Fogging for Veeps

June 23, 2008

The air conditioner on my less than vintage 1993 Pontiac Bonneville doesn’t. Actually it does . . . condition the air, that is; but for wintertime, not Georgia summer. So I cool off in the car the old fashioned way by rolling down the windows. The electric windows do work on the “old man mobile,” as the car has been dubbed by my children. With the windows down and cruising at 65 mph, one can enjoy the full effect of 95% humidity in Middle Georgia.

My children will not ride in the car. “It smells bad, It’s ugly, it doesn’t have air conditioning,” they say. They’re right about the smell and the air conditioning. I always liked the lines of the old beast. And the smell is quite bearable at 65 mph on the Interstate with the warm and humid air streaming in and the radio blasting through the one remaining speaker that isn’t cracked.

It’s a 30 minute drive from AlphaGraphics to home in Perry. The strategy is simple. Hit the Interstate and cruise. It works most days, but not today. Today was Monday. I could tell that it was Monday even early this morning, when no one showed up for the 8:00 am morning meeting but me. Monday struck again when I looked at the brochure that one of our pressmen struggled with for half a day on Saturday. It was supposed to be gray. Instead it was blue on one side and purple on the other. Monday occurred again on the wide format printer, which managed to turn a very deep black into chocolate brown. And Monday lambasted me on the way home.

It’s not unusual to encounter Georgia State Patrol cars on the medians as one drives south on I-75. At certain times of the year, they undertake revenue enhancement on behalf of Govnah Sunny, who has actually run a pretty tight financial ship during his tenure in office. Today they were out in force, positioned at almost every mile marker between Warner Robins and Perry.

“Something’s up,” I thought, but it really wasn’t a problem for me. You can’t speed in the Bonneville with the windows open, no matter how hard you may try. The noise is prohibitive and it really just doesn’t want to go that fast. And if you move too fast, the air in the car cools down just enough for clouds to form and it rains in the back seat, which explains both the interesting fungi and the smell.

I knew it was Monday once again when I pulled off at the Perry Exit and was stopped on the ramp by another State Patrol car. An assault helicopter circled above as we came to a dead stop. I could see another patrol car on the other side of the bridge. They had cordoned off the exit, and I was stuck in the cordon.

A newer model Chevrolet pulled up next to me with a younger woman driving. She had the windows down, too. She looked at me and I at her and we both shrugged. “AC broken?” I asked.

“Nope,” she replied. “Just about out of gas. What’s going on?”

The speaker on the patrol car ahead of us barked, “We’ve got him at the convenience store.”

“Manhunt,” I yelled through the window. “Must be somebody really dangerous to shut down the exit like this. You might want to roll up your window and lock your doors.”

“Nobody’s that dangerous,” she replied. I agreed.

We sat and sweated for 5 minutes or so. I decided to call Beautiful Wife, who usually knows mostly everything that’s going on. “Oh, no!” said Beautiful Wife, “it’s not a manhunt, it’s Cheney. He’s going to eat with the Davidsons.” She commiserated with me briefly and explained that a wealthy couple outside of town was hosting the VP for a dinner and soiree this evening. The VP’s route would probably take him past my exit, explaining why I was sweltering in the Pontiac and the young lady next to me was wondering whether she had enough gas to get to the station when she cranked her car once again.

Then we spotted the entourage. A group of large, black SUV’s with illegally tinted windows. It was either Cheney or the leader of one of the United Arab Emirates. Either way, they certainly were not concerned with fuel prices or oil shortages. There wasn’t a car in the entourage that would get over 10 mpg.

Somewhere in one of the ponderous black monstrosities sat Vice President Cheney in cool air conditioning and probably sipping an iced beverage. I was underwhelmed. The young lady in the Chevrolet wasn’t impressed either.

“I’m voting for Obama,” she yelled through the window as she moved up the hill towards the gas station.

“Monday,” I thought, and headed for home, hoping beyond hope that it was over. I didn’t here the whine until the last intersection before my street. The truck zoomed past, fogging me with malathion through the open windows of the Bonneville. I reminded myself that I’ve given up cussing, said a short prayer, and rolled up the windows. The temperature immediately rose another 10 degrees and it started raining in the back seat as I drove in the fog behind the pesticide truck up my street and pulled into my driveway.

The fog settled as I opened the car door and I realized that the combination of pesticide and heat was causing me to hallucinate. I was seeing Vice President Cheney’s motorcade once again and driving in front of the largest SUV was the malathion truck, fogging away.

Happy Monday, Vice President Cheney!

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If I don’t break it, it shouldn’t have to be fixed.

May 21, 2008

Prerequisite to success in the printing business is a deep and abiding love for gadgetry. Most of us just can’t resist the urge to buy a new machine from time to time. We do intensive study prior to each purchase, calculating the ROI (Return on investment for you non-business types) at least a dozen different ways until we concoct a way to reach the conclusion we need to justify the purchase.

We listen carefully to the claims of the salesperson, promises of enhanced productivity, low maintenance and capabilities beyond our wildest dreams . . . and we believe them all for at least a week after the machine arrives. And then reality sets in . . .

We have a large digital color machine manufactured by a company whose name begins and ends with “X.” It employs fancy electrostatic devices called “charge coretrons” that have something to do with getting the toner to adhere to a belt that ultimately transfers it to paper where it is finally fused into a semi-permanent state of um . . . printedness. We have, over the course of our ownership of this machine, noticed certain problems that occur when these grandiloquent devices malfunction; problems that generally are ameliorated when the component is replaced.

There are two authorized means of obtaining the “charge coretron.” One may call either the “parts” or “supplies” department of the palindromatic company. Contact with both departments is enabled by toll free numbers that connect the caller to specially trained customer service personnel located either in Islamadehli or Pakalaysia (see my former diatribe Outsourcing). At either number, one may reach a helpful person named Dan who, after receiving the part number, will search his database for 10 minutes and then tell you that you have called the wrong department, and that you should spend an equal or greater amount of time with the other department in order that another Dan might tell you to call the first department once again.

Brian, our production manager, was actually brave enough to call the first Dan a second time. He carefully repeated the part number (alpha delta bravo zed seven niner nought dash C3PO) seventeen times until Dan had it down correctly (and could sing it in A minor). We waited as Dan conducted a super-extensive search for our critical part. We were put on hold briefly and listened to The Mamas and the Papas accompanied by a sitar on Islamadehli’s light rock station. And then we received the authoritative answer.

“Your machine does not use that part,” said Dan. “It is not required. The machine will run perfectly well without it.”

Unfortunately, this did not play out well in our actual experience. Trusting in Dan’s confident response, we removed all of the charge coretron devices from the machine, toggled the machine on and submitted a file for printing. It didn’t.

Printers are practical people . . . when our exasperation with a machine surpasses our desire to fool with it, we call the repair folks. Luckily for us, our regional service person, who covers a territory roughly the size of the American West, happened to be within 20 miles of us. Her name begins with a “D.” She is actually very capable, pleasant to deal with, and doesn’t understand her own company any better than we do.

She also has the “magic number” that allows her to speak with people whose names are not Dan and who have actually seen and worked on the machine in question. After a brief but thorough diagnosis of our machine, our technical service person determined that the machine was not running because we had removed the aforementioned critical key components. She replaced them, found one of them faulty and was able to order a replacement by dialing another “magic number.”

Naturally, we did ask if we could obtain the “magic numbers” for our own use in procuring replacement parts for our machine. “D” apologized demurely, explaining that multiple years of training and a high level security clearance were required before such intelligence was authorized; and besides we’d need a special Maxwell Smart shoe phone with an identity chip to tell the folks on the other end that it was OK to answer the phone and talk with us.

“It’s best you don’t break the machine,” she said as she packed up her tool kit to leave.

“So, I replied, “if I don’t break it, it shouldn’t have to be fixed.”

“Right,” she said with a smirk, then turned in the doorway. “But if you get into trouble, call Dan.”

Here’s a video featuring one of my heros, Rube Goldberg. I found the clip on YouTube. It’s almost 70 years old, but it’s still very relevant. It’ll help you understand machines and companies like the palindromatic “X” company that invent them:


The Smell of Trouble

April 17, 2008

It must have been payback for all of my ranting about the end of elegant design (see the last post If Counterfeiters are dinosaurs . . .). I had received a call from a perfectly normal sounding professional type person a couple of days before. He was starting a new operation in Macon and needed “the package” – letterhead, envelopes, business cards, etc. These kinds of calls are usually good news for a printer. If you get the first batch of business, you usually get the reorders and maybe a brochure and some other stuff. All of the layouts were done, he’d have his designer get in touch with the specs.

Shortly thereafter, the specifications appeared by email, including all of the usual stuff with a request for estimates on 2 color and 3 color versions of everything. It could have been the request for 3 color envelopes that caused my printer’s antennae to elevate or maybe it was something in the look or the language of the request. I don’t know, but I put the request down with the intent of calling the designer to get a look at the art before I put together numbers.

Designer is a very broad and general descriptive term, you must understand. It’s definition can encompass the entire scope between Joe and his color crayons and Andy Warhol. Anyone can call themselves a graphic designer, but few earn the title; and even fewer really understand the technical aspects of design. And despite the assertions (and tuitions) of the best art institutes, Poor Richard asserts that great designers are not really trained. They’re born with it. The best ones have an innate sense of artistic balance and color and they soak up the technical stuff like a sponge.

I received the art with a request for samples of work that we had done. The antennae went up a little further. When I opened the .pdf file, the yellow warning lights at the end of the antennae began to flash. It’s not that the art wasn’t good . . . actually the design was elegant and clean. But the color combination was two grays and a red. This was a designer who was busily spending his clients’ money, because he could get away with it.

Offset printing of three spot colors is really one of the least efficient things that occurs in a printshop. The printer has a couple of options. If the registration between the colors is not tight, the printer may choose to run two passes on a 2 color press. The colors that register will run on the first pass, followed by the single color that does not. Alternately, the printer may choose to load up mixed ink on a 4 color press. Digital printing is not an option for letterhead, which is likely to be run again through a laser printer or a toner device. Reheating the toner on the letterhead can make a terrific mess. And envelopes are another problem. Most small presses will run envelopes and register 2 colors. If all three colors register, either the envelopes must be printed on a special press or the sheets are printed before the envelope is manufactured (or “converted” in printereze).

Take as an example, this less than skillfully conceived logo for Impending Disaster Design Group:

Logo #1

If three colors are needed, this is the economical way to do it. This logo will require two passes through a press, but only the light blue and the teal register. The gold can be added in in a second pass. Most printers will even be able to print an envelope with this logo. The lightning bolt is likely to misregister just a little bit, but it won’t be noticeable to the mail recipient, who, after all is only seeing one envelope at a time.

This version of the logo is a little more problematic. Because the light blue, the teal, and the gold all register (touch), it’s going to be nearly impossible to run this logo on a small 2 color press. The best option for this version is to run it on a 4 color press, but that means incurring more expense in setup and cleanup before and after the job. Most printers are reluctant to run 500 sheets of letterhead on a larger press, so the price for small quantities is going to be a little steep.

Another option is to convert the logo to process color. Even though process color adds an ink, this may be a more economical option. The printer is probably running process inks on his larger press (or on a DI press), so special setup and washup may be unnecessary. There is a but here, though. Converting the colors from spot to CMYK means a loss of color integrity. Because process color combines screens from 4 inks to give the impression of color (see Color Separation . . . Whadd’ya Mean?), it will differ from mixed (i.e. spot) inks where the color comes from the ink pigments themselves.

The art I received from the elegant designer was more like this. The logo was admittedly a lot less garish, and actually only 2 colors registered, but the net effect was the same. The designer used two grays – one “warm” and one “cool.” The grays are actually mixed inks, with formulas in every printer’s Pantone book. Without exception, press operators hate these colors. The gray is achieved by mixing several inks (usually a heavy load of white ink with dabs of black and either a red or blue). The measurements must be very exact to achieve the correct color. It’s not easy to mix the colors correctly the first time and if you miss the first time, it’s almost impossible to get them to match when it’s time to run the project again. Succinctly put, the PITA factor for this job is high, and the customer will pay extra for it.

Now, it is not often that Poor Richard is encouraged by his customers to charge more for a job that can be done a better way. The same logo could be produced in 2 colors (gold and black or gold and a mixed gray), using different screens of the black or gray to produce nearly the same effect. True, it would be more difficult to differentiate between the “cool” gray and the “warm” gray, but the cost would be much less and the job more easy to replicate when the reprint comes around.

Admittedly, printers tend to be of a practical bent. Poor Richard is totally unqualified to weigh the aesthetic value of a logo that uses two gray inks against one with only one gray ink.  I can see it very clearly in economic terms, though, and say without reservation that approximately exactly 97.644 percent of the recipients of the letterhead and envelopes will never notice a difference.  In other words, there is no “bang for the buck.”

I’m playing along for now.  We’ve done some pretty elegant printing over the years for some very fine designers. I’ve even sent a few samples by mail. Somehow, though, I’m just not sure that I want to pass muster.  Some jobs just have the smell of trouble, and this one is a little fragrant.


Outsourcing

January 28, 2008

I haven’t told the rest of the team yet, but in 2 weeks I’m going to lay them all off. I’ve found this great company in Indolaysia (or was it Pakinesia?) that is going to handle all of our print projects for just a fraction of what it costs me to do them in house. As I understand it, all I have to do is make deliveries and collect the money from our customers.

AlphaGraphics' New Customer Service StaffThey’ll even handle customer service for me. The company has a call center in Islamadehli staffed with approximately nearly 7,632 people who are all named Danny (pictured at left). When my customers call, Danny will answer their questions and take their orders. If they have a problem, Danny can choose from one of approximately nearly 367 standard answers which may or may not apply to the problem my customer has, but most assuredly will apply at some instance to a problem that my customer may have at a future time.

Once the order is placed, it will be produced at a factory in China. A wee, small amount of lead will be added for flavoring, and it will be shipped via container ship back here to Macon. As I understand it, lead times will extend just a little bit, but the price advantage will certainly make this acceptable, even preferable to my customers.

Design will also be handled by my Indolaysian partner. In fact, we’re going to be using the same design center that the Macon Telegraph (see Telegraph to outsource part of ad production team ) will be using to design their display ads. It is located in Jakartombay. All of the graphic designers there are named Judy and they speak and write perfectly grammatical English as a second language.

I’ll miss all of the nice people who work at AlphaGraphics, but I won’t worry about them too much. As all of the jobs are shipped offshore, they’ll reconsider their need to earn a living. For a while, our government will support them, but eventually they’ll be content with the wages paid in Indolaysia and we’ll be able to operate call centers here for those filthy capitalists in China.

Thanks to McLatchy newpapers and to Pete, Andy and Patsy of the excellent American Express Travel Related Services customer service team in Calcutta for their inspiration. I’m going to send them all a new pair of Chinese made tennis shoes from Wal-Mart for their contribution to AlphaGraphics’ success!


Oprah Spotting

November 18, 2007

As beautiful wife and I left one of our favorite lunchtime haunts on Cherry Street Thursday, we noticed a well-dressed young man hurrying down the street toward us. By my guess he was a professional, in coat and tie, with an expectant and excited shine in his eyes.

“What’s the rush?” I queried.

He smiled nervously and replied, “It’s Oprah. She’s going to eat at the NuWay. Have you seen her yet?”244winfreyoprah091906.jpg

It was more that a little crazy in Macon the end of the last week. Oprah Winfrey taped a show here and the presence of such an electrifying personality in our city had the immediate effect of shorting out the synapses of a large part of the population.

“Ma’am, all you have to do to approve the proof is reply to the email,” Brian was saying into his headset as we returned to the shop. “Just type ‘OK to Print’ and reply,” he continued to an obviously confused customer.

“The reply button,” he continued, “on the email. It’s the button that says ‘Reply.’ ” Brian’s perpetually patient good humor was flagging a little. “Yes, that will send an email back to me. I’m the one that sent the proof to you. We’ll print your project when we receive your approval.”

He listened patiently, rolling his eyes. “Yes, ma’am, you can print it out and sign it, but that will mean you’ll have to use the print button and the fax machine.”

I knew that there was a full scale disruption of the magnetic field in Middle Georgia when I caught a snippet of Sharon’s conversation later in the afternoon. Sharon, our salesperson, was answering questions from one of her customers. She’s not always as diplomatic as Brian and seethed a light expletive under her breath after she finished the call.

“What?” I asked.

“I can’t believe what she just asked me,” was the response. “She wanted to know how many envelopes were in a box of 500.”

The crew took off early and I was at the front counter when one of our favorite designers came in with a camera and a sly smile on her face.

“And what are you doing?” I asked of her.

“Ostensibly, I’m on a photo shoot,” she returned with a slightly deranged expression on her face. Then she whispered, “In actuality I’ve been Oprah spotting!”

Thanks for coming to Macon, Oprah! Now we know why California is so crazy!


Slight to Moderate Desperation

June 4, 2007

The printshop is moving . . . on Thursday

Beautiful wife says that I went through my midlife crisis when I started up the printshop. I didn’t chase women, go on drinking binges, disappear to an exotic Third World country, or go postal and blow something up. I bought an AlphaGraphics franchise.

I’m not so sure. For the last nine years, we’ve run the business. It’s been relatively successful. We haven’t become opulently rich, but we’re not starving either. And we’ve had some great customers, wonderful folks who have worked with us and cool opportunities to get involved with all kinds of projects, people and organizations. In balance, I’ve really loved it.
So why did I want to move?

Now that moving day is here, I’m just not sure. The photo above is our new location, enhanced more than just a little bit in Photoshop. It’s nice inside, but it still looks like a disaster from the street. When we began the project last August, the contractor (who is really a pretty good guy) said, “six months construction, no problem.” In February, he said “move in May, no problem.” When we set a move date of June 1, he said, “it’ll all be ready.”

We’re moving on June 7 and there’s still a lake out the back door, concrete to be poured, flooring to go down, and the telephone folks have gone non compis mentis. I’m not sure what part of our need for telephone and internet service that they don’t understand, but they aren’t on any schedule that I can ascertain. Neither screaming nor encouragement seems to have any effect on them at all. They’re oblivious.

Our existing shop is a shambles; and of course we’re busy for the first time this year. We’ve got two large programs and a nice brochure to get off the presses and through bindery before we move. Luckily, the team is functioning well. The owner, on the other hand, is walking around like a dazed zombie. At this point, I’ve got lists of lists to check on. Lots is getting done, but I’m spending time wondering what I’ve forgotten.

This feels a lot like a mid-life crisis. At 47, I might be a little old for this kind of trauma, but I’ll confess to a more than occasional feeling of slight to moderate desperation. The thought, “what in the world was I thinking?” crosses my mind on an hourly basis. My dreams have revolved around deciding not to quit the job I left 10 years ago and I wake up wondering if it’s not too late to ask for it back.

Nonetheless, we’re moving. Into a building in downtown Macon. A big building. A big building that needs to get finished. Across from the Poplar Street park with the fountain that looks like a toilet overflowing. And from the locals who sit in the park and drink beer by the bottle from the Poplar Mart across the street. They are colorful. They use colorful language. I’m going to buy them colorful toy boats and rubber ducks to play with. They can float them in the fountain that looks like a toilet bowl overflowing.

I’m going to do this because it sounds like something a delusional 47-year old owner of a moderately successful printshop would do to go along with his second deranged mid-life crisis.

Life is still grand . . . did I remember to check on the water heater?


Big Pig Update

June 2, 2007

Curiouser and Curioser . . .

Eldest daughter sent a link with a different slant on the big pig story (See Just In Case You Missed It ). It seems that the pig had a name, and it wasn’t Grendel after all. Fred, the pig, was domesticated. The image of young Jamison pursuing the feral pig through dangerous Alabama swampland wasn’t exactly accurate, either. Fred the pig was shot in a fenced in hunting preserve.

Here is a quote from the Atlanta Constitution with Fred’s previous owners’ take on the story:

“From his treats of canned sweet potatoes to how their grandchildren would play with him, their stories painted the picture of a gentle giant. They even talked about how their small Chihuahua would get in the pen with him and come out unscathed.”

Read the whole story at AJC .

Isn’t life grand?