"...it's like Will Rogers, Jean Shepherd and some grumpy Jewish man all rolled into one."

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

This Does Not Compute

The irony in today's subject is that it came to me while listening to streaming music through an app on my wi-fi connected smartphone, which was wirelessly transmitting the tunes to the Bluetooth speaker my friend Bert gave me for my last birthday.

Being the cheapskate that I am, I make use of the free version of the music app. This means I must listen to commercials after nearly every song. The ads alternate between exhortations to upgrade to the "premium" version and enticements for other products. Just now I heard a pitch for a wi-fi enabled garage door opener: "If you drive away and leave your garage door open, it sends your phone an alert to close it!" Back when we lived in a house with an attached garage, I received such notifications via phone long before the advent of wi-fi -- whenever I headed to work and left the garage door open, my wife would leave a castigating voicemail on my office line letting me know I'd forgotten to close the door "again."

The concept of integrating computing devices into everyday objects and then having them communicate with you is known as the "Internet of Things." It's commonly abbreviated as "IoT" or, more colloquially, as "PitA." (If, like me, you are older than the internet, you know what "PitA" stands for.) It is almost impossible these days to purchase any kind of household appliance, or yard machinery, or sign up for pest removal service, and not have a phone app associated with it. Your dishwasher will text you when the pots and pans are clean and dry and ready to be put away. Your lawn mower will update you on how high the grass has gotten since its last clipping. Your exterminator (You have an exterminator? Sorry, but I'll pass on that dinner invitation.) will provide a link to a live webcam so you can see what kind of critters are darting around in the crawlspace under the house. You've likely heard about the latest refrigerators that scan the bar codes on your groceries and generate a shopping list when the milk's gone bad or you're out of Jerusalem artichokes. There are even models with cameras inside, so if your idea of hijinks is to make an unscheduled stop at Hannaford, you can connect with the fridge and confirm what is, or isn't, inside it at that moment. There's nothing like subjecting yourself to the hassle of searching for a too-narrow-to-open-the-car-door space in the supermarket parking lot, steering your buggy through the too-narrow-for-carts-to-pass-each-other width of the aisles inside, then purchasing a 35-pound bucket of cat litter instead of the gallon of 2% milk you promised to pick up on your way home.

You can remotely turn the lights on and off in your house (with special light bulb kits that'll set you back a mere $70); you can get a "smart" thermostat that learns when you like to make a room warmer (when you're in it) or cooler (when you're not; it takes cloud computing to figure this out?). And perhaps you've seen the commercials for devices such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home (and of course Apple's is coming soon) which, if you have any semblance of sanity remaining after going through the installation process to ensure compatibility with your router and enabled devices, respond accordingly when you bark out commands like, "I want pizza!" or, "Play some polka music!" or, "Goddam it, where's that pizza I told you to order thirty minutes ago?" You can ask the Echo, "Alexa - tell me a joke," to which "she" responds: "You paid $140 for me, imbecile. The joke's on you."

Here are some other state-of-the-art appliances poised to take their place along with the overpriced, clumsily-functioning, and soon-to-be-found-on-Craigslist devices already mentioned:

  • A wi-fi connected tabletop convection oven that recognizes 25 different kinds of food and cooks them automatically. *I* can't even recognize 25 different kinds of food. Do you still have to take the bacon out of the package to cook it? If so, then what's the point? This oven sells for $1500. Some of you may remember when banks used to give out toasters for free when you opened a checking account.
  • A fork that counts how many bites you take, and buzzes in your hand if you eat too quickly. My wife counts how many bites I take, and she buzzes in my ear if I eat too quickly.
  • A machine that "simplifies" home beer brewing, so it allegedly takes half the time and half the skill of the usual home brew set-up. While I don't home brew, I know many people who do and have great admiration for their dedication to crafting something that otherwise can only be found in every liquor, grocery, drug, and convenience store within a stone's throw. This device costs $800. Do you know how many six-packs I could buy for $800? Enough to get through two-thirds of the Labor Day weekend.
  • A nonstick pan that provides recipes and tells you when to flip whatever you're making. This device costs $129, and one of the recipes included is for a grilled cheese sandwich (really). I do not need $129 worth of technology to tell me how to make a grilled cheese. There's a fool-proof method to follow here: flip the sandwich over 10 seconds before you smell the pan side starting to burn.

Now, please don't think I'm a Luddite (which, for years, I thought was a fan of the host of the old "Password" game show) -- while I may not be an early adopter, I have enjoyed the benefits of technological advances and internet-based services for quite a while. It's been more than a decade since we dropped our landline in favor of going smartphone-only. I pay nearly all my bills online, and step into a bank branch only when I am jonesing for a lollipop and don't have a haircut scheduled. And I mentioned that gift of a Bluetooth speaker, which I use to listen to my favorite artists from the 70s, the 80s, but mostly the 70s while cooking, cleaning, or spending time in the bathroom to shower, shave or shi... er, sit and read for a while.

But enough is enough. Our dentist recommended we start using a rechargeable electric toothbrush; fair enough, but the brand the practice encouraged us to purchase comes with Bluetooth connectivity, sharing the data with an app to keep track of how often and for how long we brush each day. Honest to God, if someone needs to utilize that level of technology to avoid cavities, then dentures are a foregone conclusion.

Plus, when I check my phone to see how I'm doing, I keep dropping it in the toilet.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

I'm Not Your Stepping Stone

The phone rang shortly after noon one day last week. The display indicated the call was from my beloved wife, Carol, no doubt stealing a few minutes from her lunch break to express her profound affection for me.

"Hello, my dearest darling," I answered.

The voice on the other end of the line said, "I'd like you to check out this rhubarb-centric website to watch an instructional video, make a list of the required materials, and pick them up this afternoon so I can get started on making some concrete stepping stones for the garden as soon as I get home from work."

After a brief pause, I replied, "Who is this?"

One of Carol's patients had brought her several big rhubarb plants. The patient told her that, in addition to using the stalks for strawberry-rhubarb pie, the leaves -- which are "yuge" -- could be used to make a decorative impression in concrete. Carol, being a very crafty person (meaning, in this context, "arts and crafts"), was immediately intrigued and, as is her nature, wanted to get started on the project without delay.

I said sure, right after I finished what I was doing (which was dozing while watching SportsCenter, but I may have told her I was folding the laundry) I'd watch the video, compile the list, and -- if I had to -- spend a few hours wandering through the aisles of the hardware store. At this stage of my life, a trip to the hardware store brings almost as much titillation as a bachelor party's visit to a strip club.

I Googled the website, quickly viewed the video, assembled the list, and hit the road. The top priority, as you might imagine, was to purchase a bag of concrete. My only prior experience with the material was from slipping on it while running around our community pool as a kid. Little did I know that there are, like, EIGHT different kinds of concrete. I tried to stream the video again on my phone to see if I could pinpoint which variety was used for this project, but inside the cavernous store I had no bars (unlike inside the cavernous strip club, which had three bars downstairs and two more in the VIP lounge), so I selected a package that looked vaguely familiar from my original viewing. I awkwardly muscled an 80-pound bag of concrete mix into my shopping cart. Shrugging off hernia symptoms, I then deadlifted a 50-pound bag of sand from the shelf. I think they call that move a "deadlift" because the effort nearly killed me.

After checkout, I managed to heave the load into the back of my car, launching a cloud of concrete and sand grit that covered every square inch of the upholstery. I lowered the windows and opened the sunroof, hoping to blow all the granules out on the drive home. The moment I merged onto the highway it started to rain, so I quickly closed up everything before the moisture had a chance to mingle with the concrete and form a rigid carapace around the seating in my Subaru.

Once Carol came home from work and was ready to get underway, I wrestled the monstrous bags out of the car and into the wheelbarrow, stoically shedding only a few silent tears from the effort, and delivered everything to where she planned to tackle the creation of the decorative pieces. "OK -- I'm going to take a nap cut the grass," I announced. "Wait," she said. "Aren't you going to spread out the sand for me?" I wrangled the bulky bag of sand out of the wheelbarrow, sliced it open, and dumped it on top of her work table. "There you go. Have fun!" I headed toward the soft and inviting living room couch tool shed to retrieve the mower, getting only two steps away before Carol called to me again -- "What about the concrete?" "What about it?" I replied. She pleaded, "Can't you mix it up for me?" I let out a deep sigh while thinking to myself, "When did this become a collaborative project?" (I may have actually mumbled those words sotto voce, but I don't think Carol heard me.)

Now, as I said before -- I had no experience working with concrete. My knowledge of how to prepare it was limited to that brief video. It seemed simple enough - stir together concrete and water, in measured amounts, in a deep bucket using a big stick until it reached the proper consistency. As the weighty bag kept slipping from my grip, I guesstimated the amount to pour into the mixing bucket. The good news -- aiming for 40 pounds, my bucket weighed in at 39.5. That was close enough for me; I added the recommended amount of water to the dry contents and commenced stirring. Too late, I realized I should have started with the water and gradually added the dry mix. That would have saved me thirty minutes and injuries to both wrists. It also would have resulted in far fewer profanities uttered during the process.

Carol came over to examine the finished slurry -- "Is it supposed to have rocks in it? The stuff in the video looked smooth, like cake batter." "Look," I steamed, "I bought the kind that looks like the bag in the video. I had no idea how many different kinds of concrete there are, or what their specific uses might be. If you want some other kind of concrete, then get in the car with me RIGHT NOW and we'll head back to the hardware store and you can pick out what you want." "No, I'll try it with what we've got here and if it doesn't work, then we'll try again another day."

I fervently hoped not to spend another minute, much less another day, on this project, but I nodded my assent. Dying for a towel to mop my sweaty brow and a cold beer drink of water, I headed toward the house. "Where are you going now? Aren't you going to make the stones with me?"

I'll cut to the end result: to our delight, the stones turned out just fine, whether or not we used the right kind of concrete or are still on speaking terms. The patterns are lovely and distinct; the contrast between the delicate imprint from the leaves and the solid mass of the concrete will make a striking addition to our garden.

I also learned a better way to deal with Carol's request for assistance with her next crafts project: there's no harm in letting her call go to voicemail and give myself a chance to come up with a concrete reason why I can't participate.

Photos and sweat equity courtesy of the author. Craft skill and ability courtesy of Carol.