Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Deep in the heart of etc, etc

Having spent almost a week in Texas, I'm disappointed to see that it's not nearly as Texan as I was expecting. San Antonio is a big city with lots of fat lanyarded conventioneers flocking into town to eat overpriced shrimp and slap other fat landarded conventioneers on the back.

Austin is a little nicer though, like a slice on Byron Bay in the heart of Far North Queensland. It's a fun city, with plenty of live music, some supurb improv comedy, a mayor called Will Wynn (I shit you not) and an unofficial slogan "Keep Austin Wierd". That's my kinda place.

UPDATE 5/2, 7:50pm. In response to the comments:

- Austin as Byron Bay was not meant as a geographic reference but as a cultural reference. Whether it's in Queensland, New South Wales or Timbuktu is irrelevant to the comparison I was making.

- I'm trying to imagine the conversation I might have with this Jason Traxal: "Hi Jason, my name's Ari from Australia. An anonymous person told me to look you up and tell you that you played basketball with him in Melbourne four years ago. Do you mind showing me around Texas?" Too long a bow to draw, I'm afraid.

- The improv comedy I saw in Austin was the excellent Available Cupholders in their 27 January show, which featured a wonderful long-form narrative play based around a colourful crime gang known as The Wheels, each of whom possessed their own set of, er, wheels. For what it's worth, other classy improv was seen in the forms of the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles, who performed an improv battle between Jews and Christians (Baruch-Ha-Ha-Ha vs The Kings of Kings of Comedy... very cute) and some slightly underdeveloped work by the Peoples (sic) Improv Theatre in New York.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Can I, y'know, help you?

Normally I like nonchalance in people who are delivering services to me. I don't want my waiter to be a sycophant, my station master to stress out or my airline steward to twist an ankle in my service. Still, quite often in this country, service is beyond nonchalant - it's just plain rude in its cantgiveafuck-ness.

I had a nigling feeling that something was not quite right on my first meal in Los Angeles after landing. After being shown to our seat at a 1950s-themed diner, our waiter roused himself from his comfy booth and approached us. With earphone still wedged in his left ear, he flung some menus in my direction, and returned a few minutes later only to ask "Yeah?", which we soon learnt was an invitation for us to recite our order.

This was far from an isolated experience. On many occasions, you can't help but get the feeling that your mere presence as a customer is intruding upon the leisure time of the person you are trying to deal with. From Greyhound, to Walgreen (a Walmart spin-off) to many a suburban Chinese restaurant, apathy is the norm.

As a few people have pointed out along the way after experiencing similar mediocrity, never is the adage that you get what you pay for more true. Though it has just been increased, the minimum wage is low by European and Australian standards, and there are plenty of people who are working at this wage, plus tips, of course. When someone is being paid such a meagre amount, its little wonder that they struggle to summon the energy to care. The fact that businesses can survive with such poor service suggests that most customers are willing to tolerate it if it means that prices stay low. As always, it's a trade-off: good service requires paying your staff decently, which requires increasing the cost to the consumer. It is a cost few consumers are willing to pay.

There are a few exceptions of course to this "low cost, low expectation" model of service delivery. Starbucks, who are as ubiquitous as the stereotype suggests, charge a little more than most for their products, but their staff are remarkable in their friendliness and courtesy. In a country in which these values appear in short supply, it is most welcome.

Boom! Chicago

The front page of the tabloid commuter giveaway in Chicago this morning reads "Obama-rama", and this Barackaphilia has spread nation wide. Obama, a local Illinoisan, has only just dipped his toe in the Presidential waters, but he has received a reception normally reserved for deity making the presence felt on earth. He's charming, charasmatic, and oh-so-electable. For newspaper editors sick of the tiresome partisan politics that has become entrenched since the numbing effects of September 11 wore off, Obama is a breath of fresh air.

Having said that, being the leading candidate 21 months out from election day is a bit like leading the Melbourne Cup at the first turn. There is plenty more of the race yet to be run. Leading up to '04, Howard Dean was the lead Democrat significantly closer to the Convention, but by the time the big day came around he was no where to be seen. Still, for Democrats this is an exciting time, and Obama is an exciting candidate, and one wonders whether any of the more seasoned Republicans can compete in the popularity stakes.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Pricey internet means few posts

Sorry

UPDATE 12/1, 7:30pm: It also means mysteriously misspelling easy to spell words. The US is a strangely unreflective society, steadfastly refusing to take a moment to think but instead indulging itself in an orgy of mindless consumption. It's a society with a sense of entitlement, where the very idea of leaving an urge unsatisfied in frowned-upon. The cultural differences are subtle, but the collective mindset is more obvious.