Critical Media Studies II: It’s The Government, Stupid
Following up on my previous post, there’s certainly no shortage of curious COVID-19 mainstream media coverage deserving of an actual examination.
Below is a recent headline from the Los Angeles Times:
First and foremost, the article is an op-ed. This concept alone may deserve a separate discussion. In principle op-eds are a useful feature for a newspaper to have. In reality, it allows a newspaper to renounce all editorial responsibility for printed content.
In this particular case, a Los-Angeles-area doctor is describing how her patience is at an end, and as more COVID-19 patients are rolled through the door, she has rapidly diminishing compassion for each new individual that she treats. The doctor goes on to illustrate this dying compassion for one such patient as she describes her interactions with that patient and the treatment provided.
The Los Angeles Times is essentially rubber stamping a point of view that it’s OK for doctors to not have normal compassion for an individual patient, based on the previous 1,000 patients that were rolled through the door.
Was this patient a revolving-door patient that got admitted to this hospital a dozen times? No, of course not. As far as the reader can tell, that was his first visit to the hospital.
In the article, the doctor made a great case for why she is angry and for why she is frustrated with the situation as it pertains to the aggregate.
The problem is that she is misapplying that blame to a single individual. The individual is responsible for what they have done as an individual. They’re not responsible (as far as we know) for the previous 1,000 patients that were admitted.
Furthermore, that doctor’s completely incorrect state of mind is easily demonstrated by asking the following question: Would this doctor have low compassion for that individual patient if that patient had been the only COVID-19 patient at that hospital? Of course not. You can bet the doctor wouldn’t even remember the patient, much less condemn him. In both cases, the individual patient is exactly the same. The frustration the doctor is having is purely with the aggregate.
The entity that typically deals with problems as they pertain to the aggregate is the government – in this case the federal government. The government handles public policy.
As it happens, the CDC (up until recently) has exercised virtually unprecedented executive authority, stating people did not have to pay their landlords due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This type of declaration had every veritable hallmark of a “We’re All Gonna Die” emergency. The thing is that, if that were true, such extraordinary measures aren’t really that different than just mandating people take the vaccine. The point is that, as it pertains to COVID-19, there’s no question the federal government clearly understands the concept of extraordinary measures. In fact they have already taken them – just not the ones many doctors want.
If a medical professional is angry about the aggregate situation, there is an entity that’s responsible for addressing those concerns, and that entity is the government, and the more dire they believe the situation is, the more of a government responsibility it is.
The aggregate problem is not the responsibility of an individual patient – no matter what they did or did not do wrong.
The doctor in the op-ed articulated a significant complaint, but she did not direct it to the proper channel. She did not direct her anger and frustration to the proper channel.
Newspapers should never rubber stamp a point of view that endorses doctors assigning the wrong level and the wrong dimension of blame to a single patient.
There is an old maxim: Newspapers are meant to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comforted.
Looking back to the 1st Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, extraordinary protections were provided to the press. We can presume the authors of that document had slightly loftier goals in mind – things that go beyond “the affliction model”. Perhaps things like general edification of the public.
If life has a million shades of gray, then the affliction model of news reporting is like trying to take a photograph of life with a camera that can only print colors as either full black or full white.
Take the following headline that has made its way around the different news outlets recently:
The headline and story are tinged with a notion that so-called “anti-vaxxers” have no integrity. Specifically, that their actions and statements, on their deathbed, are incongruent with their stated philosophy. However, there is a difference between being desperate, and having no integrity.
Some people who are against the death penalty suddenly become curious about it when a family member is massacred. However, that doesn’t mean they were “wrong” in the first place, or never had any integrity. What it actually means is they are having a very strong emotional reaction to something. Strong emotional reactions lead to irrational thinking.
In my opinion, anti-vaxxers are wrong in their calculations when it comes to COVID-19. But desperate requests on one’s deathbed doesn’t automatically make the original point of view incoherent, disingenuous, correct, incorrect, or anything else. It just means that someone is having a strong emotional reaction to being on death’s doorstep.
The counter-example is some people who are dying of cancer (or some other terminal illness) will resort to paying con artists who offer miracle cures. We can’t deduce from their desperation that they were wrong their whole lives, if for example, they had previously said these same scam artists should be shut down by authorities.
The 2021 winter storm in Texas has led to extraordinary problems and also extraordinary outrage. The human side of the problem is actually a crime in two parts. One involves production and state-wide operational management (i.e. ERCOT). The other involves distribution of any available electricity at the local level by the local utility/retailer (whom, incidentally, ERCOT is quick to go way out of their way to subtly and pre-emptively throw under the bus). For us, that means AEP Texas.
AEP Texas deserves to be hit immediately by a class-action lawsuit and wiped out of existence for all time.
I suspect ERCOT officials will actually be called as witnesses to condemn AEP Texas in this lawsuit.
So there is no confusion, if space aliens came down to Earth and smashed the Texas power grid, such that even 5 watts of energy were still left, AEP Texas had better be up all night figuring out how to split that 5 watts evenly among Texas consumers.
As it happened, many consumers in Texas (living in areas where there were zero downed power lines) were left wondering, contemplating, and also desperately praying for when this fabled “rotating” and “rolling” might actually start. To their credit, AEP Texas exceeded even their own previous boundaries, delivering a remarkable moonshot by providing continuous power to some consumers during this historic power failure, simply by playing the role of judge, jury, and executioner in determining which other consumers would play the role of permanent whipping boy. In doing so, they effectively guaranteed an uninterruptable supply of power to the newest Texas lottery winners.
Puns abound: Consumers should “just chill”. Were you “frozen out” by AEP during this winter storm? Perhaps the best and most hopeful pun of all is that process servers should serve up a “cold one” to AEP’s top brass. God willing, this will occur immediately, and I would be willing to cut to the very front of the line to sign on to this lawsuit.
Finally, there’s a silver lining in some clouds, and I did happen to scrape together a nominal amount of useful information during this catastrophe. Apparently our old (and thankfully broken) generator was something of a poison-pill-trojan-horse-monstrosity for any electronics in our house. By default, generators create “dirty” electricity that’s vastly more chaotic than the clean sine wave electricity coming off the power lines.
It looks like the best generators are the ones that have a dual-fuel option, and also provide low THD (i.e. a relatively clean sine wave), and this narrows down the product selection greatly.
The following two dual-fuel generators are supposed to be back in stock this March:
The Contrarian View Happens To Be Correct: No, Don’t Go Vote Just For The Sake Of Voting!
“Go ride a motorcycle.”
“Go discharge a firearm.”
“Go climb the Annapurna mountains.”
“Go run a prison.”
“Go do brain surgery.”
“Go run a nuclear reactor.”
The previous six statements have something in common. Can you guess what it is?
Just like “Go Vote”, they are all imperative statements that are extremely incorrect. No, you shouldn’t do any of those things unless you believe you are competent to do them. Failure to heed what is normally considered common sense will result in the despair, dismemberment, and death of not only you, but others too.
There are few things more obnoxious than feel-good, pat-yourself-on-the-back ads telling people to vote, regardless of whether they feel competent to vote or not. Competency doesn’t imply any particular economic status, nor any other demographic alignment. It means you believe you are making an informed, competent decision; that it makes sense for you to vote.
Furthermore, just because you have the right to do something, it doesn’t mean that doing it is correct, intelligent, beneficial, or that you should do it. In the U.S., everyone has the right to either vote or not vote. Not voting has historically been a sign that the individual is content with the overall system.
But even if the system were in desperate need of repair, sending in random people to do the repairs is hardly an improvement. I certainly wouldn’t call random people to come fix the plumbing in my house. Nor would I take out cheery ads that read “Go Fix The Plumbing In My House!”.
We should take voting at least as seriously as the plumbing in our homes.
If an election has twice the voter turnout, but the other half of the voters have absolutely no idea what they’re doing, then how has the system improved? I’ve voted exactly twice in my lifetime, and the last time I voted, I left all but five of the choices blank – intentionally. I’ve never once felt sheepish or unpatriotic for only voting when I believed it made sense for me to vote.
Showing up haphazardly to vote because you were encouraged to is a form of civic decay. It’s a lazy, toxic, feel-good simulation and substitute for actually showing up prepared and competent to vote.
In fully succinct terms, an incompetent action is worse than not acting. An incompetent vote is worse than a non-vote. In most cases, arguably much, much worse.
On the eve of another U.S. election, we see ads everywhere commanding people to go vote, regardless of whether they believe they are competent to vote in this particular election. I can respect ads telling people to vote for a particular candidate. I would certainly respect ads encouraging people to become competent to vote. I will never respect ads telling people to vote just for the sake of voting, and neither should you.
I just dealt with an order for a “set of 2 tires” from Walmart.com. They’re wheelbarrow-size tires that were supposed to replace tires on a cart that hauls stuff.
Instead I received one tire. Mistake #1.
I contacted Walmart.com customer service, and they said I should accept a replacement order for the same product. Against my explicit admonition that this could quite probably lead to the same problem again, and that I would be further entangled in a Walmart problem that I didn’t want to deal with, they said “don’t worry”.
I received one tire again. Mistake #2. That’s now two mistakes in a row against me as the customer…
Of course I now had two tires, but the first representative had told me that I would be charged again if I didn’t return the first order… I contacted Walmart.com customer service again, and after wasting time with the 1st-level representative, I asked to be transferred to the supervisor on shift. Believe it or not, this final conversation was the only thing in the whole affair that truly disgusted me. The supervisor said I would now need to re-package up their two incorrect orders, and then take their merchandise over to a UPS store to make a return. Otherwise, I’d be charged for two orders! Apparently because I should have mystically known that the product description was wrong, even though twice it said it was for a “set of 2 tires”, and there was nothing anywhere on the product page that seemed to contradict that, even to the point where the very first representative thought it was a shipping department problem.
Here’s the thing that disgusted me. The supervisor was still acting like this was all business as usual! She was still in that business-as-usual mode. She acted like it was my distinct responsibility to clean up the mound of problems that had been saddled upon me, even against my own warnings and recommendations… When you commit one mistake against the customer, it’s certainly bad, but I suppose it could occasionally happen. But when you commit two mistakes in a row against a customer, in the same transaction, there is one and only one mode to be in: RED ALERT. Red flags and alarm sirens should be going off inside your head!!
That’s not something I can teach anyone at Walmart.com. It’s not something that can be instilled into that customer service supervisor. It’s common sense that you either have or you don’t have.
We’ve all heard that Walmart wants to compete with Amazon, and even dethrone Amazon. The only thing I could possibly tell Walmart is that there is no universe or reality in which that will over occur with employees and especially supervisors like that.
The Little-Known “D” Team @ amazon.com: Seller Services
If you’ve ever bought a used item at amazon.com, you may not know what goes into the whole process. It’s really not that complicated. Anyone – and I mean anyone – can register on their website to sell items.
But what happens next? On the buyer side, you buy the item, and it shows up. On the seller side, the seller receives an email notification with purchase and shipping details. And additionally, an entire team of Amazon workers is there behind the scenes, in theory, to make the whole process work right.
In theory, it’s not complicated stuff. But oh yeah, who are those people again, who in theory make the whole machine work? The seller services team? Well, I’m going to pull the curtain back just slightly, and show you a place that can only be described as an appallingly bad, alternate Amazon universe.
Believe it or not, that division constitutes the near-antithesis of what is commonly believed to be Amazon’s internal zeitgeist. You know… the values, the ideals, the vision, the philosophy… only the opposite! That might sound kind of crazy to hear or even believe… until you fully understand how bad that team is.
First, it’s a rare – and I mean rare – occasion when these Amazon employees have a recognizable, pronounceable name.† Starting with some of the easier names to pronounce, you’ll find employees with names like Srinivas and Divyank, and trust me from there it only gets more difficult. Now, since English is my native language, and since these services cater to a large U.S. seller base, all I really care about in this case is whether or not these Amazon employees can communicate with me, in English, effectively. It is business, after all! Needless to say, some can, and some are more challenged. Errors in communication are common with these Amazon employees.‡
Out of a veritable sea of incompetence, I’ll share a few lighthearted examples:
Sunil from Amazon seller services once sent me some wise correspondence with the following entreaty: “Do not pressurize buyers to remove feedback.”§ I’d have to agree. Since only the most grizzled, tough-as-nails customers could withstand even a few minutes in my dungeon’s pressure chamber, it’s simply not cool to take it to that level. (But, he didn’t mention water boarding…) But what’s funny though is that statement was in a block of text that was clearly copy-and-pasted into his message. (“Copy-and-paste” is usually these employees’ second language.) In other words, it was a stern admonition given to every seller he spoke to!
But it’s when the errors become intentional, that this team of Amazon employees truly earns its “D” grade! On occasion, some of these Amazon employees will actually misstate something on purpose, using their English language impediment as a cover for their mistake! Pretty crazy, huh?
Here an unnamed (literally unnamed) Amazon employee submitted a report on my behalf relating to customer fraud.
It was supposed to read: “Buyer is sending incorrect pictures suggesting that the seller is sending damaged products”
But she decided to write: “Buyer is sending incorrectpictures suggesting that the seller is sending damaged products”||
This particular employee also shared a customer’s private contact information with me, for no reason! It was a truly bizarre violation of protocol.
Moving on to long-standing negligence, if you’ve never seen it, it’s time to let you peek behind the seller side’s web-curtain. This is what the little Amazon seller portal looks like:
At the very top, you have the most important information: What kind of interest rate can I get if I take out a $1,000 personal loan from Amazon. It’s good that’s at the very top. Where else would someone go for a loan, plus what happens if the interest rate changes.
Next you have information pertaining to new orders that were placed. I guess that’s semi-important for sellers?
And then next, near the middle of the page (roughly where the sports section would be if this were a newspaper), you finally get to highly-critical-but-completely-obscured information like ‘Buyer Messages’ and ‘A-to-z Guarantee claims’. (The A-to-z Guarantee is basically Amazon’s guarantee that a buyer will actually get what’s advertised from a third-party seller. If they don’t, they can file a claim that Amazon will investigate.) These particular fields represent information that materializes infrequently, but is highly, highly critical in nature, and absolutely must be addressed immediately!
(And in case you’re wondering – no, all of the various widgets and sections are not movable within the webpage. They’re not arrangeable. You can’t close them! You can barely even collapse them!)
Excuse the pun, but unhandled A-to-z claims, and unhandled buyer messages, are of primeimportance to sellers on Amazon. So why do sellers have to scroll down half-way down the page to even find this information?…
Yes, I do think we ought to live in an America where individuals can take out small, uncollateralized personal loans from online shopping websites. But, I’m still profoundly confused as to why that “Amazon Lending” widget is on that particular web portal, much less in the single most important spot on that web portal – an Amazon portal that’s succinctly titled “Amazon Seller Central”, meaning a location where sellers are supposed to take care of their seller business.
Amazon warns sellers that their respective email clients are a potential hazard, and that buyers’ messages or even A-to-z claims might be incorrectly routed to their junk mail folder. Along with that hazard, we can definitely add intensely awful, intensely ridiculous website design by the website designers at Amazon seller services. Folks, that’s not just broken website design and broken information architecture. That’s not just incompetent and inexcusable. That is negligent.
But will Amazon honor its own policies with respect to sellers? No, not necessarily. One Amazon webpage titled “A-to-z Guarantee: Frequently Asked Questions” lays out policies relating to various A-to-z claim issues.
Near the bottom, we have one discrete section titled “Am I required to represent A-to-z Guarantee claims submitted against me?” (In Amazon terminology, “representing” a claim means you’re responding to it. Yup, it sounds kind of strange to me too.)
I’ll blow it up slightly and highlight the relevant portions:
And so when I forget to respond to one dubious and fraudulent A-to-z claim, what is their response to me? Their response to me is that my appeal will be summarily rejected, on procedural grounds, since I forgot to respond to the claim initially! (Forgot, because of, you know, those previously-mentioned hazards.) Strange verdict, and even sadder to see Amazon seller services auto-violate itself – even as their own crystal-clear policy on their own website is shown right to them! And even though it only involved a small sum of money, I really don’t have enough negative things to say about that “D” team at Amazon!
So no, Amazon will most definitely not honor its own policies on the seller side.
Regarding interactions with employees working at Amazon seller services, on the whole, about 50% of those interactions are acceptable. About 15% are above average. And roughly 35% are below average. And needless to say, some of those 35% are shockingly bad.
Which really gets back to the previous statement about how this “D” team constitutes the near-antithesis of Amazon’s perceived values. Part of what makes it so shockingly bad is the contrast with the rest of Amazon. Sometimes it’s literally as if you’re in an anti-Amazon parallel reality.¶
And I haven’t even touched on the dozens of ostensibly-ignored (and even sometimes brazenly misrouted) suggestions that I’ve volunteered to that division, purely out of good will, many of which actually have little to do with sellers, but are instead low-impact changes on the seller side that would greatly benefit customers on the customer side.
And the dozens of other problems that really deserve their own treatment. For instance, how Amazon seller services displays web advertisements to all third-party sellers, and how some of those ads are for God-forsaken “nag” software that automatically spams customers until they leave compliant “positive reviews” and “positive feedback”. (I can’t think of a review system that’s any more broken than that. Plus folks, make no mistake – that software itself is analogous to adware, which is considered to be malware. Amazon is allowing companies to advertise nuisance software to sellers, who would then utilize that malware against customers.)
Solution? Obviously you can fire the seller services leadership and fire a bunch of lame employees. (That’s exactly what I would have done in a heartbeat a long time ago.) That type of boldness is the American way. But half of what’s so sinister with something like this… is figuring out whether this shadowy division actually profits Amazon more, or less, when it serves the sellers incorrectly.
† The national unemployment rate is 4.3%in mid 2017. That means about 1 in 25 American workers don’t have employment. Considering the fact that these Amazon seller services jobs require almost zero technical skills, and in fact only require basic reasoning, basic comprehension, and English proficiency, the obvious question is why are these simple, English-language-based customer service jobs being outsourced to foreign countries in the first place (or “insourced” for that matter)?… We’ve seen multi-billion dollar corporations like Facebook attempt to evoke notions of corporate responsibility by implementing things like fake-news alerts. While these constructive ideas shouldn’t be discounted, when you get to nine zeros and beyond, real corporate responsibility ought to include more opportunistic hiring of citizens in your own community.
‡ After this blog post was published, I found an easy-to-reproduce bug on the seller portion of the Amazon website. This was right around August 4, 2017. I submitted a bug report to Amazon seller services, at which point a string of 12 employees failed to discern that it was actually a bug report. Ajaz, Kanchan, Amrit, Shubham, Bharat, Abhishek, Manish, Sunil, Radhika, Radhika, Radhika, and Manoj each copy-and-pasted generic answers to irrelevant questions that had nothing to do with software/website bugs. Two other representatives, Keshav and Alok, discerned that it was a bug report. However, Keshav re-requested the relevant data necessary to reproduce the bug, even though it had been provided, succinctly and unambiguously, in the case details. Alok did everything correctly, but was not on the case long enough to drive it to a successful conclusion (which in this case, meant logging a single bug in their bug database!!). Jenny correctly discerned that it was a bug report, but merely did some meta-level administrative work on the case, and did not see it through to a successful conclusion (which again, only required logging a single bug in their bug database!). For this incident/interaction, that’s a competence rate of roughly 7%. Technically, that might have been a new low, but I also can’t say it surprised me. (Also, this division does solicit and process bug reports, so in general this wasn’t something foreign or new.) Most importantly, it tended to corroborate my suspicion that English speaking wasn’t the extent of the problem, but also English reading and comprehension. That’s not really the representatives’ fault, but it is the fault of the hiring managers and executives who thought it would be a good idea to hire them for this job – a job whose principal requirement is Englishproficiency.
§ After this blog post was published, I actually received a new message on July 19, 2017 from an Amazon employee (in their seller services division), regarding previous suggestions on fixing their broken website for sellers. It was true to form in every unfortunate way: “I really appreciate your idea of having this feature as it will improvise buyer experience.”
|| “I would kinldy request you to let s know what exactly is your concern.” Yes, after this blog post was published, that message verbatim was actually sent to me by an Amazon employee (in their seller services division). (The employee ignored the previous message history that he had been assigned to handle, and asked me to restate everything back to him. Which sadly is almost the rule over there, not the exception.) 1.) It’s clearly 150% unprofessional. 2.) Yes it sure does seem like there’s too many typos. 3.) How to attribute those glaring, conspicuous errors… that’s another matter altogether. Those ubiquitous spell checkers and grammar checkers – I guess employees over there turn ’em off.
¶ Later on, I accidentally discovered the most hilarious thing yet – a contingent of sellers who earnestly swear that you actually have to post all seller issues onto the “Amazon Seller Forums”. So that other sellers can somehow solve the problem? No. So that the problem might be solved at all? No. They say you must do this because of rampant, chronic incompetence in the Amazon seller support division, and apparently there is (or was) a single named moderator whose job it is to watch over that massive seller forum (containing zillions of comments about bugs, issues, problems, complaints, and threats against Amazon), and this lone Amazon forum moderator has been known to be competent if she chooses to attend to the issue!! I’m not joking in any way about this, and I’m not even sure how many levels of dysfunctional this is. First, that the “best practice” for addressing any issue on the seller side would be to not contact Amazon seller support! And second, that this hidden work-around involves some kind of unofficial Amazon Lottery. And third, that all of this zany dysfunction almost looks like some kind of concerted move thrown together by the greater Amazon corporation.
Anyone from Texas, or travelling through Texas, has surely seen the iconic “Don’t Mess With Texas” slogan, often times emblazoned on highway billboards as an admonition against littering.
Once again, by all accounts, Texas is anti-garbage.
But yet even with all this momentum, we still have a classic government agency dysfunction in our midst…
Take a good look at the image below. What are these things?
It looks like plastic, and maybe related to a badminton game?
Well, actually these are part of a boll weevil trap. State employees place these around farm fields to trap boll weevils as a part of a larger plan to eradicate them. This is what the entire trap looks like when it’s upright and operational:
And acting as a minor pest in its own right, this collection of state employees will then leave these plastic, non-biodegradable trap pieces behind in the Texas landscape. Whether the traps are busted or broken, or just not being used anymore, often times their life cycle ends with state employees leaving them as garbage on the ground.
Last time I checked, broken, busted boll weevil traps weren’t a part of Texas’s state seal. Nor are they included in the official state song, or the state pledge of allegiance! And I’ve never seen a single Texas highway billboard singing the praises of a boll weevil holocaust.
But they’re left behind – by state employees – as if this makes sense and they’re some kind of blessing for the Texas landscape.
Nothing confuses me more than state employees caring less about the state than ordinary citizens, people working for the county caring less about the county than people not working for the county, and federal civil servants caring less about the country than people working in the private sector.
So, to recap, you have entomological employees working for The Lone Star State (AKA The “Don’t Mess With Texas” State), leaving behind their non-biodegradable garbage everywhere, for a job, that by all appearances, isn’t even close to being on par with the state-wide anti-garbage mission.
Yes, there are even pot holders:
(Can you imagine a boll weevil re-mix? Neither can I.)
I’ve been a PayPal member for so long that I can actually remember when Neteller and FirePay seemed like viable competitors. PayPal has always done a pretty good job, but lately I’ve been a little underwhelmed.
It seems like now when you contact PayPal with a specific question, complete with detailed information, you get an automated email back that refers you to their FAQ. Then they needle you a little, by telling you that you must reply to their automated email with a specific question if you want to get an actual reply.
Nowhere in their automated email is your original message to them, so you have to type it all again, or log in to your PayPal account to try to find the message you sent, but that’s something even I couldn’t locate.