The title is a bit hyperbolic – almost nothing works. Good service usually can not be purchased at any price unless you are in the billionaire class. Why do businesses that provide only a service – like the airlines – perform so terribly? In this case (airlines) it’s our fault. We don’t want to pay for good service. We prefer bad service that we can complain about. An airline that provided better service would have to charge for it and would soon find that it didn’t have enough customers to survive. Still, they could do better. When you call them on the phone you get the usual dialogue:

For English press 1.
For Spanish press 2.
For Esperanto press 30,409.

If you are a homicidal manic press 1
If you are a compulsive thumb sucker press 69
If this has something to do with an airplane press 2
If you’re so angry that you may go postal we’ll connect you to an operator, but only after you send us a picture of your gun.

If you want to buy a ticket press 1
If you want information about a flight make a guess and then send us a text message because we don’t have any information about anything. We don’t know up from down. How can you expect us to know what’s in the air? And even if we did know something we’d lie to you.

It’s likely not accidental that Southwest Airlines which has human beings answer their phones right from the first ring is also the only line that routinely makes a profit. The telephone answering machine/menu is the perfect marker of bad service. The instant you hear it you know the service jig is up.

Enough about the grounded airlines, let’s consider arts organizations. They’re terminally disorganized because they’re in the business of losing money. They whine about it all the time and constantly beg. If the anti-vagrancy laws were applied they’d all shut down. Much of their “work” is performed by volunteers. These well meaning “workers” come and go ensuring that there’s no organizational continuity. They often don’t communicate with one another. Dealing with an arts organization is often difficult. It’s hard to give them money. They don’t know how to take yes for an answer.

Take the San Francisco Opera. It’s one of the best companies in the country. People come from all over the US to attend its performances. Go to its website and you’ll find a seating chart that indicates those seats that are available for purchase. You can buy them at the site. But suppose you’re about to get on a plane (see above for what awaits you) or you are already away from home. The only option to get your tickets is to have them mailed. You can’t have them held at the box office which seems an omission so egregious that you have to suspect terrorism.

Okay, they list a box office phone number and the hours that the box office is open. Well, it’s not open. And the phone connection seems to be routed through Afghanistan or the NSA is listening in searching for a subversive staging of Puccini – easy to find in Europe. Osama Bin Laden couldn’t have thought this up. We’ll give them a pass – artistic license, etc. What do they know about computers and websites? About as much as the people who make and distribute computers and their affiliated hardware and software.

Buying a computer and getting it to work, not to mention keeping it working, is a voyage to the heart of darkness. Some wag said, “If the automobile had followed the same trajectory as the PC, a Rolls Royce would cost $100, get 1000 miles to the gallon, and explode once a year killing everyone in the car.” Try to get a service representative from one of the large computer companies on the phone. He’ll probably also be in Afghanistan and be completely uninterested in your problem. After all, customer service costs the company money; it doesn’t bring any money in. Before you buy a computer call the customer service department and see how successful you are in making contact. My experience with Dell has been that all their customer reps are in a secure undisclosed location which is cut off from all external contact. You can get a sales rep on the phone which puts them a step ahead of the SF Opera.

Now consider the software. Each big program has many thick books telling the user how to get something from the software because no one can figure out how to use a program from reading its manual which was likely written by someone whose first language was not English. Does anyone write Driving for Dummies? Of course not, even though dummies make up a major segment of the market for driving. That even small organizations need an Information Technology Department is proof of the unreliability of computers and their detritus. Bill Gates became the richest man in the world by making products that don’t work terribly well. Build a mediocre mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. The secret of his success is that he imposed a standard. It’s like Mussolini making the trains work on time.

This one really deserves a separate entry – and perhaps I’ll post more on this later. Almost all new PCs are now sold with Vista 64-bit on them. You have to have a 64-bit OS if you want to address more than 4 GB of RAM.  Yet much essential software doesn’t work on Vista 64-bit. Adobe doesn’t have a flash player for the OS. Google Desktop doesn’t work on Vista 64-bit.  Dell sent me a long rambling email that I’ll post later apologizing for all the problems with getting things to work on Vista 64-bit, but they’re still selling computers with the OS. The usually crash proof Firefox routinely crashes on my Vista 64-bit machine, but never on my Vista 32-bit machine or my XP machines. I may go back to the abacus. Even the Weatherbug occasionally crashes on the 64-bit program. Computer games are what drive the constant upgrade of computer hardware. Many recently released resource intensive games like Spore and Fallout 3 have trouble with Vista 64-bit. Electronic Arts sells games via downloads from their website, but their downloader requires Adobe’s flash player thus gamers with Vista 64-bit can’t buy games directly from EA. Those who bought games this way and then got a new machine with a 64-bit OS are getting refunds from EA because they can’t download previously bought games to their new computer. What a great business model. PC Tools Spyware Doctor with Antivirus doesn’t have a 64-bit version. Vista 64-bit had been out for more than a year. What are these guys doing? Working doesn’t seem to be a choice.

I won’t say much about the government. Everybody thinks the government doesn’t work very well and simultaneously wants more from it. Everyone disparages politicians yet keeps returning the same ones to office. We get the government and politicians we deserve. In addition, the government has limitless money which it’s going to spend. We’re all going to be rich. So maybe the government’s really our friend. But if we’re going to bail out the domestic auto industry I want a car. The government is going to make us pay for cars we won’t buy so we should get a car even if we don’t really want it.

Driving is congested and maddening no matter where you live. The reason is that there is too much traffic on the roads. Of course, sometimes the cause is too little traffic on the roads. I live in a city where traffic is snarled because of the latter problem. The government provides money for road construction, even if it’s not needed. Nobody passes up money from the government. Road construction funds are the college fund and retirement plans for contractors. In Lubbock Texas (population 200,000) where the roads are adequate for a population of at least one million we are building roads that could handle four million. Thus you can’t easily get anywhere because of all the construction. We are constructing a mammoth diagonal road that will have the automotive density of the Gobi Desert and which cuts the city in two like a dehiscence. In Lubbock you don’t get stuck in traffic, you get stuck in road construction.

I’ve saved the best for last – hospitals. From start to finish you’ll wait. People hang around ERs waiting for a disposition for days. By the time the ER finishes with you, death may seem preferable to another visit. I’ve already made such a decision. My living will directs my heirs to let me perish in preference to dialing 911.  Once you make it out of the ER and into the hospital you enter a lost world. I mean a world where everything gets lost. Sometimes even the patients get lost. I recall sitting in the Nurses Station next to another physician who couldn’t find his patient, the patient’s chart, the order sheet, the patient’s X-rays, her lab results, the charge nurse, the ward clerk, and the bathroom. He put his head and moaned in my direction, “If the patients only knew.” Well, they don’t and if they did they wouldn’t believe it. Truth is usually too painful to bear.

So what’s wrong? The answer is simple. Our technology is space age, but the rest of us are still in Cave 65. The fault is not in our systems but in ourselves. Our systems have evolved faster than we can. So let’s all suck it up and muddle through.