I Can Explain

socs-badgeI had planned to write at least one post during Linda’s absence from the Stream of Consciousness Saturday promptmaster role. I wanted to show some appreciation for the wonderful volunteers who filled in for her. But… There really isn’t a good ‘but’ here, I could have done it. Then again, I was working on some other posts, I was busy at work…

“I ran out of gas. I… I had a flat tire. I didn’t have enough money for cab fare. My tux didn’t come back from the cleaners. An old friend came in from out of town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake. A terrible flood. Locusts! It wasn’t my fault, I swear to God!”

And, yes, I stole that rambling series of excuses from Jake Blues in the original Blues Brothers movie, probably the greatest excuse scene (video) in a movie ever.

I am glad to see this particular promptexcuse’ because I was image hoping to be able to write for the SoCS this weekend. Like Linda, I have been on the road. Not as far (I think) as Linda and not for as long (of this I’m sure) as her, but on the road is on the road. It’s hard to write while traveling for business. It’s harder to write while traveling for leisure, unless you’re traveling with my daughter and you’re a morning person like me. We travel and we stay up late but I still get up before 6:30 am. She…well let’s just leave it at: she doesn’t.

So I have time to write. We try to stay in hotels that have a desk where I can work and angle my laptop away from her bed. The best hotel is the Hyatt Place North Shore in Pittsburgh in which the rooms include a lounge area that is separate from the bedroom area. They aren’t separate rooms, in that you can angle the TV to be seen from either, but the desk is isolated from the sleeping area. It’s the best hotel because it sits between Heinz Field and PNC Park.

Being a morning person isn’t my fault either. My excuse is my father. I’ve mentioned this before, the man was an early bird. He was a mailman and he started work at 6:30 am. That meant that he left for work at 5:45. It was only a 15 minute ride to work, but he wanted to be early. He wanted to get his coffee, line up the stuff he needed for his day, read the paper and be ready to work at 6:30. None of this running through the door and stamping that timecard at 6:50:55 for him. 6:50:55 you ask? The Post Office ran on military time. Actually, I was never in the military so for all I know they ran on a postal variant of military time. In any case, our time clock had 100 divisions during each hour, even though it had a normal analog clock face.

I worked at that same post office image during several summers. On the rare occasion that my father and I were both working the 6:30 – 3:30 “day shift,” we would ride together, a.k.a. I would drive him to work. He spent most of his life behind the wheel of something and he hated to drive. Both my brother and I had been told “the minute you get your permit, you’re driving me everywhere” and that threat / promise came to fruition. Of course, when you’re 16, there’s no such thing as too much driving. However, when you’re 19, there is such a thing as too dang early in the morning. The idea that I was taking a job that often required me to start work at 3:00 AM seemed absurd. However, the fact that that job paid more than three times the then current minimum wage and that was not absurd at all.

Somewhere during the course of several summers, I became a morning person. I became my father. I started getting up and going to work early. To this day, I am usually at work an hour before I need to be. I am on the flex-time schedule of 7:30 am to 3:30 pm but I feel late if I am not at my desk by 6:30. I like to get my coffee, take care of anything that is really bugging me and to catch up on things.

So there you have it, that’s my excuse. My father activated those dormant genes that he knew he had passed along to me.

Posted in Family, Nostalgia, Prompt, SoCS, Work Habits | Tagged , , , , , | 33 Comments

The Door

imageA busy weekend and a busier week has sidelined my next post in the “what were you thinking?” folder, so I thought I’d cheat and give you a quick update on the holiday door contest. I mentioned the contest in a Stream of Consciousness Saturday (SoCS) post a couple of weeks ago. As it turns out, the idea that I had seemed easier that it actually was. Having ideas like that is a trait that I share with my daughter – I guess that means that I’m responsible for that portion of her gene pool, unless I absorbed it by osmosis. In any case, nature or nurture, the door is done.

In case you didn’t read the previous post, the theme I chose for my door decorations was a “map” of Pittsburgh adorned with photos from several recent visits. Initially, I was going to cut “Merry Christmas” off of a red-ish gift bag and tape it to the door. On my way into work, I realized that “Home for the Holidays” would be much better. Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to be back in the office before the doors had to be finished. Fortunately, a friend offered to add the letters for me which was way better than my attempting to write the message with a Sharpie.

The pictures below show the door progressing through the various stages. They have description, so I won’t bother to describe the process here. I will offer a few lessons-learned in case you ever decide to enter a door decorating contest or decorate your door at home:

Buy wrapping paper from a craft supply store as opposed to a discount store. Discount stores (I used Target) are better suited to people who want to wrap presents than large objects.

Buy packing tape, not Scotch Tape® for this task and buy more tape than you think you will need. Don’t get all mathy on this and go reading the lengths and converting yards to inches. Just buy another roll.

Coat the back of the paper where you have to cut out for the door knob, with tape. Cut an “X” into the paper, big enough to slide over the knob and trim precisely with a razorblade utility knife. The tape on the back prevents the paper from tearing. Coating the back with tape was the brainchild of another contestant, and it works well.

Leave enough room to wrap the paper around the top, bottom and both sides of the door so you can secure it with tape from the back side.

Tape. Every. Inch. Of. Paper, including the little bits by the latch and hinges. The ½” you don’t tape will be where the giant door-wrap-destroying tear will begin.

Keep your design simple.

Make templates if you have to cut wrapping paper to go on top of the base wrap. I used Post-It® notes to hint at the design and scrap copy paper to draw the template.

Start early enough to realize what your design will really look like before you commit yourself to buying the paper, the tape and the extra tape. I like my door, but it may look more like a drunken Gumby® waving his arms after a Steelers win than the three rivers that define my old home town.

 

I have either explained the photos in other posts, or I will explain them in future posts. Thanks for stopping by and wherever you spend your holidays, I hope it feels like home.

Posted in DIY, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , | 34 Comments

We Used To Could Do That

imageI’m not from the South but I lived there for a year. I wish I could get away with using the expression in the title and its companion expression “might could” but that might make the grammar police who follow me shudder.

As it happens, a couple of comments on my previous post have inspired me to explore a tangent off that story arc. I’m pretty sure that I’m using the word “tangent” correctly – I’d hate to offend the math nerds who follow me as well as the word nerds. For the record, at least three of my followers lie in both camps…or is that lay? Anyway, it occurred to me that one result of all this “improvement” is that there are things that people no longer have to / know how to do.image

Note: I’m about to play the “old” card.

This started when I was replying to Blog Woman after she agreed with an earlier reader (Ellie Rayne) that coffee makers have been improved beyond what was necessary. I realized that we might soon have a generation of people that will have never actually seen coffee and won’t be able to make coffee without a K-cup. This should be a concern.

A few years ago we had a devastating snow imagestorm at the end of October. Heavy wet snow fell on still-leaf-covered trees and brought branches and in some cases, entire trees down on wires, causing widespread power outages. We lost our power for 10 days! We didn’t have power. Dunkin Donuts didn’t have power and Starbucks…

Actually, one of the things I like about our little town is that the single Starbucks that opened here failed after about 8 months.

Power failure or not, we had coffee. My wife was able to make coffee on the wood stove that we were using for heat.

I had been thinking about this subject before the comments about coffee makers. I was thinking about the way we used to count to 10 when we played hide-and-seek. As I recall, there were two methods: There were the people who counted “one one thousand, two one thousand” and so on and there were those of us who counted “one Mississippi, two Mississippi” and like that. I’m not sure if that choice correlated to Pepsi vs. Coke and Adams Family vs. Munster’s, but it’s my blog so Mississippi, Pepsi and Adams Family rule, however you should check out those links for Wendy’s well-researched view of those two shows.

Of course today our smart phones measure time with the accuracy required for guiding missiles and I’m sure that there’s an augmented version of hide-and-seek that utilizes Bluetooth proximity detection and phone-bumping gestures for assigning the person to be “it”.

Still, there’s something to be said about the Mississippi method. Here we were, children who, if we owned a watch probably weren’t allowed to wear it while playing outside and yet we could accurately measure time. In other words, we could measure time with a greater degree of accuracy than any mechanical device we had access to. I put in those words so that I could call attention to and put myself in the company of Galileo. I have read that when Galileo needed to measure time with great precision, he played the violin. Music notes are not only precise divisions of time, but small differences, due to the music being played incorrectly, say if I were trying to measure time with a violin, can be easily detected.

There are many other things that most children today will never learn to do. Some are good things. For example, I knew the ritual involved with starting a car before electronic fuel injection. You might pump the gas pedal one time or perhaps two times, but that’s an exclusive or, only one technique applied. Our family owned one car that my father swore required you to “pump it once and then hold the gas pedal down” and we owned another where it was “pump it twice and then take your foot off the pedal” otherwise, “flooding” ensued and you had to hold the butterfly open on the carburetor. We also knew how to jump start a car and, if it had a standard transmission, how to push start a car.

Two weeks after buying my Jeep, I was sitimageting in the cell phone parking lot at Logan Airport when a man asked me if I could give him a jump. He had cables. I had cables but we had trouble finding our respective batteries.

These bits of tacit knowledge were passed down from generation to generation but many have been rendered unnecessary by technology. If they are not passed down, they are lost. I submit as evidence of that last statement, the humble grocery bag. Even though paper bags never completely disappeared and, in some locations, might be making a comeback, lots of people no longer know how to properly arrange groceries in a bag. There is / was no arranging possible in those awful plastic bags so the knowledge was lost. If you are lucky enough to get a paper bag today, you might find the bread on the bottom.

Posted in History, Humor, Nostalgia, Rant, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 61 Comments

Improved to the Point of Useless

jarsI wish manufacturers would realize that some things are good enough as they are. I don’t mean to be so hard on those guys; I’m sure that it isn’t easy to keep a product competitive these days. I also realize that that some bad ideas are a step along the way to something truly remarkable, like the condiment jars that you can stand upside down in your fridge. Yeah, I am easily impressed. For today though, I’m sticking with my opening statement, some things are simply good enough and should be left alone.

A couple of months ago, for no apparent reason, the power unit of our central vacuum system started malfunctioning. The symptoms were pretty frustrating:

First, the power unit wouldn’t start when we inserted a hose into one of the outlets.

We checked the outlets, the visible wiring and the breaker but everything looked fine and tested correctly.

Finally, I pressed the reset button (everything should have a reset button). We re-inserted the hose and the vacuum system came to life, but when we removed the hose, it wouldn’t stop. In case you’re wondering, when a central vacuum power unit starts sucking against a system full of closed outlets, you should prepare to hear some otherworldly sounds of mechanical anguish.

We dug out the manual that came with the unit and performed the series of troubleshooting steps listed under “Unit fails to start” and “Unit fails to stop.” There are six different things to check when a unit doesn’t start. We checked all of them. All were fine. All systems go.

There is one step for a unit that fails to stop:

image

…and actually, that really wasn’t much help.

The next thing we did was to check to see if the unit was still under warranty. Of course, you know the answer to that question.

Despite the unit being almost a year beyond its protected lifespan, I called the number listed for Technical Support. I explained the situation and I added that I had already performed the troubleshooting steps. The process was much easier than most computer tech-support calls. The woman did not make me perform all the steps listed in the manual again. She simply said:

It sounds like there’s a problem with the motherboard.”

The motherboard?

Really?

Why on earth does a vacuum cleaner need a motherboard?

This vacuum runs ran at one speed and It is was turned on and off by a set of switches and a relay (invented in the 1830’s). The motor has to be protected from overheating, but that’s why they invented fuses – replaceable fuses (also invented in the 1800’s). The only function that might have had to be programmed onto the motherboard was the “logic” that powered the series of LEDs that indicate how full the dust bin is.

Note to vacuum designer: When you are close enough to see which bin-content-level LED is illuminated, you are close enough to look into the window of the dust bin…just sayin.

The LEDs were never accurate anyway. We have a dog, so the bin has to be emptied when there is about ¼” of dirt at the bottom and about 10” of fluffed-up dog hair floating around, a point at which none of the LEDs were ever on. Besides, by the time we make the trip into the burner room to check the bin, we’re going to empty it regardless. Nobody is going to go to all that trouble and then say, “Ooh, it’s good for a couple more days.” We just empty the thing every Thursday when we put out the trash.

We were told that the unit could be repaired. The diagnostic fee would be $75. A new motherboard would cost $140 and there would be the labor charges to install it. We would have to have used an authorized service company (about 45 minutes away). We couldn’t simply buy the board.

After purchasing and installing a new power unit, built by a different manufacturer and without a motherboard, I took the old one apart. Yes, I’m one of those guys.

I removed the motherboard, isolated the low-voltage wires and connected the wires carrying 120 volts from the fuse (overheating) to the switch (on/off) to the motor. The unit is now hanging in my garage and will soon be sucking stuff off the floor or out of a car.

I was going to talk about several other things that have been perfected beyond the point of being ridiculous, but I’ll save those for a future post.

By the way, the guide for interpreting “we” is as follows:

If it involves vacuuming, emptying the vacuum, being able to find the instruction manual for the vacuum or a receipt for anything purchased more than 20 minutes ago; “we” means my wife.

If it involves checking electrical things, pushing reset buttons and tinkering with something that when you plug it back into the wall could potentially cause an electrical shock and / or result in a fire, “we” means me.

Do you have things in your life that have been improved too much? Please share your thoughts below.

Posted in Technology, Humor, Rant, DIY | Tagged , , , , , , , | 59 Comments

If Wishes Were ???

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for a long time. The original title was “If Wishes Were Fishes” because that rhymes. That is a common saying, but it wasn’t the nursery rhyme I was thinking of:

If wishes were horses then beggars would ride,
If turnips were swords I’d have one by my side.
If ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’ were pots and pans
There would be no need for tinker’s hands!

I pulled the post out of the drafts folder, planning to delete it because I had written it based on a current event in 2013, but one I never thought would remain timely. My addition to the nursery rhyme was to include:

If spam counted as comments
I’d be rockin’ my stats.

That’s because if I counted the stuff Akismet has removed, I’d have 14 times more comments on my blog. 14X. An order of magnitude and then some more comments.

image

I know, I wrote about spam earlier this week. This is different. Trust me. This isn’t about spam and it’s not about marketing. This is about the currents and eddies and backwater rivulets of Internet activity that can’t be easily explained. OK, now I sense that half of you are saying “Ohhhhh, why couldn’t this be about spam? How about a little background?

In my all-time favorite episode of Star Trek (original series) “The City on the Edge of Forever”, Dr. McCoy gets juiced up on an overdose of a wonder drug, overpowers a few security guards and beams down to a barren planet. Captain Kirk, Commander Spock and a few other important crew members, (Start Trek was famous for putting the Enterprise’s senior staff into harm’s way) follow McCoy to the planet. There they discover the Guardian of Forever, a time portal. Of course McCoy jumps through the portal, changes history and wipes out the Federation. The only option is for Kirk and Spock to go back in time, find McCoy and prevent him from doing whatever it was he did.

Remarkably, the Guardian is sophisticated enough to be able to send people through time, powerful enough to record all of time to-date, but has no memory of where the last passenger went. No redial-last-number. No undo button, no slow-motion and no instant-replay options.

Kirk and Spock land in New York City, about a week before McCoy arrives. The time is the 1930’s, well before transporters, GPS, the Internet, jet aircraft and any reliable means of finding another person in your neighborhood, let alone somewhere-on-the-planet. Kirk is frustrated by the fear of never finding McCoy and being stuck in a past without a flagship to command, but Spock assuages the Captain’s fears with a bit of curious reasoning (full dialog is here if you’re interested):

Spock: “There is a theory. There could be some logic to the belief that time is fluid, like a river, with currents, eddies, backwash.”

Capt. Kirk: “And the same currents that swept McCoy to a certain time and place might sweep us there, too.”

Lately, I’m thinking that that that theory applies to the Internet. You see, about 30,000 of those 45,894 spam comments were attempts to comment on my post “On the Radio” from July 2012. July 2012 is back when this blog was averaging about 3 visits a day. The reason I didn’t throw this post away is because over 200 of the 323 comments in my spam queue today are for that post. I am trying to figure out what it is about that post that acts as a spam magnet. The categories and tags used on that post appear in about 20% of my posts so I don’t think there’s anything special about that one post. The post itself has not been viewed that many times (although I really like it).

I have a few theories of my own.

Theory number one: the one comment and the one pingback that post did receive are themselves spam that snuck through Akismet’s usually adept filter. If that’s true, they might be guiding other spam to a what appears as a spam-friendly blog post.

Theory number two: A ‘bot’ or a ‘botnet’ is stuck in the groove or is no longer able to update its targets.

Theory number three: Spammers and bots are being led to that post by some mysterious force and 60% of all future spam will land there regardless of what I do.

I can’t do anything about theories two and three, imagebut I can delete the comment and the pingback. The other thing I can’t figure out is why so much of that spam, well over 50% is from people trying to sell Ugg Boots. In any case, Akismet is doing a fine job. The reason people try to spam your blog’s comments is to impress Google with links to their web page. If wishes were fishes in this case, their sites would appear at the top of my search results instead of three paid-for ads and Nordstrom.


Pictures – I don’t have many pictures of horses. The ones included here are from a horseback tour Faith and I took while visiting Gettysburg in 2012.

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , , | 38 Comments

When Marketing is Worse than Spam

My inbox is loaded with "marketing"

My inbox is loaded with “marketing”

I got email today from Herman Melville which is creepy. The subject line was holiday related yet sexually explicit, which made it even creepier. I ignored it because people use subject lines like that to lure you in, to pique your interest. I know the real reason Herman is after me, he’s mad about my having used Cliff Notes in high school for that book report. Dude, the book is boring. Besides, I did my penance Herm. I read the Norton Critical Edition of your masterpiece in American Literature I. 752 pages vs 544. Why couldn’t you have done a better job with Billy Budd? In looking up Billy Budd, to be sure that I remembered the author correctly, I stumbled upon this review on Amazon:

Melville is an exceptionally difficult author for the modern reader. His wind-up to the events forming the core of the book is unpardonably long. And he is an intrusive and wordy narrator who can’t resist frequent digressions.”

Still, Herman only took 160 pages to cut to the chase on Billy’s story. I checked West Virginia University’s website and I see that American Lit I is now English 241. They are still reading Melville, but they are reading “Benito Cereno” a novella. They are still reading from the Norton Critical Edition. Worse yet, they are still reading works by Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the only American author that is harder to read than Melville.

Apparently, I can’t resist frequent digressions either because this is a post about marketing.

In addition to Melville, I got email from Warren Buffett. He was going to make me rich. Thanks Warren. I also got email from Amazon, CVS and Santa all urging me to take advantage of some great holiday offers. Santa? Hey, everybody else starts a month earlier than he does; he has to start playing hardball or he might lose the franchise. Before you know it, people will be taking their kids to sit on Jeff Bezos’ lap. Check out the picture they use on Wikipedia. Doesn’t that look like he’s waiting for your child?

I also got email from “Victoria”, asking me to join the Cleaner Toilet Seat Movement. At least she was honest. No holiday specials from her. I’m sure she wanted to sell me something but I’m reasonably sure it would have been something with which I could have cleaned a toilet seat.

I didn’t actually receive any of these emails. Our spam filter culled them from the herd before they got to my inbox. But, since we recently changed anti-spam services, I’ve been checking the daily digest of filtered items to make sure something important didn’t get caught up in there. There was an email from FierceCIO which probably was real, but I get so much email from them I figured I could afford to skip one.

Spam – note: I capitalized that because it’s at the beginning of a sentence. The good folks at Hormel don’t appreciate dignifying email spam with a capital S and certainly not a capital SPAM – I actually like SPAM now and then although the quartermaster in this little outpost is loath to buy it. Sorry, I was having a Melville moment. Anyway, spam (the lower case stuff) is bad enough, but it can be recognized with some degree of accuracy which means it can be filtered. Marketing, particularly bad marketing by legitimate organizations, on the other hand can’t be filtered nearly as easily.

Last week I got a bunch of email from various technology vendors offering Thanksgiving specials or worse, Thanksgiving themed messages. If you want to reduce the price of your product because it’s the time of year that everyone else does, fine. If you’re just jumping on the Thanksgiving or holiday theme because you don’t want to be left out, you’re actually hurting your chances of selling anything to me. I’m sorry, but I’m one of those silly consumers who think that I should want to buy your product, read your newsletter, or attend your conference because it’s good. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m pretty easy to draw in with clever advertising, but doing what everyone else does isn’t clever.

I know that I can’t slow the global marketing engine from jumping on the holiday bandwagon. I know that I can’t take the commercials out of Thanksgiving, Christmas and the other holidays any more than I can take the unnecessary words out of Moby Dick. Still I wish the vendors in my inbox would stick to the facts.


Some of my friends report almost no email marketing from Amazon. The screen shot at the top is one of my inboxes. Maybe Sammy D is right, maybe the key to getting less email from Amazon is to actually buy stuff from them.

Posted in Marketing, Opinion, Rant | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 40 Comments

Oooh a Bonus Word

imageI mean, who can resist a bonus? Actually, this prompt arrived just in time to help me avoid a bonus. As of 8:00 AM, Friday, November 28, 2014, Amazon had sent me no fewer than 10 emails telling me about Black Friday sales, sales where I was sure to save a few cents off the price of the same item at the local Target store. I’d much rather pour my thoughts out for the Stream of Consciousness Saturday Challenge than stand in line and fight the crowds (real or virtual). In fact, I’d rather do anything than shop today – well, yesterday but this is a Saturday challenge, so…

It’s not that I don’t have stuff to buy, I do. I have Christmas gifts to buy, a birthday gift to buy as well as the odd assorted stuff you need around the holidays. I need some blue, green and red wrapping paper to cover my office door for our annual wrap-your-door contest. Last year, I used blue ribbon on a red background to illustrate the Connecticut River between my house and our office. I attached photos that I’ve taken along the way during my daily commute.

I can share this idea freely because it wasn’t a imagewinner. This year, I am going to use blue ribbon to illustrate the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers and I am going to decorate the door with pictures I’ve taken in Pittsburgh.

You might think that it doesn’t make any sense to try the same failed technique for a second time, but I have an ulterior motive. I’m not in this for the prize. The prize, by the way, is the opportunity to designate what local charitable organization gets the collected entry fees.

Yes, we pay for this opportunity – $10 a door.

Plus the cost of the wrapping paper, the ribbon and the ink/toner to print the photos, not to mention the time it will take me to cull the various photos out of the digital archive and plan the layout. This will be a lot of time and money to have spent with no chance of winning, BUT… I get to look at my door and I will enjoy looking at those pictures.

The winning door will no doubt be one of the ones decorated by the child of one of my coworkers. Children are better at this kind of thing. Adults are looking for an angle, calculating the odds of winning and planning an over-the-top-signature-element to make their door stand out. Last year, one person attached a basket of chocolate to their door – as if you could buy my vote with candy.

Yes, that’s how we determine the winner, we vote in an anonymous on-line poll.

Someone is talking about burying an iPod imagein the decorations and having it loop through a collection of holiday music. That’s a bad idea, especially for the nearby office dwellers. Sights, sounds and sweets have all been used to nudge an individual door into the winner’s circle. Hmm, nobody has tried to use the scents of the holidays, maybe I could try that. I could use the photo from Heinz Field shown at the right, and add a scratch-&-sniff BBQ sticker (seriously, you can buy those) or maybe a strategically located drop of BBQ sauce. Oh, I know that’s not a holiday smell (unless your team is playing nearby) but the smell has to fit the backdrop of the Three Rivers area.

Maybe I could have Santa flying over the Golden Triangle in a sleigh that has (unwrapped) candy cane runners. No, that would probably only attract bugs. Besides, last year’s winner was a life-size snowman that had been painstakingly made by a coworker’s daughter from a gazillion cotton balls and a bunch of glitter. Teenage daughters always have the edge for creating “awwww” inspiring stuff and they always have glitter.


The tickets remaining after winning no prizes at ADNET’s Chili Cook-off went through the wash with my jeans. Just inside the gate at Heinz Field is all you might ever want to eat. The prompt was to use “sense-scents-cents” in the blog and the bonus word was “sent.”

Posted in Opinion, Prompt, SoCS | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 37 Comments