French Customer Service?

Meg writes about her confusion with understanding the rules in France. Here's the secret, based on the whole of my about 2 1/2 months spent there over three trips, the most recent two years ago: the Europeans just don't give a goddamn bloody hell about customer service, and we do. Restaurant staff have their own agendas and lives and we barely intersect with them, depending on the place.

This isn't universally true where I've gone in Europe, but it's often the case. (I'm not saying we have perfect service in the U.S., but we have an expectation of it here, and we know what to do when it goes sour; we also can tell when service personnel are entirely ignoring us.) I've talked to Europeans about it, and had a variety of hilarious responses, all of which agree with my thesis. One Italian woman I know who lives in the Seattle area described how she can hardly stand to go home, not because of her countrypeople, but because it's so damn hard to shop or eat. The slightest service can be an ordeal.

One of the explanations posited by my cosmopolitan acquaintances is that Europe went through a different sort of social revolutions in the 1960s than we did in the States. Here, it was about oppressive moral ideas that prevented emotional and sexal expression (among other things), which then morphed into a disgust for political suppression and imperialism. In Europe, apparently, and I'm happy to refuted, they already had a fair amount of emotional and sexual expression in many countries, and the 60s represented a more radical shift in the young person's generation towards socialism and communism (or even the flip right-wing side).

So what I've been told is that it's considered incredibly bourgeois to offer good service. It's a lessening of oneself to be subservient in that fashion. This may be an interaction of culture problem, as the best service I receive in the States is service of equals: it's a salesperson or server who acts as a partner in a transaction, neither currying my favor (although friendliness is part of what I want), nor pushing me into decisions I don't want to make.

In any case, Europe is a foreign nation (most of it being one nation these days), and it's the little things that make it so. I had a few different experiences in the lovely city of Basel that still baffle. My wife and I were trying to buy some food for the train, and my German is okay, not perfect. I accidentally asked for two of one thing instead of one of each of two things. The woman reached for them behind the counter and I very apologetically (sehr höflich, as they say) explained my error. Man, was she put out -- and she hadn't even done anything yet.

An American expat friend in Paris told us a story about accidentally ordering 1,000 grams instead of 100 grams of mushrooms at a nearby market. She corrected her error, and the grocer refused to reduce her order even though he hadn't filled it yet! She backed down because she knew she'd be going to that market several times a week. What th'?!

It's not that Europeans aren't polite and charming, but the workplace is such a small part of their lives. It's another reason to find family joints instead of larger operations in which to eat, and it's another mode of gaining insight about other people's lives.

Apple's Seattle Store

I have a small business story in today's Seattle Times about Apple's plans to open its first Northwest store in Bellevue, Washington, just across the pond (Lake Washington) from where I live. Apple doesn't talk about plans in progress, which is a good strategy, but the mall's owners and one of Apple's resellers were happy to spread what they consider to be good news.

In a pretty dismal economic climate, the entrance of a national branded computer taking a reasonably large space with the advertising and additional foot traffic that comes with it has a definite positive effect. For The Computer Store, the Apple reseller (which I'll be writing more about in my next Seattle Times Mac column), Apple will be pushing a message that will benefit them as well. For Bellevue Square, the Apple faithful and Apple unaware will bring a fair amount of additional traffic.

Serial Number Virus?

I've been receiving emails lately that look like this (numbers replaced by x's to protect the innocent:

Product Name: Microsoft Windows 98
Product Id: xxxxxx-010-6639326-xxxxxx
Product Key: B6BJJ-xxxxx-X7VXQ-xxxxx-9YWHC

Is there a virus that's emailing Microsoft serial numbers/keys?

Maine's Laptop Experience

Finally, an article that addresses my concerns about the wholesale deployment of laptop computers to a single grade in the state of Maine. Katie Dean looks at a more average school in Maine in Wired News today, and addresses the issues of teaching training and student understanding. I wrote back in May about how the program seemed to value the computers as a panacea rather than as an additional tool. What would they be used for? Would there be enough training? Would there be ancillary support? For the school surveyed, at least, the answers seem to be that teachers are largely left to their own devices, and laptops are used mostly as a way to access CD-ROM content or haphazardly search the Internet.

More textbooks might have gone a lot further, or more advanced teacher training or additional teaching positions to reduce class sizes. When a teachers says, as they do in this article, that they couldn't get some students to crack textbooks, that's largely related to class size, a number of studies have shown. If tens of millions of dollars a year could go into improving teacher salaries and increasing teaching staffs at Maine schools, the result would be a multifold improvement in education that would pull the whole state up with it. But instead of that, let's air-drop computers in, and move on.

A Vote for Malina is a Vote for Moxie!

My friend, Toby Malina, is one of ten finalists in a bizarre Microsoft ad campaign and contest to find "Ms. M.o.x.i.e." This is the Macintosh Business Unit's idea, and actually quite admirable in its own way, promoting the notion of women as powerful, technically sophisticated role models.

Still, the photo of well-regarded fashion designer (and ex-Seinfield girlfriend) Shoshanna Lonstein in a sari sends a mixed Ms. message. She's a Mac-head, though, so that explains her appearance but not, shall we say, her appearance. Okay, she's a fashion designer and can't look frumpy.

So vote for Toby and get her $10,000 cool ones in cash and an iMac! (If you need more incentive to make Toby famous, her intra-family competition is against her brother, Josh Malina, who appeared in The American President, Bulworth, and other films, and on TV is late of Sports Night and a very very short-lived Hank Azaria show. He's an Aaron Sorkin ensemble member.)

Emerging Technology 2003

The call for proposals is up for The O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference. I'm chairing the Untethered track which will include interesting new and developing technologies on mesh networking, wireless electrical charging, phase-array antennas, community networking's impact, and a large variety of related trends. I take a page (or rather whole chapters) from Howard Rheingold's new book Smart Mobs in looking at the impact that these technologies could have: Howard is writing about the outcomes and behavioral changes; this conference will look at the details that coagulate into systems that drive behavioral change.

94 Years

My grandfather Sydney Fleishman died yesterday at 94, nearly 95. He had a long and prosperous life, rich with family, experience, and business. He's been retired since the early 70s. He and my grandmother, Hilda (Bubbie), still with us at 85, went all over Europe. (When Bubbie was a little girl, her mother took her and a sister back to Lithuania -- in the 1920s! She wanted Bubbie's great-grandfather to meet at least some of the children.)

My grandfather was a real storyteller, all true, and he taught me a lot about honesty and integrity through these tales. He was a funny man, and loyal to those around him. I'll miss him, except that he'll never be gone while I'm alive.

Happiness is a Warm Power Strip

At an upcoming conference, yet to be announced formally, I volunteered in an editorial committee meeting to be the power strip coordinator. What does that mean? Every conference needs one in the future, so you'd better read closely.

The power strip coordinator is the guy or gal who spreads the word to attendees and speakers ahead of time to bring power strips or contribute to a small power strip fund. In the interest of group dynamics, it's clear that no event organizer will ever have enough power strips to keep the laptops humming. Ernie the Attorney made himself very popular at PopTech last month with a power strip and a long extension cord.

The social experiment I'll be trying and documenting at this upcoming event in the spring is to either solicit a "sponsor" (a company that'll kick in, say, 20 power strips) or raise a few bucks via PayPal for a power strip kitty. I'll bring strips, painting them yellow or pink or getting some kind of distinctive marker on them, including a little statement describing the public goal of the strips.

The key for me will be severalfold: 1. Will these strips all disappear? 2. Will they resurface at future events? 3. Will they spawn likeminded strips? I'm thinking of registering a simple domain name like share-the-power.com, and then putting up links and photos if people start using this idea at future events. Maybe photos of the strips in exotic locales.

I tend to believe a combination of bulkiness, generosity, and group behavior will lead to very little loss over time, even if strips disappear from one event and appear at another. We'll see if my best or worst instincts are confirmed! One strategy might be to ask for power strip volunteers willing to see the strip through the event but with no accountability attached.

I'm very interesting in whether number 3 above would work. Can I seed strips into events and made this a "movement" of sorts that runs parallel to anything the conference organizers might be up to.