Tuesday, July 31, 2012

How I Really Feel Regarding the Penn State Scandal

This is either the fourth or fifth post I’ve put together regarding the scandal at PSU.  All the previous ones dealt with my feelings toward Jerry Sandusky, the firing of Joe Paterno, the Board of Trustees, the massive cover-up, the NCAA violations, etc.  This post, which I’m finally actually POSTING, deals with none of that.

Before I get too far, let me just say that my heart aches for the victims.  Nobody should ever have to suffer through any kind of abuse, and thankfully Jerry Sandusky will be serving the rest of his life behind bars.

The Pennsylvania State University was established in 1855.  Every year nearly 100,000 people can call themselves Penn State students, and it boasts one of the largest alumni associations in world, including my beautiful wife and myself.  Celebrity alumni include Jonathan Frakes (Commander Riker for my fellow Star Trek nerds), Adam McKay (writer and director of Anchorman, Talladega Nights, etc.), Ty Burrell of Modern Family fame, numerous astronauts and other scientists, CEOs to major companies such as Nike, US Steel, Sheetz, and Fisher-Price, famous novelists (more famous than moi), and the list goes on and on and on.  Penn State scientists have led to groundbreaking discoveries in the areas of artificial insemination, nutrition, physics (including the finding of Deuterium), agriculture, forensics, aeronautics, and that list goes on and on and on as well.

Let me tell you a few things about my time at Penn State.  I transferred there in 1996 after completing a year of studies at the University of Pittsburgh.  During my freshman year at Pitt, I became very frustrated with the curriculum and the fact that the professors and especially the teaching assistants could not speak clear English.  I have nothing against non-English speaking people or people that learn English as a second language (ESL), and that’s quite obvious given that my in-laws are from Vietnam,  but when you are paying tens of thousands of dollars to get an education, you need someone teaching you who can speak the same language as you do.  You know, like calculus TAs pronouncing the words "nine" and "divided by" clear enough that you aren't hearing "mime" and "evaded boy"?  And with regards to the curriculum, my first programming course at Pitt was in the same programming language I learned in eleventh grade, and so I was not convinced the university was the right place for me.  I loved and will always love the city of Pittsburgh, but Pitt was just not a good fit.

Transferring seemed like a huge headache, but my father encouraged me to talk to an adviser at PSU Altoona, and so I set up an appointment, loved what I saw, and ended up going through with the transfer.  The act of transferring itself was rather painless, but the aftermath wasn’t that desirable.  I lost my near-stellar freshman grades and about half of my 34 credits.  And upon meeting with my new adviser, I learned that the University only took the first three semesters’ grades when accepting students into a major—and of course I only had one semester because my first two were lost in the transfer.  So my grades at Pitt didn’t count, and after taking an excruciatingly painful calculus class and another horrible gen ed that dropped my GPA below 3.5 for the lone semester that counted, I was not accepted into computer engineering where a 3.5 or greater was required.  Instead I was “advised” to enroll in the electrical engineering program, which I was told was “very similar” to computer engineering.  BTW, EE is NOT similar to computer engineering, Shankar Sundreesan wherever you are.  So anyway, after what would have been my junior year of college, I switched majors to management science and information systems—and then flourished like the bright boy I knew I always could be.

So yeah, my first few years of education at PSU were a bit tumultuous, but nonetheless I look back at them with fondness.  During one memorable semester, one of my friends and I shared the same late-afternoon break between classes a couple of days a week, and the two of us would go to the Rathskeller and drink a few and shoot some pool before heading on to our next classes.  I had quite a few entertaining classes as well, the most memorable of which, Oriental Philosophies, changed my life forever.  All my life prior I had a fascination with martial arts, which in turn prompted a fascination with Asian cultures, but that Oriental Philosophies course blew my mind with subjects like Taoism, Buddhism, etc.  In the years since that time, I’ve come to live my life as close as I can to the Sage of the Tao Te Ching, and I can thank Penn State for that.

I did not go to Penn State for the football program.  In fact, I can’t say I even watched much PSU football during my late teens and early twenties.  If I watched any sport, it was mostly Pittsburgh Pirates baseball or Penguins hockey.  I didn’t watch much football at all until my later years of high school, and even then I mostly watched—ashamed to admit it—the Buffalo Bills (I later became a die-hard Steelers fan, although a small part of me is still a closeted Bills fan).  As for PSU football though, I think it wasn’t until after I graduated from the University that I began to take more of an interest.

I can’t say I was ever a fan of Joe Paterno.  I didn’t dislike him either, but I’m not very big on celebrating people for their accomplishments.  That’s probably the Taoist in me, but I didn’t go to my own college graduation, I don’t brag about my own accomplishments and redeeming qualities, and I tend to always root for the underdog in reality television shows.  Kidding aside, that’s probably why those who first meet me tend to think I’m introverted or even shy.  Both of those words are just labels that do no justice to the entity which they describe.  I’ll talk your ear off if the subject is something that I have knowledge or interest in, but no, I’m not one for idle chit-chat or gossip or talking for the sake of hearing my own voice.  I live by example, and I try my hardest not to judge anyone.  So if you’ve never met me, and we meet and I’m not saying much, it’s not because I’m stuck-up or shy or even anti-social, as one callously insensitive coworker once labeled me .  It’s because I’m listening and learning who you are as a person.

But I digress.  I won’t say whether or not Joe Paterno got a bad rap.  I won’t give my opinion on the way the Board of Trustees handled the situation.  I won’t rule on the NCAA rulings.  I will say that Jerry Sandusky is a monster, as proven by a court of law and described in detail by his victims, and I will most definitely say that those victims should receive substantial monetary payouts to cover the years of treatment they will undoubtedly need.  And I’ll say that I’m not at all happy about any aspect of the situation in any way shape or form.

But again, I did not go to Penn State for the football program.  I went there for a quality education.  Am I embarrassed to be a PSU alumnus?  Heck no!  Do I feel like the university let those victims down?  No, I feel that a handful of greedy individuals with entirely too much power did, and just like a thousand other cases where this is seen (most often in Hollywood movies), the power-mad mighty have fallen and justice has been or will be served.

But I am Penn State proud, and nothing is going to change that.  I love my alma mater.  I loved the Willard Preacher and the Creamery.  I loved hanging out in the HUB, eating Chinese, listening to techno/industrial music while doing linear programming homework problems.  I loved doing the Daily Collegian crosswords between classes.  And heck, I even loved commuting, because without those long drives, I never would have had the courage or ambition to drive across the state, or states in some cases, to meet some interesting people along the path of my life—my beautiful wife included.

Only time—particularly the next four years—will tell what will happen with the PSU football program.  But in the meantime, I know one thing for certain.  If my kids choose to go to Penn State, I’ll be one proud Papa.  And if not, that’s OK too.  But one thing is for certain.  I am a proud graduate of the Pennsylvania State University.  WE ARE….PENN STATE!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Money Doesn't Buy Happiness

I came to the realization this weekend that I’d be a millionaire if I didn’t have kids.

It all started when I got this idea to move my son’s toy box from the area he plays in at the side of our living room to his bedroom.  When we added on to our dinky house several years ago, we put in a closet by the front door and a closet in his bedroom, and so sandwiched between them is a window and the perfect spot for a toy box.  I have no idea why I've never actually moved his toy box there, but the opportunity presented itself this weekend, and so I slid that extremely heavy thing across the house and deposited right in that spot under the window, where it fit perfectly.

Then I wanted to take some of his old toys and especially the baby toys and put them in a box for when baby number 2 arrives in January.  BTW, names have been picked for baby number 2, but they will be disclosed at a later date.  Anyway, as I started rummaging through his toy box, I began organizing everything into little piles.  After a half hour, I had a pile of toys from one end of his room to the other, and as I started to calculate the cost of all those toys in my head, I think I nearly had a heart attack.  A Batman train set here, a Matchbox car track there along with a full shoe box of Matchbox cars.  Tons of stuffed Marvel characters.  Tons of little action figures.  I think when I reached over $1000, I stopped counting—and I still had three quarters of the room to go!

But we were out shopping for a gift for one of his daycare friends over the weekend, and in Toys R Us I spotted Muno from Yo Gabba Gabba.  I picked him up, showed him to my son, and I saw the biggest smile on his face that I’ve ever seen.  Yeah, the thing cost $25, but we've been looking for this thing everywhere, and I think his smile was really worth more than that.  On the way out though, I spent $2 and won him a Batman stuffed doll out of the crane machine.  Again, another huge smile, much to my chagrin at having already purchased the $25 one.  We’d actually debated on returning Muno, and I had this plan of stashing him in our spare room for a few days to see if Adam Bomb would even remember us buying him.  Of course as soon as we got home, he wanted Muno and Batman so that he could show his Grammy his new toys.  Yeah, what was I thinking?  He’s way too intelligent to out-smart now.  Heck, when we left the Toys R Us shopping plaza and I made a right on red, he started shouting, “Red means stop, Daddy!  You went on red!”  Maybe other three-year-olds are just as attentive, but I’m seriously awed by him each and every day.  But we ended up keeping the $25 Muno, and I swore that I wouldn't buy any more toys for him until the holidays!  Really!

I could have been driving around a new 2013 Dodge Ram, or we could have moved into a much larger house by now.  I could have bought my Harley Heritage Softail Classic that I've had my eyes on since selling my old crappy Suzuki several years ago.  I could have gone back to school to get my MBA, which I'll do eventually.  Or I could have just saved it all up.  So yes, I may have been a millionaire if I didn’t have kids.  But you know, I remember those days without my little Adam Bomb, and I honestly can say that the past 3.16 years have been the most fun of my entire life.  And with another little one on the way, well, I may spend oodles more spoiling him or her, and I’ll love every minute of it.  I may have to wait until the 2025 edition of the Heritage Softwail Classic comes out (if my loving wife will even LET me buy it then), but in the meantime I'll have more than enough fun things to do with my happy little family.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Right Way and the Wrong Way

Just about everything we can perceive and rationalize has a gray area to it.  As much as I am into Taoist philosophies and the concept of yin and yang, life is just never quite that simple.  Yes, there are opposites, but there’s a whole lot of middle ground between them that is always open to interpretations.  We have day and night, and yet there is also dawn and dusk.  We have tall and short, and yet they are just opposing ends of the bell curve when it comes to human stature.

One aspect that definitely does not have a gray area though is that of customer service.  Sure, you can have mediocre or average customer service, but really isn’t that just as bad as poor customer service?  I mean, if a waiter only asks you for one refill and then disappears for the rest of your meal, or if a person rings you up at a cash register and barely acknowledges your existence, are you satisfied?  Again, each level of customer service is open to individual interpretation, but you only ever tip well if someone has been spectacular at their job—or in the case of my family, has to clean up the mess of food and crayons that my 3-year-old has somehow managed to create on the floor underneath our table.  How does he do that anyway?  It's like that's his master plan as soon as we arrive.  Get stuff and get it onto the floor without Mommy and Daddy seeing.  He’s lightning fast, that’s for sure!

So I was listening to the radio yesterday, and they were asking retail and customer service people to call in with their rants about bad customers.  Sure, bad customers exist.  Some are just plain rude and have no right whatsoever eating out at an establishment or shopping at a certain store.  One spoke of a fast food customer returning and throwing a bag of food at her.  Another complained of a kid that created a mess on the floor under his table.  I hope that wasn’t us!!  But more often than not, those people complaining yesterday are the ones at fault.  Seriously.

My case in point, my family recently had a streak going of three separate incidents where we ordered take-out meals and the restaurant staffs screwed up our orders.  I'd say we order or eat out maybe two and occasionally three times a week counting weekends, and so three in a row is rather uncanny.  It started with a trip to Panera one morning, where the MANAGER (of all people) neglected to put the fat-free cream cheese into our bag for my wife’s bagel.  She lived with it even though we paid for the nonexistent cream cheese, but we moved on.  Oh well.  No big deal.  Really.  Although I do have to mention that my wife’s brother is a manager of a Panera in Harrisburg, and that restaurant seems to be a million times better than the one in Altoona.  I digress.  Anyway, we then decided to get pizza and subs from a local pizza joint near where we live.  We ordered everything, brought it home, and then discovered that our small pizza was actually a kid-sized pan pizza.  Both were listed on the menu, and the difference in price was negligible, but that’s not the point, is it?  Luckily my son wasn’t that hungry that night (it was being shared with others), so we moved on.  Oh well.  No big deal.  Really.  Two nights later though, we ordered a larger meal from TGI Friday’s, and that one was the worst.  When we got home, we discovered that we were missing literally half of our order.  All three entrees were completely missing their side dishes.  One was just a piece of fish nestled lonely in the little plastic container.  Seriously?  Oh yeah, my wife did get an extra side of corn on the cob, although it looked like that piece of corn had baked out in the Arizona sun for three days before being placed in our bag.  We called and complained over that order, and the manager did send us a few coupons for free appetizers and some other $5 coupons off the total order, but it left some of my family members a little angry not to mention hungry!

Now I’m a smart guy.  I don't mean to sound arrogant, but I’ll admit it.  I've got a lot of useless knowledge up in my noggin, and I tend to catch onto things quicker than others.  But I just can’t imagine that checking an order before sending it to the cooks or giving it to the customer is all that difficult.  I know these people get really busy, and sometimes they may have a handful of orders to deal with at a time, but it’s not like they are juggling chainsaws.  These places aren’t even fast food joints.  I mean, we ALWAYS check our orders when going through fast food drive-thrus, and really, when they have to deal with like fifty to seventy-five cars an hour, they are bound to have mistakes.  But these other places shouldn’t.  That, to me, is laziness or neglect for their job, and it’s one of the worst forms of customer service.  People have paid for their food and left, and what are they supposed to do?  Drive back and get it so that all of their food can be cold when they get home?  Drive back and have the place recook everything?  Oh yeah, like that wouldn’t invite a restaurant worker to leave a little spit surprise in the mashed potatoes.  Or maybe they should just go without?  Or, like we did, call and complain so that they can be sent coupons, when really now they don’t want to go back at all.

I’m talking quite a bit about the restaurants here, but my sentiments about bad customer service are pervasive.  Just today I met with a sales guy from a local IT company trying to sell some services to our firm.  We are a client with this company with regards to a large programming project they designed, implemented, and continue to host for us, and so I always give these people at least a shot.  We’ve had horrible issues with that programming project though (bad turnover of their staff, incompetent programmers, huge delays, etc.), and so our confidence in them is not very high.  But this guy showed up at my office and tried to pitch me on his services, and the entire time he’s there he’s touting his company’s high level of support and service and bad-mouthing the competition, which my firm uses.  The last time I met with this guy, a year ago or so, he gave me the same pitch, then came back with a quote twice of what we pay now to his competition.  Yes, two times the amount.  Yep, our costs now multiplied by two!  Really, guy?  I'm not that bad at math...

I’d also mentioned an incident a couple of weeks ago where we were having an issue with the program they'd designed for us and I wasn't able to get ahold of our usual account rep because she was on vacation.  I’d reached out to this particular guy and a couple of others, and one of the others responded immediately.  This guy hadn’t responded then, and he didn’t even seem to know what I was talking about when I mentioned it during our meeting today.  Yeah, OK.

So you just want us to shell out twice of what we pay now for what you say is a “better level of service,” and all we’ve seen from your company throughout the past few years is poor customer service and poor responsiveness?  Maybe that works on some people, but not on me.  As I stated earlier, I’m a smart guy.  Not to mention the fact that he completely insulted my skill level during his presentation by vastly underestimating my knowledge in certain products and services he was trying to sell me.  It was like he was trying to sell a $20 pair of shoes for $100 to my wife.  No, I don’t think so.

My little rant here is getting too long and losing the point—kind of like the movie In Time with Justin Timberlake that I watched over the weekend—and so I’ll wrap things up here.  If time is money, you've got a cool concept, but don't lose it by trying to save the pretty main characters even though they are constantly about to die.  No, seriously, if you are in customer service, don’t whine and complain about your job.  Everyone has some aspect of their jobs that get under their skin.  If you don’t, lucky you—play the lottery.  But don’t complain about your jobs and then not do them right.  If you are paid to serve food, make sure it’s all there, cooked to specifications, and please double check your work.  If you are paid to fix something, do it in a reasonable amount of time and make sure it’s fixed PROPERLY.  If you are paid to sell something, don’t try to pitch me on your track record when my experience with your track record is abysmal.  And above all else, smile and be nice to your customers.  Nobody wants to deal with a bunch of buttmunches when buying groceries or grabbing some grub.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I'm Back from the Beach Beach!

It's been an exciting couple of weeks.  I'll have another more meaningful post here shortly, but I wanted to give an update just to let everyone know that I'm still alive.  Yay!  What would you do without me?

Last week started off with an easy drive down to Ocean City, MD.  We arrived in about six and a half hours with three rest stops along the way, which wasn’t too bad for four healthy adults, a toddler, and a disabled retiree.  Upon arriving and checking into the hotel, we discovered that my mom’s mobility scooter was not there as had been promised by the rental company.  Further investigation revealed that my mom had ordered it from Surf Buggy Rentals in Ocean City, NJ—yeah, New Jersey—and not Ocean City, MD.  She had found the company on the Internet, and I’m sure others have made the same mistake, but what we couldn’t understand is why this place said they knew where our hotel was, which seemingly was only a few blocks from their business (8th St vs. 14th St).  They charged my mom’s credit card and said they’d have the scooter there waiting, but when she called them from the lobby, they said they’d never heard of the place.  When we finally figured out what happened, my mom called back and cancelled, and they were very nasty with her.  The lady even said, “We’ll refund all of your money as a courtesy, but next time get your cities straight.  Now we are stuck with a scooter for a week.”  Seriously?  As if they wouldn’t just turn around and rent it back out to someone else?  And refunding money is a courtesy??  Uh, hello?  Maybe if your people didn’t say they knew exactly where our hotel was, we wouldn’t have gotten into this mix-up in the first place!  Anyway, I immediately called Scooters-4-Rent in Ocean City, MD, and in a little over an hour we had a nice Pride mobility scooter for her to use for the week.  And just as an FYI, if you are older or just lazy I suppose and have $125 to spend, I’d strongly suggest getting one if you intend to walk the boardwalk frequently.  There were times there that we wished we had one!

So the week went by pretty quickly.  On day one we went to the beach and played in the water.  This was the first time to the beach for my son, and he absolutely loved the waves.  I’d take him out up to my waist, and the waves would hit us and he’d squeal and shout, “Here comes another one, Daddy!  Here comes another one!”  I’ve always thought sand castles were kinda cliché, and so instead I built Spider-man’s villain Sandman in the sand for my son.  What do you think?  It’s a bad angle, because I have his window’s peak and everything!  People were coming up and admiring my work, and a couple of people thought someone was actually buried underneath all the sand.

I also made a foot another day.  Yeah, a foot.  I don’t know what possessed me to make a foot, but it’s not bad, right?  Again, sand castles are everywhere there.  Why not be a little more creative?

One morning we rented a surrey and rode the entire length of the boardwalk.  It was a two-seater with enough room for our son in the middle, which was pretty cool.  My wife had a steering wheel, although only mine actually steered it, and so I was driving her nuts a little with some erratic turns.  I think once she actually thought we were tipping!  Good times!  One thing I gotta say, though, is that it really stinks when you are the only one peddling.  A couple of times I caught my wife just drifting, and once I even slapped her on the leg.  We had a good laugh about it though.

We ate a good bit of boardwalk food, which is probably why I gained like 5 lbs while we were there.  We also ate at Hall’s Buffet uptown, and I have to say that was a waste of money.  We paid close to $30 per person, and yet they had less food than Old Country Buffet (or Prime Sirloin for all of you Altoona, PA folks).  We also ate seafood at Harrison’s at the south end of the boardwalk, and that was much better.  Still pricey, but the food was four-star rather than two if you get my drift, and we also had a fantastic view of the Ocean City Inlet to the Isle of Wight Bay.

We played lots of games, including the crane machines where you drop the crane to pick up stuffed toys.  I’m apparently a master at these devices, because I won my son eight Marvel characters with less than $15.  I even somehow managed to grab three eight inch toys in one grab!  He was thrilled to death, and of course we were happy because you can’t beat getting eight toys for $15!

On the 4th we sat on the beach and watched fireworks.  The fireworks themselves were nothing special, but I was amazed at the throng of people there.  The beach and boardwalk was filled as far as the eye could see, and I’m guessing there were at least 25,000 people there.  Here’s one of my better shots:

I can’t say I cared much for the hotel we stayed in.  The Sea Scape Motel was the one we stayed in quite a bit fifteen to twenty years ago, but we hadn’t been back there since, and it appeared the hotel hadn’t had any remodeling or maintenance since then either!  The clientele there was awful as well.  The Sea Scape was the only motel I saw where people hung their wet towels and bathing suits (YES BATHING SUITS) out on the rails and benches outside to dry.  They had a swimming pool that went from 4’ to 8’ deep in four foot increments, and of course everyone crowded around the 4’ end where they could stand, and so we didn’t have a chance at swimming in there.  At 3:30 one morning, someone walked down the hallway/breezeway pounding on all of the windows (yeah, thanks buddy!), and during our last morning there someone had apparently decided to drink a case of Coors Light and toss the cans around the exterior randomly.  Needless to say, we won’t be staying there when we go back, BUT we didn’t let it get us down.  Here we are, a happy family!

And we finally left Saturday morning.  I snapped a picture of the sunrise, although it was cloudy that morning, and my photography skills are a little lacking.

From there we were off to my brother-in-law’s Muslim marriage in Harrisburg Saturday afternoon, which was nice, short, and indoors thankfully as it was a hundred degrees outside.  My mom and sister and her husband decided to stay in Ocean City until around noon on Saturday, and they ended up getting stuck in two hours of traffic at the Bay Bridge only to arrive home and discover that a bad storm had knocked out power at both the houses.  They stayed in a hotel in Altoona that night, and so they weren’t very happy.

But for the most part we all had a good time.  We may wait a few years to get back to Ocean City, MD—thinking we’ll try out Rehoboth or Seaside Heights or even Ocean City, NJ, where we know NOT to rent a mobility scooter.  I’d really like to get to Niagara Falls again too, so that may be our next vacation stop.

Anyhoo, I’m sure you’re bored to death by now of our little vacation adventure, but I’ll be back in a day or two with something a little more thought-provoking.  Until then, adieu!