Archive for technology

Feb
20

More Progress = Nothing is easy

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A few weeks ago, hurried and on my lunch break, I stepped into the Barnes and Noble bookstore in downtown Royal Oak. My goal was simple: purchase a newspaper.

Every Friday I cash my paycheck in Royal Oak and then take in lunch somewhere in town. But I’m one of these people who can’t eat alone if I don’t have something to read. Hence the newspaper.

My usual provider, the gas station by the bank, was out of papers, so I remembered B&N.

The bank took longer than usual, so the sands in the hourglass were dwindling. But hey, it’s only a newspaper, right?

The newspapers at B&N are located behind the cashier’s counter. They’re not self-serve.

So first I had to wait for a cashier, which knocked off precious seconds from my meal time. But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part came when I voiced my request.

“Detroit News,” please, I said to the college-aged cashier.

He retrieved it. I had my dollar ready, eager to pay, leave, and look for sustenance to jam down my throat.

He needed to scan the newspaper, and that took a few tries before it beeped.

“Are you a Rewards member?” he asked.

No, I am not, I told him, as I jabbed the dollar toward him.

“E-mail please?” he asked.

My jaw dropped.

“For a newspaper?”

He gave me a sheepish look. “I just want to see if you’re in the system.”

Again, I said, “For a newspaper?” although with much more irritation in my voice.

By this time I sort of tossed the dollar toward him. But he still clutched my newspaper, holding it hostage.

He could see that I was not a happy camper—my annoyance was hardly subtle—and he looked at his co-worker, as if unsure of what to do with a man who just wanted to buy a newspaper and who wasn’t a Rewards member and who didn’t want to provide his e-mail address in order to purchase said newspaper.

I had had enough.

“I’m in a hurry. Can I just please have my newspaper?” I said.

Finally he relinquished it.

Now, this entire exchange obviously took less time than it did for you to read about it, but when you’re in a hurry and all you want to do is buy a newspaper for one dollar and you can’t do it without being asked about memberships and e-mails, your stomach grumbling, each second translates to ten times its length.

Thankfully, my normal newspaper provider (gas station) hasn’t run out of papers since. And if they do, I’ll be damned if I wander into B&N to purchase one. I’ll do without, or try to find a box dispenser.

I love the gas station, by the way. I grab a paper, give the attendant a dollar, and walk away. If there is someone ahead of me in line who is buying cigarettes or lottery tickets (don’t get me started), I just put the dollar on the counter, wave my newspaper so it is seen, then walk away. The attendant has my back.

At the gas station they don’t need to scan the paper. At the gas station they don’t ask me any questions. All they do is take my dollar and tell me to have a nice day. I love the gas station.

But this inconvenience, such as displayed at B&N, is happening all over. The ability to make simple purchases without being asked to present membership cards or provide phone numbers and e-mail addresses is slipping away from us. K-mart asks if you want a paper receipt or one e-mailed to you—even if all you’re buying is a gallon of milk. And the answer you give can’t be verbal—it has to be registered on their debit card thingy.

But hey, this is progress, right?

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Aug
10

Communication Breakdown

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You ever get the feeling that retail companies make changes that are for their own good, as opposed to that of their customers?

Or, to be more specific, they purport to use the wonders of technology to ostensibly make things go smoother for us, when in fact you get the sneaking suspicion the advantages are enjoyed totally by them.

Take voice activation, for example.

You likely deal with this all the time when you call the (ironically) phone company, cable/dish company, or any of the major utilities.

The recorded message comes on, asking you, basically, what the hell you want.

If there was a human being on the other end of the line, the conversation would be about as brief as this:

Human being at company: Thank you for calling Acme Company. How may I help you? (or, “How may I direct your call?”)

You: Hi…I’d like to discuss my bill please.

Human being: OK, let me transfer you to the billing department.

You: (delighted with the efficiency) Thank you!

Elapsed time: less than 15 seconds, most likely.

Instead, thanks to voice activation, the recording asks you to, in your own words, “describe the purpose of your call.”

Which you do, by saying things like “I’d like to discuss my bill” or a variation thereof.

Which would be great, if the automated system actually understood you the first time—or the second.

“I’m sorry,” the recording says, “I’m having trouble understanding the purpose of your call.”

And it asks, again, for you to verbalize why you’re calling.

Elapsed time: a whole lot longer than 15 seconds.

Really, would a return to something like this be so bad?
This goes on a while longer, and God forbid you clear your throat, because the system takes that as “talking” and will stop what it’s doing to tell you that it couldn’t translate your throat clearing into words.

The bottom line is that these automated, voice-activated systems don’t provide the customer with any advantage or time-saving. They exist strictly to make life easier for the company, i.e. so they don’t have to pay anyone to answer the phones in switchboard-like fashion.

I have spent, no joke, several minutes trying to get an automated system to understand why I am calling and how to proceed, including hanging up and trying again. It’s like a twisted game of 21st century charades as you try to get a computer, essentially, to understand your human voice’s intentions.

When the simple matter of routing a call to its proper avenues is stymied by technology, when a good old fashioned person-to-person conversation would do the trick instead—that’s when I get cranky about automated phone systems.

I wonder how many jobs could be re-created if the automated systems took a backseat to a switchboard operator?

Tell me the purpose of this technology, in your own words.

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Jul
12

Silence, Please!

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Do we have so much more to say to each other in the digital age, or is the digital age tricking us into thinking that we do?

Did we talk to each other as much as we appear to do nowadays, before there were cell phones to blab into?

If we did, then our every spare moment must have been spent in conversation.

I’m sorry, but I don’t remember that. So I suspect something else.

Who is everyone talking to on their mobile phones? And what are they talking about?

And, most importantly, why is there so much to say in the freaking car?

I would have thought that, by now—well over 20 years since people began acquiring mobile phones—the novelty of yakking into a phone while driving would have worn off.

Apparently not.

Chances are that the next time you see an ill-advised move on the road by a fellow driver, or tardiness in responding to a green light, the offender has a cell phone pressed against his or her ear.

And it’s happening a lot—seemingly even more than just a few years ago.

My question is a simple one, really: What is everyone talking about? And why can’t it wait?

OK, so I guess that’s two questions—not that the blabbermouths are counting; they’re too distracted by blabbermouthing.

I think cell phones are a wonderful invention. They truly save lives and provide communication where there normally wouldn’t be any—and usually that’s a good thing. But not always.

What is there to say to someone when you’re driving? I mean, that can’t wait until you arrive at your destination?

I sometimes speak into a phone while driving but the conversations are so brief as to be harmless.

“I’m on my way!”

“I’m almost there!”

And that’s only because we have an epileptic dog who sometimes gets too excited when his family comes home. Hence the telephoned warnings.

I speak into one at the grocery store sometimes.

“What did you say I should get, again?”

Stuff like that.

I don’t carry on private conversations in public that last much longer than the time it takes to read this sentence.

Sadly, I seem to be in the minority in my humility in that regard.

People don’t seem to care what you hear anymore—no matter how private.

I remember having a dinner at a Chinese restaurant several years ago with my wife and daughter. It was a quiet, intimate place. And seated in the booth behind us was this blowhard.

For 15-20 minutes, he rambled on into his phone, so much so that you’d have thought there was someone seated across from him—except that we heard it as a one-way conversation.

His conversation—I don’t remember the details but it was loud and had NOTHING to do with us—literally ruined our meal, because he was the only thing we could hear. It was impossible to ignore him.

I just don’t know why people are on their mobile phones so much in public. Again, I thought we were beyond that as a status symbol and a novelty.

It’s not that I don’t care what you have to say when it has nothing to do with me. It’s that YOU don’t care that I don’t care. And that you don’t have the shame and humility to realize what you’re sharing in public.

And it’s a great distraction while operating a motor vehicle—these montonous, digital age conversations.

What’s so important?

Can’t you put your phone down for a minute and tell me?

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Apr
18

Phoney Baloney

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I’m about ready to rip the phone out of the wall. All four of them.

You ever walk by those skeletons of days gone by—the pay phone? Or rather, where a pay phone used to be? The useless wires dangling from the back of the unit, the actual phone itself long gone?

That’s what I’d like our bedrooms and kitchen and basement to look like—the remnants of where a land line phone used to be.

They say that the land line is about to go the way of the pay phone. That time can’t come soon enough, frankly.

The only reason we have land line phone service, nearest I can tell, is to be harassed at all hours of the day and night. Because it certainly isn’t to make phone calls, or to receive any meaningful ones.

My wife and I use our cell phones to place calls, even from the home. Same with our daughter. My wife’s mother, who we live with, takes only a handful of calls a month—usually from doctor’s offices, confirming appointments. And mom-in-law doesn’t really place any calls, either.


Weapon of mass frustration


The other 98% of the time, the phone rings with the telecommunications version of e-mail spam.

How and when did this happen? When did the home telephone, i.e. the “land line,” turn into nothing more than an annoyance whose ringing wants me to stick knitting needles into my eyes?

The average phone “conversation” in our house, when it involves an incoming call, lasts about two seconds, on average. That’s because the first thing we hear is the obvious bleatings of a pre-recorded message.

That’s when the receiver gets hung up, forthwith.

The home telephone used to be a lifeline of sorts. Maybe even a life blood. Remember how lost you’d feel when the phone service would go out? There was a feeling of disconnect—literally—from the outside world.

There was nothing sadder than the sound of dead silence when lifting a phone whose service was down.

Now, I would give my left ear to have the damn thing shut off for good.

The only reason we maintain land line service is that we have our Internet service through the phone company. It seems like too much work to combine our phone and satellite TV services.

So we have the desire to remove our phones but we lack the will, apparently.

The result is that we pay some $40 a month to be harassed.

Forty bucks a month to hear that we are winners of cruises we never entered the contests of; $40 to be asked several times a month of anyone in our household has diabetes; $40 to be hung up on when we answer the phone (that’s the one that gets me).

We sometimes let the offending calls go to the machine, but 2/3 of the time no one leaves a message.

Can’t be that important, then.

The phone used to be the center of a hotbed of activity. It’s how play dates were made, how we spoke to businesses, how we got news from our family members.

It would also strike fear into the hearts, when it dared to ring at 3:00 a.m.

Nothing good happens at 3:00 a.m, except child birth, and no one calls about that until after 9:00.

So we have four of these instruments of harassment plugged into our walls: one in the basement, one in the kitchen, and two in bedrooms. We literally groan when they ring. No kidding.

Somehow, like the pay phone, the land line phone became a victim of cell phones, the Internet, and plain old apathy.

It now almost represents a simpler time of letter writing, bike riding and manual transmission.

The land line phone—a museum artifact in our very own homes!

But get it out of my house. Seriously.

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Mar
15

TV News Gets Its “Props”

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No one shuffles papers anymore on TV.

I’m talking about the news people, who are moving further and further away from a paper-enslaved society. They’ve stopped killing trees—which is one less story for them to report, if you like irony.

In the days of Huntley and Brinkley and Cronkite—heck, even Chevy Chase—an iconic image was to see the newsmen read off their typewritten scripts (no TelePrompTers back then), turn the page when done, and then came the shuffling.

It happened at the end of the broadcast—Cronkite would say, “And that’s the way it is…” and the camera would pull back and we’d see old Walter shuffling his pages of script on his desk.

I miss that. Call me silly, I don’t care.

I bring this up because the paper shuffling has now been replaced by a new icon of TV news.

The laptop has replaced the news script.

The laptop has invaded the newsroom desks of the TV studios throughout America.

Apparently the “hip” thing now, if you’re a news anchor, is to keep an open laptop on the desk before you. It seems to be mainly a prop, because I’ve never seen an anchor actually refer to the laptop.


Cronkite and the new dinosaur of TV news: the typewritten script on paper
Probably some producer of some TV news show decided that an open laptop would give the anchor credibility. Lord knows why. Have you seen the people who use laptops nowadays? I wouldn’t trust them to mow my lawn.

How much do you want to bet that the laptops aren’t even powered up?

This is hardly the end of civilization as we know it; I’m not angry about it. Actually, I think it’s kind of amusing.

I’m not such a curmudgeon that I believe typewritten, paper news scripts should be sacred items.

But with open laptops sitting on the desks of all the TV news studios nowadays, it makes me wonder what the next hip thing will be.

Maybe the younger anchors of the near future will text the news and the words will appear on our TV screens.

Don’t laugh.

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May
12

Their Days Should be Numbered

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Including area code, there are 10 digits to any garden variety telephone number.

Tell that to the folks at Progressive Insurance.

I’m sorry to pick on Progressive, but they’re the most egregious example of what’s been making me cranky lately.

I find that as I get closer to 50 years old (I’ll be 47 this summer), it doesn’t take much to crank up my crank machine.

Progressive, if you’d like to call them, pumps a phone number that defies logic and that makes its own rules for dialing.

1-800-PROGRESSIVE.

The “area code” for purposes of this number is the toll-free 800, thus leaving seven digits to dial a proper, legal phone number.

“Progressive” contains 11 letters.

I think you see where I’m going here.

What the Progressive people want you to do is use the name of their company to better remember their phone number. On the surface, I understand that sentiment.

Two problems.

One, you have to dial four superfluous numbers.

Two, the new “smart” cell phones, like BlackBerries, aren’t so smart.

A traditional telephone keypad contains both numerals and letters; you know—2 is also ABC, 3 is DEF, etc.

But a smart phone doesn’t play that game—which has only been around since the days of WWI, for crying out loud.

The numbers on a smart phone share the same keys as the letters on a QWERTY keypad, a fancy term for a typewriter keypad.

So the 1 is on W, the 2 is on E, etc.

This doesn’t do you any good when the phone number you are meaning to dial isn’t a number at all, but rather a word.

Try dialing 1-800-PROGRESSIVE (forget the 11-digit thing for a moment) with a “smart” phone, if you haven’t committed to memory what number P is, then R, and so on, on a traditional telephone keypad.

Here’s what I want: I want a phone number. Just give me a phone number. I don’t want cute, clever words—just numbers.

Turns out that 1-800-PROGRESSIVE, for example, is 1-800-776-47377483.

See how silly that sounds?


Huh? You’re supposed to dial “dot-com, inc.”, too?

I guess the beef I have isn’t with the notion of using names instead of numbers, in of itself. To be fair, this phenomenon began way before smart phones came out.

My complaint is the abuse of this practice; read: using words that contain more than seven letters!

Like I said, 1-800-PROGRESSIVE is, by far, the worst abuser of this attempt to provide an easy-to-remember phone number.

If you dial all 15 numbers, the phone thinks you’re nuts. It may or may not complete the call after the first 10 digits. Regardless, it’s probably wondering what the hell you’re doing, tapping in 15 freaking numbers for a task that only requires 10.

1-800-FLORIST is nice because it shouts the name and purpose of the company, AND—bonus—it only uses up the allotted seven key punches!

But gradually, companies began fudging—sneaking eight-letter words into their cutesy phone numbers, then nine.

Progressive takes the cake, with 11.

Still, I prefer numbers only. OR, a compromise: announce the cutesy number (for radio spots, for example), then repeat it in numerical form.

“Call 1-800-FLORIST; that’s 1-800-356-7478!”

Printed forms of the cutesy numbers sometimes will include both alphabetical and numerical versions. God bless those people who provide that.

Just thought I’d share that with you.

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Nov
10

Phoney Baloney

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First, it was that you couldn’t get a human being on the phone when you called (insert company). It’s still that way, of course, but now I have a new beef.

You can’t even get a human being on the phone—when YOU’RE the one being called!

I suppose they’re called “robo calls”—the phenomenon of automated systems dialing you with pre-recorded voices on the other end of the line.

Some of these calls are slickly done; they start out sounding like a real person.

Technology has improved. Time was, pre-taped messages sounded, well, pre-taped. These new calls sound like people, because there isn’t that AM radio-like hiss or static.

I’ve been fooled.

I got a call several months ago from some financial planning dude named John Stephens. He sounded very casual and friendly.

“Hi, this is John Stephens,” he said in a manner and tone that suggested that he and I were longtime friends. I actually started to talk to the guy—before finding out that he was no guy but some recording!

This morning I received two such calls—one from someone wanting to know if anyone in the household had diabetes, and a “courtesy” call from CVS pharmacy reminding us of a prescription that needed to be refilled. Both recorded.

But there’s an advantage to these recorded calls: you can hang up on them without feeling guilty.

“John Stephens,” by the way, has called me several times since, but now I don’t fall for his casual, nice guy routine. I’ve even stopped talking back to him.

It’s starting to feel like a “Twilight Zone” episode—millions of phones in this country without people on the other end, both calling us and taking our calls.

How long before these computerized operators start calling each other?

Will there be a day when the computer answering my call at the electric company runs afoul of its software program and dials “John Stephens”?

What a conversation that would be!

I wonder if John fills his scripts at CVS.

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