Times and other papers in Southern California could be up for sale in the not too distant future. Kushner could be in a position to buy them all.
If he does, it will remain to be seen if he ends up possessing a bigger white elephant than he owns now or if he has been right while everyone else has been wrong. For the sake of a noble profession, we wish him well.
In the meantime, enjoy the ride. Competition results in great journalism.
There is another reason to celebrate
Every year, an organization called CareerCast ranks jobs, from first to worst, based on a number of metrics.
Last year, the job of Newspaper Reporter was ranked dead last. Number 200 on a list of 200.
Yes, almost any profession you can think of from Bartenders (No. 112) to Dishwashers (No. 124) to Sewage Plant Operators (No. 141) was deemed to be more alluring and less stressful.
This year, however, reporters have leapt to Number 199, leaving Lumberjacks in the wake even though we depend on them for our finished product.
And who ranks at the top of the list? Why, bean counters and number crunchers. Not surprising in a country that manufactures more bureaucracies and paper shufflers than hard goods.
The Number One ranking goes to Mathematicians, closely followed by Statisticians and Actuaries. The lesson here, I guess, is that if you have a good head for figures, don’t waste your talent on reporting vote tallies or box scores.
Others making the top 10 per cent: University Professors (good pay, little stress) at No. 2. Audiologist at No. 5. Computer Systems Analyst (No. 8), Speech Pathologist (No. 10), Human Resources Manager (No. 13) and Petroleum Engineer (No. 20).
Not faring so well: Meter Reader (No. 183), Disc Jockey (No. 188), Garbage Collector (No. 193), Flight Attendant (No. 194), Taxi Driver (No. 197) and Enlisted Military Personnel (No. 198).
But back to reporting. It can be exasperating, fulfilling, joyous or heart-wrenching. One of the first reporting jobs I had required calling the grieving families of Vietnam War dead. It was enough to make me consider door-to-door vacuum cleaner sales.
But being a reporter can also be adventurous, romantic, exciting.
So why the bad rap?
According to Tony Lee, CareerCast publisher, while Newspaper Reporter has dropped down the ranks through the years, it’s been in the bottom half since the list’s inception some 25 years ago.
“There are reasons why newspaper reporter is at the bottom,” Lee told Caitlin Johnston of “Some of them are reasons that really haven’t changed in 25 years and some of them are new phenomena.”
For example:
Pay: “It’s never paid terribly well compared to lots of other jobs.”
Stress: “It’s always been a relatively high-stress job. You’re working under deadline, which immediately makes it more stressful. You’re essentially in the public eye because others can read your work and take issue with what you write.”
Hours: “You’re essentially in demand all the time. Clearly there are times when you’re off, but if something happens on your beat or you’re in a small town, you need to drop what you’re doing and go to work.”
I visited this CareerCast data several years ago and I believe now what I wrote then: What is missing in this equation is fulfillment. How else can you explain how an Appliance Repairer beats out an Aerospace Engineer; a Skin Care Specialist is listed ahead of a Surgeon; a Typist is ranked ahead of a Judge.
There may be untold intellectual delights in washing dishes or making martinis, but all things considered I’d rather be writing.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Chicken Feed

The Pasadena City Council in its infinite wisdom has temporarily put the brakes on a plan to put a Chick-fil-A fast food joint across the street from Pasadena City College.
Why? That stretch of Colorado Boulevard isn’t exactly Rodeo Drive. So aesthetics probably isn’t a consideration.
No, the problem seems to be that the drive-thru eatery would violate the provision of something called the East Colorado Boulevard Specific Plan, which sounds like a document I would read if I was battling insomnia.
But it is holy writ to at least one city councilman.
“The East Colorado Specific Plan is very precise in terms of what it allows and doesn’t allow and what its aspirations are, and this corner across from PCC is a big parcel, a corner parcel, highly visible, and the development of that parcel is of critical significance to that whole part of Colorado Boulevard,” Councilman Terry Tornek said this past week.
Well and good. But negotiations are held, compromises are made and deals are done sometimes out of the earshot of the public and the press. Especially with a company that does $4.6 billion in sales and has more lawyers on its payroll than Pasadena has poultry.
I’m betting you’ll be able to order a chicken sandwich on East Colorado before the year is done.
There are, of course, other reasons why you wouldn’t embrace a Chick-fil-A in your neighborhood.
Number one is the fact that the world doesn’t need another fast food joint. Along with mattress stores, nail salons and mini-marts, Southern California must lead the nation in restaurants that serve your meal in a bag.
But American capitalism holds that if you build it, they will come. That’s why the Chick-fil-A chain is planning on opening 108 new restaurants nationwide in the coming year. So damn the cholesterol, full speed ahead.
But wait. Chicken is good for you, right? Compared to a double chili cheeseburger topped with onion rings, yes. But you can pack on some serious pounds at a Chick-fil-A as well.
A look at the chain’s menu discloses such choices as the Spicy Chicken Sandwich Deluxe that weighs in at 570 calories, 80 milligrams of cholesterol and 1,750 milligrams of sodium. Then there’s the Grilled Chicken Club Sandwich which tips the scales at 440 calories, 90 mg of cholesterol 1,090 mg of sodium.
Want fries with that? A large order of waffle potato fries clock in at 520 calories and 240 mg of sodium. Wash it all down with a cookies and cream milkshake at 690 calories, 95 mg of cholesterol and 540 mg of sodium and Paula Deen would be proud of you.
So a sandwich, fries and a shake could add up to 1,780 calories, 175 mg of cholesterol and 2,530 mg of sodium.
That’s OK if you’re a firefighter but not so good if you’re a desk jockey.
Just for the sake of comparison, the FDA recommended daily allowance is 2,000 calories for women and 2,500 for men, 300 mg of cholesterol and 2,400 mg of sodium.
To be fair, Chick-fil-A offers healthy entrees. So do most fast food outlets. But how many people go to a place with “chicken” in its name to order a fruit salad?
Then there is the messy issue of the chain’s politics.
Just two year ago, Chick-fil-A Chief Operating Officer Dan T. Cathy made several public statements supporting the “traditional” family, saying about same-sex marriage that those who “have the audacity to define what marriage is about” were “inviting God’s judgment on our nation.”
That sounds a bit like Westboro Baptist Church, not a group you would want to be in bed with.
The company has its roots in Georgia, where they believe in grits and the gospel, and the founding family members are devout Southern Baptists.
Media reports disclosed that Chick-fil-A had donated over $5 million to groups that oppose same-sex marriage. Of this, more than $3 million was donated primarily to Christian organizations whose agendas included positions that some consider to be anti-gay.
The company’s stance actually boosted business down South. But Chick-fil-A executives who were planning to expand the business beyond the Mason-Dixon Line were not pleased over the resulting demonstrations and boycotts.
So Cathy relented.
“All of us become more wise as time goes by,” he told USA Today. “We sincerely care about all people.”
Whether his contrition is heartfelt enough to overcome the company’s discriminatory past remains to be seen.
Last, there is this “fil-A” business. I know what a filet is and how to spell it. Do the Chick folks think hard-working Americans are too stupid to understand a word with French roots? Of course, this is a company whose commercials show a cow holding a sign that says “Eat Mor Chikin.”
Maybe they need an editor.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The Writing Machine

It was a chance discovery, an accidental encounter in the dark and dusty corner of a non-nondescript building that revealed a fascinating story from long ago and far away.
To explain: On a recent Sunday afternoon, I accompanied a friend visiting from Denver on an antique crawl in Pasadena.
He has been a collector of this and that for years. At one point, he had a large and impressive collection of fine china used on dining cars in the golden age of railroading. He could spot a tea cup from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe across a crowded room.
To me, most of the stuff you see in antique stores are trinkets and geegaws that may have had some meaning to the original owners but are so much junk now. Who wants an ashtray that says “Cleveland, 1953?” Or a commemorative shot glass from the Inyo County Fair?
This particular trip didn’t reveal anything that would elicit gasps of amazement on “Antique Roadshow.” No Tiffany lamps. No Benjamin Franklin’s hat. No Hopalong Cassidy’s six-shooter.
Indeed, we were about to exit the store when something caught my eye. In the back of a stall the dealers used to display their wares was a typewriter sitting on a threadbare needlepoint chair.
The machine was old, 1920s or 30s I estimated, although it turned out to be older than that. Like many everyday objects made long ago it managed to make the utilitarian look elegant. It even appeared to be in working order.
I don’t collect typewriters or anything else for that matter. In fact, I haven’t even seen or touched a typewriter in some 30 years. They were unceremoniously swept into obscurity at the dawn of the computer age.
But I did use a typewriter for the first part of my career and it seemed to symbolize the profession that I embraced many years ago.
In other words, it spoke to me.
Across the top of the paper feed in gold letters were the words “Pittsburgh Visible.” Script located below the keyboard informed us that it was manufactured by the “Pittsburgh Writing Machine Company, Pittsburgh, Penn.”
That sealed the deal for me. My wife is from the Pittsburgh area so she also felt some attachment to this dusty old machine.
Who owned it? Where was it used? How did it get from Pittsburgh to Pasadena? Those are questions that will in all likelihood never be answered. But by doing some research, we were able to learn a lot about the machine and the man who invented it.
It is the story of James Denny Daugherty, born in 1855 and raised in Kittanning, just up the river from Pittsburgh. He was, in the words of one historian, “gifted as a mechanic, and learned in the law, but his inborn eloquence and poetic temperament are traits which have endeared him to his friends, and made him a terror to his adversaries.”
As a young man, his schooling was cut short by the necessity to earn a living to supplement the family income. He worked in a brickyard during the day and recited at night to historian Robert W. Smith, from whom he obtained a basic knowledge of Latin and mathematics. Daugherty was finally able to attend Mount Union College, Ohio, from which he graduated in 1879.
While working as a court stenographer, he bought himself a Sholes and Glidden typewriter and “became remarkably expert upon that comparatively clumsy pioneer machine, and began at once to improve upon it”.
“Even with this slow and crude machine he became able to take testimony without the use of stenographic notes,” according to historical records. “The annoyance of raising the carriage of the machine (the only way you could read what you typed) caused him to work out the idea of a visible writer, and in 1881 he made the first working model of a typewriter with writing in sight. A successful working model made of iron was developed by him in 1883.”
In 1891 he had his idea patented and contracted a firm in Groton, New York, to manufacture 2000 machines.
At first, using the catchphrase “We claim everything in sight,” the Daugherty typewriter proved a commercial success. So much as that in 1894 the company was able to build a factory in Kittanning.
Apart from being the first to provide visible writing, Daugherty’s typewriter had other then-unique features. By loosening two screws on either side of the keyboard, the keyboard and typebasket could be removed and replaced for another typeface.
But the company’s fortunes began to falter in 1897 through the “incompetency” of a manager at the factory. A lot of 2,500 machines were found to be defective and had to be cast into the scrap heap. The humiliation and shame felt by the manager caused him to hang himself.
It was a fatal blow for the company. Agents around the country demanded deliveries at once or contracts would be cancelled. As Daugherty could not get out the orders, the firm was compelled to suspend operations. Later that year the plant and Daugherty’s patents were sold to the Pittsburgh Writing Machine Company, and the new owners renamed the machine the Pittsburgh Visible Typewriter, an example of which I now own.
A lesser man would have disappeared after such a setback. But not Daugherty. Instead, he remained involved with the Pittsburgh company which continued to produce the Daugherty-designed machine until 1908. In 1911, it sold the Daugherty patents to the Union Typewriter Company, a trust that controlled Remington, Smith Premier and other typewriter manufacturers. Soon, those companies incorporated Daugherty’s designs into their products.
Daugherty worked for Union for a short time, then for Underwood where he designed an adding, subtracting and multiplying attachment for their machine.
But he was more than just a tinkerer. He was a lawyer with his own practice. A renown political orator, he was one of the few speakers selected for service in the campaign of soon-to-be President William McKinley with whom Daugherty had a strong personal friendship. When McKinley was assassinated, Daugherty delivered the address at the memorial service.
James Denny Daugherty died in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 14, 1939, aged 83. He was gone but hardly forgotten, even today.
If you’ll look at the top left hand side of your computer keyboard, you’ll see the letters E,R,T and Y side by side.  They represent the last four letters of Daugherty's name.