Amazon Is Stupid

I found out from a guy I follow on Twitter (the excellent Chicago Sun-Times general columnist Neil Steinberg, for the record) that Mark Kurlansky, one of my favorite non-fiction writers, has a new book out.

This post isn’t about that book, although I’m gonna burn a graf or two here on a recommendation; the new book is called Milk!: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas, and I’m recommending it even though I haven’t read it yet and it doesn’t even come out for a few more weeks. Why? Well, because I read his prior books, Cod, Paper, and Salt, and greatly enjoyed each of them.

In case you can’t tell by the titles, he picks a single thing that is immensely important to human history and development, and then writes about the how and why of that importance. He’s a great writer, finding ways to work in all sorts of fascinating and interesting little human vignettes into these long-arc stories of the history of physical things. The books are highly entertaining, and I’ve learned a shitload I didn’t know about the topics from them. Go buy them.

That said, I want to bitch about, well… how I found out about this book.

You see… I’ve been an Amazon customer (don’t get me started on their evilness and how much Bezos sucks; they are, he does, but there’s no such thing as ethical consumption under Capitalism so it is what it is) since they were still just an amazing online bookstore. My first purchase there was in 1998 and, natch, it was a book.

I’ve since bought, let’s see… checks Amazon account

Jesus Christ.

I’ve bought, um, five hundred and fucking seventy books on Amazon since then.

Sure, some were gifts, but most of them were for me, me, me. There’s also been at least a few hundred books I didn’t buy on Amazon as well, given that I blew a few paychecks a year at Borders until they closed, and also was a steady user of the Chicago Public Library throughout this period, too. But, point being: Amazon has 570 points of fucking data on me regarding what kinds of books I buy, who my favorite authors are, etc… they have thousands of points of data on me if they’re tracking which books I’ve added to wishlists but not bought, which books I’ve spent time looking at the store pages of but then neither bought nor wish-listed, etc… and I’m sure they ARE tracking that data, too.

I bought each of the three Kurlansky books I’ve read previously through Amazon as well, just to be clear.

And yet… in no way, shape, or form, did Amazon figure out a way to say “hey smr, that guy you’ve bought all of his previous books from from us, usually immediately when they come out? He’s got a new one coming soon; interested?”.

This has happened recently with other authors, too. Authors I love, whom I’ve bought tons of books from Amazon by, and they have huge, important new works come out and I find out about them via sheer happenstance because Amazon’s algorithms are apparently as smart as a three-year old on a sugar high who just got kicked in the soft spot of the skull.

This seems kind of insane to me. Everybody touts these algorithms, that Amazon and Google and whoever can predict what we want before we even fuckin’ want it, yet the most reliable ads I get from them are, like, for toilet seats but only after I JUST FUCKIN’ BOUGHT ONE and in complete ignorance of the fact that modal number of toilet seats an individual purchaser on Amazon probably buys per decade is without a doubt: one.

You have way north of 50% of the data on my book purchases for the last two decades. You also own Goodreads, which I’ve been fairly well-integrated with for years, too. You know exactly how much and how quickly I’ve read each of these fucking books, because I read them in your apps or on your e-reader. So you know if I’ve punted on a given book after 20 pages, or if I’ve devoured a given author’s huge door-stopping brick of a book in a frankly embarrassingly short period of time right after it comes out.

In short: YOU KNOW WHAT BOOKS I LIKE, AMAZON.

So why in the fuck don’t I get an email or something from you, or a prominent ad or placement on your website during my basically weekly visit to the book part of your website telling me that this guy has a new book dropping very soon?

You’ll happily show me books by authors I’ve never read before but who’ve written books even vaguely related to subjects I have read books about before.

You’re MOST likely to show six books on exactly the same exceedingly narrow topic I just finished a book about, even though you have my ENTIRE ADULT READING HISTORY and therefore could easily determine that one thing I don’t do, ever, is read two books about basically the same topic back to back, ever, ever, EVER. That’s NOT HOW I READ. AND YOU KNOW THIS ABOUT ME.  As much as I may love the topic of Roman governorship during the Principate era, nobody who ain’t paid professionally to study that shit is gonna read TWO books on that topic in the same year. Yet the most prominent placement I get when I go to the History Books section of your website while I’m reading a book on that exact topic will be six more books on the exact same goddamned thing.

But a brand-new book from a guy whose every other book I’ve bought the instant it came out and read basically immediately in a very short period of time? All of which are facts you have in your data about me?

THAT book, you never tell me about.

Apple Music figured this out, and I haven’t been using that service even a year yet. Every week I get an email that basically says “you have albums by these artists in your library, and they all have new shit out this week. Click here to get it, enjoy”, and it’s sorted with the artists I have the most of and listen to the most upfront.

But this is somehow beyond Amazon. The closest they can get is “hey man, you bought a mattress last week, want six more right now? Are you sure? Are you SURE SURE?!?!?!? Okay, that’s cool, don’t buy one now, but we’re going to show you nothing but mattress ads across the entire internet for the next, say, oh, six weeks. That cool? Cool”.

I don’t get it.

Nationalize Facebook

This Cambridge Analytica brouhaha is finally waking some people up to the idea that Facebook, in its current form, is probably a Bad Thing. This realization is GOOD, but I don’t think the assumed follow-up of: “delete my Facebook/shut Facebook down” is the best possible one. I say this because, whether or not anyone admits it, there ARE things people like about Facebook. Let’s tally them up:

  • Staying in touch with friends, family (many of whom we otherwise wouldn’t keep up with at all)
  • Getting the news (well, that it gets people to read news who otherwise wouldn’t at all is a good thing. The KIND of news they’re reading is mostly bad; more on that later)
  • Seeing funny videos (let’s be honest; this is what most of us are on the platform for, and that’s a fine END but FB as its constituted today is a terrible MEANS for this purpose. That can be changed; more on that later as well)
  • The dopamine hit of getting likes on our own posted content (we’re all whores for the likes, and I don’t expect anyone to apologize for or bemoan that fact)

What’s bad about FB:

  • The ads (some are useful, most aren’t, and it leads to the following bullet, which is much, MUCH worse)
  • The invasion of privacy that leads to our FB activity being turned into a ridiculously micro-tuned and precise profile of who we are and what we like that is then sold off to advertisers in a fashion we, the end user, have absolutely no visibility into, much less control over (and the stated protections FB takes on our behalf, allegedly, are routinely violated without penalty, as seen in, again, the current Cambridge Analytica mess)
  • Their algorithms are essentially designed to drive you to look at ever-more extreme versions of the shit you actually like (YouTube has this problem as well, but way worse). So, if you’re mildly in favor of gun ownership and click on and engage with every post that supports gun ownership, eventually your feed will be filled with people demanding that any gun control advocates be gassed in camps. This isn’t ideal.
  • They’re destroying every media outlet in existence by forcing them to pay to reach their users on Facebook even though FB does nothing to create the content that people actually want to see. Why the fuck should The Onion, for example, have to pay FB to promote its own posts when FB users clearly want to share The Onion’s posts on their own on a wide scale, for example? It’s not the Facebook part people want, it’s The Onion’s content. Yet the only person making any money on that transaction is Facebook. Fucking ghouls.

The vaunted Market offers no solution here, as it demands constant growth and Facebook is running out of new conquests to gain. Effectively every American who’s willing to use the service already is. So they have to up the average user’s engagement instead. Which they do through increasingly shitty ways. Sure, there’s still a few billion Third Worlders who can be enticed to join FB but they don’t really have any money to spend so they’re not that valuable to FB’s actual customers, who are the advertisers, so the engagement thing has to take precedence. Why on Earth FB can’t just hit a stable state of making billions of dollars reliably every year instead of being forced to grow by the insatiable maw of Mammon is something Capitalism pimps will tell you Is Just Because That’s The Way It Has To Be, but whatever, it’s going to lead to FB’s utter destruction the way things are currently going.

So: What can be done here? Some options:

  • Facebook charges users so it can rely less on advertisers
    • This ain’t gonna happen; FB still gets waves of its dumber users reposting terribly artifacted GIF memes claiming FB is gonna starting charging $5.95/mo. or something for access and THEY AINT GONNA PAY FOR THIS NO WAYS NO HOW and, well: I believe them. So FB knows this is a non-starter; one of the most-impossible acts in business is to start charging for something you originally gave away for free, so this idea is stillborn.
  • Facebook offers a Pro tier so that those of us who really can’t stand the ads can opt out of them
    • Yeah, no. FB makes more off of the ad profiles than it could ever charge even from ALL of its users, much less just a willing subset. And those of us with the disposable income and the willingness to pay for an ad-free Facebook are precisely the people Facebook’s advertising overlords most want to reach. So this, too, is a non-starter.
  •  Facebook gets increasingly user-hostile to the point that people just stop using the service. Remember mySpace? Yeah, me, neither. It can happen, but again, that’s not the goal I want. I want FB to be friendly and usable for its original purpose, not destroyed entirely.

The answer that comes to me to square all of these circles is: Nationalize Facebook. Facebook can serve a social good in providing communication channels for people who would otherwise be isolated. This is an increasingly huge health issue in the United States (and all developed nations), so the government providing an easy way for people to stay in better contact with each other would be a Good Thing.

The nationalized Facebook can also have all of the ads, tracking, etc., stripped right the fuck out of it. Fund the infrastructure and support costs out of taxes, like all necessary social services should be funded. Brands can fuck off, nobody ever signed up for Facebook out of a burning desire to have eight different Internet Mattress companies badger you six dozen times a day to buy a new bed.

But what about all those awesome cat videos and recipe smashups that you so joyfully consume all day on your feed now, how would you get them? Good news! It’ll happen the old-fashioned way (by “old-fashioned”, I mean the way it worked like a whopping five years ago); people will see shit on the greater, open Internet that engages them enough to want to share it. They can put a link in their feed on public Facebook that doesn’t containerize that content WITHIN FB itself, to where only FB can monetize it, but gasp instead you’ll click the link and it’ll take you to the ACTUAL CONTENT CREATOR’S WEBSITE. Where they can choose to monetize with ads, a paywall, or not, as their choice decides.

What a fucking idea, eh? Solves the current, vicious problem of Facebook cannibalizing the business of every company that actually makes the shit that people want to see, saving the media industry from its continuing consolidation into bland, cross-marketed mush for like four different companies. Would allow all the great indies that made the early/mid-00’s Internet a real fun place to be and do things on. A win-win.

“But… but… without the algorithm, I might run out of stuff to look at! What if my friends are being kind of quiet one day?!?!?!”

That would be good for you. Staring at a feed all day isn’t healthy; oh, there’s nothing new or interesting in your government Facebook feed? Great! Go do something else instead! It’s an opportunity! Come back tomorrow!

You’d have an easy place to go to see what all of your friends are up to and even engage with them if you so choose! I’m ambivalent about letting brands be part of it at all; if someone truly wants to see what, I dunno, Wendy’s or the Los Angeles Clippers have going on, sure, let them have a strictly opt-in-only gov’t FB account that people can choose to like and follow if their lives are sad enough. What they WON’T be able to do is pay in any fashion to promote their content into the feed of anyone who didn’t explicitly choose to see their shit. And we would make them pay heavily for the option, which would also help pay for the system’s upkeep.

I mean, we REALLY need to find a way to rollback advertising’s influence on our lives and choices. Everybody thinks they’re impervious to advertising, but the science proves: you aren’t. This shit affects everybody. It’s disfiguring the synapses of a whole new generation of children right now in ways we’re not even gonna realize for another decade. So, a government-owned Facebook would allow us to strip that horrible aspect of it right out of the system entirely or, in a begrudging nod to America’ raison d’etre (selling shit nobody needs to people who can’t afford it), we allow them to participate, but at a high-cost, strictly-regulated way. If it’s not worth it for them, great, they can fuck off and nobody gets hurt. If it’s worth it to them, they can pony the fuck up.

Think back to the mid-aughts when FB broke out of its .edu ghetto and really became mainstream: If you’re old enough, you remember that people signed up for Facebook long before it became the algorithmically-controlled, ad-laden cesspool it is today. I genuinely liked it when it was new-ish and its primary purpose was to show me a chronological list of what my friends were posting, with some static ads at the side of the feed that were obviously ads and separated as such and therefore basically ignorable. And, wow, that year or two where I reconnected with folks from my past, many of whom I had genuinely wondered about and wished I could reach out to in the years before Facebook, those were downright magical (I know this isn’t going to make any sense in like 30-40 years when everybody will have been used to being able to stay in touch with everybody at all times with ease from birth but man, it was really something for those of us who didn’t grow up that way). There’s no reason, other than capitalism, that it can’t go back to that and just be a modern version of the USPS, used by people to just stay in contact and maintain those human connections necessary for people to be healthy and happy.

We’ve got to get internet-enabled algorithmic advertising the fuck under control, it’s murdering us, and it’s making everything the Internet makes that could be cool actually suck. Since FB is the dominant single-point of entry for everybody’s use of the Internet these days AND the vector for the worst of the advertising malevolence, nationalizing the former so we can eradicate the latter seems to me to be the wisest course.

Plus, who doesn’t want to see Zuckerberg dance at the end of a noose?

News Is Not Something We Should Consume Every Hour: A Modest Proposal

You know what I think would massively improve everyone’s life?

Restrict Facebook and Twitter to something you can only interact with for about 45 minutes in one chunk in the morning, and another one hour chunk in the evening, per day.

That’s it. You can go balls-deep on the same nonsense you do today, but only in those two chunks.

Why those two chunks?

Well… think about how we used to consume news. You read the morning paper and/or flipped on the morning news show while you got dressed, or threw on your AM station of choice while you commuted to work.

Then… you generally did not consume any more news for the rest of the day until you got home, in which case you’d watch the evening news over dinner or the 10 o’clock news before bed.

There were occasional changes in this routine; say you were going out for drinks with friends after work. This generally meant that you would NOT RECEIVE ANY NEW NEWS INPUT WHILE YOU WERE OUT. Like, AT ALL. And nobody gave a shit. You’d catch up with the world tomorrow.

So, if I were allowed to do what was proper and nationalize Facebook and Twitter and regulate how they operated, my very first mandate to them would be: hard account time usage locks. You could start your first 45 minute chunk whenever you want, but, once it starts, it runs out in 45 minutes, whether you use it or not. You cannot pause it, it does not roll-over. When it is done, there will be a mandatory one hour minimum gap before you can start your second “evening” chunk of usage. And, again, once you start that one hour, it runs out 60 minutes later, no matter what.

Kid started whining about something and you had to step away and lost your evening hour? Oh well, start fresh tomorrow, you’ll live.

Had to work a late night and never got to start your evening news dump? That’s fine, there will be more news to suffer through tomorrow.

Running late in the morning, didn’t have time to pop open Twitter and catch up and which women they’ve banned most recently for daring to tell someone who said they wanted to rape their mouths to fuck off, while simultaneously also allowing 127 different Nazi accounts to demand you get in an oven? Guess what? That’s right: you’ll live. Catch up during your evening hour. Or even tomorrow.

Get the gist here? It’s not healthy to be tied to the news 24×7. The news media has zero interest in telling you “today’s basically fine, there’s nothing you need to be concerned with, go on with your day, citizen”, even though that is often the case.

Even when it’s NOT the case, such as now since we live in a Trumpian Geohell Late Capitalist Dystopia That Will Not End Until We Are All Gig Economy Serfs Or Dead, the human spirit simply cannot survive a diet of constant news refreshing throughout all waking hours. Yes, the President probably did or said something absolutely awful within the last hour. No, there’s nothing you can do about it, so there’s absolutely no benefit to knowing about that thing RIGHT NOW as opposed to in your next morning or evening News Time Allotment Chunk.

I really think this would be one of those social goods the government needs to get on top of, like banning smoking or cracking down on dads driving kids unseatbelted in the back of the wagon after six-seven scotches at a family dinner party. Nobody benefits from letting the media make us feel terrible all of the time, always. They just know they can wire our brains to want constant stoking of fear and/or pleasure, and they’re increasingly effective at that since we can now all be reached by them all of the time always, which, in retrospect, was a TERRIBLE fucking idea that I wish I had not spent my entire career trying to make possible 😦

Peter Thiel Is A Modern-Day Mengele

Peter Thiel Argues That The Poor Should Be Fodder For His Risky, Careless Quality-of-Life Medical Experimentation

We are rightfully horrified today that the US government used to do this to minorities (think the Syphillis tests on black guys in Alabama, among countless others). Thiel and these other Valley fuckheads think those days were fine, and are actually angry that they’re not allowed to just toss some cash at some poor people and then run hilariously under-secured vaccine trials on them, because who cares if a few browns suffer and/or die if the end result is a safe vaccine for rich white people, right?

This is why the wealthy should be imprisoned and their wealth appropriated and redistributed. It has taken ages to get our government to where it even somewhat-responsibly regulates health and food procedures, and it fails at that, often, not due to some inherent evil or caprice of “gubbmint workers”, but because greedy, capable shitheads like Thiel see the profit in doing it unsafely, and are willing and have the capital to influence media and elections to make sure the people exercise their “free will” and only elect their hand-picked mandarins who will gut protections and regulations as they see fit.

Of course, people are egregiously stupid, so they blame the government for this instead of the actually-evil wealthy fuckers who have the ability and means to to bend the government to their will to the detriment of the rest of us.

People. Please wake up. What you hate, what is ruining your life, is NOT the government. It’s rich people. And a government fully funded and empowered by the people to prevent rich people from fucking with your life is your only hope you have of things ever getting better.

Things I Like: Next.app for iOS (A Simple Spending Tracking App)

There are a million budgeting apps available for iOS. Most of them are way over-designed for my purposes. I basically gave up on finding one for the phone after testing out Mint, Quicken, YNAB, etc… they were all just too much.

What I wanted was simply this: when I spend some money, I want to be able to, VERY quickly, punch in how much and roughly on what. And I want to be able to view those entries grouped by day, week, and, most importantly, monthly.

I don’t want to have to view and then cross-tabulate the five different accounts spending can occur in.

I don’t want pie charts, graphs, or to be flooded with data.

I want to be able to input a spending event VERY VERY QUICKLY. This is the most important part.

None of the apps out there did all of this well, if at all. So I gave up on it entirely for a while until I happened across this article by Federico Viticci, a hardcore iOS nerd whose work and reviews I’ve respected for years. In it, he explains why he loves and how he uses Next, a simple iOS budgeting app. His review sounded like exactly what I was looking for, so I grabbed the app.

It is exactly what I’ve been looking for.

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This is the screen that greets you when you open the app. It’s a bunch of easy-to-parse icons defining categories. The ones in blue are ones you’ve added spending for before. The darker the blue, the more money you’ve spent on that type of thing.

Simply tap an icon, punch in the amount and tap the checkmark key and you’re done. Takes two seconds.

Wanna see how much you’ve spent in the last day/week/month/year? Swipe right and choose:

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Tap on any category to see a trend line over the time period chosen (so, day over day, week over week, etc.):

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Swipe to the rightmost screen to see a daily breakdown of every charge you’ve entered grouped by day instead of by kind (like the other screen does):

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None of this is like “awesome new exciting!” but I’ve been surprised at how hard it’s been to find an app that does this well. The key need for me here is quickness; if there’s any friction at all in using an app like this, I know I’ll stop using it in short order. And that sucks. But Next just gets out of the way. I can order coffee and quickly enter how much that run cost without pissing off the person behind me in line in the drive-thru. It takes literally about 3 seconds from grabbing my phone to having entered the data and done.

I don’t use this feature because it would slow me down too much, but if you want to enter a note on any entry to describe what it was or whatever, you can. I find that just tapping a category icon for each entry gives me all of the detail I need.

So, bravo to the fine Germans at “no identity gmbh” for making Next, which does everything I want it to and does it exactly how I want it done.

 

 

Things That Suck: ADP, Again

I had zero intentions of beating this dead horse into a finer consistency until ADP’s support team actually reached out to me after I published the first post in this series, basically intimating that it was my own company’s fault that the emails their system sends do not contain useful info:

adp_03

Upon reading this, I realized that, yes, systems like this often allow the end-user to customize what info goes into emails automatically generated by said system. And, given my years of experience with my company’s HR team, I can completely accept that the lack of any actionable info in those emails would be their fault, not ADP’s.

So, I replied back to “ADP helps” that a) I’m certainly not going to offer up my company name because that isn’t tied to my blog here and I get into enough trouble with HR b) but yes, if they’d like to confirm that those email details are entirely up to the end-user, I’d publish a retraction. I suspect that an email footer with a link to the main ADP page is or should be a default, like it is with every other platform I’ve ever dealt with, but maybe I’m high.

Since they care more, presumably, about looking helpful than being helpful, they have not replied to my response so fuck ’em; here’s more stupid, unhelpful shit their garbage system does that I am bloody sure aren’t the fault of the end company’s choices.

So: I get useless email basically stating “hey, you’ve got something to do in ADP”. I go to the site and login:

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This is the popover you get when you click on the Messaging Icon in the main ADP view. Let’s click on Tasks:

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This is where Shit Gets Dumb. The system is telling me I have two tasks to deal with. Neither are “Urgent”, apparently, though I have no idea what criteria the system uses to decide that something is Urgent vs. not.

Can I click on either of the two visible, available tasks to be taken directly to it so I can act on it?

No.

Does this dumbshit system offer the option to APPROVE/DENY/REVIEW right in this screen, on the task itself, which would be efficient and sensible?

Also no.

So. Clicking on the Green Tasks button, which is what the first picture implies one should do, does not get the user any fucking closer to being able to ACT on the task than NOT clicking on anything.

THE ONLY USEFUL THING ONE CAN DO IN THIS SCREEN AT ALL IS CLICK THE “VIEW ALL MESSAGES” LINK.

So why even fucking bother with all of this other clickable shit that takes the user fucking nowhere? It actively SLOWS YOU DOWN from achieving the goal of processing the waiting task.

It’s a prime rule of UI/UX that, if clicking something only takes you to a new screen where you can also only usefully click one thing, SKIP THE INTERVENING SCREEN AND JUST TAKE THE USER TO WHERE THEY CAN PERFORM ACTIONS. This isn’t rocket science. Even Microsoft goddamned Outlook, NO ONE’s idea of a well-executed user experience, gets this right.

ADP does not.

This infuriates me just because it’s so easily fixable. Just ditch that stupid popover entirely and, when I click on the Message Icon, just take me to the full Message Center page. With, preferably, a list of of messages that I can act on either in the list itself or by clicking any entry to go to a full, single-item view of it.

Now, I will sit over by here and wait for ADP’s support drones to uselessly imply that it’s our fault that their system is designed this way.

 

Things That Suck: ADP

If you’ve ever spent any time in corporate America, you’re familiar with ADP. Your paycheck comes out of their system, your time off is managed by them… they’re ubiquitous, the McDonald’s of corporate HR.

Unlike McDonald’s, which, however you feel about their food, are goddamned Olympian when it comes to efficiency throughout their entire operation, ADP is terrible, hateful garbage. Outside of open-source garage projects, I’m hard-pressed to think of software that’s less interested in helping you accomplish anything with it than ADP.

Let’s take just one example here, focusing on one of the most common things a manager will do in ADP: review time-off requests. When one of my guys requests time off, they do it via ADP’s website. I get an email from ADP alerting me to this fact. This is the entirety of the email I receive:

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Notice what’s missing? Say, ANY way to act on this request whatsoever? Every other goddamned service out there would typically include:

  • To Approve this request: CLICK HERE
  • To Deny this request: CLICK HERE
  • To Review/Edit this request: CLICK HERE

ADP gives you NONE of this. Not even a goddamned link to the website so you can dig through it yourself to find the request.

Now, I can hear you thinking to yourself “uh, this is pretty small beer, Ritchie. First World Problem much?” and you’re absolutely right, but one of my personal pet peeves is very expensive software that actively hates the user.

Like; how difficult would it be to just include a link at least to the fucking site here? It’s not like the URL is even custom for each company; every one of the millions of people who have ADP accounts logs in through the exact same goddamned URL as everyone else. There’s zero reason, save active hatred of their users, that ADP could not at least include that link in these fucking emails.

I’m not sure why this bothers me so much beyond the simple waste and disdain for their fellow man that has to be involved with the thousands of ADP employees over the years collectively either never thinking about this issue or having thought of it and just not bothered to address it. It’s an infuriating mindset to deal with, and there are many more examples of this combination of incompetence and outright loathing of their paying customers that permeate the entire goddamned platform.

So, yeah, I’m super-glad I get to be in this system dozens of times a week. I’m even managing to feel a twinge of sympathy for our HR people (not a group I normally view with anything other than suspicion if not actual anger) given that they LIVE in this thing.