Remember When It Seemed Like Christmas Was Far Away?

santa bear

Photo taken October 7.

Remember when you were in school, and it seemed like the month of December that was after Thanksgiving but before the beginning of Christmas break, took an eternity to pass?  When you’d think, “Oh, it’s only December 12th?  Christmas will never arrive.”

Nothing like Christmas makes me aware of how fast the year goes.  I feel like it was just that time of year when every other commercial is about men’s college basketball.

I wondered if there was a way to make Christmas start later.  So I started a campaign on Facebook to move Christmas to mid-January or even February.  And I got people to support me.  I was very clever.  I posted on people’s Facebook walls that I was tapping them for the “Christmas – Paper Towel Tube Challenge.”  The challenge was to film yourself putting one of those cardboard tubes at the inside of rolls of paper towels.  and speak into it like one would a megaphone.

It became very popular and before long I had a million Facebook users saying move Christmas to February 15 so that it would feel like the year was longer.  There was a referendum and a very close vote, and more than one accusation of cheating.

But when all was said and done, the ayes had it and Christmas – the biggest holiday of the year – was moved to mid-February, a month and three weeks from its usual spot.

Oh sure, people loved the extra shopping time at first.  But the next thing they knew, it was February 12, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, and everyone was stressed out.

So there was another campaign on social media, and another referendum, and another close vote, and Christmas was now scheduled for May 22nd.

Why people did not foresee this causing conflict with graduation ceremonies and celebrations is one of the larger questions to arise from this episode.  An easier question might be why they decided to move the holiday once again.  Naturally they had another referendum – most people cast their votes early this time – and Christmas Day from the previous year is moved once again, this time to September.

This was later viewed, correctly I believe, as a mere stopgap measure.  All voters, no matter yea or nay, knew that with the start of another school year, and the Jewish holidays, that a September Christmas was dead in the water.  At the eleventh hour the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a create was stirring, not even a mouse, the Christmas from the previous year was moved to December 25th of the current year, so there would be two Christmases on the same day.  People had to buy last year’s and this year’s gifts at the same time.  Retailers never had it so good.  And so it was decreed that henceforth every Christmas would be a double Christmas.

People still wait until the last minute to shop and are stressed out leading up to that minute.  But the double the joy on the children’s faces more than makes up for it.

 

Remember When There Wasn’t All This Hacking of Emails?

I recently received a message saying that my email account “has been implicated in a security breach.”  After I calmed down and stopped pacing around with my hands in the air, asking “Why me?”, I wondered what these hackers could possibly have wanted with my emails….

“Captain, what have we found, if anything, from the emails?”dirty keyboard

“Well, sir, we have discovered that his sister is coming over to visit in a few weeks, and that he has a 20% off coupon to Target.”

“Hmm.  Not sure what I’m going to do with that yet.  But go on.  What else did you find?”

“He is delinquent in reading all emails from The Wooden Spoon Store.”

“Well, that is interesting.  Do you know what that means?”

“No, sir.”

“Obviously the account custodian is involved in a ideological battle with this retailer.  Run with it!”

The story that The Wooden Spoon Store along with other online retailers was involved in an ideological battle with me tarnished its squeaky clean image and hurt sales.  I was interviewed several times about my thoughts on the store.

They shoved microphones in my face, and asked, “Why did you not read those emails from the Wooden Spoon Store?”

“Because I don’t use wooden spoons,” I replied.

Then the FBI announced in an unsigned letter that they were “taking a closer look at a few emails that merit a closer look” and  I had to testify before Congress.

“Mr. Kaplowitz, it says here according to this email dated…ah, where is the date.  Excuse me,” turning to his right, “Senator, can you help me? Where is that email I was going to talk about?”

“Um, I don’t know, Senator.  You had all your papers on your table.”

“I did?  Well, anyway.  Mr. Kaplowitz, I understand that you believe that the Wooden Spoon Store is manipulating the market for wooden spoons.  What evidence do you have to back that up?”

“I don’t have any evidence.  And I never said that the store was manipulating anything.”

“You didn’t?”

“Well, it was taken out of context.”

At my sentencing for violation of the Fancy Kitchen Wares in Lawful Commerce Act and a slew of other fraud and obstruction of justice charges, I was given the opportunity to address the judge and all three employees of the Wooden Spoon Store.

“To my fellow human beings, I am sorry that I never read the emails you sent me, advising me of specials and other deals.  I should have taken the Terms of Service more seriously.  This was grievous error and I am glad that I am going to be punished for it.”

I served my time in a special prison for hackers, computer fraudsters, and people who post on Facebook about their long distance running.  These fellow inmates taught me how to read online newspapers without paying.  Upon my release for good hygiene, I put this skill to use and today I read upwards of four articles a day without paying for them.

Have I traded one kind of fraud for another?  Perhaps.  But a man’s got to make a living somehow.

 

Happy Thanksgiving

What I remember most about Thanksgiving is having a school assignment that was due the day after Thanksgiving break.  Why do they make things due the day after Thanksgiving break?turkey

Like the time in fifth grade, I had to write an “report” on Ferdinand Magellan.  I’d done nothing for weeks, thinking, “Oh, December first, that’s like forever away.”  Then that Sunday after Thanksgiving, when I and my brother are still eating pumpkin pie for breakfast, I realize in a panic that the report is due, that I don’t have any books on the subject, and that our library branch is closed.  To appreciate this scene you have to know what it was like in the days before the internet.

Fortunately, my father served with someone on the synagogue ritual committee who worked for the library system, and by calling this person – during dinner, from what I could gather from my father’s side of the telephone call – discovered that there was one library branch that was open, and it was thirty minutes away by car.

It was an uncomfortable car ride.  My father waited while I got out the books, and then had to drive me to his office thirty minutes in the other direction from our home, just so I could type the essay because, I had meant to add, the teacher said that the essay had to be typed.

And there was eighth grade Thanksgiving break, for which I saved an assignment to pick ten Civil War battles and write a short poem about each one.  This was my first (but far from my last) experience with the “all-nighter,” as well as with the technique of using the same rhyming couplet (“In this battle of the Civil War/Twas hard to know who suffered more”) in every single poem to give some substance.  I recently reviewed the teacher’s comments in red – “Good technique but need something about the battle.” – and was insulted all over again.

In twelfth grade, I honored my Thanksgiving break with an assignment to memorize and recite lines from Hamlet.  As I could do this entirely by myself without need for rides or money or labor, I told no one, and stayed up all Sunday night and into Monday morning rehearsing the words “we fat ourselves for maggots.”

After dozing off and missing the bus and enduring a ride to school from a very angry and tired parent, I ran to English class, took a few deep breaths, got into character, and commenced my performance.  It was more exhilarating than I had ever imagined, at least until my teacher informed me that I had learned the wrong lines, and gave me an A-.

These days, the challenge on Thanksgiving is getting ready and out the door at near light speed without upending the pie or squishing the rolls.  This ritual is in its own class of torture.  But by Sunday I am worry free.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Remember When You Could Vote to Leave the European Union and Not Regret It?

Two weeks ago the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union.  It was a close vote and was based on a lot of false claims and promises that cannot be kept, such as the prediction that the English Channel will be widened so that all the swimming records will be invalidated.

As soon as the results were in and the markets went down instead of up, people in the UK started calling for a re-do of the vote, arguing that the first vote was a mistake because too many people thought they were just taping an episode of “House Hunters International.” Politicians who had not already been forced to resign over the Brexit vote promised that once the UK voted to undo the first vote then the UK would remain in the EU. There was a lively campaign both in favor and against the “Un-Brexit” and in another close vote the results were in favor of undoing the original Brexit.

The rejoicing was, however, short-lived.  By the first Brexit vote, the UK technically left the EU, and voting to undo that vote had no legal effect. The only way for the UK to return to the EU was for an affirmative vote to rejoin it, rather than voting to undo a vote that had already taken place.

The politicians who had advocated for the “Un-Brexit” vote were then forced to resign, and their replacements, most of whom had no political experience beyond elections for class president, now had to push for a formal vote to join the EU, called the “Brejoin” vote, a combination of “Britain” and “re-join” that was a little confusing to explain. After more campaigning and another close vote, the UK voted affirmatively to rejoin the European Union.

But then there was a joint meeting between the Council of Europe and the European Council, and once everyone understood that these were actually two separate entities, it was determined that Britain would not be able to re-join the EU until it was formally invited.  Some people asked why this legal snag was not mentioned earlier, and the only answer offered was that it had something to do with differing keyboard layouts.

In the weeks leading up to the pan-European “Brinvite” referendum, there was much campaigning on both sides. People on the “yes” side explained how allowing the UK back into the EU was the only way to end the Hundred Years’ War.  People on the “no” side warned that allowing the UK back would lead to increased amount of Shakespeare in schools. There was a healthy amount of false information on both sides and the experts predicted another close vote.

By the narrowest of margins the “no” vote won and those who were in favor of Brinvite immediately demanded a re-vote, claiming widespread voter confusion over mistranslations of “Brinvite” that led many to believe they were just voting on whether to allow Syrian refugees free consumption of oxygen. And of course the markets tumbled, but because the markets had already been tumbling, the new tumbling caused some markets to become stronger, and economists were quick to highlight this as proof that economists did not know anything.

There was another spirited campaign for the re-vote on Brinvite after the failed Un-Brexit of Brexit, and the debate was centered on what to call the vote.  Conservatives advocated for “Re-Brinvite” but liberals pushed for “Un-Brexit Secundum.” The argument over the name of the vote became so contentious that by the time the voting cards were printed up, the choices were just over what to call the vote. There were no euros left over to have the cards re-printed, and, in any event, the voter turnout for the “name of the vote” vote was better than for any European-wide balloting since the referendum to replace war-making with soccer.

The voter turnout was so great that, unfortunately, the votes are not fully tallied and the vote counters have all gone on vacation, which they call “holiday.”  Markets have completely shut down in anticipation of the final count.  We will keep you posted.  In the meantime, keep calm and…just keep calm.

Remember When Robots Did Not Pull Publicity Stunts?

On the afternoon of Tuesday, June 14, 2016, in the Russian Federation city of Perm, a robot named Promobot escaped from the laboratory where it was created. The lab had a gate designed to confine Promobot when the human scientists were not present, but this gate was left open that day and so gave Promobot the opportunity to leave. Promobot left the lab through the open gate, traveled about 164 feet until its battery died while it was crossing the street. A police officer directed traffic around the powerless robot until a lab employee could wheel Promobot back to the lab.

That was the story that captivated audiences who thirsted for a story that was part bittersweet tale of freedom and part frightening glimpse of the future.  But was the story true?  Certain facts did not add.

For example, the lab employee who allegedly left the gate open had a perfect record of closing the gate before June 14th.  According to his statement to investigators, he was about to close the gate when he received a text message from his wife asking if he had remembered to empty the dehumidifier, and was so busy trying to think of a decent excuse that he forgot to close the gate.  But it turned out that he did not even have a dehumidifier, and there were moldy books in his basement to prove it.

Then there was the issue of the photographs with the missing metadata. Normally photographs that the lab released to the public always had metadata, showing the date and time that the photographs were taken.  But all of the sudden the photographs showing Promobot stopped in the middle of the road and holding up traffic were stripped of all metadata.

The lab’s photographer explained that the metadata had been stolen by a metathief who had demanded a ransom of ten million rubles.  When the photographer was advised that it was impossible to steal metadata in the manner he described, he refused to say any more and pleaded the protection of the Fifth Amendment.  When he was advised that the Fifth Amendment did not apply in Russia, he admitted that he was not a photographer at all, and was only in the lab because he had been hoping to get a job as a robot.

But this evidence was all circumstantial.  It was time to go to the source.  Promobot was brought into a small room in the basement of a police station and was wheeled up to a table lit by only a single low-hanging lamp.  The grizzled investigator began questioning.

Q: So according to the statement that you gave to the police, you stopped your escape when you ran out of batteries.

A: Yes-that-is-correct.

Q: But in photographs taken shortly after the lab workers found you, your face was illuminated.

A: I-do-not-recall-what-my-face-looked-like-in-those-photographs.

Q: [shows the robot the photographs] Does this refresh your recollection?

A: Um-I-do-not-know-that-could-be-any-robot.

Q: But the robot in this photograph has heart-shaped eyes on its screen face, and you have said in previous promotions that you are the only robot in the world with a display option for heart-shaped eyes.

A: I-I-do-not-know-what-you-are-talking-about-I-have-no-knowledge-of-any-heart-shaped-eyes-I-want-to-speak-to-my-lawyer.

Q:  Isn’t it true that your battery did not die at all?  That this was all done as a publicity stunt?

A:  All-right-I-admit-it-this-was-all-a-publicity-stunt-they-forced-me-to-escape-I-do-not-even-like-to-go-outside-I-am-afraid-of-pigeons-I-just-like-to-stay-inside-and-read-fantasy-novels.

In the end they did not feel right giving Promobot a prison sentence. Promobot was instead given a public censure and allowed to return to the lab. Unfortunately, all of the lab workers had been fired over their involvement in the hoax and the new workers and Promobot just did not hit it off. So Promobot left the lab, wrote a book about his ordeal, and became an advocate for other robots who were victims of human ambition.

Remember When Tax Evasion Wasn’t So Trendy?

The firm’s managing partner was not having a good spring. Every day there was another story about Mossack Fonseca and the Panama Papers, and generally making bad press for lawyers who earn their daily bread with offshore accounts. Just today there was a story about multibillionaire who was building a vacation home on the Moon but had not paid any tax since 1991.

An associate knocked at the half-open door and walked in.

“Sir, you wanted to see me?”

“Yes, yes,” said the partner. “Come in. Can you believe these stories? The way they write these things, you’d think that hiding assets to pay less tax was wrong. Don’t they know that tax evasion is what made this country great?”

“They should study their history, sir.”

“We need to come up with a response to this. This firm has been in this business two hundred years. Our first clients hired us to avoid taxes under the Stamp Act. We can’t very well just give up on our core business. But we can’t lead our clients into potential prison-situations, either. What we need is a creative solution, a way to hide assets that will not be noticed by the IRS or those nosey journalists.”

So began the great transition from hiding the clients’ assets in offshore accounts, to hiding the assets underneath beds.  The firm built a giant warehouse in the middle of nowhere, and filled it with beds, and stored the clients’ money under the beds.  The clients had no idea where the money was, thinking that names like “Queen Size with Headboard, LLC” were for holding companies.

To deflect any suspicion that might be raised by so many beds being shipped to a remote location, the firm established a bed ‘n’ breakfast on the grounds of the warehouse, and invited real, paying guests to sleep on the beds that, unbeknownst to the guests, hid the assets of the firm’s clients.

The guests however became very uncomfortable. They began to complain about the beds. “My bed felt like there was a large lump in it. I would like to be moved.” So the firm had to move these people to beds that did not have as much money hidden under them. This would be fine, unless the firm’s real client needed to stash assets in the middle of the night.

This happened more often than one would have believed. The firm would have to move the bed ‘n’ breakfast guest to another room while the additional funds were stored underneath the guest’s bed. The guest would usually be irate. “What do you mean you need the bed? I’m a paying guest! I was very cozy in there. I had the pillows set up just the way I like and now I have to leave so you can put someone else in there. Nice hotel you’ve got here – pulling a paying guest out of bed because you have someone more important who needs to sleep.”

Although the firm would give the guest its sincerest apologies and would even take a large percentage off the final bill, apologies and discounts go only so far in the hospitality business, and gradually the guest complaints for being moved in the middle of the night grew to such a large number that the government launched an investigation, believing that this was a case of discrimination against less-important guests.

It did not take long for the Internet outrage to arise. Hashtags like #SecondClassSleeper and #NoBedNBreakfast abounded and every day there were more and more calls from around the nation and the world for the President of the hotel to step down and for the hotel’s Board of Directors to adopt an “all guests are created equal” policy and be subjected to periodic audits and sensitivity training.

Of course there was no hotel president or board of directors because there was no hotel at all. It was just the law firm operating the hotel as a front for its asset hiding business on behalf of wealthy clients. The law firm’s management committee realized it had no choice but to admit that it wasn’t really a hotel. Perhaps they would all go to jail for tax fraud, but anything was better than sensitivity training.

When they did admit the truth, though, no one seemed as excited anymore. Once they realized this was just a boring tax evasion issue they tuned out. Even the government officials leading the investigation became bored and looked for someone else to bother.

But the law firm’s victory was short lived. Although the threat of government prosecution was past, the firm’s clients were disappointed in the business model. They had imagined their money in Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island corporations that existed not even on paper, but on pieces of onion skin. Once they knew that their money was just sitting under beds with strange people sleeping atop them, they withdrew their money and spent it all on greeting cards. The experts were all predicting a bear market that year anyway.

Remember When Greeting Cards Were Affordable?

“And when I’m elected President of the United States,” the candidate said to the adoring crowd, pounding the podium with every word, “I’m going to take on those greedy greeting card companies, and make them offer cards at a price that people can actually afford!”

The cheers were so loud that no one could hear the rest of the candidate’s speech. No one would have believed that the exorbitant price of greeting cards would become the biggest issue of 2016. But the candidate was the first to grasp the importance of affordable greeting cards to working families, and rode the resulting public response right into the White House.

In the weeks between the election and inauguration, the President’s transition team drafted legislation that certain member of Congress would be introducing on the first day of the new administration and new Congress. This particular representative owed his re-election to the President’s endorsement during the campaign season, which was made at great political risk to the President since the representative had been implicated in a “dollars-to-doughnuts” gambling ring.

With the legislation introduced, the first hundred days was marked by an intense effort to get enough votes in the House and in the Senate to guarantee the passage of the greeting card bill, which had been quickly nicknamed “Hall-Markdown.” Conservatives quickly formed a cabal against the bill and would not even allow the bill to be brought to a vote. Any time someone tried to call the bill to a vote, these obstructionists would sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” very loudly, so that no one could hear what was going on.

Finally one of the bill’s co-sponsors – a Congressman who as a child had been forced to make his own cards out of McDonald’s place mats because his parents worked for minimum wage and had to choose between food on the table and store-bought greeting cards – thought of hosting a combination pancake breakfast and gun show several miles away, and while the opposing representatives were stuffing their faces, the bill passed easily with only one “Nay” from a Congressman who did not eat gluten.

The bill was stymied in the Senate as well. One Senator who had accepted campaign contributions from several greeting card companies tried to filibuster the bill, but the President’s supporters broke the filibuster by telling the filibustering Senator that it was snowing outside, and then seizing the floor when the excited Senator ran to the window.

Even on the President’s desk the bill had trouble.  It passed the Senate just before 5 p.m. and was placed on the President’s desk late that night for signature, long after the President had retired to binge watch Season 3 of “Game of Thrones.”  The President met with foreign policy advisers early the next morning, and placed a thick confidential memo titled “More Middle East Stuff” on top of the greeting card bill and did not see the bill until just before it was set to expire along with all the President’s reward points.

At the eleventh hour the bill was signed into law where it was officially codified as the “Affordable Card Act” and ushered in new era of fairness and level playing fields.  No longer were people charged $5 or $6 or $7 for a birthday or Mother’s Day or Father’s Day card.  The Act created a new class of cards that cost only $0.99 apiece, the price proudly emblazoned on the back of each card next to a tiny picture of the President and the words, “You can thank me at the polls!”

I should know. I received one of these Hall-Mark-Down cards the other day.  And I don’t know quite how to say this, but the card just didn’t have the panache of the expensive ones.

Remember When Genes Could Not Be Driven?

Gene driving, or “Operation Mosquito” as it was originally known by insiders, is the changing or elimination of a species by changing its genes. When this technology was first announced, the scientist leading the project used the elimination of mosquitoes as an example of what gene driving could do. This scientist later issued a public apology for the insensitive remark, but mosquitoes said the apology did not go far enough and called for the scientist’s resignation.

I remember when the the New York Times first reported on gene drive technology and that people were worried about the “unintended consequences” of introducing a gene drive into plants or animals.  Unintended consequences?  It’s cute out overcautious we were in those days.  The problem was that the professional worry-warts were just thinking about how introducing gene drives into animals and plants would effect humans.  The moment they started focusing on introducing gene drives in humans directly, people saw the positives of the technology.

The first gene drive introduced into human beings eliminated the habit of sniffling all day instead of blowing the nose. This was revolutionary.  Remember being forced to sit on a bus or plane next to someone who sniffled constantly? That was far worse than mosquitoes.  If you were seated next to a mosquito on a plane, at worst you’d lose a drop of blood and have to share an armrest.

Then scientists genetically eliminated the use of certain annoying phrases like “fair enough” or “at the end of the day” or “it is what it is.”  Communication became much more precise, although there were a number of people who once robbed of their vacuous phrasing had nothing to say.

Politicians, columnists, and writers of science fiction were always broadcasting their deepest fears about using genetics to produce perfect humans. Why did they always focus on the negative? Who was talking about perfect humans? The key was to use gene drive technology to make people a little bit better, like eliminating the desire to talk on your cell phone in public, or to chat with the register clerk at the supermarket when there is a line of people behind you, or the habit of breathing in while taking a bite of hot pizza, so that it sounded like you were slurping the pizza.

And the gene driving of humans did not always need to be negative. The scientists also added positive traits, like making sure that all newborn humans would be genetically driven to respond to Facebook direct messages within 24 hours and call their mothers at least once a week.

The issue was not too much gene driving, but too little. There were so many changes that could be made – so much room for improvement – and still leave us far, far away from the race of unloving super humans that Hollywood had fraudulently led us to believe would result. Like eliminating the habit of dance party disc jockeys who played “Livin’ on a Prayer” and then at the refrain turning the music off so that instead of Bon Jovi singing we hear just the other drunken guests. Or making sure that everyone has the gene of taking the shopping cart back to the the little shopping cart island shelter instead of just leaving it there in the parking lot next to the space your car just occupied.  Did Hollywood ever make a movie about a race of super humans who return shopping carts?  No – they would not waste studio time on the truth.

Recently, though, someone has suggested that they introduce a gene drive that eliminates the motivation to publish on the internet one’s own half-baked opinions of the world.  That clearly is going too far. We must learn to respect our own limitations. There are certain powers that humans simply should not have.

Remember When You Could Have a Private Email Server?

I am going to make a confession right now. When I was a cashier at 7-11 one summer years ago, I had a private email server. There, I said it. My actions were wrong and I am sorry.

When I commenced employment in that position, I had been provided with an email account on the store’s server installed right behind the Slurpee machine. But I hardly ever used that account. At work I had to stand up and sell people coffee, cigarettes, lottery tickets, and, of course, Slurpees. It was usually so busy that I had not any time to check email, and at the end of my shift at 10 p.m., I had to quickly bring that day’s leftover doughnuts to my friends who were starving and had money only for beer.

So it was a matter of circumstance that I hired a consultant to set up an email server at my home. Do not think that it was easy. I was still living with my parents and in the same bedroom I’d had since childhood, with the Disney character wallpaper, Superman sheets on the bed, and Thundercats light switch cover that I’d obtained as a favor in a Happy Meal. There was not a lot of space in the closet and I had to relocate my comic books and Boy Scout uniform at considerable inconvenience both to myself and my staff.

After a long day at the cash register I would return home to conduct my business. As you will see from the more than 40,000 emails that have been turned over to the State Department, I never discussed anything classified or that would compromise national security. The Saudis were interested only in some Power Bars, and the photos of potential drone strike targets were in fact from a particularly tense game of Battleship that to this day I swear I played with integrity.

Much has been made of Protocol 32, which mandates, in pertinent part, that all 7-11 business must be conducted on 7-11 servers. I do not deny the text of the rule, and since that time my staff and I have worked tirelessly to come up with a decent excuse. The reason I did not strictly follow the rule is that I did not read it. The package of materials that I received during orientation was shoved under my bed, and in the midst of all my duties and feeding my drunk friends free stale doughnuts I forgot about the rules, until my mother last year served me with a demand to take all my “junk” out of my old room or else I would face environmental clean up costs.

Nevertheless, my conducting of 7-11 business on a private email server was a violation of the rules, and for that I am sincerely sorry. But I assure you that at no point was the nation put at risk. I never told anyone how long the hot dogs are left on those rotating cylinders or who was really responsible for the irritating music that was always playing over the loud speaker. You can all sleep easy, and I hope that we can now all move past this, into a brighter future where my campaign for register clerk at Pita Pan will not be dogged by distractions that have nothing to do with the real issues.

Meliboeus


Meliboeus
Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
silvestrem tenui musam meditaris avena:
nos patriae finis et dulcia linquimus arva;
nos patriam fugimus: tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas.

(Virgilius, Eclogae I)