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» 2011 » October

Monthly ArchiveOctober 2011

Commentary & technology 20 Oct 2011 06:17 pm

A welcome extinction

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.

Commentary & technology 13 Oct 2011 08:37 pm

I’ll get back to you — in 72 hours

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 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.”

Commentary & Media & Movies 12 Oct 2011 06:50 am

31 Days of Halloween encore


I remain unabashedly in love with all things Halloween, including horror films. Four years ago, when I had much more time in my life, I reviewed a fright film each day leading up to Oct. 31. This year, that won’t happen, but here’s an encore link to those 31 reviews. I still agree with most of my choices, by the way.

Turner Classic Movies has a full slate of Halloween offerings on Mondays this month, by the way, including a new Stephen King documentary that I haven’t seen yet. Click here for a link to their schedule.

Books 10 Oct 2011 09:38 pm

‘Animal Farm’ admission


I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve stared for weeks at the Animal Farm cover above and saw only the blood smear behind the title. Then I realized it was in the shape of a pig.

Commentary & technology 09 Oct 2011 08:30 pm

Gamers crack the code

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.