UPS and Cartoon Physics

I ordered a box last week. I suppose technically, I ordered the contents of the box. I get the box as an added bonus. However, what was in the box is not germane to the story as this is the story of a box. And about now you’re thinking to yourself, “Oh goody, there just aren’t enough box stories going around these days.”

It all began last Tuesday when I bought something from a guy on eBay. He packed my purchase in a box and sent it to me via UPS. On Thursday, the guy sent me the tracking number. Upon going to the UPS site, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my box would be here on Friday. And yes, I realize that so far this is about the least interesting box story you’ve ever heard and are milliseconds away from clicking off to see if any of your friends posted quiz results on Facebook. They did. But stick with me for a minute.

Friday went by with no delivery. I checked the web site and saw that the box had been out for local delivery since 4am. Curious, I called. The guy explained they had a driver call in sick and were behind, but assured me the box would arrive Monday. Okay, no problem.

Morning comes. Evening follows. The Monday. No box. I call again. A young lady looks up my package and apologizes. She explains that something must have gone wrong as the package should have been delivered already. “Alright,” so I ask what seemed the logical follow-on question, “What are you going to do to find my box?”

I listened, somewhat taken aback, as she matter of factly explained that they couldn’t do anything because the package hadn’t yet been reported missing by the shipper.

“Really,” I inquired? Then protested a bit with, “Didn’t you just verify the box was lost? Your own system shows it rode two trucks, was scanned in three hubs, and then went AWOL in your Henrietta depot. What could the shipper know that your don’t? Aren’t you able to take your own word for it being misrouted?”

“I’m sorry sir,” she explained like this was a rational statement. “But we cannot begin to search for the package until the shipper calls to tell us it’s missing.” My only possible explanation is this is some new branch of Cartoon Physics where objects in motion exist in the place they are supposed to until the sender observes they are not.

Somewhat exasperated I said, “Okay, I’ll contact the shipper and ask him to call you and tell you to look at your system and believe what it says.”

“Excellent,” she replies in a way too perky manner. “Thank you for choosing UPS.”

“But I didn’t choose you, the shipper did!” Silence… [click].

Paranoid, but Prepared

If you’re like the millions living in paranoid fear of the flu this season, then perhaps you’ve opted to don a face mask in public. Or maybe it’s just an homage to the late Michael Jackson. Or maybe you and your honey have a little nurse/doctor fantasy thing going on later.

Whatever the reason, if you’ve got to wear one, make it fun. Or better yet, fun and practical as with this zippered version that still allows you to stuff your face while being protected from your fellow diners.

For formal occasions or your debutante ball, you might wish to consider something all frilly and lace. After-all, it’s oh-so-chic for your face to match your bloomers.

And should you have a train robbery planned, but worry about dying from infection before you have a chance to spend your loot. Well, fear not. There’s a mask for that too.

Paging Dr. Who

Just north of the border in Brantord, Ontario there’s a house for sale. It’s an attractive turn of the century home, and under the Highlights section of the listing is the phrase “WALK BACK IN TIME”. That statement doesn’t really constitute more than a realtor’s linguistic flourish until you find the picture of the TARDIS room. Then it takes on a whole new meaning. It also makes you wonder how they computed the square footage of the house for the listing. What are the tax implications of having inter-dimensional rooms in your house? It that considered an out-building? Probably not, since I’m guessing there must be a bathroom in there somewhere. Although it’s not clear whether or not Timelords pee, it’s pretty clear the companions do.

Either way, I’m guessing I may need to rethink moving to Canada.

Let Freedom Ping

The FCC has recently proposed a new set of of Internet rules effectively codifying Net Neutrality. Interestingly, the GOP and their Fox minions are diametrically opposed. The clear implication is that the GOP is confessing that they are not on the sides of freedom and open markets as claimed, but rather are cozily in the pocket of existing industry titans.

Net Neutrality is essentially the principle that the Internet should be open to all traffic. Bits are bits as far as the underlying network is concerned. Specifically, it means that ISPs cannot show preference for one type of traffic over another, or forbid any content types or applications on their networks. Net Neutrality is pretty much universally favored by tech enthusiasts and just about every company that does business over the Internet. The ones who are opposed are the ISPs like AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner.

The ISPs have launched a hard lobbying effort and folks like John McCain are falling right in line. McCain recently introduced the ironically named Internet Freedom Act of 2009. The bill would prevent the FCC from imposing rules that would guarantee that the Internet was open and available to all and allow the ISPs to control the content to which you have access. Glenn Beck has gone so far as to call Net Neutrality a Marxist plan, although the analogy frankly escapes me.

So is Net Neutrality really a good thing? Well, let’s look at other industries to see. Back in the early days of telephony, some telephone companies refused to allow calls to be made to certain areas or numbers because it wasn’t profitable enough for them to do so. The government stepped in and said enough of that. If you are a telephone company then you will allow your customers to call anywhere and everyone. In essence they created Net Neutrality rules for the telephone network. Calls are calls. Does anyone think in retrospect that was a bad idea?

Would it make sense for roads to provide “Ford only” express lanes? How about if UPS cut a deal with to deliver all their packages first and shelve any packages for two days? These are the sorts of situations we could find ourselves in if we allow the ISPs to control content on the Internet.

What can we look forward to in a non-Net Neutral world? Let me pick on my own ISP for an example. Time Warner has a virtual monopoly in my area for broadband service. They also sell TV service and VoIP phone service. Without Net Neutrality, TWC could opt to slow down services like to make streaming TV unwatchable, forcing you to subscribe to their digital TV service. They could even go so far as to prevent connecting to Vonage, Skype, or MagicJack servers, thereby forcing you to their VoIP service. Net Neutrality is designed to prevent this.

ISPs have also gone so far as to begin to indicate that if they are not allowed to use “traffic shaping” strategies to control their content that they will be forced to implement metered billing. As we’ve discussed before on this forum, metered billing is just another way to boost the profitability of their non-ISP businesses. Many other countries support high(er) speed unlimited ISP offerings for a fraction of what those services cost in the US.

Allowing ISPs to control content is not necessary to support the ISP business model. It is not good for American business or innovation. It is not good for consumers. It is certainly not consistent with free markets and freedom from tyranny. It is only good for lining the pockets of big ISPs with powerful lobbies. Which rather tells you where the GOP’s bread is buttered, doesn’t it?

Learning to Learn

Thomas Friedman’s column on Wednesday reinforced a conversation that broke out at the dinner table Tuesday night. This despite Friedman having not been at my house on Tuesday, which is evidence of either a coincidence or the fact that Friedman has perfected a time machine and jumped into the future to steal this blog post. Damn him!

Regardless, his point was that education is a major factor in the current economic crisis. Unemployment is ridiculously high and likely to climb before it goes down. But the people that are unemployed are unlikely to be prepared for the types of jobs that will emerge post-recession. Americans no longer compete internationally on do-jobs. Basically, if you can be trained to do your job and handed tasks for you to complete, the chances are good that someone overseas is willing to take on those tasks for a fraction of what you’ll do it for. Granted, there are some jobs that require you to be physically there, and that reduces the chance those positions will be outsourced. But the jobs in that category are shrinking, and unlikely to grow. The jobs that are “untouchable” (to borrow Friedman’s term) are those that benefit from creativity, imagination, and innovation. People who can solve novel problems, combine technologies and techniques in innovative ways, or people who can think outside the box are the ones that stand the best chance of being outsource-proof.

This brings us to dinner, where my sons were lamenting about school in the way that kids do. Kids, and even adults, are prone to asking why they need to learn the things they are taught. “What am I ever going to use this for?” is a common refrain. But the key point is that school is not about learning stuff. The “stuff” does provide an informational base on which which to build, but in this age of having a wealth of information at your fingertips, any particular stuff is not important. What is important is learning to learn. The pace of progress proceeds exponentially. That means that most of the “stuff” kids learn in school will be obsolete before they get to middle age. Their only hope of survival and success is to adopt a strategy of continual learning to stay abreast of developments in their chosen field. And further, it’s not enough to just stay current, but to synthesize those new bits into innovative things that contribute to the progress parade.

This is where schools need to go to succeed. It’s not a matter of stuffing more into our kids’ heads. There’s simply too much stuff to get it all in. Rather, focus on the skills to acquire, analyze, and exploit information, processes, and technologies. And more importantly, to fuel a hunger in them to pursue that. Graduation is not an endpoint anymore than getting your drivers license is one. It’s merely an acknowledgment that it’s safe to let you practice on your own from here on out.