Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Customer is Not Always Right

          I debated with myself quite a bit over the past few days as to whether or not I should make this the topic of my next blog entry. After all, there have been numerous cases of employees being fired or punished over things they say or post on social media, completely unrelated to work and on their free time. In my case, this piece should straddle an even thinner line insofar as, technically speaking, this is work-related as it reflects an attitude I have, and have always had, about working. But again, I'm writing this on my free time and posting it on an outlet unrelated to my present employer. The assumption that one still has to adhere to every facet of company standards and conduct when they are not on the clock, or when they are in the comfort of their own private dwelling, blurs the line between employment and slavery. That said, I don't imagine this to be a difficulty for me insofar as I no longer work in the retail outlets of my present employer, so the customer/employee dynamic doesn't apply to me in the same way as it did, say, two years ago. Additionally, my present employer actually has a pretty good track record of siding with, and caring for, its employees, at least, when compared to many other similar companies. By the end of this piece, it is my hope that at least one person realizes the folly in perpetuating this silly notion that "the customer is always right" and that, in the off-chance that this piece is brought to the attention of the higher-ups at my company, that they value the freedom of expression over making an extra buck by catering to the whims of an entitled consumer.
          The idea that "the customer is always right" is one that virtually all businesses in America have operated on as far back as I can remember, almost to the point of becoming a mantra for American capitalism and consumerism, alongside Reaganomics and sweatshops in other countries (Las Maquiladoras de Tijuana will attest to this, right across the border from my native San Diego) [1]. Admittedly, it is a principle that has generated several points of conflict for me over the years as I jumped from retail or restaurant job to retail or restaurant job, only recently receiving a slight reprieve from it in the form of a different work environment, and it remains a principle that I still don't understand. At its heart, the principle mandates that, in the event of any kind of disagreement or confusion between business and consumer, the default position that the business should take is that the source of the error or confusion is on them, and that the consumer needs to be acknowledged or compensated accordingly, "within reason", of course, and I put that phrase within quotations deliberately. If the customer fails to read the menu board at a restaurant and expects a cup of coffee to be $1.00 when it is actually posted to be $1.50 or $2.00, but then questions the inconsistency in the pricing, the employees are expected to make the cup of coffee $1.00 under this principle. This is not to say that there aren't times when a business really is the source of any kind of confusion or disagreement - an employee can accidentally charge a customer for the wrong size cup of coffee, and it is certainly reasonable for the customer to ask for a refund of the difference - but the idea that businesses should cater to every request, no matter how ridiculous, is perhaps one of the things that is wrong with American consumerism. There are two primary reasons that I will discuss here as to why this idea that "the customer is always right" is a poor principle for businesses to operate on, and why consumers should stop contributing to the continued existence of this principle by actually believing that they are, in fact, right. First, the notion that "the customer is always" right doesn't seem to be in the better interest of the business, and, second, the notion that "the customer is always right", many times, compromises the well-being and integrity of employees.
          There are plenty of hypothetical situations that illustrate how a customer's requests can be harmful to a business. A man approaches the counter at a cafe, orders a cup of coffee, and then asks for all the money in the safe. A woman threatens to have a gourmet Italian restaurant closed over the phone because the restaurant doesn't deliver. A man at a grocery store starts harassing other customers because of their religious or political views, and when asked to leave, threatens to sue the grocery store. Clearly, there is a lot at stake for the business in each of these cases - giving away all of the business' money, closing down, or being sued are certainly not in the business' better interests. However, if we are to adhere to the tenant that "the customer is always right", we are expected to cater to these people. The gourmet Italian restaurant, for example, despite the fact that they have never delivered before, is to find a way to deliver to this particular customer, because, after all, she is "right", and her whims need to be catered to. The end result would likely manifest itself as something along the lines of that poor girl on the phone having to get in her car and drive to this customer's house, an area that she has never been to before.
          Of course, the hypothetical nature of the above scenarios allows for them to be dismissed as silly and unrealistic. "Surely", a proponent of the idea that "the customer is always right" might argue, "there actually aren't situations where the customer is abusing the principle to such a degree, though it may seem as if it is theoretically possible based on the above hypotheticals. The idea behind the notion that 'the customer is always right' is that, when discrepancies arise between, like when a customer is given the wrong size cup of coffee or purchases a defective product, the customer is entitled to a refund and, perhaps, a replacement." I am sure most people would support these latter scenarios; if one were to buy a faulty computer from an electronics store, then one should be able to return it and get a replacement. But the mindset that customers aren't abusing the principle is also blindly optimistic. Consider the piece from Emily Co on PopSugar, where she advocates going to one's local Starbucks and doing such things as paying for just a couple shots of espresso over ice, as opposed to paying for a latte, but then proceeding to the condiment bar and then emptying the entire carafe of milk into the cup to create a latte [2]. It seems readily apparent that such a move is abusing the generosity of not just Starbucks, but any coffee shop that leaves carafes on their condiment bar for customers to simply add a little of milk to their coffee. And, as a former coffee shop employee, I can attest that this is a very real, not hypothetical, scenario. But, again, there is very little that employees can do about it; it would be futile for an employee to try and confront the customer in question because, after all, "the customer is always right". (Now this is not to say that Starbucks has the best pricing for their drinks, but it should also be noted that one way that coffee shops indirectly respond to the phenomenon that Ms. Co is advocating is to raise prices). Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this phenomenon is that customers feel that they have a right to do this. Alexander Kjerulf of the Huffington Post, for example, reminds us of a particular customer of Southwest Airlines that felt like she had the right to dictate their boarding process and flight procedures (because, may I remind you, "the customer is always right") without giving pause to the prospect that, perhaps, Southwest Airlines was doing it that way for a reason [3]. In contrast to the hypothetical scenarios of the previous paragraph, these situations with Starbucks and Southwest are only two of the mountain of situations in which the principle that "the customer is always right" is invoked to justify a customer's abusive behavior, even when it works against the interests of the business itself.
          The notion that "the customer is always right" also works against the well-being of employees. As the New York Daily News reminds us, there was the case from 2013 in which a Florida woman walks into a Dunkin Donuts and goes on a tirade against the employees, supposedly for not being given a receipt from the previous night [4]. The woman video tapes the whole ordeal in an attempt to make herself out to be some kind of consumer advocate, or bring to light the "injustice" that she experienced at the hands of Dunkin Donuts employees, but, instead, the video shows the woman shouting racial slurs and physical threats at the employees, clearly stepping outside of the arena of disgruntled customer and into the realm of aggressor. And as the Internet, and Dunkin Donuts, are quick to point out, the employees remain calm during the whole ordeal, with the primary employee that the woman is dealing with giving her whatever she wants for free. Again, the employee is lauded for remaining calm during and giving this woman whatever she wants during this whole ordeal, as he should be. That said, it seems as if most people would say that what this woman is doing is nothing short of harassment and aggression, as evidenced by the quick and acute backlash she immediately received when this video was posted on the Internet. And after watching her behavior in the video, it seems as if the employees had sufficient grounds to ask the woman to leave and call the police rather than stand such harassment. But, again, "the customer is always right", and, instead of having the problem removed from the situation, businesses and employees are expected to tolerate abuse. And, in addition to the previous scenario, once more hearkening back to my time working as a barista, virtually all of the situations in this YouTube video [5] are accurate and happened on a daily basis (perhaps not all at the same time), and the barista's reaction at the end of the video pretty much sums up how having to cater to this makes one feel at the end of a shift.
          Given that this idea of "the customer is always right" works against the interests of a business and the well-being of employees, perhaps we should do away with it altogether. It should be noted that this is not meant to justify anything like the behavior of the employee in this video [6], but I am confident in suggesting that the occurrences in [6] don't happen nearly as often as those of [5] and [4]. The next logical question then becomes "how, then, are discrepancies between customers and businesses to be handled?" I believe the answer to this question is rather simple, but its implementation would prove to be daunting. Quite frankly, and as one would expect from a philosopher, the side whose view is true, or is more reasonable, should be the one that is catered to. It is reasonable for a customer to ask for a receipt if he didn't get one with his transaction, it is not reasonable for a customer to ask for a discount or a free drink because he or she had to wait in line, where waiting in line is more or less a fact of life. Accordingly, since giving a customer a discount simply because he or she didn't like waiting in line is unreasonable, an employee or a business has no obligation to honor that request. Again, this approach sounds simple enough, but its implementation is what renders it a lofty endeavor. Call me cynical or nihilistic, but asking employees, or business owners, to evaluate for themselves what the most reasonable course of action is puts far too much responsibility on their heads, responsibility far above their pay grade. As evidenced by the mountain of various social issues plaguing the US right now, as well as the attitudes of many voters, average citizens can't be trusted to make an informed decision, which is required if we were to abandon the idea that "the customer is always right". This leaves with a kind of "catch-22", since the idea that "the customer is always right", as the above paragraphs illustrate, is a horrible idea.
          That said, I would rather risk letting employees and businesses assess situation themselves as opposed to continuing the notion that "the customer is always right". I can't remember the last time that I found myself in a disagreement with a business, and, from experience, I also find that those that do end up in disagreements with a business are, most of the time, very much like the cartoon customer in [5]: rich, entitled, self-important, thinking that they are from a higher rung of society. Perhaps, if customers made reasonable requests, as opposed to being high-maintenance, then any disagreements could be avoided altogether. Or perhaps this is merely a symptom of a larger social phenemenon; after all, as Bernie Sanders points out, the American middle class is becoming more and more polarized, with the gap between higher-income workers and lower-income workers widening [7], and may not be a coincidence that those that feel inclined to preserve this principle that "the customer is always right" are those towards the upper tiers of the middle-class.
          More can certainly be said about this notion that "the customer is always right", and I think it may prove to be an interesting social experiment to try and correlate it with the income disparities in the US right now, as I hinted at in the previous paragraph. But I will save that endeavor for another time. For now, I merely wanted to introduce a challenge to the idea, an idea that is so deeply rooted in American consumerism, but at the same time seems like an extremely poor principle to operate on. I will most likely return to this challenge in the future, but I have at least expressed a couple of ways in which it is a bad idea.

          Now, as a quick point of bookkeeping, I feel as if I should give a brief overview of my blogging schedule for the rest of the year, so readers know what to expect. The holiday season is upon us, and, as most people are during this time of year, I am extremely busy between work, shopping, travel, and so on. My next entry in the blog after this one will likely be a review of The Force Awakens, and that obviously won't be until after its release next month. I also wouldn't be surprised if that were my only entry for December, though I may try to fit another one in. I have a tentative schedule for pieces after that (subject to change, of course), but, other than The Force Awakens, I expect to get back in to the full swing of things again after the new year. In the meantime, I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving and a wonderful holiday season.

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5qMRZNdlO
[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruq9rEKiEks

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review - Crimson Peak

          Ok, it's finally time to get back in to "the swing of things", so to speak. It has been some time since I have done a film review (since Ant-Man, to be exact), and October was filled with all kinds of things to keep me (and the blog) occupied, from defending the antics of Rebecca Brink to scrambling around the Starbucks Center for Hack Day. October was also the month that saw a handful of movies that, at least initially, seemed interesting; The Last Witch Hunter, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, and Crimson Peak, to be specific. I actually hadn't heard much about The Last Witch Hunter until I saw the poster for it when I went to see Ant-Man, and, other than realizing it had Vin Diesel in it, I didn't learn much more about it between then and its release. The Paranormal Activity series, on the other hand, is a series that I am familiar with, and, I will admit, is a series that I actually enjoy, despite the fact that the films consist of little more than strings of jump-scares tied together by a tissue-thin plot. And, like The Last Witch Hunter, Crimson Peak is a movie that I had never heard of until I saw the poster for it when I went to see Ant-Man. What caught my initial attention was the caption "From the director of Pan's Labyrinth and The Others".
          Between those three, it didn't take long for me to decide to do this review on Crimson Peak. The more intriguing part of the decision process is perhaps that fact that I didn't really have to do much to narrow it down; The Last Witch Hunter reportedly bombed, and, though I said that I enjoy the Paranormal Activity series, I have become more and more disenchanted with it as it has dragged on. And then compare these stats against a film by Guillermo Del Toro, a very talented filmmaker, and the choice becomes almost a no-brainer. In any case, this review will be something different for me to write, and hopefully something just as enjoyable to read, insofar as this will be a review of a horror film, in stark contrast to the action and sci-fi films I have reviewed thus far. And I have been wanting to do a review of a horror film for a while now; as a long-time fan of the genre, with a small collection of the classic black-and-whites (i.e. The House on Haunted Hill and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), I believe I at least have an idea of what it means to be a good horror film.
          I must confess that I had a handful of expectations going in to Crimson Peak, most of which were met, though I will say that I was disappointed with regard to others. The expectations I had pretty much stem from the fact that Crimson Peak was made by Guillermo Del Toro, a Mexican filmmaker that has previously showcased a large degree of artistic and fantastic talent. Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno en espanol), for example, with a pure stroke of genius, somehow managed to blur the lines between a children's fairy tale, a fantastic horror story, and an extremely violent adult war film, all presented in the Spanish language, thus adding a new dimension of fiction to Spanish-language cinema. And by no means is Del Toro's genius confined to the Spanish language. One simply need to look at Pacific Rim to see a recent English-language example of Del Toro's talent. What makes Pacific Rim particularly interesting is the fact that it pays homage to the Japanese "mecha" genre of fiction, a genre that anyone who watched cartoons as a child in the 90s, like myself, should be familiar with (Mobile Suit Gundam: Gundam Wing should ring some bells here). And it seems pretty clear that it was Del Toro's intent to pay homage to the genre, as evidenced by that fact that he casts Rinko Kikuchi, a Japanese actress, in one of the leading roles. Another aspect of Crimson Peak that led me to have the expectations that I did was the fact that Tom Hiddleston was cast into one of the leading roles. While Tom Hiddleston seems to have become one of the latest fangirl heartthrobs, much in the same way that Benedict Cumberbatch did after Star Trek Into Darkness or Joseph Gordon-Levitt after The Dark Knight Rises and Inception (and much in the same way that I predict Adam Driver will be after The Force Awakens), I actually have a degree of respect for him. Hiddleston is certainly one of the better actors in the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for his portrayal of Loki (a title really only rivaled by Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark). Add to this the fact that he has a degree in Classics from Cambridge, a field that, as I have admitted in the past, I have had a long interest in, and he commands a degree of respect from me.
          Given this background information on the "who's who" of Crimson Peak, I was already expecting something with much more depth than the other two choices. Given Del Toro's track record with art and storytelling, I knew that Crimson Peak wouldn't rely on the jump-scare gimmicks that Paranormal Activity relies on. This is not to say that Crimson Peak didn't have its moments of suspense, but, unlike Paranormal Activity, it does not use them as a crutch, so to speak (i.e. Crimson Peak doesn't rely on jump-scares as its primary driving force). And, given Hiddleston's more refined and sophisticated background, as well as Del Toro's attention to story, I also knew that Crimson Peak wasn't going to rely on the drawn-out action sequences that I imagine characterize The Last Witch Hunter, which I expect to be closer to Blade than anything Del Toro has produced. At this point, the question then becomes "what kind of horror movie is Crimson Peak?" Well, Crimson Peak is best described as a dark romance, at times invoking elements of a ghost story told around a campfire in the woods, and at other times invoking elements of suspense and mystery, akin to what you would find in The Bone Collector or Red Dragon. If one wanted to try and set Crimson Peak among literary examples, it is reminiscent of Victorian-era romanticism and the gothic novel, more akin to The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Turn of the Screw or the works of John Keats and Sheridan Le Fanu as opposed to the extreme violence, malice, and weirdness that characterize more modern entries in the horror genre, such as the works of H.P. Lovecraft or Clive Barker's The Hellbound Heart.
          Crimson Peak opens up with one Edith Cushing reminiscing on the funeral of her mother, who had died of illness when she was still a child. One cold night soon thereafter, the ghost of Edith's mother visits the child in the middle of the night and warns her to stay away from a mysterious place called "Crimson Peak", a warning that Edith would not be able to make sense of until years later. Fast forward fourteen years. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring writer in the Victorian period looking to the break the stereotype of female writers at the time by producing a ghost story as opposed to a romance novel, while her father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), is a very wealthy and successful American businessman based in Buffalo, NY. Edith finds herself working reception for her father's business one day when Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), a young English baronet, walks in with a business proposal for Mr. Cushing to invest in his invention for a machine that is supposed to revolutionize clay mining for bricks. Sharpe's business proposal is ultimately rejected by Mr. Cushing and he has no other choice but to leave empty handed, but not before catching the attention of, and more or less swooning, Edith. What unfolds after that is a blood-soaked love story between Edith and Thomas, which includes the murder of Edith's father, Edith marrying Thomas and moving to his estate in England, the very ominous demeanor of Thomas' sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), the disappearance of several women throughout Europe, and Edith's ghostly visions. And it is eventually revealed that, because the thin red clay beneath the Sharpe Estate has a tendency to stain the winter snow red, the hill that the Sharpe Estate is built on is sometimes referred to as "Crimson Peak".
          Again, there is no question that Crimson Peak is something far more sophisticated than most horror films that have been produced lately, and that it does a large number of things well. Perhaps first and foremost, Crimson Peak actually has a pretty compelling story. The references to The Bone Collector and Red Dragon that I made earlier seem pretty accurate for a handful of reasons; Crimson Peak has the elements of mystery and suspense that characterize The Bone Collector and Red Dragon, and keep one intellectually invested in the film. For example, Carter Cushing is murdered fairly early on in the film, but it is not readily apparent who did it and why. What makes this mystery particularly compelling is Del Toro's genius in its implementation; despite the fact that we are unsure who the murderer was, we are actually provided with a handful of potential suspects as well as a number of clues with regard to a motive. This gives Crimson Peak a kind of "whodunit" dimension, slightly mesmerizing in its own right, like a Sherlock Holmes novel or a game of "Clue". Yet another aspect of the film that is done well that complements this mystery element is its great character development, and, while Del Toro's writing of these characters certainly merits praise, virtually all of the actors deserve credit here, from Hiddleston to Charlie Hunnam, who plays Edith's American love interest that ultimately investigates the mysteries surround the Sharpe siblings. For example, only a half-wit would hastily arrive at the conclusion that Thomas murdered Carter Cushing; someone a little more analytical would realize that the character profile for Thomas Sharpe does not lend itself well to the manner of the murder, or even the initial motive given. Meanwhile, one has to wonder who the shady private investigator that Carter Cushing hires to snoop on the Sharpes, Mr. Holly, really is. Beyond the plot and character development, there are, of course, the overall aesthetics and artistic presentation of the set pieces, very much in Del Toro's signature style. The ghosts, for example, have the same crooked and contorted walk that characterized the child-eating "Pale Man" in Pan's Labyrinth. The hill of red clay that the Sharpe Estate is built on occasionally causes the house to ooze bright red from the walls, contrasting the cool, dark blacks and greys of the paint, sometimes even evoking the famous ending scene of The Amityville Horror. And Crimson Peak ties all of this together nicely with its own share of blood and violence, unafraid to showcase the grim circumstances driving the plot.
          However, despite all of these things that Crimson Peak does well, I would hesitate to put it in the same category as Del Toro's greater works. There are two primary things that I think the film misses the mark on, so to speak. First, even though Crimson Peak has a far more sophisticated plot than any other recent horror film, its plot is still pretty generic: a haunted house in Victorian England. Don't get me wrong; I have been a long time fan of Victorian poetry and literature (I do have an Edgar Allan Poe tattoo and Dracula still remains one of my all time favorite novels), and Victorian Britain has served as the setting of some of the most classic ghost stories. But that's the very point that works against Crimson Peak; we have plenty of Victorian ghost stories already. And while adding more of a good thing doesn't hurt, one must compare Crimson Peak to Del Toro's previous work. Perhaps this is just a kind of "artsy snobbishness" on my part, but Crimson Peak seems to lack the imagination or innovation of Pan's Labyrinth; El Laberinto del Fauno situated a very graphic children's fairly tale in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, and did it all in the Spanish language, almost single-handedly jump-starting Spanish-language horror and fantasy cinema (perhaps the biggest title in Spanish-language horror cinema at the time was [REC], and this was still a fairly obscure title until its English-language remake in Quarantine, which is still a relatively obscure title even for English-speaking audiences). Pan's Labyrinth was more or less something unheard of before, unlike Crimson Peak, which feels as if it has been done dozens of times. Even among Del Toro's English-language works, Crimson Peak lacks the innovation of Pacific Rim, which brought English-speaking audiences a live-action iteration of the Japanese "mecha" genre, which hadn't really been done before (at least, not done well). The second big point of criticism that I think can be aimed at Crimson Peak has to do with its implementation of the actual ghosts in the film. Quite frankly, it's not clear to me whether the ghosts were even a necessary part of the film. The plot could have been carried out without them and more or less have achieved the same effect. For example, as mentioned, Edith's mother's ghost makes an appearance in the first five minutes of the film and warns her to stay away from Crimson Peak, but when the time actually comes for adult Edith to heed that warning, she actually does nothing; Edith learns she is at Crimson Peak, but merely reflects on the warning for a brief moment before resuming her day to day activities. In another scene towards the end of the film, when Edith has a better understanding of who these ghosts are, she runs in to one of them in the hallway of the Sharpe Estate and asks it where she should go in order to get to the bottom of this mystery (in an almost "Scooby Doo" fashion), at which point the ghost just promptly points her down another hallway, more or less rendering the ghost as nothing more than a supernatural sign post. It is also particularly interesting that Edith seems to be the only person that can interact with them for the overwhelming majority of the film; one would imagine that an angry, vengeful ghost would seek to haunt and torment his or her murderer, but in this case the ghosts simply seem to relegate themselves to sign post status. And if one were to try and make the argument that perhaps the ghosts are figments of Edith's imagination, then such an interpretation would quickly fail; the ghosts bring about tangible effects in the world, such as slamming doors and throwing balls, things that cannot be experienced by one person alone. Yet despite this, every other character in the movie seems to be more or less oblivious to the ghosts, nor do the ghosts try to bring about anything more substantial than slamming doors.
          Overall, Crimson Peak certainly gets my recommendation, and it is, by far, one of the better horror films I have seen in a long time, but it is also not Guillermo Del Toro's best work. It is your pretty typical ghost story, set against the tried and true backdrop of Victorian England, augmented by elements of mystery and romance. However, if one is looking for something more innovative or imaginative,  a little more avant-garde than classic, then I would refer him or her elsewhere. The problem with that is that Crimson Peak is more or less the apex of horror films right now, much to my great dismay.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Photos - Starbucks Hack Day 2015

In the Field - Starbucks Hack Day 2015

          Finally, I get to write a piece more journalism-oriented than philosophical. This is to be contrasted, of course, with the various film reviews and philosophical pieces that I have done so far. In fact, it is a slight relief to finally be able to write a piece like this, insofar as I keep saying that I will do something with a journalism slant to it only to not have produced one up to this point. One of the virtues of doing a piece like this is that, insofar as it is more or less a report of something that has transpired, there will be less commentary and more explanation, which will make for a shorter piece. This is particularly so since this event wasn't that large (though nonetheless notable). Perhaps this will even be a piece that I can get done in one sitting (turns out, it wasn't). And on that note, I present my findings on Starbucks Hack Day 2015.
          This past Tuesday, October 27th, Starbucks hosted their annual Hack Day at their global headquarters in Seattle. The event was open primarily to employees, but there was, no doubt, a handful of visitors that had the opportunity to attend. And as can be implied by the previous sentence, if it wasn't made clear by my user profile or previous posts, I am a Starbucks employee based at the Starbucks Center in Seattle. I was fortunate enough to convince my supervisor to let me take a chunk of my normal shift to attend the event. I had only heard of the event a few days prior, so I still wasn't quite sure what to expect; the name of the event, for example, implied something along the lines of the DefCon or Black Hat conferences, which, as someone with a side interest in mathematics and the cyber underground, initially piqued my curiosity (this is not to say that I actually expected Starbucks Hack Day to be anything remotely close to DefCon). At the same time, the flyers for the event were done in such a way as to make the event seem more like an arts-and-crafts workshop than any kind of conference or event of that nature. In either case, I still felt like it would make for a nice topic to report on (in addition to being a nice reprieve from my usual duties that day), so I was inclined to attend nonetheless.
          The event took place in a moderately large conference hall on the 3rd floor of the Starbucks Center. Like any other convention or conference, there were booths set up where employees (internally referred to as "partners") were able to demonstrate whatever idea or innovation that they had been working on. Slightly to my disappointment, it wasn't so much of a hacking conference so much as it was a technology and innovation showcase, which is still certainly notable. Mobile apps seemed to be the overarching theme of the event, with the vast majority of the booths showing some kind of new iOS or Android application targeted at both customers and employees alike.
          The first demo I was able to take part in was called "Get Rollin'", a training application for new baristas designed by Steve Walker, Jason Stoff, and Bill McNeil. This particular application took advantage of the tilting sensor feature in iOS devices (iOS veterans may be familiar with this function from games like Naught or Zombie Highway). Essentially, this particular application constituted a game where new partners would have to carefully guide a silver ball along a path of tiles floating in space without falling off the side. The catch is that the path would occasionally fork, presenting the budding barista with a decision of which path to take, where each path in the fork would correspond to a possible answer to a Starbucks training question. Answer the question incorrectly and the path would disappear under the ball and it would be game over. In one way, there is actually the potential here for something truly immersive; somehow, either through the raw design of the aesthetics or the core gameplay concepts, I was reminded of Playstation's Intelligent Qube from 1997, which, in retrospect, was something of a work of art. At the same time, I found myself questioning the value of such an application; as someone who spent years working in restaurants and coffee shops while I was a student, the training required for such labor isn't particularly difficult or complex, so one is left to wonder to what extent such an app is really necessary. And even it does help a new employee train for their position, it seems as if it would wear out its usefulness once the employee has finished training. Ultimately, "Get Rollin'" was a great concept, and it certainly stood out from the rest of the applications on display, but perhaps the concept would better be served as a full-fledged game as opposed to being confined to a training app.
          After briefly playing around with the "Get Rollin'" app, I was ushered over to the booth for an application called "Markout!", designed by Stephen Ramirez, Nicole Tidwell, Diane Kerstein, David Gutierrez, and Zachary Camara. Again, this was another app targeted at Starbucks employees mostly for internal use, though I should say that there were some features of it that, if expanded on, would make for an interesting app for consumers. Essentially, this app functions as a reminder for employees to take advantage of their employee discounts. Pretty straightforward, though I admit that I am slightly scared to think that partners need to be reminded to take advantage of one of their most basic perks. What makes this app particularly interesting is a kind in-built stat tracker; an employee can input the information for the product that he or she used the discount for and then the app can make recommendations based on the user's habits. For example, if an employee used his or her discount to get a bag of a particular kind of dark roast, then the app uses that data to make suggestions for the following week, based on such things as roast, growing region, and so on. The data tracking portion of this app struck me as having vast potential; if it were reimagined in an app for consumers, it could potentially illustrate which of the various nuances of a coffee's flavor profile American consumers really enjoy, as well as serve as a kind of introduction into the world of coffee for the layperson.
          After getting the demo for the "Markout!" app, I continued to meander about the hall until I came to "Siren's Echo", designed by Tom Fernandez. The crowd around this booth was particularly large, and it didn't take me long to see why. This was a significant departure from the other apps on display; "Siren's Echo" showcased a kind of voice recognition software. Simply put, whatever someone would say into a microphone, the "Siren" would say back in a calm, clear woman's voice. One can't help but think of Apple's Siri technology when watching the demo. And while the technology itself was nothing new (again, Siri is, more or less, a full-fledged artificial intelligence, way more advanced than the "Siren"), it's applications struck me as the more important thing here. For example, one could image this technology replacing the headsets and baristas at a drive-thru store, more or less leaving the ordering process in the drive-thru automated. Or, more in line with Siri and the theme of mobile devices, this technology could be integrated into the mobile app for consumers, so they no longer have to navigate complex menus to place an order over the Starbucks app. It wasn't particularly clear which system architecture this software was optimized for, iOS or Android (or maybe I just missed it), but, since the increasingly ubiquitous Starbucks app is on both platforms, I would imagine that, if "Siren's Echo" develops into something bigger, it would be available on both.
          These were only three of the apps on display this past week, though these were the ones that stood out to me more, mostly for the aforementioned reasons. There was a contest at the end of the event where attendees got to vote on their favorite booth, but, for various reasons, I wasn't able to stick around to see the winner. However, this piece hopefully provides a brief glimpse into the technological developments taking place event at a company as retail and consumer-focused as Starbucks. I was also able to get some photos of the event, some of which I will attach to this post, and others I will post under the "Photography" label, marking my first foray into the intersection of writing and photography.