Archive for October, 2013

Happy Halloween, everybody. Here is a roundup of some of this year’s Halloween-themed posts:

I hope that the Great Pumpkin brings you lots of toys and candy. If not, there’s always next year!

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It has been a while since I posted about private communications that cause public problems, but a few of these situations came to my attention this week. First, Rachel Slocum of the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse sent an e-mail to a student blaming Republicans for the government shutdown. This seemingly accurate statement led to a student posting an image of the message on Twitter, which turned the e-mail into national news.

Slocum was likely embarrassed by the situation until a TA at the University of Iowa sent an e-mail and accidentally attached nude pictures of herself instead of a study guide. I have received countless e-mails in which people forget to attach files (and forgotten numerous attachments myself) but I have no idea why the file name and location of nude pictures would be anywhere near those of a study guide.

Outside of academia, a National Security Council staff member named Jofi Joseph was recently discovered to have maintained an anonymous Twitter account from which he criticized various public figures. As far as I know, Joseph, who lost his job, is the only one of the three to have suffered consequences larger than embarrassment and nationwide scorn.

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For over ten years I have had some sort of TV service. During that time, I became accustomed to the yearly bill increases that were followed by yearly phone calls to the company, asking to speak to a manager in order to remove or reduce the increase. The good prices, I’ve been told time and again, are for new customers. Why, I’ve asked time and again, don’t you just give everybody the same fair price? Every year it was the same thing, but every year I was able to negotiate a lower price. Until this year. This was the first time that I have gone through this process with Comcast.

A few months back I received my monthly bill and noticed that it had nearly doubled, from $98 to $180 per month. My introductory rate had clearly expired. It was time to go through the yearly routine. So I called. Once again, I was told that the good prices are for new customers. I could reduce my rates, however, by changing my services: fewer channels, dropping HD, slower internet, faster internet (yes, there was a bundle with some new sort of internet that would have reduced the price). The problem with all of these options was that I did not want to reduce my services and I did not want to increase the amount of money that I was paying. Comcast’s offers would have placed my bill between $130 and $160 per month.

I told the representative that I wanted to continue receiving the same services I had been receiving for the same price I had been paying. The representative said it wasn’t possible. I asked to speak to a manager. I again stated my desire. The manager said it wasn’t possible. I said that it was likely I would cancel my service but that I needed a day or two to explore my options and that I would call back. I explored my options and called back. I talked to a friendly representative who understood my situation but couldn’t help me any more than the previous representative or manager. I cancelled my service. A few days later, I returned my equipment to Comcast’s local office. Then I got angry.

The same evening that I had returned my equipment, I got a phone call from Comcast (likely a different arm of the company) saying that they were sorry to see me go and that they were able to offer me my original services at my original price in order to keep me as a customer. Having spent over an hour on the phone with various Comcast representatives in the past week, none of whom could make me this offer, I told the representative that there was absolutely no way I would be renewing my Comcast subscription. I also made it very clear that if this offer had been given to me at any time during my previous phone calls I would still be a Comcast customer. Instead, I’m one of the millions of customers Comcast has lost in the past few years.

Cable companies exist largely as monopolies in the United States. In recent years, pressure from satellite and phone companies have led to bundling and a wider variety of services, but this hasn’t been enough to prevent customers from leaving. In this time period, Comcast’s profits have actually increased, as has its stock price. This strategy may work in the short term but in the long term it seems that Comcast is fighting a losing battle. Treating existing customers poorly as alternatives increase will not lead to customer loyalty, it will lead customers to flee as quickly as they are able. Once these customers are gone, it will be hard to get them back.

Imagine how successful a cable company could be if it offered customers a fair price that would not increase dramatically after six months or a year and if that price included common things like HD channels, DVR service, and the ability to connect more than one TV. Cable companies have had a monopoly but the changing technological landscape means that customers are able to go elsewhere to get the things that they have traditionally relied on cable companies for.  The pricing tactics of cable companies may have served them well when customers had no other choices, but if they don’t change soon these tactics are going to fail them.

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Friday, Tenured Radical featured a guest post by two faculty members of St. Mary’s College of Maryland who discuss a plan to ensure that all employees of the College are paid a living wage and that none of them are paid too much. It would work like this:

Under the St. Mary’s Wages plan, a benchmark salary for the lowest paid employees would be set at 130% of the poverty line for a family of four, currently $29,976. This would ensure that no family of four with one full-time wage earner would need to depend on SNAP (formerly called food stamps). Other salaries would be subject to minimum and maximum pay levels based on multiples of the benchmark salary. For example, the President’s salary would be free to adjust based on market forces anywhere between a minimum of 7.5 times the benchmark (currently $224,820) and a maximum of 10 times the benchmark ($299,760). Assistant Professors would start at no less than 2 times the benchmark ($59,952) and all faculty would be capped at 4 times the benchmark ($119,904).

As inflation raised the benchmark, those numbers would change so that even someone at the maximum salary would be eligible for cost-of-living raises. For faculty, other salary considerations (including merit pay, raises for 5 year reviews) would set pay levels in between the top and bottom caps. The staff union, which has signaled its support for our efforts, would retain the right to bargain on behalf of all union members.

The goal is to create cohesion across the campus community by aligning wages with the College mission. It is interesting, but perhaps not surprising, that more schools haven’t done this. Although St. Mary’s is a public school, it seems like these sorts of plans could work well for small private colleges. Tensions are certainly high at my own institution as administrators look to cut costs. Knowing that everybody’s salaries increase or decrease together might provide some relief.

As hard as it is to imagine these sorts of plans taking hold at colleges and universities in an age of academic false consciousness, there are entire countries where they are being considered. Switzerland, for example, will vote next month on whether to limit CEO salaries to 12 times those of their lowest-paid employees. If you can’t get a job in Switzerland, St. Mary’s College of Maryland may be worth checking out.

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At Slate, Mark Liberman tells journalists to stop presenting paraphrases as quotations, presenting six Mitt Romney “quotations” and what he actually said. For some reason, differences like these have always been interesting to me, whether or not they are related to work by a sociologist. I am also bothered by magazines that use pull quotes that differ from the quotation in the actual text.

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As somebody born in the early ’80s, I was always too young to completely identify with the stereotypical Gen-X slacker (despite the name of this blog). I was also too old to completely identify with the Millenials. Because of that, it is nice to see them apologizing for the errors of their ways (via Upworthy):

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After a recent exam in which many of my students failed, I asked them to write a brief statement reflecting on what they could do differently before the next exam. The most common response by far was that they would study longer before the next exam. I don’t want to discourage students from studying, but I thought that this situation required an addendum to Anti-Procrastination Metaphor #2. As you probably don’t recall, this metaphor involves students brushing their teeth:

Imagine two people visit the dentist for a cleaning and are told to return in six months.  The first person brushes her teeth for two minutes twice a day (four total minutes per day) every day for six months, spending 12 total hours brushing her teeth between dentist appointments.  The second person does not brush her teeth at all for five months and 29 days but spends 12 hours brushing her teeth on the day before her dentist appointment.  Which person’s teeth would you rather have?

To this I would add:

After visiting the dentist and finding that her teeth were, in fact, covered in plaque and cavities, the second person vows to brush her teeth for 24 hours in the days immediately preceding her next dentist appointment while the first person continues to brush her teeth for two minutes twice a day. Which person’s teeth would you rather have? Why doesn’t doubling the amount of time spent brushing her teeth get the second person’s teeth as clean as the first person’s?

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In case you hadn’t heard (in which case, you may be a student), the government shut down last night at midnight. Republican demands to delay the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) because they don’t like it, despite the fact that it was passed in the house and the senate, signed by the President, and withstood challenges in the Supreme Court, reminds me of when a kid who loses a game takes his ball and goes home because if he can’t win he would rather not play at all. After thinking of this earlier today and congratulating myself for being clever, I watched last night’s episode of The Daily Show and noticed that Jon Stewart said essentially the same thing.

Slate has a nice roundup of stories about the shutdown, including an article written in the style that we would likely use if it was occurring in another country. I also like this collection of wire photos used to depict the impending shutdown (Slate is not immune to these tactics – see the photo on the aforementioned article).

Over on the blogs, John Quiggin at Crooked Timber reposts an analysis from 2011 and Dan Hirschman talks about the plight of graduate students who need to use the National Archives (as does Tenured Radical).

Finally, Jimmy Kimmel demonstrates the importance of survey wording by asking people whether they prefer the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare without informing them that they are the same thing:

This is all so exciting that I can’t wait to do it again in a few weeks when the debt limit is reached! On another note, my “Government Inaction” category has never been so apt!

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