Sunday, January 1, 2012

If you want something done right... well, good luck with that.

I have to remind myself from time to time that incompetence is nothing new--it's probably a fundamental building block of the universe, eternal and unchanging, like hydrogen. But some days it seems like things are getting worse, or at least you hit a particularly rich vein of the stuff.

It started today with a visit to one of the local department stores to pick up a few items. This being the week after Christmas, everything was marked down considerably. However, when I got to the cash and my purchases were rung in, not one of them showed the discount. It's only because my sharp-eyed girlfriend noticed it on the screen (she spent a goodly amount of time managing a retail store) that I was able to get them to correct the errors. Even then, it took some arguing with the clerk. This was not for one item or two, but for all three of the things I was buying. The error amounted to some forty dollars on $160 worth of stuff. The store was full of marked-down prices but no mechanism seemed to be in place to communicate these markdowns to the cash registers.

Shockingly, and lest we too quickly write this off as a unique snafu on the part of one retailer (according to orthodox market economics, soon to be driven out of business by its own ineptitude and replaced with better competitors) I ran into the exact same situation in the next store I visited.

I'm not sure what was at work here. Deliberate deception and bait/switch by the retailers seems a stretch, though in recent years the degree of mendacity in corporate media and the financial industry makes it hard to rule anything out. I can certainly imagine a roomful of spreadsheet ninjas working from the premise that you can't fool all of the people all of the time--but that you don't have to, if you fool just enough of the people just enough, and just enough of the time.

More likely it's a symptom of the de-skilling and de-staffing of the retail industry (indeed, of the service industry generally.) When you rely more and more on bar code scanners and computer systems for transactions, reducing employees to minimum-wage scan-and-smile robots, and (now) on cutting costs by employing even fewer of these employees--well, eventually you get an infinitely replaceable, laterally-mobile workforce that can't do anything at all, much less do it right.

But I get it. It's one of those collective action problems. Every retailer has an incentive to cut his own costs, but when you take all those cost-cutting measures together they undermine the whole industry.

What's much harder to understand is the movie I watched this evening. Sarah's Key (Elle S'Appellait Sarah) is a French film about a Paris journalist investigating the past of her family's Marais apartment, and of the Jewish family that lived there before being arrested and sent to the concentration camps in 1942.

Now, I speak pretty decent French but I have trouble following the dialogue in movies, especially when it's actual French-French (as opposed to Quebecois.) So I put the English subtitles on.

And these subtitles were shockingly bad. Words were rammed together without spacing, many lines bore next to no relationship to what was being said in the film itself, and in many cases they were grammatically incomprehensible. Any viewer who understood English but not French would have been completely baffled and unable to follow the story. It was that bad.

I didn't get it. I understand that French culture has a bit of a thing that sometimes makes it resistant to accommodating non-French speakers. But even the most cartoonishly snooty Frenchman likes to make money, and the producers must have understood that the secondary English-language market for films is enormous. (This one stars Kristin Scott Thomas, fer chrissake!) When you spend millions of dollars on a movie and expect to make that money back, English subtitles aren't something you just dash off as an afterthought, like a software manual. Surely it can't be that hard to find a competent French-to-English dialogue translator?

It kind of pisses me off. For much of the twentieth century, the economy was growing so fast and everything was so dynamic that we could arguably afford screwups all over the place--it just contributed to the liveliness of the creative-destruction petri dish. But today, things have stagnated and lots of perfectly competent, talented people can't find gainful employment. Some of them are friends of mine. If you're one of the lucky people who's being paid to do something, at the very least do us the courtesy of doing it right.


  1. I bet this guy is an atheist.

  2. > But even the most cartoonishly snooty Frenchman likes to make money

    You'd be amazed, bro.