Mixed Messages

My dad called the other day for a chat, but not before letting me know my answering machine was full. Since he couldn’t leave a message he just called over and over ’til I finally picked up. But here’s the thing: I don’t have any messages on my answering machine.  It’s not full at all.  So after the call I said to my wife, “Dad’s almost 92. I’ll forgive him a little confusion now and then. Probably mixed me up with one of my brothers.”

I still have one of these

Do you still have a landline in your house, the one with a bulky handset and built-in answering machine?  If you do, it’s tethered to the wall with wires, which then connect to a march of telephone poles outside (more wires), which eventually route your call to wherever it needs to go.  Imagine – in a world of wireless – a phone call with a physical connection from one end all the way to the other.  It’s positively antique.

[Random thought: once the world is fully wireless what’ll we do with all those telephone poles.  Caber toss, anyone?]

Go ahead and mock my out-land-ish outdated phone – at least I don’t have a party line.  Back in the day, if you lived in the sticks you shared a single physical line with your neighbors.  You were a “party” of subscribers who often found themselves talking over each other (“crosstalk”) or connected to the wrong party at the other end.  Party lines it is said, were the birthplace of gossip.

The reason I stubbornly cling to my landline is probably not the same as yours.  I keep my landline exclusively for those calls with my dad (er, and to divert telemarketers from my smartphone).  My dad can’t hear very well so anything wireless is a challenge, especially when you get the occasional syncing issue in the conversation.  On a landline Dad hears LOUD and CLEAR… even if he doesn’t always acknowledge what I say.  Are his calls worth the monthly subscription fee?  He’s 92!  You bet they are.

Now let me ask you this.  How often do you call your own phone number?  Why would you?  Pick up the phone and you get dial tone – all good.  Set the answering machine to “on” so people can leave messages – even better.  Except when they can’t.  Let’s suppose – “hypothetically” – your phone company redirects your phone number to a random voicemail box.  And that mailbox is already full.  How would you know?  Only if you called your own phone number, right?  Or, only if the one person who calls you (“hypothetically” your dad) insists he can’t leave a message.

Damn.  Dad was right after all.

Here’s the best part.  I can’t even call my phone company to fix the problem.  Why?  Because I “bundled”.  You know, where you combine TV, Internet, wireless, landline, and whatever else you have so they’re all billed and serviced through a single provider? Mis-take. Try calling your satellite TV provider to ask about landline phone service.  After you explain what a landline IS, the young person at the far end transfers you to a “specialist” (someone much older who actually understands landlines).  That person acts as intermediary between you and the phone company.  There’s a lot of, “Can I put you on hold for a sec?” and, “You still there? and, “Hold tight, we’re still working on it” and even the occasional, “You did say this was a landline, right?  Y’know, you really should get rid of your landline…”.

Long story short, it took me the better part of a week but now my dad can leave messages on my answering machine again.  He also says I should listen to my father more often.  (For younger readers, this is an excellent example of “eating crow”.  Look it up.)

Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) – the English band of the ’70’s who somehow fused pop, rock, and classical – had their biggest U.S. hit with Telephone Line.  Its final verse begins, “Okay… so no one’s answering.  Well can’t you just let it ring a little longer, longer, longer?”  No ELO, I can’t let it ring a little longer – the phone company rerouted my number to a full voicemail box.

But hey, thanks for calling.

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.

Office Space Capsule

Yesterday I was thinking about my dorm-room desk from the mid-eighties. On it sat the following essentials: a typewriter, a desk lamp, a month-to-month calendar, a clock-radio, a family photo or two, a few pieces of mail, and the latest edition of the campus newspaper. In the desk drawers I could find a small selection of pens, pencils and highlighters, a stack of spiral-bound notebooks, some textbooks, a calculator, stationery (including envelopes and stamps), a copy of the “Yellow Pages”, my camera, my checkbook, and a few menus from nearby restaurants. Dorm-room desks were solid, but my “office supplies” probably doubled the weight.  They were my band of brothers, helping wage battle on that ever-elusive college degree.

49 - elusive

If I recreate that same desk setup today, I would lug a huge box into my home office (bend the knees so you don’t hurt your back), drop slowly into my chair, reach into the box, and first pull out… a smartphone. I’d set it in the middle of the vast empty space of my desktop, reach into the box again, and pull out… nothing else.  Whoa.  My entire college setup has been condensed into the confines of a shiny 2″ x 5″ silicon wafer.

I forgot to mention the “telephone”.  My college provided a wired phone with the room – (one of those fancy new touch-tone models – ha).  Since my roommate and I positioned our desks to face each other, the phone straddled both desks.  That way either one of us could reach the corded handset when all those girls would call (okay, I think that was a fictional memory boost).

Sadly, only a few of my college-era office supplies have survived the advent of technology.  I have family photos on my desk, but they’re in the form of a digital frame, scrolling every several seconds.  I have pens and pencils in the top drawer, but I only seem to need them for my signature.  Finally, I have a wall calendar, but I really only glance at the monthly photos (of my college campus, ironically).  Heck, I don’t even need my desk.  I can just sit back in my chair with my smartphone and choose any item or activity I was geared for in college.

The convenience of having a desk’s worth of productivity inside a smartphone comes with a drawback.  It is the convenience itself.  When I woke up in the morning in college, my first thought was breakfast; not sitting down to the various tasks at my desk.  In today’s world, we wake up to the instant access and undeniable craving for Facebook and text and email.  The capsule may be slightly larger than those in the pill bottle, but the addiction to the contents can be just as powerful.

Here is my nugget of advice.  Take a lesson from my college days and choose breakfast first.  Avoid the temptation of the smartphone when you first wake up (and the premature stimulation to blood flow – see this Finnish study).  For me, it means simply charging my smartphone within the confines of my home office.  This forces the inconvenience of opening the door and considering the several other temptations and distractions of my work.  Those can wait – bacon and eggs not so much.