My favourite plastic food container died today. Actually, it wasn’t the container itself but the lid that bit the dust. Apparently plastic of a certain type is not destined to survive dishwasher treatment for more than 10 years or so. This particular container was better than many. It could hold a good swath of coleslaw or be a good interim home for leftover Thai food or politely nestle a swatch of polenta lasagne. I think its most redeeming qualities were indeed its only qualities: an oval shape and a lid that had an ample leverage point for forgiving the fingernail (and alas, the latter would be the nail it its coffin shaped shape).
The plastic food container has been around for many years since, but has never been as celebrated as when it debuted under the Tupperware brand in 1948, because it meant that the average housewife could more effectively save leftovers. But in the 1960′s, the products on offer evolved into essentials like popsicle (oops, I think that should be ‘ice pop’) moulds, salt and pepper shakers decked in transparent white and gray (which someone decided we really needed to figure out how to differentiate via a prominent ‘P’ and ‘S’ on the lid), and rolling pins (are you kidding me?). This also led us all to believe there were no colours other than green, pink, yellow and blue. But then again, we already knew that based on our experience with various siblings who had a nasty habit of not announcing their gender pre-birth.
There is no denying that the leftover food container (literally) bulks large in most of our lives. Who among us has not opened a cupboard door to be assaulted by random plastic vessels? And even more importantly, who has not wasted many minutes of life searching for the lid of the container that is best suited to carting our lunch to work. I recently spent a day sorting through and throwing out the miss-matched sets, and I still have as many orphaned containers as spare socks.
One might think the purpose of the leftover food container is to safely store food until it can be consumed at a not-to-later date. In reality, that later date usually becomes so much later as to create a new iteration of the food in question. So the purpose of the container is actually to contain the goo until garbage day. Then we put it in the dishwasher to be suitably disinfected enough to hold the next landfill offering. And then it breaks and must go into the garbage. And so the cycle continues.
You probably know that Canada Post has decided to phase out the remaining bastions of door-to-door delivery. This would include me (the knowing part, as well as the soon to be without delivery part). The decline of mail delivery has been going on for a long time, so I am mildly amused with those who are currently having a hissy fit – not the least of which are mail carriers.
In fact, although I did not grow up in a super mailbox suburb, I did not grow up with a mailman. We had a post office, where you could inquire at the desk for large shipments, which were usually new wardrobe additions from the Sears catalogue, or more often than not, sigh in despair at the empty post box.
I now live in an urban center that provides personal delivery of mail, but for some time I have seen cracks in the postal service ‘service’. I think it started with my post guy complaining about my lack of mailbox. For the record, I have a perfectly good slot in the door that has served my house well since 1904. Unfortunately, in 1904 they didn’t have Vanity Fair magazines (the Hollywood issue being particularly thick). So being a good servant of the civil service, I spent $150 to buy a suitably suitable mailbox that wouldn’t clash with my antique brick work. I thought all would be well after that. Little did I know.
Apparently there is a hidden code of conduct for door-to-door mail delivery customers. The first rule is not to have too much mail because it is very inconsiderate. Some of this I can control (I admit to an alarming amount of periodicals), and some I cannot (BMO, I am talking to you). Anyhow, I apparently have too much mail, which makes it inconvenient to transport it to my extremely accommodating shiny new mailbox.
The second rule is to not have steps up to your house, at least on days when it is raining, snowing or not high summer, which make it even harder to schlep the mail to the vicinity of my doorstep. Much better to wrap it in an elastic and fling it on to the front porch. Even better if it actually makes it to its intended destination, as opposed to landing in the garden.
The third rule is the rule of three: why deliver mail every day when every third day will do? I know the nasty note about a glacier at the bottom of my stairs (see rule #2) may have been a contributing factor, although I did have note from Canadian Tire excusing me due to a lack of salt, but really Mr. Postman – if there’s a letter for me, I’ve been waiting so patiently. Just like I’m waiting patiently for winter to end.
I spend most of my day on the phone. I am not having conversations that are, like, awesome discussions about whether Justin Bieber is still hot or not. I am not texting my current whereabouts or dinner plans. I am not taking selfies and uploading them to Instagram. No, I am doing work or trying to at least. That’s because I am almost always on conference calls with people in other time zones. In fact, I think I have probably become the world’s best expert at determining the best confluence of the universe to hold a meeting between people in Seattle, South Africa and Sweden. But that is not the topic today.
You would think that this far into the 21st century we would have perfected conference call and virtual meeting technology. I am sorry to say this is as elusive as Oprah’s quest for thinner thighs (or maybe at this point she has given up and who could blame her because clearly she is proof that money cannot buy thin – but I digress). That is why I thought it was important to appeal to telecommunication mavens, wherever they may be, to get on the case and immediately solve this (literally) world problem. To help out, I am happy to share the seven highly dysfunctional habits of the teleconference.
1. Who just joined? Those of us who live in cyberphoneland know that it is a folly to record your name after the tone. That’s because when you drop off accidentally (and you know you will), there will be a constant barrage of ‘Susan just left the meeting’ ‘Susan just joined the meeting’. Also, when the unlucky person who is chairing the meeting asks who just joined, several people will talk at the same time or for that matter, not talk, so it is always impossible to know at any given time who is actually in the meeting.
2. How is the weather there? Not that I am against some pleasantries before everyone has gathered for the meeting, but really, do we have anything else to talk about except the weather? No I guess we don’t since I haven’t actually met any of you in person and have no idea what you do from day to day (except attend conference call meetings), so really the only thing we have in common is the weather (or in fact, we don’t because you are somewhere in a different climate than me).
3. Sit, Basil. One advantage of working at home is that you can spend more quality time with your pets. With respect to conference calls, pets in general aren’t an issue, just the ones that bark. I would just like to say this about that: the dog barking in the background while you are trying to make some semblance of an intelligent comment makes the dog look smarter than you do.
4. Press *6 to mute your line. For all of the people that don’t know how to use the mute button (see above) there are equal numbers that ‘forget’ they are on mute. Or more likely, they pretend to forget they are on mute to avoid participating. As in “I’m sorry, did you not hear me? I must have been on mute. But I think that Fred made a really important point and I agree entirely.”
5. Can you hear me now? The good news is it is now possible to dial a phone number without a phone. The bad news is you should never do this. Ever. Because if you do, you will sound like you are calling from the bottom of a well. Or we will hear every second or third word. Or you will cause epic reverb. Just pick up your landline. You don’t have a landline? Then you are not equipped for 21st century conference calls. Just sayin’.
6. Can you see me now? Of course now we have added another complication to the conference call: the virtual presentation. In theory this means you can see someone’s Powerpoint slides. In practice it means you can see a blue screen, a black screen, a screen with wavy lines or their email in-basket (which in many cases is much more interesting than their presentation deck).
7. Who just joined? Part 2. The late joiner is typically the important decision maker who joins the call five minutes before the end and proceeds to ask for a recap of the past 55 minutes so he (and it is mostly always a ‘he’) can weigh in on stuff that has already been agreed upon, prompting the scheduling of yet another conference call.
Apparently January 2014 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the Apple Macintosh computer. One thing that completely annoys me is the way the current day media talks at length about ‘digital natives’ and how much the millennials and their subsequent generations know about technology. I beg to differ because I doubt they would be able to pass a basic computer skills course, especially if it involved punched cards or calculations in hexadecimal. I know the common analogy is that you don’t need to know how an internal combustion engine works in order to drive a car, but a general lack of technology concepts is why we end up with regrettable selfies that go viral. But I digress.
The Apple Macintosh was a very interesting animal (or fruit, I guess) when it came out. Instead of a command line interface, it dealt in icons. Instead of opening an application to create a document you simply started typing. I spent most of my early career in the bizarre world of the IBM universe, where it was considered normal to have to tell the mainframe computer how much space you would need before being able to create a new file (and really, how would you not be able to do a quick calculation of the number of zeros and ones you would generate by typing a memo?). So you would imagine that with my lack of math aptitude and an entire degree in logic, I would think that a Macintosh was the best thing since sliced bread. That would be wrong.
I was somewhat late to the game of first encounter with the Mac. I think it was around 1990 when I came on board a consulting firm that had just started having computers on desks (no matter that if we were going to maintain our employment status weren’t in the office very frequently). But these were IBM desktops. The Mac was in the corner of the room designated as the ‘library’. It was there for exclusive use for creating ‘graphics’, such as the diagrams we used to illustrate why the neck bone was not connected to the thigh bone, at least not without spending a lot of money on architecture.
For some reason you may be smarter than me to have anticipated, I volunteered to be in charge of the monthly staff newsletter. This was particularly important in the pre-internet days of working remotely from the office. This also gave me the keys to the Mac. Or in reality, the combination lock to the Mac with all of the High School trauma of forgetting the number sequence required to open your locker whenever there was a gap in attendance of two days or more. The Mac was how we created a ‘professional’ looking newsletter, with two columns and a jazzy logo and other cut and paste graphics I MacGyver’d with great sweat and tears at the declining moments of my self-imposed publication deadline.
Anyhow, all matters of the Mac ended up defeating me, from the incomprehensible smiley face guy who looked kind of like the computer but did nothing to explain his function, to the evil time bomb that seemed to show up whenever I was trying to figure out how to find my previous month’s newsletter document. I never did figure out how to turn the thing off or save anything with any degree of confidence. As far as I’m concerned, the Mac did nothing to further the computer interface, especially for those of us who are icon dyslexic. iPhone, I’m talking to you.
The other day I saw a woman with a brand new gym bag heading up the street in the general direction of our local exercise establishment. Then she crossed the street to the subway station, so I figured she was going to another location that was closer to work or had more amenities or a better start time for the spinning class. I continued down the street and at the following intersection I saw the same woman again, just exiting from the next subway station and making her way into the gym. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the person in question took the subway one stop, probably to save her energy for the treadmill.
So here it is January and time for the annual rush to physical fitness venues. And we all know how that usually works out. By the end of February, the only vestige of a relationship with the gym is the line item on the credit card statement. But maybe that’s not entirely their fault. Maybe it’s really because much like any foreign land, gym culture is not immediately welcoming to those from away.
This starts with the interrogation at the front door, where you are asked to present your photo membership ID, enter your membership number, scan your iris and step on a weigh scale with a huge readout on a scoreboard on the wall (I’m kidding about the last one). I think it was Jerry Seinfeld who observed that it seems very silly for gyms go to a lot of trouble to validate your identity, because who would be trying to steal fitness when the people who pay money to join don’t even go.
There are, of course, only slim and well muscled people at the gym (except for the first two weeks of the year, but no one who belongs to the gym would be caught dead there during the height of the resolution rush so the skinny people actually never see anyone outside of their own demographic). This is kind of a weird fact. Perhaps one of the biggest mysteries of the gym is how people get into shape in order to be fit enough to be admitted to the club. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.
Newcomers to the gym also need to be aware of the territorial nature of the premises. It may look like there are enough elliptical machines, weight benches and spinning cycles to go around, but in reality the gym is an environment of artificial scarcity, or the “perceived scarcity of items even though the technology and production capacity exists to create an abundance”. This applies only to non-rival resources that do not diminish due to one person’s use, and if that’s not the definition of a kettlebell I don’t know what is. Inefficiency associated with artificial scarcity is formally known as a deadweight loss, but perhaps what they really mean is more weight is lost sprinting to snag the treadmill, lunging for the recently vacated weight bench and stretching to claim as much aerobics studio floor space as possible, than due to all other gym activities combined. Something tells me gym management has already figured that out.
The crossword puzzle turned 100 last week, which has prompted all manner of adulation. The first ‘word cross’ puzzle debuted December 21, 1913 in the New York World and has been a fixture in newspapers ever since. I know that many people actually like crossword puzzles. I do not. Here is why:
1. There is really no point to a crossword puzzle. If you manage to fill in all of the blanks you get a square that is subdivided into little squares, where all of the blanks have been filled in. That’s it. Oh sure, you might get some momentary satisfaction from having completed all of the squares but really, if that is your biggest accomplishment of the day I think you have set your bar pretty low.
2. Apparently studies have shown that people who do crossword puzzles are less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease and will probably live longer. I think the only thing crossword puzzles actually do is clutter up your brain with useless information, like the name of the symbol used for Chinese currency (the renminbi, by the way), or the names of all of Santa’s reindeer. I admit that some of this information is also useful to people who play Scrabble, but as you have probably guessed I hate that too. And I also don’t think that solving crossword puzzles makes you live longer – it just feels that way.
3. People who create crossword puzzles are called cruciverablists. The fact they even have a formal name and that the name sounds like secret society or cult should be the first clue that they should be given a wide berth. Cruciverablists also do not need to conform to rules that apply to the rest of us. For example, they need not restrict themselves to dictionary words when creating their masterpieces and are known to use Roman numerals with abandon even though most of us stopped using them in the 11th century. If I started using mostly words that aren’t the dictionary and counting in Roman numerals, I think I would be carted off to the locked ward pretty quickly.
4. People who do crossword puzzles never actually do the puzzle. They just pretend they do. They are really playing a do-it-yourself version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, complete with ‘phone a friend’ and ‘ask the expert’, the expert usually being Mr. Google or an old fashioned but still functional crossword dictionary. No pursuit where people think that cheating is normal and indeed make no attempt to hide their subterfuge should be encouraged. In fact, I think there should be extra scrutiny of the tax returns of self-admitted crossword puzzlers.
5. It is possible to fill in all of the blanks yet get the puzzle completely wrong. I have seen this myself in airline magazines where they typically include puzzles to placate the captive (because certainly the food isn’t going to do it). I can only hope it wasn’t the pilot who got hold of the copy in my seat back.
Almost every year around this time there are hot commodities on the Christmas shopping list that are in short supply, either because people fall prey to marketing hype or generally lack imagination. I never did have a Cabbage Patch doll, Beanie Baby, or Tickle Me Elmo. But I did have a pet rock, although it wasn’t originally intended for me. Come to think of it, there probably isn’t anything more pathetic than a pet rock re-gift, especially when it comes from a boyfriend. But I digress.
I kept the pet rock for many years and only got rid of it in a fit of de-junkification a year or two ago. As you probably know, the allure of the pet rock wasn’t really about the rock. It was about the owner’s manual. Apparently the guy who invented it was able to print all the original run of manuals pretty much for free by tacking them on to a print job he had already bought. As a result, he became an instant millionaire because the rocks themselves cost about 1 cent each (although if he was actually willing to pay for rocks I could have probably nabbed some consulting dollars from him…). However, the pet rock care and training guide had some very useful information, such as the fact that getting your rock to ‘stay’ would be a very easy task, although ‘roll over’ might require some assistance from the owner. It also advised avoiding trying to teach the rock to ‘attack’ because that would probably not end well.
But that is not the point. The point is that the pet rock falls into the category of things I really should have kept. That’s because, like Beanie Babies and vintage Cabbage Patch dolls, eventually even useless novelties become collector’s items that can reap rewards on eBay as long as they are pretty close to their original condition (I guess that hair cut wasn’t a good idea, Barbie). I also no longer have my Beatles wallet (pink plastic), Expo 67 passport , or any Flintstone’s or astronaut grape jelly jars that turned into drinking glasses when empty, even though we ate our way through gallons of grape jelly to complete the set.
The real the real trick is figuring out what you should hold on to because apparently not everything increases in value. I am still trying to figure out why I have moved my accounting text books several times, except when I look at the price I paid for them. And really, has accounting changed that much over the years that they are now obsolete? Last I checked, debits and credits are still the modus operandi of the accounting profession. Or maybe it’s because I still harbour a secret wish to become an accountant. Regardless, the real key to making money from keeping junk is to encourage everybody else to throw away their ‘useless’ stuff, because if everyone keeps the same thing it becomes worthless.
Unfortunately there has been no glamour in air travel for a very long time. This is even more unfortunate for those of us who spend a lot of time on planes. The current state of airports and airlines has created a siege mentality, where it is important to fight to retain at least some shred of comfort and control. And that diminishing shred rests in frequent flyer status.
Although it seems to be tamed in the rest of the economy, inflation is running rampant in airline loyalty programs. The number of miles required to reach a useful level of status keeps going up, and the privileges keep going down. My current status, hard won via many unenviable trips like visiting Florida in July, will confer ‘airport benefits’ (which I think gives me the right to go to any airport anywhere in the world) and the ability to go online to change my flight booking if it is cancelled. I also get to check a bag. For free. Near as I can tell, pretty soon nobody will be allowed to fly unless they can prove they are frequent flyers, which would create an even more Kafkaesque situation than we currently have.
Anyhow there are some more subtle status benefits than access to the lounge to chow down on free stale mini-bagels and all the pretzels you can eat, which may sound dismal but is in fact some of the more edible food on offer at the average airport. But even those are getting eroded. On certain flights, like the 8:15 am from SFO to YYZ on Fridays, or the 6:30 am from YYZ to LGA on Mondays, the entire departure lounge is eligible for priority boarding. Of course the reason for nabbing a good spot in the priority line is to have a place to put your carry–on luggage, because even if we can check a bag for free, no self respecting frequent flyer would consider either taking enough stuff to require a checked bag or waiting for the bag to reappear at the other end. On some days, this alone is worth the price of club admission.
The other thing you get is priority booking for seats in the first 7 rows of the plane. You do of course know that the economy cabin starts at row 12 and the emergency exit row is usually number 16 or 17 or sometimes both. Having an exit row is more than just about the legroom. It also means that no-one with children will be sitting there. Anyhow, being seated in the first 7 rows is also why it is important to get priority boarding. Otherwise the people sitting at the back of the bus will fill up all the bins with their extraneous carry-on. So that’s us: the people at the front, quickly grabbing our meagre belongings and dashing off the plane before the middle rows have even discovered we’ve landed.
And that’s why we’ll do anything we can do preserve our status. You might think this is the time of year to be booking your winter vacation, which might be what normal people do. This is in fact the time of year to count up your miles and determine if you will fall short of your desired status goal. Short 1,000 miles? Hop on a flight to Chicago and back. No need to even leave ORD. Just get on the next flight home, safe in the knowledge that you will be safe in row 12 for the next 12 months.
There was a cold snap in California this week, which also happened to correspond to the week that I was there. Which is typical. The most common sentence I hear in my travels is “you should have been here last week”. For example, the last time I was in Arizona, a place where it is known to be both sunny and dry, it snowed for the first time in about 1,000 years.
Anyhow, the coldness was caused by a winter storm. No matter that it isn’t winter yet. Let’s be clear about this, ironically winter starts when it all starts to get better because the days start getting longer at the winter Solstice on December 21st. But I digress. This extremely serious weather event resulted in a daytime temperature of 52 degrees. I admit that it did decline to a jaw dropping 35 degrees during the night but at least we were safe in our beds by then.
People who live in places where below 55 degrees is cold have a weird sense of what you need to wear when such catastrophic coldness descends. It is time to break out the parkas, heavy sweaters, and mufflers or just stay behind closed doors until it reaches a more civilized temperature. I am amazed that they would actually have such clothing in their closet, if it is only necessary for about two days every 4th year. But then again, that means you can pretty much buy one coat, one sweater and one pair of mittens to last you a life time.
But that is not the topic of the day. This may not be a new thing but it is new to me. The U.S. is apparently now naming winter storms. The storm that was wrecking havoc last week and caused an unprecedented black ice warning on the California 101 was called Cleon. Cleon was of course coming down from Canada, that evil weather source to the north. The next storm that is heading down from the North Pole to place microscopic layers of snow in Dallas and Atlanta is apparently queued up as Deon. Be afraid, very afraid, because CNN reports power could be out for up to a day if the forecasted ice storm materializes. If not, they can get lots of air time talking about the tragic events that did not happen. The winter storm naming convention would indicate the next one will be named Eon, which does not bode well for anyone.
I don’t think winter storm naming will ever be adopted north of the border for several reasons. The most obvious is the severe limitation of the number of letters in the alphabet, although I guess we could always start over if need be. But the real issue is the difficulty in distinguishing between a storm and run of the mill nasty weather. When does normal horizontal snow become a blizzard? When does a snow squall become a winter tornado? What level of accumulation requires the army? The answers to these questions are as elusive as a waterproof boot.
I am not sure if this is truly a coincidence or not, but this week was both the 50th anniversary of the touch tone phone and the 50th anniversary of Dr. Who, the latter of which as you should know is closely linked to the phone. But in fact today’s topic is not Daleks nor is it a dissertation on the eleven people who can claim to have been an incarnation of Dr. Who (although I did learn this week that whenever Dr. Who bit the dust it was an excuse to regenerate him as another actor, much like the soap opera trick of sending someone into a coma in order to write them out). But I digress. No, the topic du jour is in fact the touch tone phone and there are, of course, several notable things to tell you.
1. In the era of the rotary phone, it was relatively difficult to dial a wrong number. That’s because you had to actually dial the number. In the time it took to wait for the dial to get back to square (round?) one, you had ample time to figure out your finger was not in the correct hole. It could also take as much as 10 whole seconds to complete entering the number, giving you ample time to abort the mission.
2. The keypad introduced with the touch tone era has remained pretty much unaltered over the past 50 years, except for the addition of the octothorpe and asterisk that showed up in 1968. I have already commented at length about the ‘#’ key, which is key for those of us who spend most of our life on conference calls. A word to the wise: when the nice automated lady asks you to state your name and then press #, just press #. That’s so if you drop off unexpectedly or want to discretely leave a boring call that has many attendees, you will not reveal your stupidity or lack of interest by announcing your departure by name. You are welcome.
3. Anyhow, the touch tone keypad has insinuated itself into all of our telephone devices, whether or not it makes the most sense. If you take a look at a full size computer keyboard, you will notice the number pad on the right hand side has the numbers in exactly the opposite sequence (that is, 7, 8, and 9 are at the top). Fortunately, no one has ever actually used that component of the key board.
4. For some reason on phone keys, each number still has three letters associated with it. This was originally for the purpose of a way to choose the right number prefix for the destination phone exchange. Now it has no purpose whatsoever unless you do what I do and use the letters to remember your voicemail password. Good luck with that if you are using a cellphone handset.
5. If you have a landline you are paying $2.80 every month for the luxury of touch tone service. Go ahead. Look at your bill. And just try calling them up to ask to opt out. It would be easier to opt out of income tax.