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I know it’s probably a shame, but I lived in DC/NoVa for 7 years and never once visited the building (in fact, and perhaps even more sad, I didn’t realize the Gallery Place/Chinatown metro stop was so named because of the Portrait Gallery). Anyway, my crappiness as a DC Urbanite aside, the gallery itself was really pretty exceptional.

First of all, the building itself is something to see. Outside it looks like most any other DC building. Which is not to speak poorly of the architecture; it is beautiful. It’s just that DC is chock full of gorgeous buildings and this is but one among many. I could not, however, have been more stunned at the beauty of building from the inside. The winding stairs, the narrow hallways opening into small, intimate gallery rooms, the bright, cavernous space that makes up the modern art wing. It was absolutely breathtaking. I’d imagine the building would be worth a visit even if they removed all the art.

But of course, they haven’t done that. I only spent a couple hours and I’m sure there was plenty I missed (like this, which I never saw). What I did see though was mind blowing. The exhibit on Elvis, called Elvis at 21, was a really cool look at the early life of the rock icon. It documents a single year in Elvis’s life when he rose from a relative unknown to a global sensation.  I really enjoyed the photography, but more than the composition or shutter speed or lens selection (of which very little was said) I enjoyed the look at Elvis before he really became Elvis. I’m certainly not the world’s biggest Elvis fan, I’d be hard pressed to name more than a handful of his hits, but he is definitely an American Icon and one whom it was fun to learn more about. In fact, the descriptions of the various portraits say as much about life in 1956 as they do about rock and roll or Elvis Presley.

Image of the Exhibit "Elvis at 21"

All Rights Remain Those of the Artist

The other exhibit that I really liked was called Americans Now. It’s a collection of portraits (shocking, right) of contemporary American celebrities, artists and news makers from various artists. Most are traditional photographs, but some are a lot more interesting (“The Late Night Triad” features a trio of incredibly blurry pictures of Leno, Letterman and Conan O’Brien that is somehow still compelling). I also really enjoyed the collection of Wall St. Journal “dot portraits” (not the real name, but I don’t know what the real name is).

I’m clearly not doing justice to this great museum, but I had an awesome time. I’m not an artist, art historian, or someone with even a hint of artistic ability, but I really enjoyed the few hours I spent walking around this place. Go take a look if you get the chance.

Good Talk,
Tom

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I can’t get the video to embed, but it’s worth clicking over. This is a great spoof on Alec Baldwin’s original Glengarry Glen Ross role.

Hulu – Saturday Night Live: Glengarry Glen-Christmas.

Good Talk,
Tom

I’ve spent a little more time reading about the newly passed FCC rules for internet neutrality and I’ll have more comments over the next week or two, but the first thing that jumped out at me was the FCC’s decision to exempt Wireless carriers from the provisions of the rule. It seems extremely strange to me that they would choose to focus only on the legacy fixed-line carriers for the new regulation.

According to the FCC statement after the vote:

“Mobile broadband presents special considerations that suggest differences in how and when open Internet protections should apply. Mobile broadband is an earlier-stage platform than fixed broadband, and it is rapidly evolving.”

While the facts in this statement are true, I question the ultimate conclusion that the infancy of mobile broadband suggests a lesser standard of regulation. Mobile broadband is currently the fastest growing segment of the internet.  A Fortune Magazine article suggests that a half a billion smart phones could be sold next year. That’s 500,000,0oo more people accessing the wireless web. For many people, especially those in the lower income brackets, wireless is the only method to access the internet. In the very near future, wireless broadband may end up the primary way we all access the internet. Why would Chairman Genachowski choose to focus on the tired legacy technology instead of getting ahead of the curve with wireless?

If mobile/wireless is going to take off as much as most experts predict we run the serious risk of developing competing internets with vastly different standards. While legacy fixed-line carriers will be subject to strict standards and will look to throttling, metered access and other solutions, the wireless providers will face little in the way of regulation and thus may grow up with a completely different model. This would require consumers to adapt to two different forms of the web and it would web development much more difficult. It would seem to me that such a duopolistic model will stifle innovation and hamper those who are trying to build tomorrow’s great web apps/services.

The wireless broadband experience already has enough obstacles for most users. Things like interoperability of handsets across networks (think iPhone on Verizon) or early termination fees or sharing networks. By failing to impose the tougher standards of net neutrality on the wireless providers, the FCC and Chairman Genachowski missed an opportunity to help remove some of these obstacles.

So, why did this all come about? I think another quote might put things into stark relief:

“[We] recognize that wireless broadband is different from the traditional wireline world, in part because the mobile marketplace is more competitive and changing rapidly. In recognition of the still-nascent nature of the wireless broadband marketplace, under this proposal we would not now apply most of the wireline principles to wireless, except for the transparency requirement.”

This comes from a joint Google/Verizon statement issued in August. Compare the wording of this statement with the wording of the FCC statement above. It would appear that Google and Verizon’s heavy lobbying has paid off tremendously with the FCC’s ruling. (If you’re wondering why Google has a vested interest in wireless, it’s due to the huge potential of mobile advertising they see. In the future they are hoping to generate a substantial part of their revenue from ads delivered to mobile devices. As a clear indicator of this potential one needs to look no further than Google’s acquisition of AdMob for $750Million in May).

Please note that I’m assuming a certain philosophical acceptance of net neutrality as a general principle  that is far from black and white – my point is just that if the FCC is going to impose net neutrality standards, why would they exempt the segment that might be most beneficial to consumers?

I’ll have more on the new FCC rules in the coming weeks.

Good Talk,
Tom

[Sources: http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2010/12/net_neutrality, http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2010/12/22/2011-will-be-the-year-android-explodes/, http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/05/weve-officially-acquired-admob.html]

We’ve all most likely been annoyed by blinking florescent lights in an office building. It seems those stark, harsh lights are designed to drive us all to migraines and make work even more frustrating. But the city of St. Cloud, Minnesota is looking to turn those lights into the next generation of wireless networks.

St. Cloud municipal offices will pilot a new technology from LVX that uses LED lights to transmit signals to special modems attached to the computers below. These modems interpret the blinking (much like a tonal modem interprets dial-tones) and then sends back messages from the computer to the lights, which are equipped with a receiver as well. Current tests show that this system can achieve speeds comparable to home DSL service (roughly 3 Megabits per second). While this performance seems to suggest that Wi-Fi would be a better fit, the point of these LED based networks is to work in Tandem with Wi-Fi to reduce the congestion on over-crowded office networks.

The really cool thing about these LED network systems is that they may actually make it cheaper to light your office. Because LEDs are so much more energy efficient than traditional office lighting. Additionally, add-ons are available to sense ambient light and dim the LEDs to save more energy. You could also change the color to direct people around the office (i.e. “Follow the green lights to the xyz meeting”). That seems pretty cool.

But what about headaches? Constantly blinking lights (blinking in code no less) sounds like a recipe for seizures and migraines. But, remember, current CFL lighting blinks at a much lower rate (about 60 times per second). These lights will blink much faster, meaning you should actually be less likely to notice the blinking (and therefore less likely to be bothered by it).

I think it’s awesome that we’re looking at different ways to communicate beyond Wi-Fi.

Good Talk,
Tom

[Sources: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101227/ap_on_hi_te/us_tec_internet_via_lighting, http://dvice.com/archives/2010/12/flickering-offi.php]

Quote on Skepticism

I came across a great quote while reading If Not Now, When by Medal of Honor Winner Jack Jacobs.

Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness.

George Santayana
US philosopher (1863 – 1952)

Yesterday (12/21) the FCC voted 3-2 to impose net neutrality standards on ISPs. I’ve talked a lot about net neutrality on this blog and I’m pretty happy to see the FCC taking some action (though I’d have much preferred that some body of elected officials taken action). I have not yet had a chance to fully digest the specifics of the ruling (it’s been a busy few days at work…). I’ll comment in full in the near future, but for now here is the announcement and some links to reactions/commentary/etc.

Official FCC Announcement:
http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-303745A1.doc

Chairman Genachowski’s statement:
http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-303745A1.doc

Steve Wozniak weighs in:
http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/12/an-open-letter-to-the-fcc-regarding-net-neutrality/68294/

Likelihood of a Republican Congressing Overturning:
http://thehill.com/blogs/hillicon-valley/technology/134817-analyst-congress-unlikely-to-overturn-net-neutrality

Kevin Fogerty of IT World:
http://www.itworld.com/government/131583/what-you-lost-fccs-net-neutrality-ruling

Mashable:
http://mashable.com/2010/12/21/fcc-passes-net-neutrality/

MG from TechCrunch:
http://techcrunch.com/2010/12/21/verizon-google-fcc-net-neutrality/

Alexia from TechCrunch:
http://techcrunch.com/2010/12/21/fcc-net-neutrality-vote-is-just-the-beginning/

That’s all for now. That’s plenty of reading (some of it I haven’t gotten all the way through yet) that should give you a pretty good idea of the reaction. I’ll provide my own analysis soon.

Good Talk,
Tom

I’ve become a lot more cognizant over the last year of the kind of customer service provided by the various businesses I deal with. It’s probably because I’m spoiled by all the travel I do and the great restaurant I get to eat it, but I’ve learning that more often than not it is the customer service received that dominates my overall memory of the experience. If I get bad customer service from an establishment more than once, I am very unlikely to return. On the other hand, great customer service is often enough to win my loyalty for a long time.

Think about simple customer service at a restaurant. You order a steak (I nearly always order medium rare) and it comes out cooked incorrectly. If you eat out frequently this becomes an all too regular occurrence, particular at casual dining restaurant. In my mind this is not a big deal. I simply inform the waiter and ask for a new steak (unless I’m a guest at someone else’s dinner, then I eat it regardless of how it’s cooked – but that’s another blog post). Normally the waiter apologizes and brings a new steak in fairly short order. This is what I consider normal customer service. It’s not going to win me over, but it’s not going to turn me off.

If that’s the norm, the extremes are altogether more memorable. If I send a steak back it comes out wrong a second time, I’m fairly annoyed. The first time you can chalk up to a busy restaurant, an honest mistake, or some other easily forgivable reason. The second time though is a bit harder to explain. Wasn’t the chef told the steak was cooked wronged? Wouldn’t he give a little more care to the second one? Wasn’t the manager notified? Wouldn’t she check the second steak before allowing it to be served? By the time the second steak comes out wrong I fully expect a) my meal taken off the bill and b) a manager visit to the table. Short of these two things happening, I will not return to the restaurant.

Compare that with the service I had last week: I order a steak (medium-rare, as usual) and it came out well-done. Before I had a chance to tell the waiter, the manager came over to check on our meals (mind you, this was a part of her normal routine, we’d not yet had any problems). I told her my steak was over-done and that I’d appreciate sending it back and getting one cooked correctly. The first words out of her mouth were “I’m sorry”. It’s funny how far that simple phrase can go. She didn’t make excuses or blame the cook or the waiter (or, as happened once, argue with me that it actually cooked correctly and that I don’t know anything about meat). She took responsibility and took action to fix it. When the new steak was ready she personally brought it to the table and waited while I cut into it. She then gave me a $25 gift card so that I could “give her restaurant a second chance”. Totally unnecessary in my view, but I guarantee I’ll be back there again (and I guarantee I’ll spend ore than $25).

So what does it all mean? Well a)I can be picky about my steak… but more importantly b) good customer service is not hard. Take responsibility, apologize and take action. It cost the restaurant above a new steak and $25 (gross). They gained a repeat customer. Which is worth more?

I’m reminded of this topic tonight because I just checked into a hotel that clearly does not understand customer service. I travel a lot. 200-250 nights a year is about normal (though this year was a little less). I spend most of those nights at Hilton properties because I generally receive good customer service and great value for my money. I checked in tonight (I won’t mention the city) and was informed at the front desk that from 10PM-6AM this week the power would be turned off and the heat/air would not work while they were fixing the electrical system. “It’s a required maintenance every three years” the front desk clerk informed me…which to me means they had more than ample time to notify guest BEFORE they arrived for check-in. Apparently 10-6 was chosen because “most people are asleep by then…” (I should note that it’s currently 10:56PM and the power is still on…not sure what to make of that).

On top of the ridiculous power outage, I spotted a comment card. I’ve posted an image here because I was absolutely shocked at the dimensions. What could a patron possibly write in the two lines provided on the card? (For perspective the entire card is the size of a dollar bill). I write somewhat small and I could not fit more than 15-20 words. Clearly this hotel isn’t too worried about what I think.  To me, a card like this does a disservice to the hotel and to all it’s guests. If I’m a GM of the hotel, I don’t want my guests to hold back on comments and feedback. The more I know about what they look for in a hotel, what they like, what they hate, what they notice or don’t, the better job I can do crafting a great experience. Yes, you’ll get a lot people that never fill out a comment card (I rarely do it myself – see below), but I don’t want those that choose to fill one out, to feel as though they’re limited to something the length of a haiku. This is clearly a case of a hotel that likes to talk about customer service, but doesn’t want to be bothered actually providing any. They are clearly phoning it in. And the effect is almost worse than if they just ignored customer service altogether.  I will point out here that this trait is NOT the norm at Hilton’s. I’m generally very happy with the customer service I receive. Every big chain will have inconsistencies in the experience they provide. I’ve had poor service at the Ritz-Carlton, the company that literally wrote the book on customer service. But, as is true with the Ritz, I have far more good experiences than bad at Hiltons.

Now why don’t I normally  fill out comment cards? I find that little happens from doing so. With a few noticeable exceptions I find that most businesses change little based on comments I put in a comment box. Maybe if they start to see the same comments again and again, they’ll change a little, but I’ve never gotten a response to a particular comment I’ve left on a comment card.  If I have a particularly good or bad experience somewhere and I want to let the establishment know about it, I’ll email the General Manager and CC the president of the parent corporation (if applicable). I’m sure it annoys some people, but I’ve found that the message gets through a lot better. And I really am just as likely to write about a great experience as I am to complain about bad service.

So, am I way off base here? Am I too demanding of service? I am just plain spoiled? I’d love to hear some other thoughts.

Good Talk,
Tom