Danger, Will Robinson!

A strategic goal of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) goes as follows: Protect consumers from unfair and deceptive practices in the marketplace. Unfair and deceptive practices seem to be the strategic goals of several other organizations out there, so I’m glad the FTC seeks to “protect” me. For example, they held a competition called the “Robocall Challenge”, looking for solutions to reduce those pesky and sometimes illegal phone calls we all receive. The competition winners – two software programs designed to intercept and divert – split the $50,000 first prize. The problem? The Challenge was conducted over five years ago, yet robocalls are more rampant than ever today.

courtesy of nbcconnecticut.com

The telemarketing calls of old seem quaint compared to the lifeless computer-generated voices of the last several years. Used to be, you’d answer the phone to a real voice; a sunny greeting in oft-broken English or heavy accent. The caller would say, “Yes, is this David Wilson, please?” or, “Hello Mr. Wilson, how are you doing today?” Who do you know who starts a phone conversation with wording like that? (Even better, when they’re looking for my wife Brigid – pronounced with a soft “g” – they mangle her name in ways I’ve never heard before.)

At least the old telemarketers sold you products or services too good to be true (“Congratulations – you’ve won a seven-day Hawaiian cruise!”), and at least they were human. Today’s robocalls are scams disguised as threats. Pay this tax bill immediately or the IRS will break down your door and haul you off to prison. Upgrade your Microsoft operating system now because your warranty’s about to expire. Buy this health insurance plan because yours doesn’t cover anything. I might listen to these pitches if they came from a real person, but the synthesized voice of a robocall triggers the involuntary reflex “hang up”.

courtesy of cio.com

For me, the most effective solution to robocalls is simply not answering in the first place. If the Caller ID doesn’t convince me it’s a real call, I let it go to voice mail. Sure, my provider offers a call-blocking service, but they charge a fee. Why would I pay good money to manage a situation I didn’t ask for in the first place? The same goes for the better call-blocking applications out there. They’ll make them go away, but it’s gonna cost you.

By the way, not answering in the first place also stops robocall breeding. Just by picking up the receiver or hitting “Answer”, you’ve identified yourself as a number that works, which means the robocall provider sells your number to other providers, and that means more robocalls. Picking up the phone is why Americans received 16.3 billion robocalls in 2018… and that was just January-May.

courtesy of komando.com

Robocalls are a nuisance – sure, but at least they’re not threats to the human race itself. That prospect turns my dreams into nightmares every so often. Whether vast supercomputers, unfeeling combat robots, or microscopic drones, you have to admit – we’re on the precipice of technologies just itching to get beyond our control. Fiction does a great job exploring the possibilities. Read Michael Crichton’s “Prey” (self-replicating nanotechnology), Daniel H. Wilson’s “Robot Uprisings” (just what the title suggests), or simply watch the brilliant 2014 film, “Ex Machina”. The final scene – when Ava walks confidently into the public domain and the credits roll – is perhaps the most chilling moment of the entire movie.

courtesy of IMDB.com

As if to mock this post, my brother-in-law – visiting here at the house as I speak – just received a call on his mobile phone. Another robocall, and probably another scam disguised as a threat. Maybe the call wasn’t by accident, but rather a triggered response from a nanobot keeping an eye on my keystrokes. A subtle message, as if to say: we’re here and we’re watching. Sure, I can plead “no-mo-robo” (which is also the name of a call-blocking company), but I know the robots are only growing in numbers. Better make room then – another highly-intelligent species is quietly joining the party here on Earth.

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Slipping Away

Every time we travel to California – this past weekend, for example – I have to be reminded about their statewide ban on single-use plastic carryout bags.  You think I’d remember – Cali put the kibosh on the bags three years ago.  Still, we fill our basket with groceries, head to the check-out, and the cashier goes, “want to purchase bags?”  Argh.  I should store a couple of reusables in my suitcase; the very ones I keep in my car in Colorado.

Plastic straws followed plastic bags, of course.  Four months ago, the Golden State placed “discouragement” on the plastic variety (you must ask for them now).  We sat down to a meal and our waitress brought glasses of water – with paper straws (argh again).  Admittedly, “legal” sippers are pretty good.  No reduction to mush like breakfast cereal sitting too long in milk.  Other than the cost (several times more than plastic), and the fine ($25/day for un-requested plastic), paper straws are hardly inconvenient.

Now then, the real topic for today.  California is looking to “strike up the ban” yet again – on paper receipts; the little critters we receive after credit card transactions.  Say it isn’t so, West Coasters!  Bags and straws I can deal with, but a ban on paper receipts?  That’s just stealing another book from my old-school library.

According to a Wall Street Journal op-ed, the facts are these: paper receipts generate 686 million pounds of waste per year. (Can someone please quantify 686 million pounds – say, number of filled swimming pools?)  Paper receipts also generate 12 billion pounds of carbon dioxide. (Again, quantify – number of breathing humans?)  Also, paper receipts contain Bisphenol A (BPA); not exactly an appetizing compound.  In other words, don’t eat your receipts just because the food was lousy.

Without paper receipts, my personal budget maintenance takes a blow.  I keep everything in Quicken, so give me points for electronic accounting.  But I also use paper receipts – an old-fashioned double-check mechanism.  I enter the transaction from the receipt; then cross-check against the Visa statement (Jacob Marley reincarnated?)  Why do I do this?  Because once upon a time a waiter decided to triple my tip after I’d signed the bill and left the restaurant.  Later, my paper receipt didn’t reconcile with my Visa statement.  Busted.  I promptly called the manager, who investigated and lo-and-behold, discovered a pattern of gouging.  The waiter was fired.  More points for me!

Now here’s the irony in my triple-the-tip story.  What if the restaurant didn’t use paper receipts?  What if I processed my transaction through Square or an iPad, self-swiping my card and choosing the percentage tip?  For starters (and finishers) there wouldn’t have been gouging because there wouldn’t have been a waiter.  It would be like standing over the shoulder of the processor at Visa – instant reconciliation.  In effect, my story is a vote for no paper receipts.

Truth be told, I’m already evolving – slowly – from paper receipts.  When given the choice (Home Depot comes to mind), I select “email receipt” or “no receipt” more often than “paper”.  Unlike robo-calls, I accept the unsolicited side effects of electronic commerce (i.e. email spam).  In a nod to maintaining control, I select self-check-in at airports and self-check-out at markets.

More likely, I’m caving on paper receipts because I’ve already done so with a laundry list of other paper products.  My written letters have (d)evolved into email.  My paper-printed books have dissolved into bits/bytes on my Kindle e-reader.  My to-do lists now reside in a phone app.  Bills arrive in my online inbox instead of my streetside mailbox.

Phil Dyer, one reader of the Wall Street Journal piece, commented, “California will soon attempt to regulate earthquakes”.  49 of 50 U.S. states just LOL’d.  Me, not so much.  After all, I never thought I’d see the day where I’d give up my paper receipts.

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Super Dough

The beauty of the Super Bowl is its broad entertainment value.  There’s something for everybody in the five hours between The Star Spangled Banner and the Vince Lombardi trophy. For sports fans, there’s a highly-anticipated football clash. The Super Bowl is not football at its best or most dramatic, but this year’s coast vs. coast, old coach+QB vs. young coach+QB match-up creates more than the usual intrigue.

If you’re not into football, you’re at least enjoying the musical entertainment.  Maroon 5 will be there after all (rumor had it they were pulling out), and the band acknowledges “… it’s the biggest stage you could ever play…”  Even if you’re not a fan of the 5, you get Gladys Knight (but no Pips) singing the national anthem before kick-off.

If neither live sports nor live music is your bag (and that’s a small rock you live under), you’re watching the commercials instead.  I admit – especially as a sports fan – there’s as much press for the Super Bowl ads as there is for the Super Bowl itself.  It’s the only sports broadcast I know where viewers fast-forward through the game to get to the commercials.

Courtesy of Anheuser-Busch InBev

No wonder advertisers are so worked up for this Sunday.  The Super Bowl is routinely the single-most tuned-in-to entertainment of the year.  Viewership has quadrupled over the last fifty years.  The 2018 Super Bowl drew over 100 million viewers; 25% more than second-place.  And what came in second?  The Super Bowl post-game show, of course (74 million viewers).  Say what you will about the NFL; people watch.  The four most-watched television shows in 2018 were NFL games, followed by a “This Is Us” episode… airing immediately after the Super Bowl.

Courtesy of Frito-Lay

Sunday’s line-up of Super Bowl commercials includes the usual products: cars, drinks (alcoholic), more drinks (non-alcoholic), foods (snack), more foods (fast), even more foods (avocados), and technology.  Of course, they’re all designed to get you to remember, long after the game is over.  Whether it’s a celebrity, a laugh, or a cute animal, it’s all about permanent placement of the product in your brain.  But even if you don’t remember, consider this: the commercials will be watched millions more times on YouTube.  Add in the Internet and the considerable cost of Super Bowl advertising is a little easier to swallow.

Speaking of cost, this year’s commercials will set producers back $5 million a spot, for a mere thirty seconds of air time.  That’s just the bill to CBS.  Production costs run as much as another $5 million.  Try counting “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand” every time you watch a commercial this year.  You’re squandering $333,333 for every “-one-thousand” you utter.  That’s what I call super dough, and it’s only rising (ha).  The car companies account for 25% of the take (remember that the next time you negotiate the purchase of a vehicle), but Anheuser-Busch InBev is the “King of Advertising”, spending over $600 million on Super Bowl commercials since 1995.  Yes, Clydesdale horses are cute.  More importantly, they sell a lot of beer.

Courtesy of Anheuser-Busch InBev

To pique your ad anticipation, Town & Country Magazine’s website includes a list of the “50 Best Super Bowl Commercials” (including the videos).  The ads are listed chronologically, starting a-way, way back in 1967.  It’s entertaining to see what products and companies paid big for Super Bowl advertising fifty years ago.  Some are no longer around.  I’m guessing their advertising agencies aren’t either.

Courtesy of Apple

Mark my words.  Monday morning after the Super Bowl the water-cooler talk will not be about the game.  It will be about the commercials.  Which one was your favorite?  Which one left you scratching your head?  Which one was $5 million up in flames?  And most importantly, which one will still be talked about years from now?  Even this sports fan has to admit: the game will soon be forgotten, but not the ads.

Some content sourced from the Wall Street Journal article, “Why Advertisers Pay Up for  a Super Bowl Spot”; and from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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Clothes Shrink

On our 25th wedding anniversary, my wife and I crossed the Atlantic for an unforgettable first trip to Ireland. We wanted a few keepsakes to bring back with us, so we shopped carefully as we went about our travels. She found a gold necklace with a St. Brigid’s cross (her namesake), and a few ceramic Christmas ornaments. I opted for a few logo items from the Guinness Brewery, and a coffee table book on the village of Kildare. We also purchased music from a lovely harpist, playing outdoors just steps from the Cliffs of Moher.  Last week, I came across one more Ireland item I forgotten about: the sweater you see below.  It’s colorful and it’s Celtic… and I think I’ve worn it once.

Don’t know about you, but the new year is always my opportunity for “spring cleaning”.  Maybe it’s because I’m already in the mode as I take down and box up the Christmas decorations.  Or maybe it’s because my office files burst with paper after a year of accumulation.  Whatever the reason, by mid-January I manage to a) empty my office of anything irrelevant to the coming year, and b) conduct something akin to an inventory reduction sale on my clothes.  The office files are easy, but the wardrobe; that takes a little more judgment.

When it comes to decisions about clothes, it’s safe to say guys have it easier.  We’re more utilitarian – by definition “designed to be useful or practical rather than attractive”.  Yep, that’s us guys – if the shoe fits, so to speak.  Of course, women flip the definition around and put the premium on “attractive”.  For them it’s more about fetching than fitting.  In fact, I’d venture to say a woman’s closet is 75% “attractive” and 25% “utilitarian”, while a man’s is the reverse.  And trust me; “utilitarian” is easier to shift to the giveaway pile.

Destined for Goodwill

My annual wardrobe shrink is always nostalgic.  Some items – particularly suits and sweaters – survive several years before reluctantly leaving the nest.  Others – admitted impulse buys – fly the coop having been worn just a handful of times.  I’ll never forget one year, when I brought eight suits to Goodwill.  Why so many?  I moved from California to Colorado and changed jobs in the process.  My CA job required the suits; my new CO job did not.  Even so, I had to swallow hard on that donation.  Those suits had plenty of mileage left in them.

Illustration: James Gulliver Hancock

Here’s a mistake I make all too often with my wardrobe.  I’ll buy a shirt or a pair of pants at a store.  Weeks later, I realize I really like what I purchased, so I go online and buy another half-dozen; same style in various colors.  That’s the mistake.  Not only am I a poor color-chooser through the Web, but I don’t wear that shirt or those pants as often as I think I will.  In other words, I over-shop (and I’m a guy!)  Then comes wardrobe shrink time, and my giveaway pile includes that shirt or those pants.  Not good.

The more common mistake – at least for us guys – is to buy something last-minute for a single occasion.  Sure we may need it, but do we take a moment to project whether we’ll ever wear that item again?  If not, that shirt or tie or sweater is reduced to a keepsake, sitting quietly on the closet shelf just yearning for another wear.  That’s my Ireland sweater.  Kinda sad, isn’t it?

Admittedly, I have other keepsake clothing.  I buy shirts from favorite destinations (hello Guinness), and can’t bear to part with them.  I buy shirts with my college’s logo on them, and can’t bear to picture someone else wearing them.  I still have an Aloha shirt from our honeymoon in Hawaii (probably the last time I wore it too).  No matter – there’s plenty of room in the closet when 25% just went to Goodwill.  The purge is not completely pure.  My Ireland sweater will live to see another year.

Some content sourced from the Wall Street Journal article, “The Case for Buying Less Clothing”.

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Putting the Kettle On

Kacey Musgraves is a blossoming country music artist whose recent album “Golden Hour” will compete with heavy-hitters at this year’s Grammy Awards for Album of the Year. She’s released only four albums (through major labels), so the nomination is remarkable. And yet – despite the acclaim heaped on “Golden Hour” – my favorite Kacey song remains a track from her second album, “Pageant Material”. In her words, it’s “a little, tiny, music-box-of-a-song” called “Cup of Tea”.

The message in “Cup of Tea” (have a listen here) – is simple: no matter who you are or what you stand for, you’re never going to appeal to everybody.  There will always be haters out there no matter how you present yourself.  My favorite lyrics in “Cup of Tea” are the refrain itself:

You can’t be, everybody’s cup of tea
Some like it bitter, some like it sweet
Nobody’s everybody’s favorite
So you might as well just make it how you please

Kacey wouldn’t mind if I told her “Cup of Tea” gets me thinking just as much about tea as about how well I mesh with other people.  Not that I’ll be steeping anytime soon, mind you.  I can’t seem to acquire tea-taste, no matter how many times I put the kettle on.  Go figure – half my DNA originates from England, so you’d think my instincts would have me setting out the fine china and doilies every afternoon.  I’d nibble on the cakes or scones or whatever comes with, but no tea, please.  I much prefer my morning coffee.

Ironically, tea brews with some of my earliest childhood memories.  My parents used to take my brothers and I downtown in Los Angeles, to restaurants on the streets of Chinatown – probably as much for the cultural experience as for the food. I can still picture those dark, quiet dining rooms, with the strange music and gaudy decor.  The meal always began with a pot of tea, including the little round cups that seemed to have misplaced their handles.  Tea was a cool experience back then. Listen, when all you drank was milk or water (or the occasional soda), tea was pretty sweet no matter how it tasted.  It was like having a “grown-up” drink before being grown up.

Forty-odd years later, I notched another tea-riffic memory.  My wife and I took a cruise on the Baltic Sea a few summers ago (“six countries in eight days”), and chose Oceania, one of the nicer cruise lines.  Good decision.  As much as we enjoyed the excursions off the ship, we enjoyed the return even more, because every day we were treated to “afternoon tea”.  Oceania’s tea was the perfect respite between the early morning touring and the evening dinners/dancing.  “Tea” included tableside service from tuxedoed waitstaff, countless cakes and petit fours, and those little triangle sandwiches with the crusts removed.  “Tea” even included a string quartet; their soft music adding to the ambiance.  I suppose I could’ve asked for coffee instead, but that would’ve tainted the experience.  Not to say I enjoyed the tea itself.  Just “afternoon tea”.

The culture, history, and preparations of tea could generate a week’s worth of posts.  (See the Wikipedia article here).  What I find more interesting is how tea has become the daily routine of several global cultures.  The Chinese and Japanese consume tea in the morning “to heighten calm alertness”.  The Brits serve tea to guests upon arrival (or in the mid-afternoon), for “enjoyment in a refined setting”.  The Russians consider a social gathering “incomplete” without tea.  Not sure about all that, but I can at least agree with the moment of pause tea provides; the respite from the faster pace.  It’s just… my “cup of tea” is coffee.

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Nature’s Constant Call

It wasn’t supposed to be this difficult.  Merely tweaking a former New Year’s resolution to create a new one should be the proverbial walk in the park.  But clearly, I wasn’t prepared for the, uh, “inconveniences” of my particular undertaking.  So it goes when you commit to drinking a dozen glasses of water a day instead of ten.

(Hey, give me a sec’… I’ll be right back.)

Are you a New Year’s resolution kinda person?  Do you sit down towards the end of the holidays and pen (or pencil, for you not-so-brave) a list of gonna-do’s for the coming year?  Me, I’m on the fence with the whole promises-promises thing.  Sure, turning the calendar from December to January evokes a fresh start; I’m just not convinced I must be “resolute” in the process.  I prefer casual, undocumented, safe-zone agreements.  Gonna eat better. Gonna get to the gym more. Gonna read a bunch of new books.  Whether I blow them out of the water or just achieve slightly better than last year, I win!

The water thing, though.  Why-oh-why did I read my latest fitness club newsletter and choose to drink their Kool-Aid?  (Wait, hang on… the phone’s ringing… it’s Nature again.)

Can you hear it? Does it make you want to…?

Forget the glittering generality of eight-glasses-per-day.  Not only is the rule passé, it holds no water.  Eight glasses is simply too generic for the myriad human bodies out there.  Ditto downing “half your weight in ounces of water” – too generic.  On the other hand, a pile of research and scientific evidence in my newsletter suggested the following: Men should consume 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluids per day, while women should consume 11.5 cups (2.7 liters).

Now then, “fluids” includes all liquids swallowed in a day, so right away we have an appealing math problem.  Fluids from foods = 20% (just go with it), so my 15.5 cups instantly evaporate to 12.4.  A cup of coffee in the morning and a glass of wine in the evening can also be subtracted (don’t believe the dehydration claims – they don’t hold water).  However – and here we pause the calculator – I can’t escape the negative impacts of a) regular exercise (I sweat like a baby rainstorm), b) environment (Colorado = high altitude = dehydration), and c) breathing.  Those three moisture-robbers elevate me back to 12.4 cups.  Maybe I should stop breathing – that’s worth at least the 0.4 cup.

12 cups = 3/4 gallon

Ten cups a day – now that’s navigable waters in my book.  I start the morning with two (supposedly a good habit) as I wash down my multi-vitamin.  I drink another two mid-morning, another two at lunch, another two or three in the afternoon, and one at dinner.  But twelve cups?  How the heck do I jam another two into my schedule?  More importantly, where to I find the extra time to uh, um… (a little patience here, I need to talk to a man about a horse).

Time to get personal (as if we haven’t been already).  When I morphed from child to teenager to full-grown adult, my body parts grew accordingly, EXCEPT my bladder.  That little balloon remains the same size as when I was born – I’m sure of it.  The bladder is a remarkable organ, “capable of expanding from 2 to 6 inches with a capacity of 16 to 24 ounces”.  MY bladder is capable of expanding to 2 inches (a guess) with a capacity of 16 ounces (another guess).  And here’s the best part.  The urge to urinate comes when the bladder is one-quarter full. Whose idea of a cruel joke is THAT?  Do the math on me and I’m only halfway through cup #1 before I’m scheduling time with the porcelain goddess. Speaking of the goddess, uh… (hold tight while I go water the flowers).

About these down-the-hall interruptions: is it just me or does the sound of running water “accelerate” the process?  In my twelve-cups-a-day world, I continue to brush my teeth, make a cup of coffee, refill the dog bowl, refill the bedroom humidifier, and refill water bottles every time I go to the gym.  You’d better believe every one of those tasks has me wanting to go powder my nose – and I really don’t powder my nose if you know what I mean.  Gee whiz (for God’s sake, don’t say WHIZ!), can’t a guy catch a break that doesn’t have the word “bathroom” in front of it?

My fitness newsletter also claimed, “women who are pregnant or are breast-feeding need additional fluids to stay hydrated”.  Bless my stars, I am not a woman. But seriously, twelve cups?  I’ll be moving my laptop into another “office” in my house before I know it.  There’s more to say on this topic but it’s gonna have to wait because… (I need to make a pit stop).

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Center Peace

Let’s admit to one of the unspoken axioms of commercial air travel, shall we?  When it comes to flying, we do everything we can to avoid sitting next to a stranger. In an open-seating approach like Southwest Airlines, it’s all about the aisles and windows, pinning our hopes on that almost-extinct creature known as the open middle seat. Turning the corner from the jetway and gazing down the narrow aisle, our brains simply erase the middles from the seating plan. We’ll go all the way to the last row before we’re forced to sit beside a stranger. It’s like boarding the big yellow bus in elementary school, forced to choose a seat next to a kid you don’t already know.  Haven’t changed much as adults, have we?

Call me a lost cause, but I’m here today to extol the virtues of the middle seat.  There really can be peace in the center.  Thanks to my wife (who prefers the window seat for all kinds of reasons), I’ve chosen the middle seat for countless flights in our marriage.  Used to be, we’d take the aisle and window and leave the middle open, with decent odds for extra storage and elbow room.  These days?  An open middle is about as likely as getting bumped to first class.  It just doesn’t happen.

I know what you’re thinking.  A middle seat forces you to sit next to a stranger (assuming you’re traveling alone or as a couple).  Not a problem, as long as you drive the situation.  After your stranger joins you, you have about fifteen seconds to engage them in a conversation.  Those fifteen seconds are your one chance where a meet-and-greet feels natural, because you’re both still settling in and probably making a little eye contact.  Sixteen seconds in however, you’ve lost your chance.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve waited until the tail end of the flight (that “safe” moment when you realize you’ll be off the plane and gone in fifteen minutes anyway), only to find out I was sitting next to one of the nice/normal ones out there.

Here’s another rule about middle seats.  You need to find your comfort zone with the armrests.  There’s not a lot of real estate on those babies, so inevitably you’ll be jockeying with your neighbor to figure out how to share.  Just make sure you don’t let your neighbor take the whole armrest from the get-go.  If you do, your middle-seat space will feel super-cramped. (Why did a ’70’s rock band just come to mind?)  In other words, you’ll experience “armrestlessness” the remainder of your flight.

Strangers and armrests aside, let’s acknowledge some of the hidden positives of sitting center.  First, you have the easiest access to all the ceiling gadgets.  Adding light or air or a flight attendant to your environment requires nothing more than a casual reach overhead.  Your seatmates have it more difficult.  They’ll often add an “excuse me” to their movements, or even ask you to do it for them.  Sometimes that means bodily contact. Ick.

Second positive: you avoid the shortcomings of the window and aisle seats.  What are those?  The window seat personal space is noticeably smaller than other seats (including the storage space below the seat in front of you).  The window seat is also be noisy if you’re near the engines.  The aisle seat personal space is constantly interrupted by the happenings in the aisle itself: roving flight attendants, drink carts, and all those other strangers on the plane.  And here’s the ultimate penalty for sitting in the aisle seat:  you’re sitting between your seatmates and their freedom (i.e. the lavatory).  Every time they’re up and out of their seats, so are you.

Speaking of airplane lavatories, I avoid them until my bladder pulses me into levitation.  It’s not an issue of cleanliness or claustrophobia, but rather the journey to get there from your seat.  Here’s my ultimate nightmare: I get past the aisle seat and head to the front lav.  I find it occupied, which means I head to the back (no lines allowed in front).  On my way to the back, the seat belt sign dings and flight attendants guilt me into returning to my seat.  Mission unaccomplished.  Hold please.

Final though: be bold and choose the middle seat on occasion.  You might enjoy it as much as I do.  Then again, in-between comes more naturally to me. I was a middle child growing up.  I live in a middle state in the U.S.  I like to think of myself as slightly above average.  In other words, fair-to-middling.

Posted in America, culture, travel | Tagged | 2 Comments