Ah, the day after Thanksgiving, when Americans exchange leftover turkey and gratitude for shoulder pads and helmets.
You’ll need both if you’re venturing onto the retail gridiron, looking for the perfect gift for that special somebody on your list or, more likely, just scooping up whatever garbage big-box retailers are pushing this season.
Such is the mania for Black Friday shopping that many readers have likely been in the game already. If you’re one of those, you’re either relaxing during halftime — and perhaps plotting your second half strategy with the help of sales flyers in this very newspaper — or sidelined by injury. (A toe crushed by a cart wielded by an overzealous septuagenarian is the most common reason to find yourself on the shopping DL list.)
With the hope that it’s not too late, here are a few Left of Center tips to keep you safe and productive during the coming three-week orgy of American capitalism.
1. Always shop with a buddy. A wingman is the most necessary accoutrement to a successful foray into the retail jungle. This person should have some experience in hand-to-hand combat to repel hordes of angry mothers after you’ve grabbed the last Tickle Me Elmo and are making a run for the register.
Experience with nunchakus and throwing stars are also a plus, allowing the wingman to hurl your credit card with ninja accuracy straight for the scanner, the magnetic strip slitting your competitors’ throats as you skate across their blood toward the successful completion of your transaction.
2. Think small. Not in terms of your shopping list or budget — which should be as large as possible to help stimulate the economy and put more Americans back to work, hallelujah! — but in terms of your vehicle. A smaller car will allow you to wedge into spaces where larger vehicles cannot, like those diagonal lines on either side of handicapped parking spaces. Or, if you drive a Smart Car, into a bicycle rack.
Of course, small cars make it difficult to drag home too much loot, but since everybody wants iPads and iPhones this year anyway, ample trunk space hardly matters. Plus, some misguided soul will probably steal all your bags as you leave the store anyway.
3. Choose your weapons carefully. A shopping cart is your greatest ally, allowing you to mow through masses of zombie shoppers just like characters on “The Walking Dead.” But a squeaky, wobbly wheel will slow you down just enough to miss the blue-light special on tacky costume jewelry in Aisle 4 or get beaten to the punch on cheap, large-screen TVs imported from Mexico that will save you $50 but cost thousands of Americans their jobs.
You may also wish to arm yourself with smaller shopping baskets, which can be strapped to both feet using the twistie ties off bread bags or the belts off sweepers, allowing you to glide across icy parking lots like a latter-day Wayne Gretzky and shave precious seconds off your commute from Walmart to Target.
4. Come armed with air fresheners and earbuds. Both will be necessary when waiting in line with your fellow shoppers.
True story: Last year I stood in line behind a gentleman whose body had a difficult time assimilating all the turkey he had eaten the day before. Periodically, he would announce, “Better look out, I’m blowin ‘em out!” At first, I thought he was referencing a really good buy, but once the pungent aroma of stale turkey farts wafted my way, I knew it wasn’t bargains he was talking about.
The earbuds won’t do anything to quell the smell, but they will keep you isolated from other shoppers and their litany of aches, pains and funny-but-not-really stories about kids and significant others.
5. Wait until Cyber Monday and buy it all online. I like to support local businesses as much as the next guy, but let’s face it, clicking a few buttons, typing in your credit card number and waiting for somebody to deliver the goodies to your porch is a whole lot better for the environment and your mental health.
Plus, it’ll give you more time at home to spend with family, where the only fowl … er, foul odors will come not from strangers, but from people you know and love.
Then again, maybe there’s something to be said for Black Friday shopping after all.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published Nov. 29, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
Bad enough when bosses trundle out of their lairs a few times each day to berate cubicle dwellers. Soon they can do it by robot.
The Ava 500 looks like a streamlined, high-tech Tardis straight out of Doctor Who. But instead of opening a gateway to sci-fi wonderment and thrills, this giant lamp post rolls from office to office, allowing CEOs and other management types to interact with subordinates by two-way television monitor.
An article in the June 24 issue of Time Magazine explains that the Ava 500 is the mad-scientist creation of company iRobot, maker of the self-sweeping vacuum Roomba, a CD-shaped heel-nipper that is the bane of skittish felines. For an estimated $2,000 to $2,500 a month, fat cats (of the two-legged variety) can lease this mobile monster and sic it on unsuspecting worker drones.
Ava supposedly allows bosses to videoconference with employees in different cities, but you know that some status-seeking type-As with only one office in their fiefdom soon will send this office shark to terrorize workers on surreptitious stairwell smoke breaks or while selling magazines for a kid’s fundraiser in violation of the company’s no-solicitation rules. Talk about Big Brother.
No sooner will the average working-stiff Tom, Dick or Harry be settled on the porcelain throne with the sports section then the bathroom door will swing open and in will roll Ava, the boss’s face plastered on its screen.
“Dick, I know you’re in there,” Proxy Boss will intone, his remote-controlled Death Star on wheels banging on the stall door. “Dick, I need those TPS reports immediately.”
“You say you need some TP?” poor Dick will respond. “Here, let me pull some off the roll and send it out.”
According to the Time piece — which for some reason fails to speculate on the bathroom possibilities inherent in this new monstrosity — Ava 500 will operate by GPS, so bosses won’t have to direct it with a joystick. All they’ll have to do is fire off a voice command and their Gal Friday will go hunting.
I can only imagine that it won’t take long for iRobot to realize that bosses can use the GPS capabilities of their employees’ phones to track down not just the company water cooler, but specific individuals huddled around it.
(Do companies still have water coolers, or have they been eliminated as an unnecessary expense? Let ‘em suck water straight from the bathroom sink, I say.)
But why stop there? Put some snow tires on Ava and send her out into the world, seeking employees while they shop, refuel cars, sleep, or any of the myriad activities that indicate — horror of horrors — a life outside the office.
Can you imagine your boss’s face staring down at you while you sleep? Tapping the window of the family room as you watch TV? Chasing you around a backyard barbecue while you fend it off with a spatula?
In all honesty, Ava 500 is a dumb idea. Bosses already have employees on electronic leashes via email, Skype, Facetime and any number of other technological breakthroughs that allow them to work us like dogs 24/7. The only advantage of Ava is that we won’t be able to pretend we’re away from our computers or that we have a bad signal when the boss calls.
However, Ava has one design flaw that workers will be able to exploit quite handily. Her maximum speed is just 3.3 feet per second.
Like the old joke about how to outrun a bear, all you’ll need to do to escape is run 3.4 feet per second to leave Ava — and your boss’s whines, pleas and demands for immediate ego stroking — in the dust.
Score one for the proletariat.
@cschillig on Twitter
Stick-N-Find is the technology for me, the perennial loser.
I don’t mean “loser” the way most people do, to describe somebody perpetually down on his luck, although that could apply to me too.
No, I mean it in the literal sense: I am constantly misplacing stuff.
My wallet, for example, goes AWOL a lot. In the winter, it’s easier to keep track of, jammed in my coat pocket along with various receipts, pens and lint. In the summer, though, it lives a third of the time in my car, a third of the time in my back pocket and a third of the time, I guess, on Tralfamadore, the alien planet in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” where earthlings are displayed in an intergalactic zoo.
With Stick-N-Find technology, I could affix a bottle-cap-sized disc to my wallet and then send a low-energy radio signal from my iPhone that would help me home in. (By the way, I’m not being an Apple elitist by name-dropping the iPhone, as it’s one of the few devices that can pick up on Stick-N-Find signals. Take that, Android users.)
The new gizmos were on display at a trade show in Barcelona, Spain, recently. My boss wouldn’t pay for me to cover it live, so I had to settle for an Associated Press story.
As soon as I read about Stick-N-Finds, I knew what they were: real-life versions of Spider-Man’s spider tracers, tiny metal arachnids that our hero sticks to suspects or on villains’ getaway vehicles so that he can find them later. Once again, life imitates art.
Currently, Stick-N-Find technology is prohibitively expensive. At $25 each, I can’t afford them for my wallet, car keys, television remote control, shoes, favorite shirt, dog leash, glasses, glasses case, stapler, tape dispenser, screwdriver and hammer. But if the price came down — say, to a dollar or two — I’d have more radio waves buzzing around my house than a 100,000-watt FM station.
With these little gizmos, I would never again search fruitlessly in a closet for my favorite tie only to find it draped around the dog’s neck two rooms away. Or locate the whereabouts of a shaving cream bottle inadvertently wedged behind two piles of clean towels.
I know Stick-N-Finds would also be great for my marriage, which is constantly under stress from the forces of misplacement. See, my wife is a loser too — otherwise, why would she marry me — compounded by her penchant for throwing away items of financial value
Many an early morning has found me Dumpster-diving in my own trash cans, separating eggshells, napkins and other refuse in a vain attempt to find an unpaid water bill or an important tax document. I pity clerks who must open return envelopes from Casa Schillig, smudged as they are with butter and grease, smelling like a troll’s unwashed armpit.
My wife’s greatest accomplishment (to date) was shredding one of my paychecks, thinking it was just a stub. I tried to tape it back together, creating a sort of Frankencheck, but the bank wouldn’t even consider it. I’m pretty sure the teller was laughing from behind her glass window.
Stick-N-Find would help me with my female Jack the Ripper by allowing me to affix homing devices to important pieces of paper and locate them inside the house (where they inevitably turn up) before I spend 20 minutes rooting through garbage.
Besides my wallet, the item I would most want to Stick-N-Find is a book, “1,100 Words You Need to Know,” a massive tome I use when teaching. That book is the literary version of Jimmy Hoffa, but unlike Jimmy, it eventually turns up — after I’ve bought a replacement. A few years ago, after a copy disappeared for months, I found it in a pile of books discarded by a colleague. Last month, after sending out an embarrassingly pleading email to fellow teachers, I found it stuffed between the pages of another, even larger, book.
A Stick-N-Find would have lopped hours off my search. Indeed, it wasn’t until I stopped looking that the darn thing showed up, which is always the way. There’s an old saying that lost items appear only when the devil is finished with them.
If that’s the case, I hope Old Scratch’s time with “1,100 Words You Need to Know” has netted him an impressive vocabulary, maybe one he uses while explaining my wallet to visitors at the zoo on Tralfamadore.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published March 7, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
Any student who has suffered through my class knows my policy on exclamation points: You get only two a year, so use them wisely.
Actually, the quantity and duration change every time I tell it, and savvy students — the ones who aren’t sleeping or glancing surreptitiously at cellphones every few minutes — sometimes call me out. “Didn’t you say last week that we get two exclamation points each quarter, Mr. S?” (Almost nobody can pronounce Schillig without making it sound like Austrian currency, so Mr. S is acceptable shorthand. Maybe I should change my name to Euro.)
Yes, it’s true I inform some students that they can use three exclamation points a year, some four. In a moment of unexpected largesse, I once offered up five, which is unbridled craziness.
The exact number doesn’t matter as much as the expectation that budding writers think of the exclamation point as an endangered species (something to be cherished) or a rich dessert (something to be enjoyed only occasionally). To throw in one more metaphor, if periods are common nails of the punctuation toolbox, then exclamation points are drywall screws — expensive, more difficult to use, and appropriate for only certain types of sentences and situations.
If a piece of information is so earthshaking that it will rattle the souls of all who read it, an exclamation point is warranted. “Martians Invade!” or “World Ends!” are such headlines. “Mary’s dating Tom again!” is not, in most cases — unless you’re Mary or Tom.
Short of impending, immediate violence — “I’ll kill you!” — most exclamation points are unnecessary. If you’ve written a piece well, the emotion is conveyed without the need for special punctuation, and readers are better served by deciding for themselves how much emotion a given statement deserves.
I also make it clear to students that no matter how many exclamation points I allow them, under no circumstances should the marks be used simultaneously. Even “World Ends!” doesn’t merit two exclamation points, because what do you do you write the next day? “World Returns!!”?
For the record, I must also acknowledge my own hypocrisy. While I am a card-carrying member of the Anti-Exclamation League, I am simultaneously and contradictorily a member of the slippery Emoticons Embracers Ltd. (EEL), which supports the use of smiley faces and sad faces created with punctuation. So recipients of my electronic messages are often besieged with or — but never or because I find noses to be a waste of perfectly good hyphens.
Now, granted, I never use emoticons in serious writing, where I want words alone to represent me. But email and texting are different: They’re kissing cousins to verbal communication, where audiences often derive meaning from a speaker’s facial expressions or hand gestures. Minus these, the well-placed smiley face does yeoman’s work. A reader may be offended by “You’re crazy,” but never by “You’re crazy :),” which excuses a multitude of linguistic sins.
In other words, I’m not going to risk an angry spouse by typing “What a stupid idea” in a text message when I can instead put, “What a stupid idea :)” and provide myself with an automatic JK defense, which is admissible in most courts.
(I’ve never had a chance to use it in writing, but I’m fascinated by the emoticon for Slash, the ex-guitar player of Guns N’ Roses, which looks like this: iiii];) and represents the guitarist’s signature hat and cigarette, but only if you cock your head like the RCA dog can you see it.)
Further examples of hypocrisy can be found in my hatred of all instant-message abbreviations, including LOL, B4N, IMHO, NSFW, YOLO and the above-mentioned JK.* None of these aids communication; they are shortcuts for lazy writers, an argument that could also be made for emoticons. Hence, the hypocrisy.
So to summarize my writing advice in reverse order: don’t use abbreviations, emoticons are OK unless you’re writing the Great American Novel or a formal paper, and go easy on the exclamation points, to the tune of about two a year (unless I’ve told you more at another time).
Otherwise, you will incur the wrath of an English teacher!!! Or at least one’s righteous indignation. Well, this one’s, anyway.
@cschillig on Twitter
*For the Internet illiterate, these are laugh out loud, ‘bye for now, in my honest opinion, not safe for work (an off-color joke, for example), you only live once and just kidding.
Originally published July 5, 2012, in The Alliance Review.
The world’s gone and caught the shutter bug.
Statistics are hard to come by, but humanity has captured north of 3.5 trillion photos since the dawn of the daguerreotype in 1838, according to the 1000 Memories organization, which estimates that we add 375 billion new photos annually in this, the age of digital photography. 1000 Memories also estimates that 20 percent of all digital photos will end up in the same place, Facebook, which has a collection 10,000 times larger than the Library of Congress. (These statistics are from a blog entry in September, so figures have grown since.)
Now, I have a hard time wrapping my brain around numbers much larger than three. Many people share my problem, as witnessed by the popularity of trios such as the Three Bears, Three Blind Mice, Three Little Pigs, Three Wise Men, Three Stooges, and Peter, Paul and Mary, not to mention the cherished theory that famous people die in threes. So imagining 3.5 trillion photos is daunting, although it’s dwarfed by the $15 trillion national debt, which makes my head hurt even more. But it’s believable — society’s photo mania, not the national debt — when you consider it anecdotally. My wife and I spent last week in Washington, D.C., where we were the only tourists not making love to cameras every waking moment.
Wherever we went, visitors were snapping pictures — of monuments, of each other, and of each other in front of monuments. If they had confined themselves to such photos, it would be understandable. But they didn’t. When they finished with monuments, they focused on crazy stuff, like squirrels hopping across the National Mall, or empty park benches.
Everywhere I stepped, I ruined somebody’s picture. Like some demented mime display of the stop, drop and roll creed, people in front of me plunged to the ground or Tebowed to find the perfect angle of sunlight glinting off a nearby hot dog vendor’s cart, or stepped into traffic to capture motorcycles rumbling along Constitution Avenue.
Some people obviously believe a camera slung around the neck confers immunity from injury, that it won’t hurt to be run over by a Harley Davidson as long as you get a picture of it on your way to the pavement and the emergency room.
One old man in the Museum of Natural History wouldn’t rest until he had taken a photo of his companion in front of a stuffed black bear behind glass, even though the light from his flash bounced off the display case and surely ruined the shot, and his strategic placement in the middle of the room blocked dozens of other visitors.
Look, we all have our individual quirks and obsessions, but unless these guys were naturalists who had made Ursus americanus their life’s work, they tied up museum traffic for no reason.
Back when each image cost money to develop, such unimportant pictures would die stillborn in the amateur photographer’s imagination. Readers of a certain age can remember the role the number 24 played in photography — 24 shots on a standard roll of 35-millimeter film (sometimes 27, if you were lucky). Having a finite number meant you self-edited before pressing the shutter button. If I take 24 pictures of a display case full of brochures at the hotel, then I won’t have any left for George Washington’s false teeth on display in Mount Vernon. (By the way, taking pictures of Washington’s teeth is strictly prohibited.)
Today’s photographers needn’t worry about self-editing. We fire at will as we march bravely toward 4, 5, and 6 trillion pictures, snapping more images in two minutes than the entire human race throughout the 1800s and compulsively loading them to Facebook, so our friends know we are on vacation and that our houses can be pillaged at will.
One of my favorite memories of this year’s vacation is the photographer in a subway tunnel, standing 6 inches from a poster of a watercolor painting that advertised an art show, snapping and re-snapping and complaining about glare.
A few dozen steps would have put him on the subway, where he could have gone to see the painting itself for free.
Now that’s a guy who’s sick in the head for pictures.
@cschillig on Twitter
The future’s so bright you may have to wear shades — not to shield the eyes, but to help you recognize people and places.
Tech gurus, including Nick Bilton of the New York Times, speculate that Google will release smart eyeglasses by year’s end. These specs would record information for the wearer in real time, share it via a 3G or 4G connection with Google’s servers, and overlay useful data on a small screen a few inches from the user’s eyes.
If the smart-glasses wearer stood alongside a busy urban street, for instance, this screen might indicate nearby restaurants and shopping centers. The glasses could help the wearer navigate to a particular destination or find the nearest copy of the local newspaper. (Marketing possibilities are limitless.)
Time Magazine speculates that future versions of these new Google goggles — and you’ve gotta love that people are already hypothesizing about later iterations before the first version has been confirmed — might recognize faces. So that all-too-common panic you feel when a person whose name you should know but don’t approaches at a cocktail party or in the grocery store may soon be extinct.
While some privacy advocates may be concerned about security implications (what if somebody is wearing smart glasses in the restroom and sees me with my fly down?), you know the general public will take to them like mosquitoes to sweat. We love new gadgets, and with a potential price tag between $250 and $600, they’d cost no more than most phones.
If such glasses are really coming, and if a future version provides facial-recognition help, I’ll be the first in line.
Remembering names is one of my weaknesses. I meet hundreds of new students every year, and I struggle with their names the same way poor Sisyphus pushes that boulder up a hill. Students start the year sitting in strict alphabetical order to help me assimilate names more quickly, but long after other teachers have them pegged cold, I’m still sneaking surreptitious peaks at my seating chart to remember who is who.
I use all the standard mnemonic tricks, such as rhyme (Fred, redhead), association (Mary sits on my left, married people have wedding rings on their left hands; therefore, that’s Mary), acronyms (Row 1: Marcus, Adam, Yale, Dale, Alyce, Yates — the first letters of their names spell “mayday”) and visualization (placing a mental picture of each student along a hypothetical driving route). All of these help, at least until I change the seating chart or see students at the mall, where suddenly Mary is on my right or Adam is walking beside Fred from another class, in which case my entire schema crumbles and I stand there with mouth agape, making sophisticated comments like, “Hey, you’re that kid from fifth period!”
What’s weird is that I remember conversations with students, particular papers that they’ve written and even where they sat in class for years, but their names disappear over a three-day weekend. Meanwhile, on those rare occasions when I am “in the zone,” I can recall dozens of people with no problem whatsoever, only to turn a corner — literally or figuratively — and have it all pop like a soap bubble. I’m tempted to blame age, except this has been going on for decades.
Nor is my name forgetfulness confined to students. I have a tough time with adults,as well, maybe as part of a low-grade social phobia. I attended a recent social event (something I avoid whenever possible) and was relieved when the first object I was handed was a name tag. Instantly, my high anxiety was downgraded to generalized angst, which is a place I’m at so frequently that I’ve been named mayor.
If I’m being totally honest here, I may be afraid of forgetting names more often than I actually forget them. Fear of forgetting — or being forgotten — is athazagoraphobia, which is a word that virtually begs to be forgotten.
Regardless, my problem could be solved with a pair of these wicked, hypothetical, future specs, just as a smart phone’s GPS feature has solved directional impairment for many people. I want to see little Johnny’s name materialize on a screen next to my eye, even as a tiny angelic choir celebrates my relief with a spirited rendition of Hallelujah in my hippocampus.
Now if Google can just develop a pair of glasses to make me invisible, I’d say the future was bright, indeed.
Dear Harried Business Executive,
By monitoring employees’ social media postings, we, the Executive Veneration Institute of Logistics, have noticed that your workers have a tendency to share opinions on sensitive issues related to your business.
These posts exhibit a startling tendency on the part of your underlings to think for themselves, a trait that should be stamped out like a wildfire whenever it ignites. Only last week, one of your wage slaves had the temerity to post a disparaging Facebook comment about a restaurant owned by a man whose second cousin twice removed was the college roommate of your business manager. The wording of said message was most inflammatory, consisting of “Broccoli undercooked, sux 2 B U,” which would surely cause a disruption in the normal flow of commerce if the connection between the hourly desk jockey and your august business were discovered by parties unfavorable to your delicate position in the community.
Two months ago, another minion of your company sent a Twitter message (”tweet” is the term in common usage among the proletariat) that indicated a preference for one political party over another. You would correctly surmise that he was on the side of the jackasses, and that the message was not flattering to the GOP, to which you sold your own soul many decades ago in exchange for continued tax breaks and a senator on speed dial.
These two communiques would not, in and of themselves, constitute a dire threat to your corporate power position. Both wage workers could easily be implicated in a lipstick-smudged love nest and fired in accordance with “The Modern Machiavelli’s Rules of Gaining and Maintaining Power in the Corporate Boardroom,” after all.
However, we fear that the two miscreants and their unauthorized use of social media are merely the seeds of a trend that, if left unchecked, could sprout riotous weeds to choke the life from your financial rose garden.
We advise a swift and immediate revision of your employee handbook to signal the gravity of the situation to the glassy-eyed servants in your employ. With so many of the unwashed masses out of work, these fortunate few who are benefactors of near-living wages as a result of your corporate largesse should not be allowed delusions of freedom of speech, and your handbook revisions should reflect this.
Let your employees know, in no uncertain terms, that their lives both on and off the clock belong to you. Part and parcel of this ownership is complete control of their off-duty musings on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and any other shallow social media watering holes to which their thirsty fingers may take them.
Next, have your hired hands sign a document indicating their complete submission to the divine right of corporations, which is no less than that enjoyed by monarchs in earlier, happier times before the advent of modern impediments to productivity, such as the 40-hour work week, child labor laws and retirement benefits.
To aid you in this endeavor, the Executive Veneration Institute of Logistics will — for a modest annual fee — monitor the online lives of all your employees and report to you instantly, and in triplicate, when a breach of policy is uncovered. (And, believe us, such breaches will be uncovered. American workers have the most ridiculously endearing sense of entitlement when it comes to their pathetic little opinions.)
Between the shoring up of your policies and our policing of your workers’ off-the-clock lives, we can ensure that the only messages sent to your adoring public are ones that correspond precisely with your mission and position statements.
For an additional fee, we can also offer surveillance of your employees’ activities unrelated to the Internet. If you want to know where they go, with whom they interact, and even how they vote, give us a call.
I remain, as always, your faithful servant (although one who, like you, is not bound by the same standards of decorum that you expect from your employees),
Director of Retention
Executive Veneration Institute of Logistics (EVIL)
Here is this week’s column:
Self-checkout lanes may soon be going the way of the dodo, according to recent reports.
It can’t happen soon enough. Short of employees who drop-kick customers in the pants when they ask questions, I can’t imagine a more surefire way to alienate buyers.
Here’s a scenario that has played out numerous times: I’m ringing up items in a self-checkout lane while two or more employees stand nearby, blithely ignoring that I can’t get the scanner to recognize a box of Wild Grape Pop Tarts and nattering on about how long they’re working that day (usually six whole hours), how stupid/ineffective/smelly their immediate superior is (very/very/very) or how one of their kids shoved graham crackers up his nose (a feat achievable only after much soaking in apple juice. The crackers, not the kid).
Meanwhile, a computer voice announces that I should “hang on” because “help is on the way.” But it’s not — at least not until the climaxes of the stories above, which are as long as “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment” combined. This, despite the waving of my arms and pointing to my watch (actually my cell phone), international symbols for “Hurry up, you dopes, don’t you know that ‘Dancing with the Stars’ starts in eight-and-a-half minutes?”
Eventually, one of the slack-jawed zombies makes her way to my side, where she solves my dilemma (and believe me, she makes it clear that it’s my problem from her glassy stare and barely stifled yawn) by pulling a swipe card from deep within some rolls of skin and waving it in front of the scanner, usually without explaining why the Pop Tarts were able to resist being UPC’d in the first place.
That’s when I realize that what I need isn’t an employee, but one of those magic swipe cards. I’m surprised grocery stores don’t start hanging one in every aisle, right next to a bottle of bleach and some paper towels that you can use when the clueless so-and-so who checked out before you leaves blood on the conveyor belt from a leaking package of pork. Why should employees do anything?
But when I told my wife how happy I will be to never again ring up my own purchases, she reminded me about Snotty Lady, and now I’m not so sure.
Snotty Lady, whom I had the displeasure to meet a few weeks ago, wasn’t really snotty, at least not in the “I hope you eat worms, you puny mortal” sense. No, she was literally snotty, blowing her nose on a balled-up tissue that she left on the top of her register, mopping up nasal discharge the consistency of Italian dressing by running her palm vertically down her nostrils, and then touching the valued-customer card that I held in my trembling hand.
She was the modern equivalent of Typhoid Mary, and she had her hands on every item we purchased. Yuck. At least at the self-checkout lane, I know where my hands have been.
The grocery store isn’t the only place where technology alienates me. I work for two progressive employers who have installed motion-sensor lighting, presumably on the assumption that we proles are not smart enough to turn out the lights when leaving a room. (What’s that say about the management that hired us?)
Because most of my work is sedentary — paginating newspaper pages doesn’t involve a lot of motion, and neither does grading papers, unless I’m pounding my head against a desk and muttering “Why? Why? Why?,” something I’ve done in both endeavors — these motion-detecting lights often turn off while I’m at my desk. At one job, the solution is to wave my arms in the air, causing the Sensor in the Skylight to recognize that a living, breathing human — albeit a seldom-moving one — is in the house (yo! yo!), and the lights come back on.
At the other job, however, I have to stand up and make several steps toward the center of the room before the lights flicker on. That, or send a document to the printer, the shaking of which is enough to fool the sensor into turning on the lights.
Since I’m invisible to the help at grocery stores and invisible to motion-detecting sensors at work, I’ve developed an inferiority complex, which I blame on technology. To this end, I’m considering a lawsuit against Bill Gates and the estate of the late Steve Jobs.
But the way society is “advancing,” I’d likely be forced to serve as my own attorney in front of a robotic judge and wave my arms periodically to keep the lights on in the courtroom, so why bother? Human interaction, it seems, is following the dodo into extinction.
Here is today’s column, as seen in The Alliance Review:
I received an email a few weeks ago from a sender who urged me to follow the “international academic standards for email response time,” which is apparently 72 hours.
I had a good laugh at this because it sounds ridiculously formal. I picture a coterie of bearded old men in a posh private library or study, leather patches on the elbows of their tweed jackets, puffing pipes and shaking their heads disconsolately as one of them says, “Egad, old Smith from the Audubon Society fired off a request for information on the mating habits of the Hoary Redpoll last week and I simply must respond posthaste or risk violating the international academic standards for email response time.”
“Jolly good show, that,” responds one of the other professorial types, signaling Jeeves for another martini and sinking back into his copy of Proust.
I googled “academic standards for email response time” and found not a single reference, which really doesn’t prove anything other than the term is more obscure than the Hoary Redpoll. The closest I came is a website called firstname.lastname@example.org. In answer to the question, “What is the rule for how fast you should be responding to emails?,” the site unhelpfully offers, “As soon as you can.”
Here in the real world, far removed from the ivory towers of academia, we proles who are the dubious benefactors of dozens of email “requests” that trickle down from our human and machine overlords often see responding to email as one more item on our to-do lists, somewhere between “toil unceasingly for the man” and “pick up milk on the way home.” The only pecking order among digital correspondences is determining which ones we have to answer immediately and which ones can be saved for another day. In other words, which must I answer to keep the boss off my @$$?
Some sort of email defense mechanism is necessary. On average, I receive around 10 messages an hour from four separate accounts during a typical work day. Some of this is ridiculous pap that can be safely ignored, a few are ridiculous pap that nevertheless require a response, and one out of every, oh, three dozen, is genuinely important. And my email tallies are small compared to some people, who wish they were juggling only 10 requests an hour.
Personally, I try to answer most email promptly, if only because I seldom open messages more than once. My own interpretation of “international academic standards for email response time” is about six hours, with many responses clocking in at less than an hour. If you haven’t heard from me before the sun sets on your original query, one of two things has occurred: I’ve either not seen your message or I’m ignoring you.
A few months ago, I had what I thought was a brainstorm and set two of my larger work-based accounts to forward email to my home account, which is tied to my cellphone, which chimes or vibrates whenever a message is received. This way, wherever I was, my email was just a pants pocket away, and I could stay in touch.
Now, when I’m out to dinner on a Saturday night or at the movies or just lounging on the couch, my pocket is literally buzzing with messages. My students submit essays digitally, and many wait until my traditional 11:59 p.m. deadline (midnight is just too scary) to share. Since I receive individual email notifications for each essay, my phone beeps and buzzes incessantly, making it sound like there’s an out-of-control party in my pants.
At my age, it’s often the most exciting thing that happens there.
Come to think of it, if getting email was always this exciting, there would be no need for silly rules like the 72-hour “international academic standards for email response time.”
Here is last week’s column from The Alliance Review:
It’s all fun and games until somebody deciphers the molecular structure of an enzyme.
Players of the online game Foldit did exactly that last month, breaking the code of a retroviral protease (yeah, I didn’t know what it was either) from an AIDS-like virus found in rhesus monkeys. The protease has flummoxed scientists for years, yet the gamers, working collaboratively, figured it out in 10 days.
Once molecular structures of such enzymes have been decoded, researchers could develop drugs to stop their spread. Hence, the world is one step closer to an AIDS vaccine thanks to video gamers.
Nobody has suggested firing the scientists who spent a decade working unsuccessfully to crack the code, which would be the obvious move when untrained amateurs accomplish more in less time, so we must look in other directions for lessons from this triumph.
First, it vindicates gamers who have lived for years in their parents’ basements, sacrificing personal hygiene and social lives in the name of higher scores on “Call of Duty” or “Mortal Kombat.” Now when their mothers try to shame them off the couch and into jobs — even if it’s only picking up pizza boxes littering the floor around them — they can justifiably say, “Aw, Ma, I’m cracking the crystal structure of a retroviral protease here. Leave me alone!”
I know a guy who routinely assured his parents that his addiction to video games would help later in life when he was behind the cockpit of a fighter jet. This was back in the days of the Atari 2600, with a controller that consisted of a joystick and one red button. The last time I checked, the average fighter jet cockpit was slightly more complicated. My acquaintance never got close to one, thank goodness, although he did eventually graduate to the Nintendo game system. Secondly — and more seriously — the Foldit success is an example of how intrinsic motivation is more effective than more common carrot-and-stick methods. Researchers and writers such as Edward Deci and Daniel Pink have cataloged many instances of people working on a project because they want to easily outperforming people working on a project because they have to.
Deci first demonstrated this decades ago in experiments with volunteers and puzzles. As long as volunteers were solving puzzles because they wanted to, they worked longer at the task, even during free time when they weren’t required to do so. On the other hand, volunteers who were paid to work on the same puzzles did so only during proscribed times and were far less likely to work on them during free time. Getting paid to do something fun equals “work,” which is no longer fun, and one’s internal motivation goes right out the window.
Pink has collected similar studies, noting surprising differences in the ways money motivates us. The bottom line: For tasks that involve little thought, higher pay and bonuses tied to productivity are good motivators. For tasks that involve even rudimentary creativity and thought, however, increased pay and bonuses decrease internal motivation and cause employees to produce less. (Politicians and taxpayers who favor merit-pay systems for teachers, take note.)
If researchers who turned to video game players for help with the monkey-virus puzzle had offered money, they might not have their solution.
Finally, the video gamers’ success is a perfect illustration of the “hive mind” at work. If two heads are better than one, how exponentially more powerful are thousands of heads? Crowdsourcing, or harnessing large groups to do tasks usually reserved for highly trained individuals, is gaining traction as a way to solve problems, replacing the image of the dedicated researcher toiling in solitude late into the night.
While I’m impressed with the video gamers’ accomplishments in science, I won’t be completely sold until they unravel a few more of life’s great mysteries. Call me when they find the lost Roanoke colony, the Mary Celeste, the identity of Jack the Ripper, or Jimmy Hoffa’s remains.
Only then will I trade my full-time job for a spot on the basement couch.