Remember When Live Entertainment Was the Only Entertainment?

Our 55 inch television (which is really 54.6 inches, but under the Supreme Court’s 1983 decision in Accuracy v. Simplicity, the decimal point gets rounded up) was getting a little long in the tooth. The faceless demon hounds from the upside-down universe in Stranger Things were not looking as threatening as they should, and what should have been high-definition sound was so delayed and garbled that singing along with the opening credits to My Little Pony was impossible.

So at the next regular meeting of the Committee on Unnecessary Purchases, our application to buy a new television set was approved, 8-7, and we were officially in the market for a new entertainment center.  A 70 inch screen would significantly improve the image, an 80 inch screen would qualify us to vote in local elections, and 90 inches was the neighborhood average.  But we did not want just be your average nobody with a 90 inch television.  We wanted something special.

After taking the recommended course “A New TV: Your Ticket To Real Life” we decided on the Globe 9000, boasting unparalleled definition and a diagonal of 118 inches.  Just a quick insertion of a credit card and deletion of a wall in our living room, and the largest viewing frame for miles around was as good as ours.

When the construction crew handed me the remote control and I pushed power, instead of a screen lighting up, there was a curtain that parted and revealed four people inside the TV – two men, and two women.

“My good sir,” said one of the men with an exaggerated bow, “thank you for choosing the Globe 9000.”  He spoke with a deep, crisp voice, was dressed like Pinocchio, and appeared to be the leader of the troupe.  “And what shall be your choice of entertainment tonight?”

“Um, how about Game of Thrones?” I asked.

“Very good, sir,” he said, and all four of them took their places on the 118 inch stage. One of the women put on a crown and turned to the leader and said, “When you play the Game of Thrones, you either win, or die,” and then she brandished a sword and stabbed him. But she didn’t really stab him. Rather, she stuck the sword in between the leader’s arm and torso, so it just looked like she was stabbing him. The leader then said, “Ah!  I am slain!” and fell to the floor while the other two actors, who were supposed to be courtiers or stable sweepers or something, watched in shock, hands to their mouths.

After a few seconds of twitching on the floor inside the TV, the leader got up and all four of them got into a line and bowed in unison.  They stayed in the bowed position, and then the leader raised his eyes at me, like he was expecting me to do something and was annoyed that I was not doing it.  I started to applaud slightly and the leader smiled and the four completed their bow and then raised their arms together in triumph and the curtain closed.

I pushed the power button again.  The curtain parted just enough for the leader’s head to poke out.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said, “but you shall have to try tomorrow, after the players have had a chance to rest.”

“So I can watch just one show a day?” I asked.

“Sir,” the leader said, as if explaining to a child why you can’t have ice cream for breakfast, “great performances require great preparation.”  He then withdrew his head and closed the curtain.  Not half a second later he poked his head out again.  “Also, it would greatly help if, when you wanted to enjoy a performance, you announced it by saying, ‘Oh Great Globe 9000, I would like to watch’ and then say the show you wish to watch.”

The next day I turned on the Globe 9000.  Nothing happened.  Then I remembered and said, “Oh Great Globe 9000, I would like to watch, um, Fixer Upper.”

The curtain parted and the actors were pretending to fix a house. The leader was hammering nails into an invisible wall.  The blonde haired murderess from yesterday was now painting an invisible chair.  And the other two were pretending to carry a table, a rather heavy one with sharp corners from the looks of it.

Then the scene ended and the four of them joined hands in a line and took a bow, and then they gave me this look and I applauded.  Then they drew the curtain and that was all the TV for the day.

The next morning I called the store and said that I wanted to return the Globe 9000.  “I do not need a refund,” I said.  “I only want to exchange it for a regular 80 inch TV, even a 70 inch.  I’m not picky.  Just please nothing with people living in it.”  The manager told me that I had to first file a petition demonstrating that I’d made a good faith attempt to bargain with the actors collectively.

I then tried to sell the Globe 9000 on eBay, but the sale was prohibited because the TV contained “humans, the human body, or any human body parts” in violation of the terms of service.  As a last resort, I sued the TV store, alleging false advertising.  But when it was revealed that I was not accommodating the actors’ dietary restrictions, I was subjected to a public shaming on Twitter until I withdrew the lawsuit.

Accepting my fate, I clicked the power button, and said, “Oh Great Globe 9000, I do not care what I watch.  Please show me anything except the Smurfs.”  The curtain opened and the leader stood by himself and pretended to hold a remote control and click it at the other three actors, who would pretend to do one thing, then another, then another, switching to a new pretend scene at every click.  I guess there is something special about having the only TV in the neighborhood that makes fun of its owner.

Remember Retail Stores?

It was my first year as president of a major electronics retailer facing a serious financial crisis.

Photo by DMedina at

“Decker, get in here,” I called to the closest analyst who wasn’t watching videos on a smartphone.

“Yes, sir.”

“We have a problem. It’s the future. Our cars are driven by computers. Our coastal cities have all been swallowed by rising sea levels. Tom Brady has finally retired from football and returned to his home planet.”

“Yes, I heard that, sir.  Drew Bledsoe has been practicing his throw.”

“But there are no more retail stores. Look at this map” – I motioned to a large map behind me – “this was once the extent of our retail empire, and now – Decker, are you paying attention?”

“Yes, of course, sir.”

“Each blue pin point was one of our retail stores. Look at how many blue points there are! Ten years ago, you couldn’t drive 50 miles in any direction without passing one of our convenient locations. Now…nothing.  All our stores have closed.”

“I know, sir.  Everyone’s got that new Amazon Think installed in their brains.  They just close their eyes, think of what they want, choose two-day or standard shipping, and…poof, a drone drops the product right on their doorstep.”

“Ok, Decker, I get the picture,” I said. “You don’t have to act it out for me.”

“I wasn’t acting, sir. I need more Raisin Bran. It should arrive by Wednesday.”

I rubbed my face.  “We need to think of a way to get people back in our stores.”

“But, sir, customers stopped shopping at retail stores years ago.  There’s the limited selection, higher prices, long lines. And don’t even get me started on returns. Customers just aren’t willing to go through that kind of hassle for a product.”

“Well,” I said, “if they won’t endure the hassle of retail for the product, then the hassle of retail will be the product!”

The opening of the world’s very first “Hassle’s” was met with little fanfare. So many retail stores had disappeared that most people figured it was another nail salon, or maybe one of those high-end pastry shops that specializes in stale biscuits with a dollop of whipped cream, except calls them “langue du chat” and then charges $7 for each one.

The people who wandered in, however, were surprised to the shelves filled with televisions and computer monitors, and adapters and cables, and infrared trackballs and cell phones and portable a/c units that you placed inside your pillow to keep it cool on hot summer nights.

“This isn’t even the latest model!”

“They don’t have the size I want!”

“And look at the price! At least $20 more than it would cost online!”
And when they took the products to the checkout, they had to wait on a long line of other customers.

“Wow, this line is really long.”

“Yeah, I can’t believe how slow it is going.  Why do they just have one register going?”

“What they are talking about at the checkout? How complicated can it be to pay for something and print a receipt?”

And then when they got home they tried out their item and found that something was wrong.

“There’s a purple line through the middle of the display!”
“Once you turn the volume up, you can’t turn it down!”

“The TV shows nothing episodes of My Little Pony!”

But when they called our customer service number to find out how they could return the product for a refund or a replacement, and successfully passed the seven levels of automated menus so that we could “better serve” our customers, they were told – by a recording of my own voice – that they had to bring it back to the store they bought it from.

And then when they arrived at Hassle’s with their defective product, there was of course a long line of other disgruntled customers, a line even longer than the line they had to wait on to buy the item, in front of the “Returns” desk.

And after they spent more of their precious time standing on the Returns line while holding a heavy piece of electronics, and finally reached the Returns desk, they were told that they would have to pay to ship the item back to the manufacturer, and if the defect was something covered by the warranty, then it would be fixed and the item shipped back to the them, again at their expense.

“And how long does the repair take, sir?” asked Decker some months after Hassle’s had first opened.

“Six to eight weeks is what we say.”

“Six to eight weeks! But…but the History Channel says that the only advantage of buying the item in the store was so that you could have it that very day.”

I laughed. “Yes, we say that in our Super Bowl ad, too. But the real answer is…they buy it in the store so that they can have the experience of suffering with a group of complete strangers.”

Decker shook his head. “But how can that be, sir? Why would people voluntarily choose that path when they can have the same item, but cheaper, easier, and in working condition?”

“For the same reason that people shop in the first place,” I said. “With robots doing all the work, people have got to do something!”

Remember That Mysterious Space Object?

Remember that strange elongated object hurtling through our Solar System from another star? The object – named ’Oumuamua for easy reference – that was so strange and so elongated that scientists said that rather than an asteroid, it was probably a spaceship containing alien technology? One minute they were speculating on how the aliens’ smartphones would at compare to the iPhone X, and the next minute the object had vanished from everyone’s news feed, replaced by a Chinese space station that they are planning to have crash into Earth in case the Olympics are too boring.

What we did not hear about was the mission to explore this object. In fact, there were three camps of scientists that speculated on what the elongated asteroid spaceship might contain.
“It has to be bacteria,” said one group of scientists. “Bacteria is the only organism that can survive the harsh and unforgiving elements of space.”
“No,” said another group. “it has to be plants. Only plants could survive in a place where the only food was sunlight and ice.”
“No, no, and no again,” said a third group. “It must be cats. For only cats would have a coat and neck fluffy enough to survive the cold of outer space.”

It was agreed that there was merit to all three views. But Netflix increased its monthly subscription fee by a dollar, we could afford to send just one mission.

After a day of voting, Team Space Cats was way ahead. The mission to confirm the presence of space cats launched a week before Christmas.

But it turned out to be an asteroid ship full of cards. The cards had been sent because there was no room. The mission was a failure.

“There isn’t life at all. These aren’t space cats. It’s just a pile of birthday cards that someone couldn’t bear to throw out!”
Everyone on the mission shook their heads. And they read the cards. There was nothing else to do. And there, at the bottom of every card, instead of a signature, was a little paw print.