Friday, January 15, 2010

If you build it, that's a start

It all started with such promise when my wife and I dipped our toes into the world of suburban public transit:

Bus-train-bus. No driving, no parking headaches for a change.
8:53 AM Dec 9th, 2009

Then, those high hopes sunk a bit a day later:

Two strikes, PACE! Way to suck again jackasses.
6:40 PM Dec 10th, 2009

And lately it's been downright hostile:

Dear PACE transit - in case you forgot, you still suck. Expect more letters or hire better drivers. Your choice, jerks.
6:34 PM Jan 7th

Dear PACE transit - in case you forgot, you still suck.
6:40 PM Jan 13th

Why the hostility? Because after a month of riding consistiently, PACE is failing me constantly as a rider. In that month, I've been left at the station several times, been taken miles from home in the middle of a snowstorm because a driver didn't know how to change their route number (and didn't tip off riders to the fact that the bus wouldn't be traveling the route indicated on the bus) and had to wait an average of a half hour most nights for my route to come back around.

I'll stop here to say that my wife, who rides the same train each day, does not have these problems. Her PACE buses run like clockwork and she has nothing but nice things to say. So, for some people, even in my own house, PACE is great. For me, they provide nothing but headaches.

My issue revolves around the fact that it's hard enough to get to and from the Loop when you live in the suburbs. Parking is at a premium (Naperville's lot woes are well documented) and travel times are unpredictable and maddening. The simple, sustainable answer is to take public transportation, but given how unreliable PACE has been for me, I have no desire to do the "right" thing and would much prefer the option that consistently gets me home in a few minutes.

When you read the schedule for the feeder route that services my block, you notice two things. One, you have between 2 and 4 minutes to hop on the bus once your train gets in (no problem, I'm a spry 31). Two, depending on when you arrive in the burbs, you'll take one of three different bus routes (and they overlap). So, you need to keep track of multiple, overlapping routes and you have to hope your driver doesn't try to drag race the train out of the station.

This is the heart of the issue for me. It makes sense to take public transportation into the city, and the best, fastest option for that is the train. Great. I'm in.

In order to get you to the station, you can drive or you can save a few bucks and take a bus from the end of your block. Awesome, even better - I like saving gas and money.

When you get home, make sure you hit your timing right, because while the route schedule lets you know you only have a few minutes to get on a bus, chances are it won't be there and probably won't arrive for a half hour or more. Oh, and when it does arrive, make sure you ask if that's the actual route, because sometimes it isn't and you end up miles away.

None of this makes me want to ride PACE again or rely on it for my transportation needs. I know it's the smart play for the environment, for local traffic and for my wallet. However, I have no desire to stand around, wasting time, when for a few dollars a day, I can have a parking spot of my very own.

So, in the chicken vs. egg debate of why suburbanites don't use public transportation, I'd like to add another option beyond lazy, car-loving and snobby people with a misplaced sense of entitlement. Let's add shitty service that no one wants to count on because it's unreliable.

I will admit on the odd days that I've hopped off the train and found a bus waiting, it was a wonderful experience. However, those days are the exception and not the rule. So, as a presently disgruntled PACE rider, what do I suggest (instead of simply bitching, which is much more fun)?

1.) Pick a schedule and stick with it. Run buses at half hour intervals from 4:30 to 7 p.m. for the feeder routes. Forget the lie that the buses leave every 20 minutes (as trains arrive) because that just pisses riders off. Run a bus every half hour - no muss, no fuss.
2.) Hire drivers who can at least operate the equipment. The CTA has their share of sub-par drivers, but I've never gotten on the wrong bus because the sign was too difficult to change. (To my knowledge, these are the same basic buses.) I need two things from my driver - leave on time, have the right route displayed. Folksy, small town charm optional.
3.) Simplify the routes. Yes, I know it's more cost effective to run combined routes, but that's no help when the bus I'm waiting on isn't arriving. Do I wait on my bus, assuming it's on its way or do I go looking for the combined feeder because it is now past an arbitrary time? If this costs too much, back routes off to 45 minute intervals (because that's what is actually arriving anyways).
4.) (Optional) Enable the GPS routes like the CTA does. Know what's more obnoxious than a bus that's 30 minutes late? Looking up every 2 minutes to see if just maybe that's your bus at the end of the block (it never is).

That's it.

Will it increase ridership? Who knows, but it would certainly get me to give PACE a second look. If the choice is between $80 a month and a little more suburban traffic because I'm a selfish jerk or standing around waiting for buses that arrive at random out of the ether, well, that's not much of a choice at all, is it?

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

I know it's a rough economy, but some things just aren't helping matters

About a year ago, I posted an ad on Craigslist to hire a part-time staffer for office work on weekends and occasional hours during the work week. We were paying $10 an hour for this and in any given week, the staffer would be getting under 20 hours.

In short, it was a pretty basic job, not paying a lot and primarily on weekends and I figured the hardest part would be finding someone who would both want to do the job and be able to do the job. I was so very wrong.

In 24 hours, I received over 400 resume submissions from all kinds of candidates. People with 15 years of experience as office managers for major companies. People with masters degrees in marketing. People fresh out of college in some small town trying to get a foothold in Chicago so they could afford a tiny, rat-infested apartment in an up and coming neighborhood. Extraterrestrials practicing their English skills via e-mail before an impending invasion.

After 200 submissions between noon and 4:30 p.m., I left the posting up overnight just to see what happened. I was forced to shut it all down the next day. Frankly, I was shocked that many people were scouring the ads, period.

Through that process, I was suddenly struck by just how arbitrary the whole hiring process can be. Every time I half-assed a submission. Every time I just skipped the cover letter. Every time I sent a hiring manager pictures of a basket full of sad puppies with the message, "Me wanna job."

At the time, I swore I would post about this as it would be funny to some people and educational to others. Kind of like the Not Hired site.

With that in mind:

* Handwritten resumes are a no-no. I heard this second hand from a friend I'd temped with for a while at Northwestern. He was at a job fair where someone was shopping resumes hand-written on loose leaf notebook paper. We would discuss this when sharing tales of woe from our misadventures in temp work.

* If you are 18 or older and plan to look for any type of job, you need to have a somewhat professional e-mail address. I'm not looking to hire JakDanielz45, SnookieBear22 or PotLover420 any time soon. This advice comes to you from someone who has an e-mail address with the word "Poop" in it. I have never submitted that one to a potential employer.

* Check your cover letter and resume for spelling mistakes. I make mistakes (and plenty here) just like anyone else. I'm talking about the forgetting to capitalize anything on the page or "I would be a great addition to your team?" variety.

* If the employer asks for a cover letter. Make sure you include it. I don't think I called anyone in for an interview who missed this step. Think of it as the "brown M&M" test of the hiring world. When you hear about crazy things in a rock band's rider agreement, chances are it's there to gauge how effectively the staff at a particular music venue pays attention to detail (or that person is Mariah Carey). When I ask for a cover letter and you don't provide it, it tells me that you are not good at following direction. I don't want to hire someone who doesn't follow direction well.

* Check your cover letter and resume for spelling mistakes again.

* The neck tattoo I saw today didn't seem to help with the other employers. When it is fully visible above a collared shirt, you can wear whatever suit you want, but I doubt you have a future in high end retail. Keep this in mind when you're 18, have no intent on ever working in an office (and totally selling out) and want the world to know your nickname in college is Captain Kickass.

* Check your cover letter and resume for spelling mistakes and then have your friend go through it one more time. Unless I'm wrong, I'm betting you don't really live in Chickago.

* While I know it's a mistake, don't send a cover letter for another business to me. Worse yet, don't send it addressed to a competitor/mortal business enemy.

* I know you think you're a people person / have a great work ethic / know how to throw around business buzzwords. Give me something I can work with.

Here's the bottom line (keeping in mind I've been on both sides of this equation several times in the past decade, so I say this out of love):

These points seem stupid and arbitrary, but if you needed to take 400 resumes and turn them into a more manageable 25-50, what kind of rules would you put in place just to keep your sanity? Always keep in mind that once you push "Send," someone has to receive it, sort it and start making cuts. Don't give them a reason to take you out of the mix because you didn't take an extra 30 seconds to confirm the business on the e-mail you're sending your resume to is the same one on the cover letter, KingCrapper4545.

(Image from:

Saturday, January 02, 2010

What a wonderful age we live in

The wash of end of the year "Best Of" lists was made much worse this week by the one-two punch of the year and decade ending. I even issued a minor plea via Facebook to call off the onslaught of lists that took up time and space on web sites struggling to get anything up in the week between Christmas and New Years.

Sure, it's nothing new, but with the advent of embedded video, it seems like this is getting worse. Don't get me wrong, I'm more than guilty of the yearly, "What did it all mean" navel gazing that is behind these exercises, but just once I'd like a little more variety in my best of the decade lists.

Without any research whatsoever (yay!) aside from the handful of posts I skimmed, I can safely say the majority of these posts listed the iPod/iPhone, a major video game console, some sort of digital book reader and an extra smart phone thrown in for good measure. Add another five or so gadgets and you can stretch it to a top 10 list and be home for brunch.

While all of these things are wonderful - and I fully admit to a moment of wonder on a road trip this week when I realized just how amazing it was as my wife Googled a random question from her iPhone as my GPS hummed along and the iPod powered away for nearly two days of traveling - I would like to drill down a bit further.

Of course, I'm talking about the rewind feature on Forza Motorsport 3 for the Xbox 360.

If you are a gamer and you are a parent, this is perhaps the greatest thing to ever appear on your console. Forget the game-changing graphics and always excellent gameplay - this is the piece of the puzzle that's been missing for too many years.

Let me explain the problem. I'll be happily racing along when my wife needs to know where I hid something in the kitchen. In the few seconds it takes me to transition from death-defying 200-mph speed demon to figuring out where the paper towels went when we unloaded the car, I have temporarily forgotten that I am piloting a digital race car at high speed.

(Anyone who asks why I don't simply pause the game has never tried to execute such a complex maneuver in a high pressure situation involving a missing can of baby formula.)

About the time I realize my mistake, I have take that ground-based rocket and slammed it squarely into a retaining wall. If the car still runs, it won't turn and there's no way to get back into the race or get the previous 10 minutes back. This has led to unkind words in the past.

No more - borrowing a gimmick from games like Prince of Persia, you can now back the game up a few seconds (when your car is still in one piece and has its structural components in tact) and pick up where you left off. No muss, no fuss, no in game penalty.

Yes, there are much bigger tragedies in this world than turning a digital Mustang into a few thousand assorted parts strewn across the track, but try telling that to someone who now has to start over against that damned, cheating computer opponent who keeps kicking your ass in an obviously underpowered car. It's not rational, but trust me, it just is.

(Bonus points if this happens on the track at Laguna Seca, which is the bane of my digital racing existence.)

I cannot say enough about this feature. If Forza decides to repeal this feature in the future, they will have an angry letter sent the next day and a possible visit to their offices, depending on how centrally located they are to my home and/or place of business.

While Apple has certainly won the technology decade in the broad strokes, Forza (more specifically its developer, Turn 10) has won for day to day bliss. Mark myt words, in the end, this will save more marriages than Viagra.

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