Monday, February 26, 2007

I reject your reality and substitute my own

In yet another example of how the world I live in is not the norm, I was reading this week's Business Week magazine, and there was an article about a firm that does usability studies to figure out what customers want and help companies design products around the results. The article went on to educate us that while many companies alter their products by adding more features, really customers might want fewer features that are just easier to use. Similarly, on NPR about a month ago someone did a feature on National Usability Day, and acted as though usability was a form of geek-speak that no one would understand.

Now I would imagine the average reader of Business Week works at a company that creates some sort of product. So here's the question - if they've never heard of customer research or usability studies, how on earth to they figure out what products to build? It's not like this is only relevant for technology companies; even GM must put together some panels of users to figure out what new features to add to their cars, and I bet that Kraft does the same for their crackers. Service companies or even grocers should do the same if they want to be successful. But apparently that's not the case, which just goes to show you that my reality is not the same as everyone else's.

So am I crazy? I'd like a vote on who knows what customer research and usability studies are.

NPR Morning Shocker

Yesterday was a crazy morning in radio land!
First, I turned on the radio just in time to hear a snarky commentary about how Britney Spears should be thanked because just when we were going to have to start thinking about the Iraq war, America's declining prestige in the world, etc. she went and shaved her head and kept us from such upsetting thoughts. It continued by suggesting that Brad Pitt start dressing as a woman to keep the American consumer on track. The comments were kind of funny, but I couldn't believe the tone - it was unabashedly liberal and very un-NPR. I was almost relieved when I heard the sign off - it was Ron Reagan Jr, which made me realize that I must be listening to one of our local AM stations by accident. Whew!
So what did I do but change the channel to NPR so I could get back to only slightly liberal, less-snarky news. Instead, what I heard was...nothing! From what I understand, dead air is the bane of radio, the one thing you do not want to hear. I expected it to be a short-term thing but instead it stayed silent for longer and longer - in fact I never heard a peep out of NPR on my whole drive to the gym. What is the world coming to?
(And can we blame it on the loss of Deborah Brandt, who retired last Fri in what was apparently a very good thing for all the folks who had to work with her annoying self? I think I will.)

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Silliest story of the day

In today's why bother category, Robert Siegel interviewed an Oregon state senator today on All Things Considered about National Return Carts to the Supermarket Month. Oh yes, you heard it here first (well second, if you were listening to NPR tonight). Apparently the folks in Oregon are very concerned that people without cars are taking shopping carts, which can cost from $100-$300, to the bus stop or to their apartments and then leaving them there. Can you imagine? More realistically, can you imagine paying $300 for a shopping cart? Maybe if it had GPS and voice recognition and was low-jacked, but then people couldn't steal it anyway. Regardless, they are creating a 24-hour hotline for people to report stolen carts, after which the grocery stores will have 72 hours to pick them up. I'm not sure if they're assuming that no one will move the cart within that 72 hour timeframe, or that after it's been found once, it'll be found again? And who are these people with such an excess of time on their hands who will actually call this number? I'm chalking this up to one more politician in search of a cause. Makes you want to move to Oregon, doesn't it?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Voting Rights

This morning on Weekday, Steve Scher (another strangely spelled name; perhaps that's a requirement in radio?) was interviewing guests regarding Hispanic Week in the State Legislature. The speakers were discussing the things that prevent Latinos from voting in Eastern Washington, and among the items in their list were "citizenship requirements". Seriously! I was in shock that anyone could, with a straight face, say that the fact that voters must be citizens is a legitimate problem. How could they possibly question the right to vote as something that comes with being a citizen? However, my next thought was - if people pay taxes, shouldn't they have some say in what the local government does, even if they don't have citizenship? I don't know what the right answer is. Immigration has become such a political hot topic and no one has a complete solution, especially me, but there are a few things I believe in strongly:

(1) All people should be treated with dignity. Someone being an illegal immigrant does not give anyone a right to abuse them.
(2) Other countries should not be allowed to use the US as a dumping ground for their least desireable citizens by legitimizing or encouraging illegal immigration
(3) Any system that allows illegal immigrants to have a path to legal residency or citizenship must include an even easier path to allow legal immigrants that right. I have several friends here on TN visas who have no path to citizenship without getting employers to move them to an H1-B visa, which is fair enough unless folks who don't follow the rules and come here illegally are given that right.
(4) In general, the melting pot is not such a bad idea - immigrants to the US (like myself, I should add) should be those who not only want to come here for financial reasons but should want to adapt to the culture in the US while bringing in the things that make their culture special, not re-create their culture completely here.
(5) There are probably a few more here, but I haven't fully formed them yet.

Just another reason why listening to NPR in the morning is a good way to get your brain flowing.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Spoiled By the Internet

Last week as I was driving to my friend B's house for dinner I heard part of an episode of The Vinyl Cafe. Normally I'm not a huge fan of music shows (if I wanted to hear music, I wouldn't be listening to NPR) but I was really enjoying this one. It started with some commentary from Stuart Mclean, who by the way has an adorable Canadian accent. Next, it included A Shokan Farewell, which is a gorgeous piece that was written for the Ken Burns Civil War series. Being a bit of a Civil War buff (well more of a Gone With the Wind and North and South fan really, but whatever) I think this music beautifully encapsulates the spirit of that time. Next, Mclean said that he wasn't very well versed in classical music so the musicians put together a tutorial for him, in which they played one piece of music as it would have been written in ten different time periods. I thought this was a cute idea, and although I was already having a "driveway moment" in front of B's house, I stayed to hear which piece they had picked and burst out laughing when I heard the theme to the Pink Panther. I immediately resolved to go listen to the podcast of the show on the NPR website, as anyone in this Internet age would assume was possible.

Oh how wrong I was! First of all you can't find The Vinyl Cafe on, not even a direct link to the CBC show, although they do link to the CBC in general. On the CBC page you can easily search for The Vinyl Cafe but once you get there, this is what you find:

At this stage, the Vinyl Cafe is not available as a podcast for a variety of reasons. When it does become available as a podcast we will be sure to let you know. Thanks so much for your patience.

So this is the specific show I wanted to hear, but there's no way for me to find it on the official site! I assume that I could find a version of it somewhere on the Internet, but I feel (a) bummed that I can't listen to the show, (b) shocked that in this day and age I wouldn't be able to find it online and (c) kind of elitist for assuming that this sort of thing must be available to me whenever I want it.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Jury Duty: Day 4, Part 2

The story continues...

We then went back to the jury room while they worked out our "instructions", which ended up being a packet of papers explaining the legal definition of assault and intent, explaining what we needed to do, and laying out the charges. The final page was the description of the case which once again illustrated the court's competence as it listed it as the District Court rather than the Municipal court, and listed the wrong city! During closing arguments, the prosecutor did a reasonable job of talking through all the reasons why the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense attorney offered a confused argument where he again wasn't clear as to whether the incident had happened at all and offered no better reasoning for Hans' actions than that he was asleep. We jurors then went back to deliberate. I was chosen (well okay, I volunteered, but no one who knows me would expect anything differently) to be the principal juror and lead the discussion. It didn't take us much time, perhaps thirty minutes, to come to a conclusion. Reading this now it seems much more foregone than I felt during the trial - I was never unsure that if Hans had done it, it had been intentional, but I questioned whether it had actually happened at all or whether Cara just thought it had. We all said we thought it was sad that the two hadn't been able to just talk about it - we were convinced that if Hans had just apologized Cara wouldn't have pressed charges - it was clearly not something she wanted to do because of her close friendship with him. The attorneys were apparently surprised at the speed at which we came to a verdict, since we had to wait another half hour for one of them to come back to the courtroom. We went in, I presented our findings, the bailiff read them, and we left. We heard the judge begin to discuss sentencing and he said something about being inclined to be lenient, which was a relief to us because we didn't think Hans deserved a long sentence, although we didn't have a say in that.

This would have been the end of the line, except I stayed to chat with one of the women on the jury who I'd made friends with over the past week and someone who'd been watching the trial approached us and asked us why we'd made the decision we had. It turns out she's a victim's advocate who'd been assigned to help Cara go through the trial. We explained why we'd found Hans guilty, and she told us that apparently when Cara had called Hans' brother after the incident, he'd said, "I'm not surprised". She found out that apparently he'd done this to other women as well, and that's why she had pressed charges. I'd felt comfortable with our verdict initially, but this extra information made me feel even better about our choice. I was really glad to have an opportunity to hear it, and it was interesting to think about how our law system allows facts like that to be suppressed to make sure we're trying to defendant without prejudice. I wonder if that's really fair - in this case we ended up with the right verdict, but what if we hadn't?

The day ended with us giving the jury coordinator some feedback on things she could improve on (the website, the jury summons etc). We learned a lot about how people get summoned - apparently they usually summon 200 people with the expectation that 20 people will show up but in our case they had a full docket of 9 cases for the week so they summoned 400 and were shocked that 50-60 people showed up! The coordinator told us that our state gets good enough attendance that even though theoretically you're in trouble if you don't serve your jury duty, realistically no one gets prosecuted at all, so you can just not show up. We also learned that apparently our courthouse had had zero cases for the first ten months of last year as everyone adjusted to a new judge and new district attorney and that's why their system still has so many kinks to iron out.

All in all, my time at jury duty was definitely interesting, plus I got paid $13 each day! I hope I don't have to repeat it again for a long time.

Jury Duty: Day 4, Part 1

Today I truly did my civic duty and actually served on a jury. The day started off innocuously enough - for the first time we were allowed to sit and wait in the jury room this morning, and within an hour we were sitting in the courtroom being questioned by the attorneys to see who would make it onto the jury. I was the second alternate and assumed that since I speak quite a lot, there was no way I would actually make it on to the jury. We got asked all kinds of questions about assault, intent to commit assault, whether we'd ever witnessed or experienced an assault, and whether someone is committing a crime if he is asleep and accidentally twitches and hits his wife. One woman admitted to being in an abusive marriage and one to being abused by her parents' friends as a child - I was a little horrified that of the 20 or so of us there, there were 10% who had been seriously abused.

This was the second time I'd had the opportunity to be questioned and it's interesting how much you can guess about the case based on the questions asked. In fact, I was told that yesterday during the questioning of the jury the defense attorney got cut off multiple times as she basically tried to make her case through the questions themselves. Anyhow, surprisingly, I was picked for the jury. In fact, the jury ended up being all women, the first of several poor decisions made by the defense attorney.

The trial was quite a sad case. The defendant (Hans) and the main witness (Cara?) for the prosecution had been best friends since they were little and were hanging out after doing errands all day to prepare for their good friend's funeral (he'd died in a skiing accident). The defendant's father had also died recently from a terminal illness, and we found out that one of his brothers died a few months later too. Anyhow, apparently after their errands, they went to Cara's house to watch a movie in her room (she lived at home with her dad and her 2 year old daughter, who also was sleeping in the same room). When Cara woke up to her daughter crying, she found Hans' hand in her own pants, under her underwear, she slapped him, and he left. The defense didn't really argue whether this was true or not. Cara sobbed on the stand telling her story, even though it had happened more than a year earlier. She obviously was traumatized by what she saw as the betrayal of one of her best friends. She apparently called Hans' brother, who responded "oddly," to tell him what happened. Then she called her friend, who testified that she was hysterical and crying and took several hours to calm down enough to convince her to call the police. The police officer who came to the scene also testified. The testimony was compelling - clearly something had happened. For some reason the defense attorney spent the whole cross-examination trying to show that the witnesses hadn't seen the incident so they were only reporting second-hand information. He missed the fact that the secondary witnesses were relevant for explaining Cara's state of mind. When it came to cross-examining Cara, he tried to get her to say there wasn't enough light for her to see whether Hans had his eyes open before she slapped him, and say that she couldn't have seen his eyes anyway because she was turned away from him. Then Hans went to the stand and it was clear that he hadn't been prepped; he was completely unemotional but confused. He contradicted himself several times while telling his side of the story which was - he might have touched Cara, or maybe not, or maybe he didn't remember, but if he had he was asleep. However, the prosecutor got him to admit that he hadn't seen Cara since the incident (Hans tried to argue that that wasn't unusual, even though she was his best friend) and that he'd avoided calling the police officer back as he was doing his investigation of the incident.

More tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Jury Duty: Day 3

Another day, another courtroom. Today we got to play in the big kid's courtroom, one that actually has a jury box rather than a row of chairs shoved against the wall, and that had ample space for all the folks who had shown up for jury duty. Of course, none of this meant that the efficiency of the jury system was at all improved. We sat, and waited, and waited some more while they made sure we all had our number badges. We were back to the jury coordinator from day 1, who seemed somewhat more efficient (only by comparison) than the one from day 2, so after only 45 minutes or so, she let us know that only half of us would be required to come in on Thurs, and the other half on Friday. Of course, rather than just say, "jurors number 1-30 come tomorrow, 31-60 on Friday," she had to randomly select our numbers and then listen to all the sob stories of people who wanted to come Friday but not Thurs or vice versa. Next, we got a five minute break. Then we sat some more. Finally, she went through and randomly chose 25 people to stick around as potential jurors and sent the rest of us home.

It was interesting to note that this was the first defendant who wasn't African-American (note there were no African-Americans in the entire jury pool) and the judge this time didn't tell us what the charge was. It was also interesting to watch the interaction between the various jurors. I've made a few friends already, but there were some folks who clearly hadn't cultivated any acquaintances yet and were just dying of boredom. It was fun to watch them finally give up and force the people sitting next to them into awkward conversations. I did find out that the defendants in the first trial were found not guilty due to lack of evidence, and that apparently it was a fairly interesting case.
One day to go; we'll see if I actually get selected this time!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Something I learned from J

My husband is the type of guy who always knows everything before you do. I don't know where he finds the time, but somehow he manages to stay on top of every news item (especially the technology related ones) at all hours of the day. He also knows everything about history, economics, and the latest gadgets, but that just makes him a good person to have on your team for trivial pursuit. He also has an uncanny ability to guess what will happen to people we know, which is just creepy. But back to his timely knowledge of all current events...what this means for me is that when I send him articles I think are interesting throughout the day, he invariably has already read them. But what it also means is that he has found some pretty interesting things himself, and sometimes he even passes them along to me.

Most recently, I was in the office while he was watching the Digg video podcast on his computer. I've heard of Digg of course, but I don't often go there because I dislike the format, even though I think the concept is interesting. But what I didn't know was that every week the guy who started Digg and a friend of his who was on Tech TV with him do a video podcast where they drink beers and discuss the top articles on Digg. Since I was in the room while he was watching (I was playing my honeycomb game) I got to listen in, and it was awesome. Yes, I'm a geek, but really it was just like the conversations we have in the halls at work and at the FOT lunch. They discussed Steve Job's latest attempt to lay the blame for Apple's closed music formats on the music industry, they talked about Vista, they covered some strange UI someone developed that lets you have a messy digital desktop to match your real desk, etc. I don't know that I'll actually go to the trouble of turning on the podcast myself, but I would definitely watch over J's shoulder again.

Jury Duty: Day 2

The website still wasn't updated last night as promised, but this time they did update the jury phone line. So I, somewhat less excited than I was the day before, went off to the courthouse to once again perform my civic duty. Unfortunately my civic duty today consisted of (1) finding no parking in the courthouse lot and having to park at a nearby business park, (2) having the metal detector once again go off when I went through, and once again being waved through with no further inspection, (3) sitting around as today's jury coordinator, miraculously even less efficient than yesterday's coordinator, promised us she'd return soon, and (4) being dismissed because the attorneys settled the case. And yes, I have to go back tomorrow again.

Guessing Game

At the end of To the Point this evening I heard a plug for an upcoming thing. I was so taken with the language in the plug that I missed out on what it was that they were plugging. So I propose a contest to come up with the best possible guess for what this might possibly be:
a political conspiracy thriller miniseries event!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Happy Anniversary To Me

Happy 6 month anniversary to me and J! Marriage is a wonderful thing.

Jury Duty: Day 1

I have been asked to do my civic duty and show up for Jury duty at the local Municipal Court this week. I was actually looking forward to it; I've been summoned for Jury duty before while living in CA but my number has never even been called to be one of the lucky few who get asked questions by the prosecuting and defense attorneys. This time it was going to be my local court, and I was hoping I'd see a bit more of the process.

But the first order of the day was - do I even have to show up, and if so when? This seems like it would be an easy question to answer, but in the world of government bureaucracies, this is not the case. My summons had a date (Feb 12) but within the same one-page summons had two different times (8:30 and 9:00). No problem, I can go to the convenient website or call the phone number they've provided, right? The website says, "all jurors are excused for the remains of the January session." Since it's February, that's not extremely helpful for me. So I called the jury hotline after 5pm last night as instructed. It welcomed me to the court and told me that all associates were on other calls but that if I'd called outside of business hours, I should hang up and call back another time. So I figured they just hadn't updated the answering machine and called back again, and again, and again. Finally I called at 11:30pm and the message had been updated. Yay! It said, "all jurors should show up for the January 22nd session at 9am." Hmmm...not so good. So I decided I'd show up this morning at 8:30 just to be sure.

At the courthouse, there were quite a few people milling around. At 8:30 on the dot, we were allowed to go into the courthouse and through the security check, which involved a guard and a metal detector. According to a sign on the outside of the door we were not allowed to bring food or drink into the courthouse. I thought that was strange considering that we were going to be there all day so I asked if I could bring in my water bottle. The guard said yes and had me go through the metal detector, which promptly went off. I took off my belt (somehow much more embarassing in a courthouse than in an airport) and went through again, and it beeped again. The guard said not to worry about it and let me through. Three seconds later, he turned back to me where I was now waiting to enter the courtroom itself and said that he'd "forgotten" but actually I couldn't bring my water bottle in. So I had to exit the building, go back to my car, and put the bottle away, then go back and stand in line. This time when I went back through I just walked through the metal detector and let it beep, and the guard ignored it. I felt quite secure, until I noticed all the people he'd let through holding coffee cups...

But finally, into the courtroom we went, only one person saying, "moo" at the way we were being herded. We got to watch an educational video on our civic duty with definitions of the various people who we'd see today as well as how the process would work. Then the lawyers and judge and defendants entered and we all left, only to come back in again in a new random order for the jury selection process. The lawyers asked all kinds of questions that made it quite clear that the case was about an obstruction of justice at a Ford dealership and I think I probably spoke up enough that they wouldn't have wanted me to serve even if I'd been closer to the front of the line of potential jurors. This went on for about an hour, after which they excused a bunch of people and told us all to call back again tonight to find out whether we should show up tomorrow for another trial.

I can't wait to find out what tomorrow holds in store.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Seltzer for mere Shekels

Usually I get kind of a kick out of products that are marketed for Jews. My friend D and I spent a long while laughing over an email I got once describing a contraption that would "make seltzer", was perfect for taking with you and your family when you were going to the Catskills and very, very cheap. The image that comes to mind is the perfect East-coast American Jewish family in the 60's going to the type of "resort" shown in Dirty Dancing. And it's probably not so far from reality - my grandfather, though he was an Israeli Jew rather than an American one of course, had a seltzer maker of his own in the fridge at all times.

Last night on Marketplace, Shia Levitt did reported from Jerusalem about products made specifically for religious Jews. The report wasn't particularly well done because she bungled the way she described the connection between the two products, but it was interesting. She talked about two items - one that takes a regular fridge and converts it to prevent it from being used accidentally on Shabbat (the Hebrew word for the Sabbath, when religious Jews interpret the Torah's instruction not to work into: don't turn on and off lights, don't write with a permanent pen, don't drive etc.) and one that modifies a phone so you can use it on Shabbat without breaking the rules.

The former seems silly but fine to me. If you're really going to be hard core about following the rules, then you don't want to inadvertently break them. Makes sense. The second one is the type of thing I have a problem with. There are other examples, like lights that are always on but have a special turning cover so that you can twist the cover on and off to "turn on and off" the light without actually changing the state of the light - I hear they're great when you want to read your kids a nighttime story on Shabbat. But really, they just seem like cheating to me. The Rabbi institute that created the phone claims that it's only to be used in emergencies even though using it doesn't break any rules (you can read the Marketplace transcript find out how they've engineered that). But Jewish law is very clear that in case of life or death you can break any rule at all with no problems. So really this is for people who want to use these products through a technicality.

Ultimately, I guess I feel like if you're going to follow any religion, you should be sticking with the spirit of the laws rather than the fine print. The sprit of Shabbat is one I admire, and even try to follow despite my agnostic beliefs - it's a day of rest. To me that means that I can read, relax, but also drive to the snow and go skiing or whatever else means rest to me. But when religion is just about following the letter of a book written thousands of years ago and interpreted by a bunch of men, that's when I can't understand it anymore. And that's when I get scared, because the next step is for people to start strapping bombs to themselves to kill all others who don't share their beliefs.

Wow that turned pretty depressing, didn't it?

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Nothing much to say

NPR has been disappointing as a conversational topic recently. There have been a lot of interesting stories, such as the one I heard today comparing the Iraq War to Ford - bad images, falling stock price, same marketing campaign ("the way forward!" vs. "the new way forward!"), but none that really inspire long discussions or blog entries.

My Business Week subscription has recently started showing up and generally contains good fodder for thoughtful discussion, but since I've been busy reading my upcoming book club book - In the Shadow of the Ark by Anne Provoost, as well as the Sabriel series by Garth Nix, I haven't really started reading any of the magazines in depth.

Usually I would have heard something interesting at the FOT lunch, but this week I couldn't make it because, due to some technical difficulties that our IT folks can't seem to figure out, others can't see my schedule and therefore tend to schedule me when I'm already booked. Normally I would just decline the overlapping meeting, but it was hard to justify turning down my manager, who wanted me to meet with his manager during the FOT lunch. I hear they had fun without me though.

I did get to attend Scottish dance class last night, something that doesn't happen too frequently. Tuesday Night Family Night usually ends up with us deciding that drinking more wine sounds much more appealing than going out. However, this time C was teaching class so off we went, and while I didn't hear any thought-provoking news, I did get to be berated by a gentleman for quite some time because apparently Microsoft doesn't write error messages in proper English and it's all my fault.

Perhaps next week will be more inspiring? I've been called for jury duty at the Kirkland Municipal Court so I'm hoping for exciting tales to share. Wish me luck.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Why I Secretly Like Commuting Alone

Sometimes, I don't listen to NPR. Sometimes, I put on the soundtrack to the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I sing along really loudly.