Sunday, July 31, 2011

Idiocracy: It's Real, and It's Right Here in America

I read an article, a short while back, about how lots of people are using Groupon and other such online coupon/discount sites...and about how a lot of the small businesses offering discounts are really disenchanted with the way it's turned out for them. For some reason, small business owners are finding that they're actually losing out, instead of increasing revenue. How can that be?

I think I have a pretty good idea.

A family-owned picture frame store with three locations in the Bay Area offered the following deal: buy a voucher worth $40 for just $20. The fine print said the voucher did not cover anything but frames, did not cover sales tax, and that there were no cash refunds or store credits. Each voucher could only be used during one store visit. Fair enough. I pounced on this. $40 worth of picture frames for $20 plus tax? Hell, yeah. I bought two vouchers because I knew I'd need picture frames in my new apartment, and nice frames are expensive.

Yesterday I went to the frame shop with one voucher, and gave the other voucher to the friend I was shopping with. All they sell at this shop are frames and frame hardware. The initial tip-off that this was going to be an exercise in ineptitude came when the sales girl announced, pretty early on, that she didn't know anything about frames or frame hardware. Take that in. She's a sales girl at a store that sells nothing but frames and frame hardware, and she KNOWS NOTHING ABOUT FRAMES OR FRAME HARDWARE. What's more, she doesn't seem to feel badly about this, or see a problem with announcing it. My friend and I are were picking out frames for original art work, not for photos, so we had very specific needs in terms of frame type, depth and such.

Without any help from her, my friend and I picked out our frames. When it came down to picking out the hardware to secure our paintings to their respective frames, she repeated that she had no idea what any of it was for, how it was used, or how to choose the right hardware for specific types of frames. She called in another guy who knew a little bit about frames and frame hardware, but not much more than my 14 yr old nephew knows. 

I picked a $30 frame. I also had a package of framing hardware that cost about $2. As per the fine print on the voucher and the terms of service I'd agreed to on Groupon, I expected to have the cost of the frame covered by the voucher, and to pay cash for the hardware and any sales tax. The sales girl stared at my voucher for a full minute, but somehow managed to NOT READ IT, because she said, "Your total isn't $40. I don't know if I can let you use this for less than $40 worth of merchandise."

I replied, "Are you joking? Of course you can. I just don't get any change back."

She said, "I don't know about that. I'll have to ask the manager."

I said, "But that's ridiculous. It's better for you if I spend the voucher on less than $40 worth of merchandise, since you don't give cash or credit back."

She didn't understand the concept and repeated, "I don't know about that. I'll have to talk to the manager."

"Well, you can't FORCE me to choose a $40 item."

"I don't know about that. I'll have to ask the manager."

She asked her manager, whose answer was, no...they would not honor the voucher is I had less than $40 worth of merchandise. I explained that I only NEEDED the $30 frame, and that I understood and was fine with the fact that I would not get change or a credit back. Impossible, I was told.....I HAD to have $40 worth of merchandise.

Ridiculous. Unbelievable. My friend passed me a cheap, little frame that I don't really NEED, just to make up the difference. The idiot sales girl then proceeded to include the big frame, the small frame, the hardware and tax in the $40 voucher. She triumphantly announced that I'd gone over the $40 voucher and owed them $1.10. 

Again, take that in. She considered it a victory that I had to pay $1.10 in cash. She, and her manager, think they did a great thing for their shop by forcing me to pay $21.10 ($1.10 in cash, and a voucher I paid $20 for) for $40 worth of goods. They don't understand that they should have let me pay $20 for a $30 frame, and pay for the hardware and sales tax in cash. At the end of the day, not only did they force me to pay less for more stuff, but they paid Groupon a service fee for the privilege. I got $40 worth of goods and they got $21.10, minus Groupon fees. Unless their regular mark-up is 50% (and it isn't - it's actually a very reasonably-priced shop) this transaction COST THEM MONEY.

Small businesses may be pissed off at Groupon, but they need to look to their own ineptness before laying the blame on this whole online coupon thing not working in their favor. 

For one thing, how the hell can a small business afford to offer several thousand 50%-off vouchers? Sears can do that. Target can do that. A small, family-owned, niche business cannot reasonably expect to do that and still turn a profit - especially not when they're paying a service such as Groupon to administer their discounts. I might walk in to Target with a 50% off coupon good for clothing, buy some PJs, and then end up spending another $75 in cash on groceries, toiletries, cleaning supplies, or whatever. But this is a frame shop. They sell only frames. I highly doubt people walk in, use their $40 voucher and then decide, "OMG...I need $600 worth of frames and I need it NOW!"

For another thing, how the hell does a business offer a deal without being well-versed in their own terms of service? I ended up paying only a small portion of the sales tax on this purchase, because the stupid sales girl included the tax in the voucher. A voucher is NOT MONEY. This store is going to have a hell of a lot of fun when it comes time to balance their books and reconcile their accounts for the IRS, because they're essentially NOT CHARGING SALES TAX FOR PEOPLE WHO USE VOUCHERS. The IRS will want that money, and guess who'll have to cough it up? The stupid frame store owner. 

America is in a financial crisis. It makes a lot of sense to point to federal and state policies, corruption in government, and politicians from both major parties who don't give a damn about the average working man. On the other hand, business owners - especially small business owners - need to step up their game. Complaining to the Wall Street Journal that they feel duped by Groupon won't do. I'm guessing a lot of these business owners who are disenchanted figured they could offer and get paid up front for big discounts, and that most consumers would never actually use their Groupon vouchers. That's more than just dumb - its damned greedy. I don't hope the store where I had this experience fails, but I won't be shocked if it does. And, if it does, it can't blamed on a poor economy or TPTB in Washington DC or Sacramento. It'll be because the owner is both stupid and greedy - a dangerous combination.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Blog for Access - July 26th, Anniversary of the ADA

When my mother passed away, my father, sister and I went about the business of going through her stuff. Some of it we wanted for ourselves, or to pass down to the grandkids. Some of her things, though, were carted off to places such as The Lighthouse for the Blind, or Hospice or other charities. Things like electronic screen readers, books on CD, talking timepieces, a power wheelchair, and all sorts of Assistive Technology.

Ma was lucky: she had really great insurance that covered the costs most of this equipment. Or rather, she was lucky AND smart: when she retired, she devoted a chunk of her retirement savings to pay for insurance for life. Most people don't have this option. I thank God my mother did. It made it possible for her to be as comfortable as possible when her multiple disabilities caused her pain, took away her eyesight, and compromised her mobility. The fact that she had excellent coverage also meant she was able to live in her own home, right until the end. Without ramps, rails, and a bunch of other devices that made her home easy to maneuver, there's no way my mother could have stayed at home. 

When we talk about access in regards to disabilities, we most often talk about physical access. The ramps and rails were great. The screen readers and talking machines were great. But those items can only be useful if they're accessible. And, by this I mean that they're great for people who can afford them or whose insurance helps them defray the costs, but more of a pipe dream for people who can't. This is a whole other type of access that people with disabilities have to deal with every day: the AT exists, and it can make the world more accessible, but some of it is exorbitantly expensive. It's only useful to people if they can actually get their hands on it.

The very tools that have been designed to provide greater access are not financially accessible to most Americans.

I remember talking to the social worker at the dialysis center where my mother had treatment four times a week. He told me that my mother wasn't like other patients he dealt with. She had great insurance, he explained, and great insurance gave her options. Most of the people he saw had little or no insurance, or relied on Medicaid or Medicare. I was shocked to find out that several of the regular dialysis patients were homeless, and living out of a tent city set up by the town council. The federal government guaranteed them access to dialysis treatment, but little else. Even if they were able to find affordable housing, the chances of being able to modify that housing to make it accessible was next to nil. For these people, there are few, if any, choices about independent, community-based living.

So, when Ma passed away, we packed up most of her AT, and donated it to different charities where other people with disabilities could make use of it. Some it was practical stuff: items to help people get dressed or read or tell time or get around. Other things were just for living life: tactile and large print board games and playing cards, a giant remote control, a wide selection of books on tape and CD. It felt good to pass those things along - to provide access to a few people. But it's not the answer. We need to work, as a country, to make not just emergency healthcare something that every person can access, but to make accessible the basic things people with disabilities need in order to truly have options they can explore.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Bad Science

"It's a choice!" you'll hear. Homosexuality is a choice, a lifestyle entered into by conscious decision. This what those who oppose same-sex marriage and full civil rights for gays and lesbians say. Homosexuals aren't and shouldn't be a protected class, they say, because homosexuality is not a genetically determined trait such as race or gender.

In their zeal to deny others of their rights, and to hold on to as much power, themselves, as they possibly can, the far right points to science. Many of the same people who poo-poo science when it comes to evolution vs. creation theory suddenly look to science as the be-all and end-all that they hinge their anti-homosexual agenda on. The problem is, the science they're pointing to isn't science, at all. It's pseudo-science. It has nothing to do with scientific investigation, controlled study, or hard evidence. It's quackery that amounts to taking select bits and pieces of scientific theory, mixing that in with large doses of religion and personal ethos, and calling it SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE.

The Myths

"The only natural sexual inclination involves males being attracted to females, and females being attracted to males."

Homosexuality and bisexuality occur all the time in the natural world. Animals such as chimpanzees, whales, dolphins, penguins, walruses, bison and some species of reptiles, to name a few examples of the close to 1500 species where homosexuality has been observed by scientists. Last I checked, bison and walruses weren't being induced or pressured into a gay lifestyle. Animals act on instinct. Outside forces play no part in bisexual and homosexual activity in the animal world, the natural world.

"Sexual activity is strictly a function driven by the urge to reproduce and preserve the species, therefore homosexuality must logically be a choice." 

One of the driving factors of human sexuality is almost certainly reproduction, but it isn't the only one. If it were, human beings would only feel the urge for sex when and if their bodies were capable of successful procreation. If it were, no one would ever masturbate or feel the need to masturbate. If it were, men with low sperm counts would have zero sex drive. If it were, no pregnant woman would ever have sexual urges - why would she? If it were, people who didn't want to have kids would have no sex drive. The truth is, human sexuality is a complex phenomenon that has several driving factors and which serves many purposes. Procreation is just one of them.

"Homosexuality is a learned behavior, and people become homosexual because of images of homosexuality they're exposed to in the media. Since it can be learned, it can be unlearned."

A child raised in a traditional household, by a mother and a father, can identify as homosexual, without even knowing what homosexuality entails and without exposure to homosexuality in the media or in real life. It happens all the time. In fact, that's the background story of most homosexuals I know. Homosexuality occurs in all cultures, including those without mass media and those where any images of homosexuality are strictly forbidden. Homosexuality predates the Internet. It predates Tom of Finland and Sarah Waters. It predates the printing press and mass literacy.

"Homosexuality is curable."

In order for something to be curable, it has to be an illness, a disease. Homosexuality is not a disease or a disorder. This is not just my opinion as a lesbian. Every major mental health organization in the country, including the American Psychological Association, has stated that homosexuality is not an illness or disease. So has the World Health Organization. Real science says homosexuality is not a disease. If it's not a disease, there can't be a cure. If it's not a disease - and it isn't - only a fool would look for a cure.

"Homosexuality isn't even learned - it's a conscious choice. People who engage in homosexual sex just need to choose to be heterosexual by engaging in heterosexual sex."

Sexuality is about a lot more than the mere sex act. A celibate heterosexual is still a heterosexual, and the same holds true for a homosexual. A person can and may choose how to behave and what to do, but no human being can choose his or her sexuality. Who would choose homosexuality in a country where homosexuals are denied their civil rights, face discrimination at every pass, are mocked in the media, and are often shunned by their families? If it were a choice, why would anyone living in a country such as Iran or Yemen, where homosexuality is punishable by death, choose to be homosexual? 

There are lots of homosexuals who live what we think of as heterosexual lives. I'm talking about men with wives and children who, when they feel safe that no one is watching, engage in sex with other men. They can't help it. Because, at their core, they're gay. They just aren't brave enough to embrace this reality, so they settle for gay sex on the DL and a straight life for their public personas. As recent history has shown, it's not uncommon for some of the very people who use bad science and spew bullshit theories about the curability of homosexuality to be nothing more than cowardly, self-loathing homosexuals. Hey, I'm not making this up. The Hall of Shame includes:

George Rekers
Pastor Eddie Long
Troy King
Richard Curtis
Ted Haggard
Glenn Murphy Jr.
David Dreier
Bruce Barclay
Roy Ashburn
Jim West

The Truth

The truth is, people who use bad science to defend the denial of basic civil rights to homosexuals are scared to death that their tenuous grasp on power is weakening. This is not new. It happened in regards to blacks, Native Americans, Jews, women, people with disabilities, etc. In 2011, we know better than to believe that Africans are genetically inferior to Europeans. We know that Native Americans aren't "savages." We know Jews do, indeed, bleed when we prick them. We know that it would be outrageous to deny women the vote. We acknowledge that people with disabilities have as much right to live in the world, and have access to public spaces, as the rest of us. In 2011, it high time bad science be kicked to the curb and homosexuals be granted our civil rights.