Technology Is Stupid

Most of my work day is spent writing about how people can use technology to be more efficient, so I’m always surprised when it becomes obvious how brain-dead technology can sometimes be. Sometimes it’s the people behind the technology who’ve had lobotomies, but sometimes, it’s hard to tell one from the other.

Here are several reasons I find technology frustrating:

Plug ugly. Don’t get me wrong – I think the USB standard, which allows computers to accept multiple peripherals using the same socket, is brilliant. But why don’t the plugs have any indication of which way they’re supposed to be plugged in? I’ve had to put little circular orange labels on each of my plugs – not to mention the smaller ones that charge my tablets and smartphone – so I know up from down.

Peripheral vision. Why does my Canon digital camera plug into my new Windows 10 computer and allow me to transfer images without any problem when my Canon scanner won’t do the exact same thing?

Search me. Why are web sites smart enough to know that I visited, but not smart enough to know what I did there? I was writing about Comcast Business Solutions, so I looked up its web site. I’m going to a conference in New York, so I made reservations at the Grand Hyatt. My wife bought Frango’s for some co-workers at Macy’s.com. You can guess what happened next.

I started getting banner ads for Comcast Business Solutions, the Grand Hyatt, and Macy’s. Uh – folks, I either completed my transaction or never intended to. Advertising Frango’s to me after I’ve already bought them is a fruitless endeavor. The more logical banner ad would be either something like Godiva Chocolates – assuming I’m a candy aficionado – or a weight loss program – assuming I’m too much of a candy aficionado.

My new best friend. The associated annoyance to making transactions comes when I have purchased something. Why does Macy’s (or Staples or whomever) suddenly think that I want to get e-mail from them every single week? Who wants that much e-mail? Who wants to go shopping that much? (I know, there are people who love retail therapy.)

Close but no cigar. No one likes pop-up ads. I’m frankly surprised they still exist. But even worse than most pop-up ads are pop-up ads that omit the little x that allows you to close them – or makes it so small or puts it in an odd place that you spend more time searching for the close box that you actually spend at the site. Really – not interested.

Shake shack. The associated aggravation to pop-ups comes when a site populates the ads first, and then the content. Some of the ads appear atop the content, and because they tend to be graphically heavy, they take longer to load. So I’ll be trying to read something, and then the text drops down on the screen, so I have to scroll down to find it. Then, because I haven’t clicked on the ad, it disappears, and the content jumps back up again. The day that I can control ad content on my screen – especially for sites that I pay for – is the day that I’ll be happy.

 Complaints aside, we can do more with technology now than we’ve ever been able to do before. Overall, it’s a godsend. That’s why it’s such a nuisance when, all too often, it just gets stuck on stupid.

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A Trend I’d Like To Counter

Has every newly opened restaurant adopted a new business model that eliminates table service in favor of walk-up counters? If so, put me down as a no vote. I hate it … for so many reasons.

Econ 101. I really don’t understand the point of these places. Are they saving money by eliminating the wait staff? Saving time by avoiding the arcane accounting rules involving tips and minimum wages? They don’t seem to be cheaper or faster than regular restaurants, so who’s deriving the value from this new business model?

Not so fast. Having adopted the efficiency model created by fast-food restaurants, they’ve overlooked one thing. The food in fast-food restaurants is fast because it’s either already prepared, or it’s easy to do so. I was in a restaurant recently where not only did one of the items I ordered take 20 minutes to prepare (something the cashier neglected to tell me), but they forgot to prepare it.

Pay in advance. In a restaurant, there’s some logic to paying at the end of the meal. Did you get everything you wanted? Was it satisfactory? In the foregoing example, the manager told the cashier to refund my money for the forgotten items. If I’d been at a traditional restaurant, we wouldn’t have had to go through that rigmarole. (In fact, I might have just left without any food.)

Wait, wait. Which brings me to the absence of wait staff. As I was wondering about where the heck my food was, I had two choices – ask the lone busboy, who barely spoke English and knew nothing anyway, or go back to the counter and wait for someone to address my problem. Disintermediate the wait staff all you want, but as with other middlemen, they provide a real service – communication between the kitchen and the customer. In a counter restaurant, if the order is incorrect, you have to explain to someone who probably didn’t take your order why there’s a problem. At least with a waitperson, there’s one point of contact. (And oh, by the way, if you want to order more food, an idea most restaurant owners encourage because it brings in more revenue, you don’t have to leave the table to do it.)

Here’s a tip. In a counter restaurant (unlike a fast-food restaurant, usually), there’s a tip jar by the cash register. I like to tip well when the service is good, but tipping when you order is a real crapshoot. I ate in a counter restaurant this weekend where it took 15 minutes to deliver a salad, and one that was tasteless besides. I really wanted to go back to the tip jar and retrieve what I’d left.

Apparently once again I must buck a 21st century trend and yearn for a return to 20th century traditions. When it comes to walk-up counters, I must counter with “no, thanks.”

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What Your Friends Won’t Tell You

Baldwin 0021 smallI wrote several months ago about how, leading up to my 60th birthday, I shed 35 pounds, about the same amount that a small child would weigh. One person asked me if I was going to put out an Amber alert for the toddler I’d lost. I’m happy to report that five months later, even over the holidays, I’ve managed to maintain my weight loss.

But that was only part one of the new me. I promised myself that if I lost a lot of weight, I would reward myself. So not long after I brought my weight down, I got a hair transplant. That’s right – you know all those Boomers getting cosmetic surgery? I’m now one of them.

I hated being bald. I hated the way I laughed it off: “I used to have a receding hairline, but now it’s just gone.” I hated the way my wife laughed it off: “You have more face to love.”

Truth be told, what I really wanted was the hairline I had when I was sixteen. I was cute when I was sixteen. The surgeon, however, informed me that our scalps tighten as we age. A sixteen-year-old hairline on a sixty-year-old scalp would have just looked weird. I accepted her advice.

The result? It’s not as thick as I wanted it to be, but it’s still a work in progress. It looks better than it did before. I now have to (get to) brush my hair in the morning, which I haven’t done for years. I also had a new professional photograph taken, now visible above and on my Facebook and LinkedIn pages.

But here’s the strange thing: nobody notices it. I don’t know whether they’re doing it intentionally or unintentionally. Friends look at the newly svelte me and say, “You look great!” Friends sense that there’s something different, but they refrain from saying, “Didn’t you used to be bald?”

I guess I can understand this. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t walk up to a girl from high school and say, “Who the hell stole your crow’s feet?” or “Have your boobs always been that big?” I also imagine that nobody walks up to Faye Dunaway or Meg Ryan and says, “You know, you really should sue the person who did that to you.”

So if you’re shy about pointing out cosmetic surgery, don’t be. I can dispense with your questions easily. To wit:

  • Yes, it was painful. For weeks I felt like I banged my head on something and for months my scalp itched something awful.
  • Yes, it’s my hair. I have a smile-shaped scar across the back of my head where they harvested the follicles.
  • No, they’re not plugs. The technicians transplanted 4,400 follicles from the back of my head to the top.
  • No, it wasn’t as expensive as I thought it would be.
  • Yes, I am now officially a hypocrite. After speaking out for years against breast augmentation and botox, I submitted to the male equivalent.

 

Is this the quieter equivalent of a midlife crisis? Perhaps it is. But I have to say that I’m pretty darn happy with it. My wife said it wasn’t necessary – and even yelled at me as I was going into surgery that I didn’t have to do it. I think she thought that, between losing weight and gaining hair, I wanted to start having affairs, but I quietly informed her that I wanted to look better for her.

I didn’t tell her that I wanted to look better for me too. Because even if nobody else does, I notice the new me.

 

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The United States of Splitsville

The last word in the title of this post comes from a slang word for divorce, coined – interestingly enough for Boomers – by none other than Mad Magazine in 1961. It comes to mind because, as indicated by last week’s post on Republicans and the other Republicans they hate, I have been thinking much about the election.

(Side note: speaking of ironic derivations, none other than Ronald Reagan – the hero of many of today’s conservatives – coined what he called the Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shall not speak ill of another Republican.” It makes you wonder how many other commandments these bozos have jettisoned.)

Actually, I have not so much been thinking about the election, but the state of the country in anticipation of the election. I would say I’m dumbfounded and bewildered, but in reality, I am beyond that. I am bordering on scared.

Why? Because in my lifetime, and in all the decades before that I have studied as an avid reader of history and civics, I have never seen such bifurcation as I see today in America. And it’s not just one kind of bifurcation; it’s a hideous matrix of split sentiment. The closest we might have come to this was during the years leading up to the Civil War, when the abolitionists and the slave states banged their heads together again and again until they gave up on head butts and turned to gun butts.

In one corner, I see a group of highly dissatisfied people handing Trump the Republican nomination. I don’t understand them or the principles they live by at all. Nor do I understand the idea of Ted Cruz as an alternative, since he and Trump both seem to be devotedly anti-government and anti-civil liberties. As near as I can tell, they are dissatisfied with government because it’s too big and intrusive and should be doing less. This mystifies me, because the only way Congress could possibly be doing less is if it actually didn’t convene.

In the opposite corner, I see a group of highly dissatisfied but also highly principled people voting for Bernie Sanders. These are people who believe that government isn’t doing enough – isn’t funding enough education, enough infrastructure, enough opportunity, you name it. I applaud Sanders for speaking out on these issues; they’re all important. I don’t believe he can win either the nomination or the presidency, but that’s not the point here.

The split that’s exemplified by Trump on the one hand and Sanders on the other is bad enough. It’s almost as though neither side can understand how the other can be so passionate and so wrong-headed. Think about that: Americans have lost the ability to understand other Americans. That’s scary.

But sadly, that’s not the only split I see in America. There is an ever-widening split between the haves and have-nots. You’d think this split would overlay neatly on the Trump supporters and the Sanders supports, but it doesn’t. Overlay the different groups and you get a Venn diagram so bizarre as to induce headaches.

Interestingly, Howard Zinn notes in The People’s History of the United States that in colonial times, 10% of the population controlled 90% of the wealth. Today, the figure is only slightly better: according to an article in the Washington Post in 2015, based on Federal Reserve data, 10% of the population controls 76% of the wealth.

And yet, there are poor people who align with Republicans, just as there are rich people who think all their voluminous income is going to be taxed. And there are wealthy people who have no problem with the idea that they should contribute just a little bit more to the commonwealth (a word meaning the common well-being). They see, as Nick Carraway’s father said in The Great Gatsby, that not everyone had the same advantages that they did. They see that there are intractable roadblocks to upward mobility, something that was looked upon as sacrosanct in my childhood.

Let me just note one example from here in California. My parents invested in real estate here in California. They enjoyed massive run-ups in the value of their properties, while at the same time paying low property taxes thanks to Proposition 13, which limits property tax increases so that people won’t be priced out of their homes.

Because of innumerable exemptions in that law, parents can bequeath properties to children and they can retain those pre-Prop. 13 tax rates. Now, I’m not talking about the family home that one may want to retain. I’m not talking about a family farm that should perhaps be protected. I’m talking about rental properties, entities that contributed to the family wealth for years. Another exemption: the property tax rate stays the same if the property changes hands but the new owners each hold less than 50% of the property. So Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Marc Andreesen could have bought a $50 million office building together and still paid the lower tax rate. Talk about perpetuating income inequality.

So what is my point? I do have one. It’s that we seem to be devolving into a country of increasingly dissatisfied people. Call it class warfare, culture wars, religious wars, or something else, but I fear there is a depth of bitterness – and worse, powerlessness – that’s burbling throughout America. Each side thinks the other is out to destroy us. Whoever wins this election – Clinton, Trump, Cruz, the 100 senators and the 536 congresspeople, it doesn’t matter – are going to have a bigger problem on their hands than just the duties in their job description.

They’re going to have figure out how to address the fact that larger numbers of Americans are fundamentally disagreeing about more things than ever before. I fear the day is coming when we collectively forget that our motto – e pluribus unum – means “out of many, one,” and that after that, the name United States will no longer apply to America.

 

 

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My Newfound Respect For Complete Idiots

This presidential campaign has been full of surprises for me.

Surprise #1: People are actually voting for Donald Trump. My initial theory has been disproven. I thought that the Republican party, having pushed out all the rational people like me, had been reduced to the radical fringe; that is, a bunch of disenchanted white males who think the U.S. peaked in the 1950s). You only have to watch Samantha Bee interview a group of millennials who are supporting Trump to know that he is appealing beyond the traditional radical fringe to a new kind of radical fringe that – for reasons I’ve yet to figure out – think Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are actually interchangeable. This brings us to …

Surprise #2: The Republican Party is actually actively working to deny Trump the nomination. To quote Basil Hoffman’s one line in My Favorite Year (he was the gag writer who never said anything): “This makes me so happy.” Why? Because having spent years cultivating the radical fringe, the Republicans are now contending with the most radical guy of all, and they hate him.

For years, they’ve sown unfounded fears about terrorism (weapons of mass destruction, anyone?); maligned a twice-duly elected president (see: birthers); and voted 837 times to defund health care legislation that actually helps Americans. So what have they spawned? A guy who’s too crazy for Republicans.

Think about that. Did you actually think that was possible? Not me.

But Republicans seem to be among the few people who are actually listening to what Trump’s saying. Take the other night, when in one of his victory speeches, he said he was going to force Apple to build their smartphones in America. Apparently I’m not the only one for whom that rings somewhat anti-capitalist, and even fascist. Is Trump also going to force Americans to buy those more-expensive smartphones over, say, Samsung phones built in Korea? Apparently I’m not the only one for whom that rings somewhat anti-capitalist, and even communist.

Clearly, Trump’s strong point isn’t civics. He’s big on forcing people to do things. As distasteful as it was, I went to his web site to see what he’s in favor of, and learned that he wants to “eliminate China’s illegal export subsidies.” Does he even know how little power a U.S. president has? I’m pretty sure he can’t dictate to foreign governments (though he seems to think Mexico will do his bidding). Obama can’t even get the Republicans in the Senate to meet his Supreme Court nominee. Does Trump think he can belittle the Senate into doing his bidding? Does he even understand that senators are the only people whose terms in office are longer than the president’s?

I hope that those millennials who support him read further on that same page, where his strategy for getting China to do what he wants is to deploying the U.S. military “appropriately in the East and South China Seas.” You know, millennials, those are your friends from high school and college who are going to be fighting that war, along with the one Trump is planning to throw in the Middle East.

The Republicans aren’t real happy about some of Trump’s other plans, either. He wants to simplify the tax code in favor of ordinary people (something I’m in favor of as well) as well as businesses. But I’m waiting to see how he lowers taxes on citizens and businesses and still funds wars on multiple continents (the U.S. even found World War II hard to fund, and everybody was in favor of that one). But of course, before that happens, you have to believe that a billionaire – who has four times taken advantage of U.S. bankruptcy protection laws – is going to simplify the tax code for everyone else’s benefit.

Yeah, right.

So my venerable ex-party finds itself between the proverbial rock and hard place. If Trump wins the nomination, the Republicans risk Americans actually start listening to what he’s saying and realizing that if they look up blowhard in the dictionary, they’ll find Trump’s picture there. If Republicans deny Trump the nomination, they risk him running as a third-party candidate. Either way, they lose.

Which brings us to …

Surprise #3: Did you actually think it was possible for Hillary Clinton, with all of her baggage, to sashay into the White House? Not me.

 

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The Three Rules of Marriage

My youngest niece announced her engagement recently, which triggered thoughts of an appropriate wedding gift. I sent money, of course, to help with the nuptials, but that seemed inadequate.

Having navigated almost a quarter-century of marriage, it seemed more beneficial to offer something of greater value than money: experience. I outlined the humorous side of marital compatibility previously, so here’s the flip side. I have my own ideas of what makes a happy marriage, but also polled several long-time friends, all of whom either enjoy or have escaped marriage.

Their responses included the usual hilarity around “I asked my wife what she thought and then said, ‘yes, dear’ before sending the answers.” There was an intriguing suggestion to treat your spouse like a pet: pet them, feed them, and play with them. It sounded weird initially, but I’m beginning to like its simplicity. And of course, the fundamental recommendations for trust, compromise, communication, and respect.

But I finally boiled everything down to these three rules, presented in ascending order of importance.

Rule #3: Always look for things you can do together. A certain amount of independence is healthy, but when you find yourselves spending increasing amounts of time engaged in your own individual activities, it’s time to step back and find some things you can do together. It may be sports, it may be a television show, it may hiking, it may be dancing. In the spirit of the aforementioned compromise, one partner may need to try something new.

Rule #2: Don’t be afraid to start over. This does NOT mean splitting up. It means that when you find yourself wanting to divorce them twice a year and kill them once a year, sit down and remind yourself why you fell in love with them in the first place. And then do whatever you need to do to fall in love with them again. It could be a romantic vacation, it could be marriage counseling, or it could be just setting aside one night a week as “date night.” Repeat as necessary.

Rule #1: Never, ever, ever take the other person for granted. If I only had to offer one rule, this would be it. Nothing sours a marriage faster than the feeling that you’re no more important than the furniture. This covers a multitude of sins. If you bump into them in the hallway, apologize. If you’re late, call and say so. If they do the laundry or make dinner, thank them. If you fart in bed, say excuse me.

Simple, but effective. And no, I did not get my wife’s permission before posting these.

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Hey, Safeway – Aren’t You Curious Why I Don’t Shop As Often?

When it comes to customer loyalty, I like to think of myself as a pretty desirable guy. The cars in the garage were all made by Ford, and their fuel comes from Chevron. My last four computers came from Lenovo. With one hiccup during the last downturn, I’ve been at Bank of America for 40 years. To use consultant Geoffrey Moore’s wonderful phrase, I am a “prisoner of United” (except when I occasionally skip out on Southwest).

It takes a lot to dislodge me from default shopping. There was a time when I wouldn’t even think of going to any other department store but Macy’s, but as I wrote several years ago, its diminishing commitment to customer service eventually persuaded me to shop elsewhere.

Up until recently, I held a similar commitment to Safeway, the second-largest supermarket operator in the U.S. after Kroger’s, with stores in 18 states and affiliations affiliated with other chains such as Randalls and Tom Thumb in Texas and Vons in southern California and southern Nevada.

We didn’t decide to make this change lightly, but Safeway had long ago started to do things that aggravated me greatly:

  • What’s with all the cardboard display cases in the aisle? When there’s only room for two carts anyway, and there’s a display jutting out and a shopper stopped to consider nine million mustard options, it can cause a backup real fast.
  • I was intrigued by the online shopping option, until I discovered two things: delivery required a four-hour window, when I could get to the market and back within 30 minutes; and Safeway didn’t even offer many of its own branded items online – which meant I was forced to get the more-expensive option. (Maybe that was intentional.)
  • In addition to store loyalty, we have product loyalty. Safeway simply stopped selling some of the staples (like coffee and maple syrup) that we preferred (I now have French Market coffee shipped in from New Orleans.)
  • I switched my prescriptions to the pharmacy when Walgreens was threatening to take advantage of tax inversion. But the pharmacy hours were so limited that it wasn’t even convenient to get medications – not to mention that, without my consent, they put them on automatic refill.
  • Don’t even get me started on the way they treat employees. One friend of mine is a courtesy clerk who’s limited to 39 hours a week because one more hour would qualify her for benefits, while another friend was outright fired. His offense? There was a binder that had sat in lost and found for more than a month that contained credit card numbers, but no identification. He took it home to shred it, and Safeway accused him of removing “company property” (he worked through his union to get reinstated, but he still has a bad taste in his mouth).
  • Have you ever tried to redeem one of their coupons? Invariably, there’s a disclaimer in miniscule type that requires registering on some Web site, buying extra merchandise, or restrictions that only allow purchases on odd-numbered Tuesdays between 3 and 4 a.m. (okay, the last part may be an exaggeration, but only slightly).

Here in Silicon Valley, shopping at Safeway is almost an imperative. There are four stores within two miles of our house, and eight within five miles. We have the requisite Whole Foods and Sprouts, but the closest reasonably priced competitor is Lucky. A Lucky store used to be around the corner from our house, but its employees were unusually surly. No surprise when that store closed.

Eventually, after multiple false starts during the downturn, we were fortunate (not “lucky”) enough to see a local chain move into that space, called Zanotto’s. Good meat, good fish, good produce, nice people. The result: we spent more than $1,000 fewer dollars at Safeway this year in favor of the new store.

So here’s what mystifies me. Supermarkets for years have had loyalty cards to track customer purchases. Advances in analytic capabilities in the last few years has made that information even easier to parse. On a macro level, too, its revenues are down considerably: from $44 billion in 2012 to $36 billion in 2013 (it looks like 2014’s revenues will be similar to 2013).

Safeway may not care that one customer is giving it 25% less business, but it should at least be able to figure it out. It has my e-mail address. Isn’t it the least bit curious why it’s losing loyal customers?

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