18 February 2005

Lots of companies take the idea of web-based customer service a bit too far, by making it nearly impossible to actually reach a human. It's gotten so bad that I expect, and am participating in, a backlash in which people are much more willing to do business with companies that actually answer their phones.

In extreme situations, though, there is almost always a way to find someone connected to the company. It may not be the actual person you want, but if you are angry or pitiful enough, they'll help you anyway. I won't share all my journalism tricks of the trade, but I will point out that almost all public companies and many private companies have some sort of investor relations or public relations department. Telling the VP of public relations that you're writing about a serious customer service issue you're having tends to get action pretty fast...

Posted 05:09 PM

17 February 2005

They're right about the problem, but not the solution. A group of technology companies warned that the US is losing its edge. The number of technology degrees awarded to American citizens is dropping, the number of foreign students earning degrees at US universities is dropping, and the number of US authors of technical papers is dropping. None of which will be a surprise to anyone who attends technical meetings on a regular basis. It's not unusual for me to spend an entire day at such meetings without hearing American-accented English.

However, and here's the problem, the task force's solution was to call for large increases in government-funded research. Which would replace the research that big technology companies are increasingly not funding themselves, or are shipping outside the US. Which would disproportionately benefit large technology companies with the means to commercialize leading edge research. And which, most of all, would do little or nothing to improve science and math education at the elementary and high school level.

A student who reaches high school believing that math and science are both boring and impossibly difficult is unlikely to transform himself into a technical PhD-holding researcher applying for an NSF grant. A student whose teachers have little or no understanding of what scientists actually do is unlikely to have any idea how to become a scientist, or why she might want to. A student whose entire educational experience has been built around achievement of high scores on standardized tests is unlikely to welcome the ambiguity inherent in innovation of all kinds.

Research grants benefit people who have already developed research skills. They do nothing to address the shortage of such people.

16 February 2005

This one is pretty geeky, but fascinating. In Gabon, West Africa, a natural uranium deposit was large enough and rich enough in U-235 to reach critical mass for several nuclear chain reactions. These reactions burned themselves out 1.7 billion years ago. They were discovered in 1972 when French nuclear scientists found fission byproducts in their ore samples.

But that's not the fascinating part. What's fascinating is that the Gabon reactors provide the only known data on the long term movement of fission byproducts in geological formations, a critical issue in disposal of nuclear waste. Even more fascinating, the Gabon reactors also provide a way to measure the change in several fundamental physics constants over time, a critical issue in theoretical particle physics.

Metafilter has a detailed discussion of all this, with lots of links to even more detail.

Posted 11:00 PM

I didn't completely quit writing during my system crisis, but close. 5550 words since my last update. That gives me 24,600 for the year, 8100 for February so far.

Posted 03:05 PM

14 February 2005

I didn't mention it below, but there's another way to survive a system crash.

Be married to Drew.

That way, you'll have good backups, alternative systems, and the expertise to get everything up and running quickly. Plus willingness to sacrifice a weekend to the cause. Plus plenty of moral support, chocolate, hugs, and other morale boosters at key moments.

This approach is much simpler, but very difficult to emulate. I've got no intention of letting him go.

Happy Valentine's Day, love, and thanks.

Posted 02:05 PM

Thanks to a plague of trackback spam, I've disabled trackback pings for the time being. If you link to an entry and would like to tell readers, please leave a note in the comments.

Posted 09:29 AM

13 February 2005

How to survive a system crash

Presented as a public service.

  • Have good backups. You should backup your computer at least as often as the largest increment of work you're willing to lose. If losing a week of work will kill you, back up at least once a week.

  • Have alternative tools. Even with good backups, it will take some time to get a repaired or replacement system up and running. Having alternative access to your calendar, address book, and check book can help keep your stress level under control. If nothing else, being able to spend an hour making followup calls can give you a much needed break.

  • Have a good filing system. If you can't find the CDs, downloaded files, and/or registration keys for your software, recovering your system will be much more time consuming. If the lost CD is something you absolutely have to have, poor filing can get expensive, too.

  • Be philosophical. Reflect on the transience of material things. Reflect on the many worse things that could have happened to you. Read that junk novel you've been wanting to get to. Go to the gym and pound the living #$%^ out of a helpless inanimate object.

Posted 06:59 PM

The Greensboro, NC News and Record is trying to figure out the role of newspapers in the Internet age. They're making the process transparent, inviting input from readers and sharing their conclusions. Very interesting.

Posted 06:45 PM


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