Saturday, September 20, 2014

A Lesson in Magazine Printing from the Ghost of Robin Williams

Surprise, surprise, there were no takers for the copy of TIME magazine purporting to show the ghost of Robin Williams.

Despite the Dead Tree Edition article being picked up by the Naples (Florida) Daily News and several web sites, no could scare up $10,000 and enough gullibility to bid in the eBay auction that ended Friday.

But those of you with more dollars than sense and a passion for printing errors need not despair: Almost immediately, the Kennewick, Washington-based eBay seller "warnecathe" relisted it, again with a minimum bid of 10 Gs.

Williams' ghost reportedly showed up at his mansion a month ago, but the scores of printing and publishing geeks who commented on the TIME cover were not fooled. The consensus was that the cover, along with the back cover, was simply printed without enough black ink.

A few correctly pointed out that I was wrong in saying the cover could not have been printed shortly after the press started up. Newsstand copies of TIME are bound before the subscriber copies, but the covers are printed at the same time.

Several commenters guessed that the copy was printed just after a blanket wash, a process for cleaning debris off a press in the middle of a printing job.

A blanket wash causes paper going through the press to get little or no ink, so the paper coming out of the press is supposed to be diverted to the waste stream until the color returns to normal. But in this case "the pressman was just a little too quick in deciding where the waste stopped and the good sheets started," wrote Tom Kenny of Pictorial Corporation, on the LinkedIn group Print Production Professionals. "We wouldn't be discussing this if the error didn't produce such a metaphoric image. It's the ghost in the machine."

In the blink of an eye
Another one of the 34 comments in the PPP group provided more detail: "The black ink is way way down, the magenta and yellow are down a bit, the cyan a hair more than the magenta and yellow," wrote Eric Eliel of e2 Communications. "Looks very much like they just washed the blankets and the press was coming back to color."

"Keep in mind, the speed at which modern heatset [press] webs run, at 2000+ feet per minute, translates to about 17 copies per second at speed. The presses should come back to color after a washup in about 50 to 100 copies, which is about 3 or 4 seconds. This 'color' issue could occur in a blink of an eye, literally."

Sandra Jones of Best Version Media explained why the faulty cover couldn't have been noticed and pulled out during the binding process: "Being a subscriber copy, it would have come off the stitcher already buried in a postal bundle."

And no one disagreed with the assessment offered by Grace Savides of Independent Printing: "Wow, that eBay seller is quite the opportunist. It's amazing how little shame some people have. Glad no one's put a bid on it yet."

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Is This the Ghost of Robin Williams -- Or Just a Printing Error?


Please see the follow-up to this article, Ghost of Robin Williams Is Haunting eBay Again.


A cover of TIME magazine purportedly showing the late Robin Williams as a ghost is being offered on eBay at a starting bid of $10,000.

There are no bidders so far in the auction, which ends Friday.

"After Robin Williams' tragic death, Time Magazine honored the beloved actor/comedian in the August 25, 2014 issue," says the description provided by "warnecathe," a newbie eBay seller. "This particular copy bears a mysteriously misprinted cover that features a ghostly Robin Williams. During his life, Robin Williams was known for his practical jokes, so it is typical of him to continue his jestful ways by appearing as a ghost on the cover of Time Magazine."

The ghostly copy was mailed Periodicals class to a U.S. address. The design is exactly the same as a regular cover except what is black on the regular cover is gray on the haunted cover.

I'm calling on my fellow printing geeks for an explanation, but I'd say it was a simple case of the black ink missing. It's not unusual at press start-up for some of the colors (the other inks used in four-color printing are cyan, magenta, and yellow) to start appearing before others do, though pages that are missing colors are supposed to be discarded.

But these probably aren't start-up copies because TIME presumably prints its time-sensitive newsstand copies before the mailed subscriber copies. So maybe a mischievous spirit from the planet Ork snuck into the printing plant while the press was at full speed and stole the black plate.

Or perhaps Williams was doing one final impression -- of what Time Inc. looks like after Time Warner recently sucked out all the cash and jettisoned the former subsidiary. Or maybe the socially conscious comedian was showing us what will happen to Time Inc.'s reputation if it keeps blurring the lines between journalism and advertiser-friendly content.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Rate Cut Has Shippers Switching To USPS

The Postal Service’s recent price cuts for big businesses that ship packages are already trickling down to the small fry, like eBay seller Joe Strader. And based on Strader’s reaction to the rates that took effect on Sunday (Sept. 7), a lot of other small shippers will be switching their business to the U.S. Postal Service as well.

The proprietor of the eBay store Joe’s Surplus and Salvage noted a change he made this week on an item he ships frequently.

“In the past this would have been all FedEx but Priority Mail beats them with the discount. In addition, it gets there on Saturday rather than Monday. For small items, I get free boxes, not an insignificant saving.”

"Yes, that is a 49% discount off of retail,” Strader says of the USPS shipping quote of $9.14 for sending a 20-pound package.FedEx would have charged $10.86 for the same shipment, and United Parcel Service would have been even higher, he adds. Before the rate change, Strader used the Postal Service almost solely for items weighing less than 6 pounds.

“This is going to get ugly,” he says of the heightened parcel competition among the Postal Service, FedEx, and UPS. The new Priority Mail rates are slightly higher for retail customers who drop off a package at a post office but up to 55% lower for medium-weight packages sent by large business mailers.

Extra bonus for eBay merchants 
EBay sellers have an additional reason to like the new Priority Mail discounts: “When a customer of eBay calculates shipping, it gives the rate before the discount. The seller gets the difference,” explains Strader, who offers most of his eBay merchandise with free shipping. “For those that charge shipping on transactions based on calculated rather than flat rate, it is a significant difference” (and additional profit).

He even finds the much-maligned Postal Service often beating its private-sector competitors on customer service. He described what happened with a recent USPS shipment that was supposed to be next-day service but took two days:

“I filled out the simple form, took my receipt and paperwork to the post office and handed it over. After a few strokes on the computer, I had a cash refund, that day, no waiting. I was shocked that I did not have to wait a few weeks like FedEx or UPS only to find out it was my fault for some reason. I asked and the agent said that since it was delivered and obviously the wrong date, the refund is automatically processed.”

“Admittedly, mine is a small town post office and much more convenient than most. However, the service is great, they have picked up as many as a dozen small packages at my door (UPS and FedEx Ground charge by the package), and a lot of stuff I just put in the mailbox with the flag up. They have a few goofy employees, they are often slow at the window, and there are occasional lines (don't go at 8:30 or 3:30). But, I ship 90% of my items USPS.”

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Monday, September 1, 2014

USPS Employment Levels Have Stabilized

After years of massive downsizing, the U.S. Postal Service’s workforce has stopped shrinking, at least temporarily.

USPS recently reported having 616,025 active employees, just 362 fewer than a year ago. The number of full-timers actually inched up by 1,464, to 467,844.

That’s a far cry from the previous six years, when the annual workforce reductions ranged from 13,000 to nearly 53,000. Automation, facility closures, declining mail volumes, and a series of early-retirement offers reduced the number of postal workers by 183,000 from 2005 to 2013.

In presenting USPS’s “Plan to Profitability” to Congress in March 2012, Postmaster General Pat Donahoe testified, “The Postal Service projects a further reduction of the equivalent of 155,000 full-time career employees by 2016, which we plan to achieve largely through attrition as half of our career employees are eligible for optional or early retirement.”

But USPS employs only 34,000 fewer full-timers than it did when Donahoe presented that plan. Congress has blocked or slowed such postal “right-sizing” proposals as curtailing Saturday delivery, consolidating the mail-processing network, and closing unprofitable post offices.

Downsizing of the postal workforce seems likely to resume soon, however. USPS is moving forward with a plan to close about 80 processing centers in the next few months, which could lead to a reduction of 15,000 jobs. A recent effort to block the plan in Congress has apparently fizzled out, as have numerous proposals to reform the laws that have pushed the agency into the red.

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Old Cases, Not Recent Injuries, Are Driving Up USPS's Workers' Comp Costs

Most of the Postal Service's ballooning costs for workers' compensation result from injuries that are at least eight years old, according to a postal official.

"A majority of the workers’ compensation costs are attributed to employees who were injured prior to 2008," USPS spokesperson Darlene Casey wrote this week in a comment on Dead Tree Edition. She was responding to the article Are USPS Changes Leading to More Work-Related Injuries?, which suggested that recent changes in working conditions might have contributed to the agency's rapidly escalating workers' comp costs.

The Postal Service supports the recent Inspector General's report that describes why USPS workers' comp costs rose 35% from 2008 to 2013 despite a 19% decrease in the workforce, Ms. Casey said. Healthcare inflation has been a major factor, she added.

USPS also agrees with the IG's call for reforming the federal law that governs workers' comp at USPS.

The IG report showed that the number of new workers' comp claims per employee dropped drastically in 2009 but inched back up to 7 per 100 employees in 2013, the same rate as in 2008. No data have been released regarding changes in the type or severity of injuries.

Here is Ms. Casey's comment in its entirety:

The Postal Service appreciates the work of the Office of Inspector General (IG) highlighting the need to reform the Federal Employees' Compensation Act (FECA). The IG report describes many factors which contribute to the increase in the Postal Service's workers' compensation costs, including injury rates associated with a more mature workforce, reduced light/limited duty positions attributed to automation, and cost of living adjustments.

The cost of living adjustments mentioned in the report do not refer to employees’ salary adjustments, but rather federally mandated cost of living adjustments provided to federal employees on the Department of Labor (DOL) Periodic Rolls. For the years 2008 – 2013 those increases were 4.3 percent, 0 percent, 3.4 percent, 1.7 percent, 3.2 percent, and 1.7 percent respectively, which when compounded equates to an increase of 15.1 percent over the base period.

The Postal Service also strongly believes that healthcare inflation is a major contributing factor to the cost increases. Our average medical cost per case has increased 43.4 percent since 2008 far greater than the compounded 21.3 percent reported adjusted medical care cost increase reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In comparison, the average compensation cost per case has increased 24.2 percent in the same time period.

We must reiterate the findings of the IG that these increases in expenses occurred during a time when claims filed with the DOL were less than the 2008 level; and a majority of the workers’ compensation costs are attributed to employees who were injured prior to 2008.

The IG has aggressively gone after fraud, having saved the Postal Service more than $289 million from future losses, and nearly $52 million in medical and disability judgments associated with fraudulent claims.

We agree with the IG's call for reforms to FECA and we will continue to work with Congress on reforms that will return the Postal Service to profitability.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Are USPS Changes Leading to More Work-Related Injuries?

Letter carriers and other postal employees have been saying for several years that changes at the Postal Service would lead to more job-related injuries. A new report suggests they may be right.

"Despite the Postal Service’s efforts to decrease the number of employees [by 19% since 2008], its workers’ compensation costs have increased 35 percent,” the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General noted in a report last week.

The OIG pointed out that USPS’s workers compensation costs per work hour are now 59% higher than those of comparable private-industry workforces. But it offered no data that would help explain the dramatic increases, which led to $1.3 billion in workers compensation claims from July 2012 to June 2013.

The report speculated as to the causes, but most of its guesses seem off the mark: Older workforce? (Nope, it’s not much older on average than it was in 2008.) Cost-of-living adjustments? (Average hourly pay at the Postal Service is up only 7% since 2008.) Workers compensation fraud? (You mean that didn’t exist in 2008?)

The OIG put forth one plausible explanation – “the reduced number of light/limited duty positions available because of automation and lower mail volume.” But it didn’t consider several other possibilities, most of which have been put forward by front-line employees:
  • Increased street time: Delivery-point sequencing of letters – and, for some areas, flat mail – have meant carriers spend less time in the office sorting mail and more time delivering. That’s likely to lead to repetitive-strain injuries, especially on walking routes, for carriers who are delivering to more addresses than ever. 
  • Longer hours: The proportion of overtime hours is up 80% for mailhandlers and 30% for letter carriers so far this fiscal year versus the same period in FY2008. That may also lead to more repetitive-strain injuries. 
  • Night-time deliveries: Reports of carriers working their routes after dark, especially during the winter in northern parts of the country, have grown dramatically in the past couple of years. That seems to be a combination of longer routes and of mail arriving at the delivery units later than in the past. In any case, having carriers negotiating icy sidewalks at night is a prescription for more slips, falls, and fractures. 
  • More uninsured employees: USPS has reduced its costs the past few years partly by replacing retirees with lower-paid, often younger non-career employees. Such employees are more likely to report a pinched nerve or sore knee as a work-related injury, since many have little or no health insurance. 
  • More parcels: Letter volume is declining, but postal employees are handling and delivering more packages than ever -- often using delivery vehicles not suited to the purpose. The higher proportion of heavy and oversized mail pieces may be causing more injuries.
The Postal Service can’t address the troubling workers compensation trend without understanding the causes. And the way to get at the causes is not with speculation but with actual data – for example, trends in injuries by occupation, age, and type.

To be fair, the OIG report does offer viable ways for USPS to manage its workers compensation costs better and for overhauling the relevant laws. It notes that the agency is paying workers compensation to two “active” employees who are more than 100 years old – certainly a sign that something is amiss.

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