Bland, uninspired, and quickly forgotten…

For my money, there’s no bigger official waste of working time than the dozen or so yearly online training courses that we’re required to take. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I’m actually a big fan of online education. It’s what allowed me to get a master’s degree while I was traveling around the country for work. When properly designed and executed, online learning can be and is an effective strategy to reach people who otherwise would find that educational opportunity unavailable. 

That being said, the way it’s implemented matters. The “classes” I tool this week were exactly the classes I’ve taken every year for the better part of the last decade. I don’t mean that as an exaggeration. Clicking through the exact same information every year isn’t “continuing education.” It’s not education of any kind. 

I can only assume that the people who control these online classes expect that the average person is too stupid to retain information for more than 365 days. That’s probably true for some segment of the population. If you want them to remember something you have to beat them over the head with it at every opportunity. Even so, it’s farcical to call a program like that “training.”

All I’m saying is that if the intent is just to check a box and say you’ve provided training on whatever topic to your employees, but don’t want to take the time and effort to make it meaningful in any way, how about not making it 95 separate screens to click though before I can print the certificate. If the instructional designers and leaders who approve that mess aren’t going to even pretend that content and engagement are important, you’d better believe that my only goal is to click though as quickly as possible so I can get on with my day.

I’m all for education. I’m a big advocate for getting more knowledge. I am, however, also violently opposed to time-sucking, procedural nonsense that has no purpose other than satisfying some obscure regulation. If that’s what passes for education, no one should pretend to be shocked when anything that follows is equally bland, uninspired, and quickly forgotten.

Of scouts and resellers…

I go to a respectable number of book sales each year. It’s not an every weekend thing, but six or seven times a year, one catches my attention sufficiently to make venturing off the homestead for it potentially worthwhile. The ones I like to dig into are usually put on “friends of the library” or other organizations who specifically take in book donations – they’re specialists rather than “used stuff” generalists. If I happen to be passing by an estate sale or yard sale, I might stop out of curiosity. I don’t generally seek those out even when someone advertises “lots of books.” It seems my definition of “lots” is wildly different than the average person’s. Nine times out of ten, what’s on offer is a box or two of kids’ books or beat to hell paperbacks.

There used to be a breed of person who frequented these sales called a book scout. They knew their business. They knew their points, editions, conditions, and values and could evaluate a book on sight. The best of them seemed to have a sixth sense about whether there was real value in a book – whether even the newest ultra-modern was a $2 reading copy or a $200 first edition.

Time seems to be replacing proper book scouts by roving bands of resellers. They ply their trade online, making their money in arbitrage – buying for $2 and selling for $3. Their business seems to be one of volume over quality. They’re hell with a barcode scanner and figuring out the spread on Amazon. They collectively seem to know price, but not value. 

These resellers are in there like vacuums sucking up all oxygen in the room – sitting on the floors, sprawled out, making obstacles (if not spectacles) of themselves, trying to scan every barcode in sight. It feels tawdry somehow. There’s not a bit of old-fashioned book scouting about any of it. They surely passed over the $200 book I walked out with for $10 last weekend because it simply didn’t have a barcode to scan. It must be more cost effective to sell 200 books on a $1 margin, but there’s no soul in it.  

I don’t think these guys are evil. They wouldn’t be doing what they do if there wasn’t a market for the $3 book. Increasingly, though, I wonder if my days at the sales are numbered. At some point the sheer aggravation of dealing with them won’t be weighed out by the utter joy of making a real score. There’s a big part of me that would rather just pay a dealer something close to retail than continue to trip over 101 resellers.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The cost of comfort. The cost of propane this winter is going to be stupid. By contrast, my electric bill in the winter is usually minimal. By my way of thinking, I could reasonably knock a degree or two off the thermostat if I just put a space heater in the office where I spend my telework days. It’s a fine idea. The office is a nice steady 68 degrees, which by my standards is perfectly comfortable. The problem now, predictably, is that every time I walk out of that particular room – to get a fresh cup of coffee or to make lunch – the rest of the house feels like wandering around a damned icebox. It’s downright unpleasant. I’m not at all sure this new cost saving scheme of mine will survive the arrival of actual winter. I suspect my desire for comfort and convenience will trump my aversion to paying overinflated fuel bills. The next major project here might just be scoping out what it will take to replace my current, elderly air conditioning unit with a heat pump to drive the operating cost of keeping the whole place warm down to something more reasonable.

2. Missing historical context. For some reason the algorithm keeps feeding me all sorts of articles in which people – usually the under 30 set – are opining about all of us now living in the era of a great reset. Most of their puff pieces seem to be based on the idea that some combination of the Great Plague, hundreds of thousands of jobs available, rising inflation, the collapse of the modern financial order under the weight of “late state capitalism,” and a litany of other leftist fever dream issues are the birth pangs of some kind of brave new world. Their earnestness is kind of adorable… but I can’t help but think they’re missing every shred of historical context when they decry their lives in “the worst timeline.”

3. An expired card. The card that I use to pay for basically everything online expired a couple of weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been on the receiving end of a near constant barrage of “card expired” emails when various companies have tried to push through their charges. Updating this information isn’t particularly hard and in most cases it’s not even all that time consuming, but it’s a bleeding nuisance. It really feels like one of those elements of online retail / bill paying that should have a much more elegant solution… and no, the answer shouldn’t be to just hand over my bank accounting and routing information and trust 20 or 30 businesses to keep it secure forever. 

Unchanging an immutable…

We went through short stretch a few years ago where the number of mandatory yearly training classes was dramatically reduced. I can see from looking at my personal “mandatory training” tab today that things are swinging back in the other direction.

Sitting through these sessions online is marginally better than physically cramming 750 people into an auditorium, but only just. Maybe my outlook would be different if the basic content changed from year to year, but as it is, by the time I hang it up, I’ll have sat through 32+ iterations of threat awareness, substance abuse, anti-harassment, and cybersecurity training among others. The names of these sessions might be different, but otherwise not much else has changed with them in the last 18 years. It’s hard to imagine inertia will drive much change in the next 14.

All told, it’s probably 20 hours a year which could be just as effectively covered by taking 10 minutes and telling us not to use drugs, not to sell secrets, knock it off with the sexual harassment, etc.  I suppose there are entire offices that would cease to exist if people could be collectively relied on to simply follow directions, though. Whole bureaucratic empires would cease to exist and we obviously can’t have that.

We could just drop the hammer on people who routinely screw up… but it’s easier to swamp the guilty and innocent alike with wave after wave of “training” if only to avoid the inevitably awkward conversation with people who just can’t seem to get it right. The endless hours of training, it seems, isn’t the only thing that’s unchanging an immutable.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Dinner time. After eight months of mostly working from home, I can report faithfully that there are many things that annoy me about days I have to go to the office. I could fill whole steamships with that particular list, but I currently find none more objectionable than the fact that on days when I’m in the actual office, dinner is not on the table promptly at 5 PM. I’m just assuming I’m finding that more onerous that usual because  we’re racing towards the winter solstice and the early evening darkness shades just about everything these days.

2. Canine behavior. For two days this week, Jorah was inexplicably afraid of going outside. He’d get to the door and freeze, tail tucked and hunkered down. Given the great speed at which he would normally race out the door and cut a muddy swath through the yard, kicking up clods of earth in his wake, you can say it’s a highly unusual situation. I’ve spent most of my adult life with dogs, but I’m not sure I’ll ever firmly grasp what they’ve got going on between those furry little ears sometimes. I’m sure, whatever the reason, it made perfectly good sense to him at the time.

3. Black Friday. I’m getting a metric shit ton of ads for Black Friday sales. Is Black Friday shopping even still a thing? I mean even before the Great Plague, there weren’t many deals at a brick and mortar location that couldn’t be equaled or bested online… and in those few cases where it couldn’t, the convenience of having the item dropped directly on my front porch beat the marginal extra cost every time. Now, here in throws of a plague year, I’m amazed at the pretense that stores and malls will be filled with eager shoppers still waddling off their 7500 calorie Thanksgiving dinner.  Maybe I’m misreading the room, but as far as I’m concerned 2020 is the year of “if I can’t find it online, preferably with two day delivery, I don’t want it.”

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Training. A month or two ago I made a concerted effort to knock out all the mandatory online training I was supposed to get done this year. Generally, figuring out how to sign on to the system is far more difficult and time consuming than the actual training, but fine. Every week, though, some new ridiculous “important mandatory training requirement” gets added. Look, I’m a bureaucrat, I’ll waste an hour or two doing whatever the bosses decide is important, but could we at least pile all up so I can blast through it in a day or two instead of inflicting slow death by a thousand cuts?

2. “First Amendment” violations. I feel like I have to say this once every three months, but Facebook literally can’t infringe upon your First Amendment right to free speech. Facebook is a publicly traded company, not a branch of government. They’re free to do whatever they want on their platform – including flagging and deleting anything that doesn’t conform to the broadest possible interpretation of their established terms of service. No company is no more required to let you use their intellectual property as a soapbox than I am to let you stand on my front porch spouting nonsense. If you don’t like the terms under which Facebook lets you use their platform, the answer is to stop using it and find an alternative… because ranting and raving about Facebook violating your rights makes you sound like a moron.

3. Election 2020. We’re exactly two months away from the 2020 general election. I was occasionally checking in prior to the conventions, but with the ongoing tantrum throwing by candidates and surrogates, go ahead and color me uninterested. I haven’t missed voting in an election since I first registered in 1996 – and I have no intention of missing this one – but there’s absolutely nothing currently being bandied about across traditional, social, or alternative media that I find helpful in any way. Honestly, I can’t believe we’re paying good money for this abject fuckery.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. If you’re going to push out a metric shit-ton of new mandatory training and tell everyone in the universe they have to take it sometime in the next ten days, it seems to be that the first step might be to make sure the end users are in some way functional before it lands on hundreds of thousands of desks as a short notice must-do task. Maybe it’s just me, but proclaiming something must be done and then making it physically impossible to do feels like a pretty shit way of doing business… Not that I’m in any way surprised.

2. I’m trying to schedule someone to come out and give me a quote for three new window binds that approximately match what’s currently in the house. So far, one can’t be bothered to call back, the next wants me to dismount one of the existing blinds and bring it in so they can look at it, and the third really thinks I should consider getting new window coverings for the entire house. You wouldn’t think it would be this hard to get people to show up and take my money, but yet here we are.

3. Despite the story the media is intent on weaving, you really can decline to support a candidate for office because you have fundamental disagreements with their stated policy positions. To see the prevailing message of the day though, if you don’t support Joe and Kamala, it’s obviously because you’re racist. Feel free to bugger directly off with that fuckery. 

Going online…

I had a pretty normal undergraduate experience – 4 years, a couple of summer or winter classes, and done. I managed to earn a full academic scholarship at least for tuition, so fortunately I didn’t have to pay the freight for that education. I won’t say I loved every minute of it, but I look back very fondly on those four years.

In the early stages of my federal career I was on the road more weeks than not and opted for an online MBA. I don’t know what the fees for such a thing are now, but back then I was paying $1,850 per six week class, for a total of $24,050 by the time I earned my degree. My impression of online education, based on that MBA experience, is that you could get as much or as little out of it as you were willing to put into it. It wasn’t hard to slip through doing the minimum, but to really learn the subject you needed to put in extra hours beyond the homework and discussion boards. I didn’t love it, but I ended up learning a lot and it served its purpose for a guy whose schedule wouldn’t have otherwise supported getting a degree. 

I’m seeing articles indicating that brick and mortar schools largely plan on charging full tuition for their slate of online classes for the fall semester. I fully realize that these schools have sunk costs that they need to keep paying regardless of how instruction is delivered, but at the same time I can’t fathom by what logic an entering freshman would pay full price for severely reduced services. Better I’d think to take your intro level classes from the local community college, save your money, and transfer them on when your school of choice opens back up for learning in the flesh. Under the circumstances, I’d even argue a gap year could be a better investment of time and resources.

Pretending that you’re completely justified in charging full price for the undergrad college experience while providing significantly reduced service feels distinctly like perpetrating a fraud… although if you have a large enough group of people willing to unquestioningly pay the bill, I suppose you can take every cent they’ll willingly hand over. 

Half done…

Well, there’s day one in the books. No one set the stage on fire. No one fell down the steps. Lights didn’t fall on anyone. The tech (mostly) worked the way it’s supposed to.

Now that I’m mostly in spectator mode there are obviously things I’d change up a bit – items that made sense on paper but less so under the lights. If that’s the worst of Day 1 I can live with that.

There’s still another day to go. Tomorrow has more people and more moving parts. If something is going to cut loose, tomorrow is really when I’m expecting it to happen.

We’re half done with half to go. I’ll still sleep well tonight, but I’ll wake up tomorrow morning wondering what shit will find the fan.

Jeffrey Tharp and the Zombie Conference from Hell…

For the last six years I’ve found myself saddled with one project that I haven’t been able to shake. Reorganizations and realignments have come and gone and yet this project hangs on grimly, like Marley’s suffering in spectral chains for a life misspent. It’s the classic example of creating a massive boondoggle where having a simple website would be sufficient. Circus tents, cigar bars, catered lunches, live bands, and evening socials… for some reason, the Gods on Olympus have pegged me as they guy you want running your social extravaganzas. Yeah, the guy whose idea of a good time is getting home early and tucking in with a good book and avoiding people as much as possible. That’s exactly who you want to plan your biggest party of the year. 

You’ll never convince me that the universe doesn’t have a particularly fucked up sense of humor. 

It’s really only on my mind today because, in the era before the Great Plague, today would have been opening day for this particular event… and I’d have been two wake ups away from getting the shitshow over for another year.

Other, more reasonable organizations, have decided this isn’t the time to do big productions. They’re being cancelled left and right, being pushed into the fall or into 2021. We’ve gone with a different option of kicking the can down the road a scant five weeks and “reimagining” the whole thing as an online event. That’s fine. I’m sure there won’t be any problems at all with scrapping nine months of planning and collapsing three days of material into a single day using a webcast platform that none of us has ever used while coordinating with 30-40 key players via email and phone because we’re mostly home hiding out from the Great Plague. Seriously, I mean what could possibly go wrong with this plan that’s been too-quickly conceived, barely coordinated, and will be almost completely unrehearsed?

Even in the face of mayhem, chaos, plague, supply disruption, fear, anguish, loathing, and common goddamned sense, we will drive this project forward. For reasons that defy any mere human logic, it’s the unkillable zombie conference from hell and the absolute bane of my existence.

I’m sure it will be the best doggone conference ever.