Monthly Archives: December 2011

Remember When You Could Buy Things Without Being Asked to Write a Review?

The other day I used a smart phone to buy movie tickets through Fandango.  I have never found it so convenient to buy the tickets and pick them up in plenty of time to sit through the half-hour of coming attractions, commercials, celebrity pleas for charity, and animated robot warning moviegoers to turn off their cell phones or trade them in for a small popcorn from the lobby.  And the movie I saw, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Special Effects and Marketing, was really quite good, and I thought I might even see it again once my ears stopped ringing.

But upon arriving home and sitting down to a hearty meal of cookies in the shape of Christmas trees, and sprinkled with coarse green sugar granules, a text message appeared on my smart phone, which occupied the other place setting at the table.  It was a message from the Fandango application:

“How did you like Sherlock Holmes?  Click here to go to Fandango and be your own reviewer!”

I politely declined the invitation to write a review for this Fandango, feigning a prior commitment to review movies on another website.  But the following morning, I was greeted with yet another text message from Fandango:

“It has been 12 hours since you saw Sherlock Holmes.  Surely by now you’ve formed an opinion.  Click here to write your own review!”

Again, I opted not to write a review, and figured that Fandango would get the hint.  But I figured wrong, for two days later there was yet another text message from Fandango, reminding me that it had been three days since I saw Sherlock Holmes, and that if I did not write a review soon the movie would no longer be fresh in my mind and I would risk being influenced by the review of others.

Since when did it become customary to ask someone to review something they just bought?  Fandango is not the only one.  It seems like every time I buy something online I am immediately asked to rate it, participate in a survey, or post my own review.  Not only do I have to pay money for the product and transmit my credit card information into the ether, but I have homework on top.  Isn’t the fact that I bought the darn thing enough to show that I liked it?  And if I really like the product, I will buy from the same vendor again.  That is, if I’m not too busy taking a survey.

I know what the answer will be: to obtain marketing research.  But why do the evil corporations need me to participate in a survey to obtain marketing research?  Isn’t that why they implanted that chip in my brain while I was getting my wisdom teeth pulled?

Before long, all purchases will be followed by offers to rate, survey, and review.  We will buy milk and be asked to rate the milk on the milk-producer’s website, or to like the milk’s Facebook page.  “Follow your 1% Non-Homogenized Milk on Twitter, and don’t miss any news!”

One might be able to support the reviewability of products if the reviews were helpful.  But the reviews leave me more confused than I was in the beginning.  I’ll look at the Amazon reviews for a digital camera.  One review will give the camera five out of five stars, and proclaim that it is “the best camera for pictures of people holding drinks in their hands.”  And another review, of the same camera, will give it only one star, and state that it is “the worst camera I’ve ever used; my family looks just as ugly as before.”  One reviewer will hate the camera because the viewfinder shakes too much.  Another will say, “Love that shaking!”

I suppose that some people like the reviews and surveys and ratings.  They like being a part of the collective consciousness of a Blu-Ray player or restaurant or toilet plunger.  Perhaps it is more than just market research.  Perhaps this new source of information—the consumer—is a new branch of literature, and will give us the same insight into the human condition as novels, poetry, and that song where you take someone’s name and add those “bo-banana-rama” lyrics to it.  Perhaps I’ve gotten this all wrong.

But this discussion will have to be tabled for another day.  For there is a man at my door, wearing a Fandango shirt, and holding a baseball bat.  And he does not look happy.

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Remember When People Were Quiet in Libraries?

Courtesy of adm/flickr

The first rule I ever learned about the library is that it is not pronounced “lie-berry.”  The second rule I ever learned about the library is that you’re supposed to be quiet.  This second rule was enforced by popular culture.  For example, the apparition in the library at the beginning of Ghostbusters does not say “Boo” or “Ebenezer Scrooge,” but “Shh,” holding its translucent index finger to its translucent lips.

And that has been my approach to libraries throughout my life.  No talking loudly, unless you want to get attacked by a ghost.  True, rules of society change.  At weddings, instead of throwing rice, people blow bubbles.  “You’re welcome” becomes “No problem.”  What was once a highlight-worthy tackle becomes a 15-yard penalty.  But I always thought that the library, the sanctuary of reason, would remain a quiet place.

But evidently that rule, too, is under assault by the rules committee.

Just this past Saturday, I visit my local library branch to see if the copy of Harry Potter and the Fire Breathing Insurance Adjuster that I reserved has arrived.  It turns out I have to wait a few more weeks, so I take a seat in the club chair by the window with a copy of The Collected Clifford Books that I’m re-reading for my adult education class, “International Politics and Large Cartoon Dogs.”

I am not, however, alone in my nook.  The young man at the desk adjacent to my chair is wearing a red hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers.  All young men these days wear hooded sweatshirts, jeans, and sneakers.  His black fleece jacket and backpack are lounging on a chair next to his desk.  The backpack has black mesh outer pockets through which I can see pencils, pens, and an iPod suspended in a nest of thin white wires.

Something on his person vibrates and he answers his cell phone in a loud, clear voice.  “Hi…Yeah, I’m just trying to get this homework done…I don’t care about the grade anymore.  I just want to be done….”

I’m wishing he just wanted to be done with this telephone conversation.  I clear my throat loudly a few times but he does not turn around. A lot of people are sick these days, and perhaps he thinks that I am just another library patron who is a little under the weather.  I consider peeking out over the top of the desk, but in law school I was trained to be confrontational only for money.

So I move to another portion of the library.  There is a seating area on the second floor, over by the children’s reading room, where I can relax with my book and admire samples of finger painting from local artists.  I am once again engrossed in my reading when I am disturbed by three-year-old child who is lying face down on the floor, kicking and screaming into the carpet.  A woman I presume is the child’s mother is standing next to him, telling him that this is no way to protest the BCS ranking system.  I wish she would take the child away and channel its energetic fury into something productive, like a blog, but she makes no move.  I’m glad when I hear the child start to run out of breath, but then a librarian calls a number, and a new child steps up from the front of a long line of children, hands a small piece of paper to the librarian, and replaces the out-of-breath child on the floor and commences kicking and screaming with a fresh pair of lungs.

I make another lap around the library, searching for a quiet place.  At the back of the library there are some people talking as if they are contestants on a game show.  In the foyer there is someone playing Angry Birds with the sound on.  In every corner of the library I am assaulted by the noise of patrons who seem to have forgotten that one is supposed to be quiet in the library. 

I finally get up the nerve to complain to the head librarian.  And she tells me, in a voice better suited to the floor of the Senate, that the library has a “no shushing” policy.  Guess I missed that initiative in the last budget vote.

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Remember When You Couldn’t Buy Things Online?

When I send my mental archivist for some good ol’ Christmas memories from my childhood, she brings me back not caroling or egg nog or chestnuts warming on a hot plate that we picked up from QVC for three easy payments of $19.95, but rather images of long lines at Macy’s and Sears and a store called “A&S,” which I think stood for Aimless & Shameless.

My mother would drag my brother and I throughout the mall for the annual drag-a-thon, lugging a 30-gallon paper shopping bag with twisted rope handles that held our winter coats.  All that shopping, and the only shopping bag I remember is the bag with the coats.

And even more than waiting in line, I remember the carpets of those legendary department stores, beige and not too rough when you lay your face upon it, being mindful of the fallen staples and people walking around with sugar plum fairies and God knows what else dancing in their heads.  For following your mother around while she did her Christmas shopping was exhausting, particularly when we were not being energized by our usual line-up of televised cartoons and sit-coms.

One of the perks of being a kid is that you can lay down on the carpet of a department store and no one calls the security guard.  But it’s only department stores that seem to share this understanding.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art…not so much.

But waiting in long mega-lines that wrap around Saturn is, of course, part of my memories of shopping in physical stores with my physical legs and physical wallet.  I remember arriving at Macy’s one time with the intention of getting only a gift-card.  It was late afternoon and the tension level was at least a Code Orange.  I asked a security guard where the gift cards were, and he pointed to the register.  The gift cards were indeed at the register, and leading up to the register was one of the aforementioned mega-lines.  I asked the same security guard if it was really okay that I just step in front of all these people who had been waiting not-so-patiently, and he again pointed at the register, which I interpreted as a “yes.”

So I walked up to the register and grabbed a card, and started to address the cashier, and the man at the front of the line, holding four very large shopping bags bursting at the seams, said something to me that I cannot print here.

“No, it’s okay,” I said, waiving him off, “I’m just getting a gift card.”

When I got out the hospital I decided that it was perhaps time to do my shopping online.

My early forays into online consumerism were not success stories.  I ordered a black faux-leather swivel desk chair so I could pretend I was Dr. Evil.  But they sent me a burgundy chair instead.  I’m doubt you’ve tried it, but it is very hard to look evil in a burgundy chair.  So  I called up the online merchant and they said to put the chair outside my apartment and that it would be picked-up and replaced with the chair I ordered.

I did what they said and they sent me a new chair.  Unfortunately, the new chair was burgundy, too, and they had forgotten to pick up the old one.  So now I had had two burgundy chairs in my apartment, neither one of which I could use.  It looked like I was running a furniture store.

I’ve become much more adept and sophisticated since then.  Last year, I ordered for my wife a digital camera.  I typed in “digital camera” and the search engine returned so many results that I had to order more RAM for my computer to hold all the results.  Luckily for me, that too was available online.

When I was finally able to view the results I saw that I didn’t know very much about digital cameras.  Before I started my online search, I had thought that the only choice I had to make was the color.  Apparently the color is the last choice you have to make.

The choices come in layers.  First, what kind of a camera did I want?  There was a “Point & Shoot,” a “Compact System,” and a “Digital SLR.”  I looked around for a “Takes Pictures” kind of digital camera but I guess they had that one on backorder.

The second layer of choice is whether you want a standard, long-zoom, touch-screen, or waterproof camera.  I was hoping to find one that could be dropped from the viewing gallery of any of the world’s great museums and still work…but again that option was not listed.

Then the third and, at least for me and my eyeballs, final layer of choices were the specifications.  Megapixels, optical zoom, digital zoom, auto flash.  There was even something called “burst shooting” which I had thought was available only with machine guns.

I downloaded all of the specifications of the different cameras into a spreadsheet and compared them.  For days and nights I pored over the spreadsheets like an economist, trying to find the digital camera that would give my beloved the most Pareto-efficient picture possible along with a cute carrying case.  Most of the data fit neatly into linear models, except for the option that allowed a photograph to be directly uploaded to Facebook without exercise of judgment.

Soon it was December 20, the last day for guaranteed Christmas Eve delivery while still getting the Super Savings shipping discount.  My hands were shaking too much to type so I called up the store directly.  And when I was I asked what I wanted to buy, I said, “A digital camera.”

“Oh, great, sir.  We have plenty of those.  What kind of digital camera would you like?”

This was it.  The moment of truth.  The moment when I put to use the superior knowledge that could be gained only from online shopping.  I took a deep breath.

“Um, a pink one,” I said.

Happy Online Shopping, Everyone!

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Remember When There Weren’t Any House Shows?

Every Saturday morning, instead of going to synagogue like the Torah commands, I sit in my living room and watch my wife watching what I’ve come to call “house shows.”  You know what I’m talking about.  Shows where people decorate houses, renovate houses, buy houses, sell houses.  Shows where contractors troll the parking lots of Home Depot and Lowe’s, looking for the unsuspecting owners of living rooms and yards in desperate need of television crews.

The first house show that I remember was called This Old House, hosted by Bob Vila and his flannel shirt.  At the end of the show would be an old residence, beautifully restored, like a Victorian or Neanderthal cave.  I don’t know how the show began because the only reason I went to that channel was to watch Gummi Bears, and This Old House came on right before it, and in my haste I sometimes went to the channel before This Old House had ended.  And as Bob Vila sat back on the stained porch he had just added to a Sumerian mud hut, I would say to myself, “How could someone stand to watch a show like this?”

Fast-forward about fifteen years, and pretty much the only kind of show we watch in my house is a show like that.

I never understood the interest in these house shows.  A show put together by professional contractors and designers.  People that know how to knock down walls, pour concrete, and install plumbing.  People that can rearrange entire homes in their minds.  People that can draw a straight line.  Homeowners, living in ordinary homes, with ordinary husbands who would rather be writing blogs than hammering nails, watch these shows and wonder why their homes don’t look like the homes on television.

Because the houses on these shows are far from ordinary.  Kitchens with a backsplash made of tile reclaimed from a Pompeian mosaic dug out from two tons of igneous rock.  New living room floors from hard wood reclaimed from that house that got swallowed up in Poltergeist.  The only thing that isn’t reclaimed is my use of the remote control.

And the shows all have catchy names.  One show that’s been getting a lot of playing time is called Property Brothers, where one brother is a real estate agent who shows the homeowners a few houses they like, and then leads them to a house they can afford, and the other brother helps stays up all night renovating it to look like the houses they liked.

I think a better show would be called Property Spouses.  The home would be already bought, and it would be husband/wife team that would help decorate it.  The husband would put in a leather couch and large television, and the wife would come in afterwards, replace the couch with a fabric chaise lounge and the television with a baby, and make the husband redecorate the garbage right out the kitchen.

Another show that gets a lot of playing time is called House Hunters.  Here is a typical episode.  A young couple puts on camouflage and grabs their rifles and heads out into the woods.  A small cape cod, three bedroom, two bath, leans over a brook and takes a cool drink.  The man is slow to unshoulder his rifle, but his wife is quick, sets her sight, and fires.  Her aim is true, but the house heard the husband’s Droid beeping and turned, catching the wife’s round in the chimney.  Panicked, the cape cod runs through the woods leaving a trickle of blood running down the outdated — but in good condition — vinyl siding.  The wife and her husband set in pursuit.  She gets off a few more rounds, but it turns out the home is a short sale, and the bank holds on to it until long after rigor mortis has set in.

But the house show that has become my favorite is probably DIY Disaster.  In each episode, a pair of homeowners have an unfinished project, so they bring in a professional contractor to finish the project while the homeowners stand around drinking coffee.   In one episode, a man had attempted to fill an inground swimming pool in the middle of the couple’s living room.  But halfway through the project, he had gone insane from too many viewings of that “discount double-check” commercial with Aaron Rodgers, and was committed to an asylum with the pool only halfway dug out.  Further complicating the situation was that to save time he had started filling the pool up with water as he worked, so that the halfway dug out pool was halfway filled with water, and the standing water had become home to many bugs and aquatic life.

Luckily, the host of the show arrived on the scene and was able to finish the project, using the aquatic life as independent contractors.  The sea otters turned out to be natural talents, and were used in subsequent episodes, until a labor organizer got hold of them and had them balancing picket signs on their noses.

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