Mel's Malodorous Mail Machines Memorandum - The Postal Service is Losing the Technological Battle of the 21st Century
Technology Marches On!
Mel Reviews Low-Tech (innovations?)
In the next few weeks I think I am going to be reviewing Postal technology quite a bit, because things are a movin' and a shakin' quite a bit beneath the cathedral-like high-tech halls of our local post offices, but not often for the better.
I am rather embarrassed to have to make this report, but part of the woeful existence of being a letter carrier for the United Postal Service is being at least a decade behind the competition in the realm of new technology. Part of the embarrassment comes from having to endure the condescending attitude of the competition. Big Brown drives by me every day with that smug, self-satisfied look on his face that contains just a touch of pity. He knows quite well that his gadgets can deliver a crushing blow to my pitifully primitive contraptions any day of the week. As I look up at Big Brown in his towering brown truck full of high-tech weaponry, I know how the Native Americans felt as they peered with astonishment over the tops of their wooden clubs and pointed sticks to behold the iron guns of the invading Europeans. But at least Big Brown tries to be polite. On the oher hand, Fed-Ex Ground just offers up a sort of surly grunt as he zooms by me in his rolling command center, full of all sorts of high-tech wizardry that is way too complicated for my antiquated postal mind to comprehend.
But alas, Postal I am, and so I shall remain the third world country of delivery services, always playing catch up with stopgap gizmos that are often more of a burden than a boon to my productivity.
Showing up at work what was it? - Two or three weeks ago, my eyes beheld something that immediately flashed me back to Christmas 2004. At that time I was sitting around with co-workers at a Christmas party, grimacing with good humor as a CD of William Hung Christmas carols played softly in the background, setting the mood of the season. My co-worker Mike appeared with a new technological marvel - a flip phone equipped with, wonder of wonders, a CAMERA! I eyed Mike with feigned indifference but nonetheless fumed with envy as he took photos of the festivities and sent them to our emails. This was the pinnacle of technology then - but then was 2004.
Emerging from my trip down memory lane back to the present I see before me several museum relics docked in the cradle beside the scanners; these being carbon copies of the same flip phone that Mike was flaunting proudly about the Christmas party nine years ago. Since I was off the day that these sleek devices were first rolled out, a co-worker demonstrates to me the several time consuming steps needed to set up the flip phone. I am first required to scan the bar code on the phone and then wait what seems to be a drawn out, tedious, wasteful expanse of time as it links to the scanner.
I am told that the function of the flip phone is merely to link it to the cloud so that scans can be uploaded to the network more or less in real time. Unlike Mike's cool phone, however, this one can't be used to take pictures or even to make phone calls. It is simply an antenna by which the scanner can talk to the world. Prior to this, postal customers had to wait until the letter carriers came back to the office in the afternoon and docked their scanners before they were able to track their packages. Therefore, the implementation of this capability is something long overdue, but was it done right? In Postal Land the cure is oftentimes worse than the problem.
Being adaptable creatures, capable of using their opposable thumbs to ease the difficulties of existence by creating new tools, the letter carriers in my office soon adapt to the situation. Like clever chimps probing termite holes with sticks to retrieve tasty crawling snacks, many carriers simultaneously come up with the idea of rubber banding the scanner to the flip phone. To me this seems like an awkward solution at best, so I merely take the phone holder and hook it to my belt, which is now beginning to resemble Batman's utility belt with its collection of all the sundry doohickeys necessary to get me through the work day. Commenting on this awkward new burden a friend of mine voices what we were all thinking - Why can't they just come up with a scanner that can transmit the data itself, all in one device? In 2013, with the plethora of smart phones, GPS devices, and unmanned drones that can swoop down from the sky and take a picture of you rolling through a stop sign this does not seem like too much of a reach.
Instead of making my job easier I soon find out that the flip phone is like a high maintenance girlfriend that requires near constant attention. Every ten minutes or so it beeps loudly to tell me that it is about to transmit data and can it please proceed. If I don't hit the "chill out" button in time it begins to transmit automatically, often in awkward situations, like when I am standing at a customer's door to get a Certified letter signed. I have to tell Mrs. Smith, standing impatiently at the door in curlers while her bathwater can be heard running in th distance, that she ever so politely has to wait while my machine finishes dumping its data before she can sign the letter and get back to her life. Later, as I wander along house to house, lost in my own daydreams, I sometimes do not notice the beep in time, until I arrive at the next MSP scan and have to bide my time again as the industriousness little scanner/flip-phone tandem tries to prove its relevance by interrupting my workday at inopportune moments, like a nagging wife calling in the middle of a meeting to tell me to bring home a gallon of milk.
This last Saturday, I think it was, a strange, one-armed alien landed in our midst. Nobody saw it being rolled in, so we had to assume that it mysteriously materialized there on its own, as new Postal technological gadgets always seems to do. If the post office is being visited by aliens that appear out of nowhere to teach us to build the new pyramids of the 21st century, they are poor country cousin aliens indeed: Second-stringers; Junior Varsity aliens. Anyway, it turns out that the contraption, of which I have included a picture above, is called the PASS machine. Apparently this is short for Passive Adaptive Scanning System. The name itself sounds like some sort of mental dysfunction that should be treated with psychotropic medicine immediately, but then again the Postal Service is always fond of acronyms, as if a clever acronym can mask up for whatever untested shortfalls are built into the device.
The PASS actually seems like a good idea. Clerks that are not trained in the scheme can move a package beneath the mechanical arm of the great beast and it will immediately vocalize the route the package belongs to. This voice is sultry and feminine in tone, and it takes one back to Science Fiction B movies of the 1980s. A co-worker told me that the Robo Clerk's voice sounds just like Cherry 2000, a robot prostitute from a 1987 film. Other people think it sounds like Siri on the I-phone. It definitely has a sinister, Hal 9000 quality to it, as if it will visit destruction down upon us if it becomes displeased. In order to appease the hungry PASS goddess, it demands that carriers and clerks walk beneath the scanning arm so that it can scan our heads and consume our brain waves. This is actually a very entertaining activity, because it results in the sounding of a loud rejection beep that echoes throughout the post office. Since we postal employees are easily amused, this should keep us entertained for a little while.
Although the PASS machine can spit out the scheme like nobody's business, as a clerk it still has certain shortfalls. First and foremost of these deficiencies is that, although it knows where every parcel goes, it seems to be incapable of throwing them there. It has a very diva-like quality, as if manual labor is beneath it. And due to this lack of work ethic on the part of the PASS, one of the most glaring problems encountered in delivery units these days still remains; the inability to get carriers out on the street on time because there are not enough real clerks to throw parcels. Until this problem is solved carriers will still have to return to the office from time to time to pick up packages that were sorted late, and this often costs overtime. Of course, the Postal Service will try to claim that the PASS solves everybody's problems and how dare you pay even a click of extra overtime to get the job done, but as it stands right now the jury is still out. Will these recent innovations in Postal technology measure up to the demands of the scanning age, or will we letter carriers continue to struggle along with stone-age technology?