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12 Secrets of 311 Operators

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It may have lower stakes and fewer life-threatening emergencies than its big sister 911, but for the 20,870,131 New Yorkers who called 311 in 2014, it’s no less vital. In New York City’s 311 call centers, over 350 employees work tirelessly around the clock (you can reach a representative 24-7-365) to answer residents’ burning questions about everything from alternate side parking to a lack of heat in their homes to unwanted animal guests. We spoke with past and present 311 employees to get the 411 on one of the city’s greatest resources.

1. 311 call center representatives (CCRs) spend months training to take your calls.

Once hired (either by passing a civil service exam or participating in CUNY’s collaborative project with 311), CCRs spend four to 10 weeks learning the ropes. They don’t take calls during this time, but become masters of the vast database of New York City-approved resources at their disposal. CCRs use keywords to search the system, called Siebel, for ways to help direct callers to the departments that can best address their needs. As 311 Communications Director Shaleem Thompson told us, “We don’t offer advice to our customers. All the information we provide are approved content from City Agencies.”

During training, the CCRs also learn proper telephone etiquette, protocol, and what to do if the call takes a turn for the strange or serious.

2. There’s an “escalation line” for when things get out of hand.

A former 311 employee, who worked as a CCR for a year and a half, says that when calls venture into uncharted territory, they are patched through to what’s known as the “escalation line.” A common reason a CCR would ask the escalation line to take over is a lewd or “inappropriate” overture from the caller. In one instance, the former 311 CCR explains, a man called to say that his neighbors were having sex, and he could hear them through his apartment’s thin walls. “And he starts groaning and it’s just becoming clear what’s happening. And he’s like, ‘Will you stay on the line with me?’” the CCR says. “And I was like, ‘Escalation line!’ I hit the extension and patched them through.”

3. There are 58 different things you can say that will get you transferred to 911.

If a 311 CCR suspects an actual emergency, he or she is required to patch the caller through to 911. The service provides its representatives with a list of 58 items that, if mentioned by the caller, precipitate a mandatory transfer to 911. While some of the mandatory transfer items seem commonsensical (a report of abuse or harassment, an injury, or a suspected gas leak), some are a bit more head-scratching. Mentioning a “squeegee in progress,” “ticket scalping,” or “foul odor from unknown source” will get you patched through to 911.

Once a 311 CCR connects with 911, he or she remains on the line for the entirety of the call, acting as a witness as well as being available to answer any questions the 911 operator may have.

4. More calls come from Brooklyn than any other borough.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, New York City’s most populated borough is responsible for the most calls to 311, claiming 31 percent of calls in 2014. Falling in line behind are Queens (23.3 percent), Manhattan (21.9 percent), the Bronx (18.4 percent), and Staten Island (5.4 percent).

5. CCRs take thousands of calls each day.

While 311 averages 50,000 calls a day, the number varies greatly depending on the weather, holidays, and service announcements, Thompson says. The 2014 record for most calls in a single day is 239,203. The most calls handled by a single representative in 2014 is a staggering 22,809.

6. Questions about alternate side parking dominate the phone lines.

Call center representatives agree that New Yorkers are more baffled by the complexities of alternate side parking than any other topic. Tahiem Tomlin, a call center rep for almost two years, says that other FAQs vary by season, with the winter being dominated by heating complaints and tax questions. Callers also often have questions about how to deal with parking tickets and what certain street signs mean. Unfortunately, the former 311 representative points out, CCRs aren’t allowed to give guidance on these topics; they’re not covered in the Siebel computer system.

7. Call center reps are scored on their call-taking abilities.

The CCRs have weekly review sessions with their supervisors, during which their calls are given scores based on quality and effectiveness as well as following protocol. Representatives gain points for things like using standard language (“Thank you for calling 311”), providing the correct information, handling the call in a timely manner, speaking with a courteous tone, and offering the 311 website. Call center reps also lose points for infractions or, if the mistake is deemed serious enough—like being rude, failing to transfer to 911, or providing information not found in the Siebel system—they can “fail a call.”

8. CCRs must remain professional at all times.

“I had a call come in, and it was from my dad,” Angelique Pantoja, a CCR for nearly five years, says. “I introduced myself and he says that he’s looking for bus and subway information. It took him a minute for him to realize it was my name, and he goes, ‘Is this Angelique? Is this my daughter?’ I responded by saying, ‘Sir, I don’t know what you’re talking about’ and gave him the information he wanted.”

9. The urban legends are true: A call to 311 proved there really are crocodiles in New York City.

Pantoja remembers one of the most surprising calls she’s ever gotten: A caller who claimed to have found a crocodile in her garage. “It was very interesting because I wasn’t sure if she meant a real crocodile or a fake one, or a little lizard and perhaps she was being a little dramatic,” Pantoja says. “But they confirmed that it was a real crocodile. They were doing something in their basement, and they said something moved.”

10. Call center reps save lives ...

While all emergencies are ultimately transferred to 911, the 311 call center reps are often the first point of contact for people reporting a crime or injury. “I helped break up a child prostitution ring operating out of Brooklyn and transferred the call to 911,” the former CCR we spoke with said. “The customer had called about two girls, and both were under 12 years old. The caller said the mother was selling her daughters to make ends meet.”

11. ... And truly want to help.

While calling 311 can at times be frustrating—the caller must sit through a standard introduction (which, we now know, earns the CCR points), the CCR is prohibited from providing answers to many questions, and the caller may ultimately be transferred to an unresponsive department—residents of New York can take solace in the fact that most CCRs sincerely want to help. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, for example, CCRs worked long shifts in order to make sure New Yorkers had someone to call. With public transportation suspended for days, many representatives were driven to work in Department of Corrections busses—the kinds usually used to transport prisoners—after walking miles to the nearest bus stop.

“Even these hardened veterans, these city veterans who have been doing it for 20, 30 years, even they care,” a former representative says. “I think a lot of call takers just want the city to be able to expand its resources and help people in a more efficient way.”

12. Call center reps are not allowed to hang up the phone.

The former representative tells us that some of her most rewarding moments at 311 were spent speaking with people, often elderly, who were just looking for a friendly voice. “Sometimes they’ll just tell you about their life, and after that you’ll feel like you helped them unload a little bit.” she says. “Life is so hard in the city. I think people just like having some kind of 24-hour line where they can call and hear a human voice.”

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10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
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Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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15 Podcasts That Will Make You Feel Smarter
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It's easy to feel overwhelmed by all the podcast options out there, but narrowing down your choices to the titles that will teach you something while you listen is a good place to start. If you're interested in learning more about philosophy, science, linguistics, or history, here are podcasts to add to your queue.

1. THE HABITAT

The Habitat is the closest you can get to listening to a podcast recorded on Mars. At the start of the series, five strangers enter a dome in a remote part of Hawaii meant to simulate a future Mars habitat. Every part of their lives over the next year, from the food they eat to the spacesuits they wear when they step outside, is designed to mimic the conditions astronauts will face if they ever reach the red planet. The experiment was a way for NASA to test plans for a manned mission to Mars without leaving Earth. The podcast, which is produced by Gimlet media and hosted by science writer Lynn Levy, ends up unfolding like a season of the Real World with a science fiction twist.

2. STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW

Can’t pick a topic to educate yourself on? Stuff You Should Know from How Stuff Works is the podcast for you. In past episodes, hosts Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark (both writers at How Stuff Works) have discussed narwhals, Frida Kahlo, LSD, Pompeii, hoarding, and Ponzi schemes. And with three episodes released a week, you won’t go long without learning about a new subject.

3. THE ALLUSIONIST

Language nerds will find a kindred spirit in Helen Zaltzman. In each episode of her Radiotopia podcast The Allusionist, the former student of Latin, French, and Old English guides listeners through the exciting world of linguistics. Past topics include swearing, small talk, and the differences between British and American English.

4. PHILOSOPHIZE THIS!

Listening to all of Philosophize This! is cheaper than taking a philosophy class—and likely more entertaining. In each episode, host Stephen West covers different thinkers and ideas from philosophy history in an approachable and informative way. The show proceeds in chronological order, starting with the pre-Socratic era and leading up most recently to Jacques Derrida.

5. MORE PERFECT

In 2016, Radiolab, one of the most popular and well-established educational podcasts out there, launched a show called More Perfect. Led by Radiolab host Jad Abumrad, each episode visits a different Supreme Court case or event that helped shape the highest court in the land. Because of that, the podcast ends up being about a lot more than just the Supreme Court, exploring topics like police brutality, gender equality, and free speech online.

6. SLOW BURN

The Watergate scandal was such a important chapter in American history that it has its own suffix—but when asked to summarize the events, many people may draw a blank. Slow Burn, a podcast from Slate, gives listeners a refresher. In eight episodes, host Leon Neyfakh tells the story of the Nixon’s demise as it unfolded, all while asking whether or not citizens would be able to recognize a Watergate-sized scandal if it happened today.

7. LETTERS FROM WAR

Instead of using a broad scope to examine World War II, the Washington Post podcast Letters From War focuses on hundreds of letters exchanged by four brothers fighting in the Pacific during the period. Living U.S. military veterans tell the sibling's story while reflecting on their own experiences with war.

8. LEVAR BURTON READS

Just because you’re a grown-up doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the soothing sound of LeVar Burton’s voice reading to you. The former host of Reading Rainbow now hosts LeVar Burton Reads, a podcast from Stitcher aimed at adults. In each episode, he picks a different piece of short fiction to narrate: Just settle into a comfortable spot and listen to him tell stories by authors like Haruki Murakami, Octavia Butler, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

9. BRAINS ON!

Brains On! is an educational podcast for young audiences, but adults have something to gain from listening as well. Every week, host Molly Bloom is joined by a new kid co-host who helps her explore a different topic. Tune in for answers to questions like "What makes paint stick?" and "How do animals breathe underwater?"

10. SCIENCE VS

There’s a lot of misinformation out there—if you’re determined to sort out fact from fiction, it can be hard to know where to start. The team of “friendly fact checkers” at the Science Vs podcast from Gimlet is here to help. GMOs, meditation, birth control, Bigfoot—these are just a few of the topics that are touched upon in the weekly show. The goal of each episode is to replace any preconceived notions you have with hard science.

11. FLASH FORWARD

No one knows for sure what the future holds, but Flash Forward lays out the more interesting possibilities. Some of the potential futures that host and producer Rose Eveleth explores are more probable than others (a future where no one knows which news sources to trust isn’t hard to imagine; one where space pirates drag a second moon into orbit perhaps is), but each one is built on real science.

12. HIDDEN BRAIN

What motivates the everyday choices we make? That’s the question Shankar Vedantam tries to answer on the NPR podcast Hidden Brain. The show looks at how various unconscious patterns shape our lives, like what we wear and who we choose to spend time with.

13. PART-TIME GENIUS

The fact that it’s hosted by Mental Floss founders Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur isn’t the only reason we love Part-Time Genius. The podcast from How Stuff Works wades into topics you didn’t know you were curious about, like the origins of Nickelodeon and the hidden secrets at the Vatican. Each episode will leave you feeling educated and entertained at the same time.

14. ASTRONOMY CAST

It’s a big universe out there—if you want to learn as much about it as possible, start with Astronomy Cast. Fraser Cain, publisher of the popular site Universe Today, and Dr. Pamela L. Gay, director of the virtual research facility CosmoQuest, host the podcast. They cover a wide range of topics, from the animals we’ve sent to orbit to the color of the universe.

15. SCIENCE OF HAPPINESS

The Science of Happiness podcast from PRI is here to improve your life, one 20-minute episode at a time. Science has proven that adopting certain practices, like mindfulness and gratitude, can make us happier—as does letting go of less unhealthy patterns like grudges and stressful thinking. With award-winning professor Dacher Keltner as your host, you can learn how to incorporate these science-backed strategies for happiness into your own life.

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