Technology’s Finest Hour

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Alright, I’m calling it – the machines have won. The unraveling of Western Civilization is at hand. And it didn’t take Skynet with its implacable Austrian cyborgs from the future to bring our demise, or even self-driving cars for that matter. Nope, our end has come quietly, on the mechanized hum of a toilet paper dispenser.

Don’t get me wrong – technology can be a wonderful thing. Contact lenses can now monitor a person’s blood sugar levels. Drones will soon deliver my Amazon purchases right to my door. I can peek into my fridge from my smartphone (though I can’t for the life of me figure out why I would want to). Yet for every yin, there is a yang. In this case, it is facial recognition capabilities that have run amuck. Trumpeted as a tool of law enforcement meant to help catch bad guys, bean-counters have already found a way to turn it against us. A firm in China (not surprisingly) has come up with a machine that uses the technology to dole out toilet paper in public restrooms. You stand in front of the dispenser and look into a screen for three seconds in order to receive your ration of bum-wipe – all 27 inches of it. If you’re a ‘square-counter,’ that’s a little less than seven sections.

One can only wonder how many sadists/executives seated around the boardroom conference table it took to arrive at that amount.

So it has come to this – the measure of humanity has been reduced to 27 inches of starched bathroom ‘tissue’ with the consistency of 80-grit sandpaper. And the machines will show no mercy, even when we might be at our most vulnerable. Once you’ve presented yourself and been issued the allotted amount – meager though it may be – the dispenser knows who you are and will lock you out, shutting down any further attempts to procure additional toilet paper. So if it’s an emergency, you’ll need to recruit a cadre of friends, co-workers, even passers-by to parade past the viewer in order to keep the supply coming. And if it’s spitting out that gossamer one-ply stuff that disintegrates when you so much as look at it, well, you should probably be prepared to sacrifice an article or two of clothing.

They claim this was instituted as a money-saving measure. That the tried and true ‘honor system’ was no longer working, that people were stealing toilet paper. But rather than set a few rolls of what is obviously the cheapest paper on the planet aside for those who might be in need, the restroom Nazis upped the ante (and no doubt the cost) by choosing a different solution. So now the machines, these collections of circuitry and gears that never contracted the flu or ate bad Thai food or were caught unawares by a rouge shart, have become the arbiters of hygiene. Look, all living things share a certain commonality, embodied by the phrase “I poop, therefore I am.” Wiping, however, is what separates us from the animals (except, of course, for dogs, who insist on butt-dragging on the Persian rug). And what separates us from the machines is knowing when the paperwork is truly done.

From now it looks like I’ll be doing my business at home. While waiting for the barbarians at the gate.


Grocery Day – A Love Story


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As a heathen, I always try to get my grocery shopping done on Sunday morning – you know, to beat the crowds. Even so, there are the typical hazards that can never be avoided – the young mom blocking an entire aisle with one of those behemoth shopping carts that has a Cozy Coupe attached to the front so her offspring can get in some early drivers’ training, the economist who is deep in a price-per-ounce comparison trance directly in front of the bargain coffee I’m trying to get to, the nutritionist who is grilling the indifferent employee behind the deli counter about every ingredient that went into the making of the chicken salad, (having an uncanny knack for always finding) the cart that will only turn right.

The topper, of course, is checkout aisle bingo. Trying to pick the line that will move with the least delay. Based on previous visits, I know which employees are the quickest when it comes to emptying a shopping cart. But the rock star checkout guy, the savant who remembers all the produce codes so he doesn’t have to stop and flip through the reference guide for each item, the one who knows where every bar code is located on every item in the store so he doesn’t have to twist the frozen potato bag 12 different directions in front of the reader to get it to beep, is out today. So let’s see – there’s a new kid on 14 who appears completely befuddled by a bag of carrots that the laser refuses to acknowledge. Nope. I can see those waiting in his line already starting to look around for other options. Next to him is the old guy with orthopedic braces on both wrists who breathes through his mouth and always looks like he just smelled a turd. He likes to talk a lot – wants to know what I have planned for the rest of the day, if I’ll be watching the Broncos game, that sort of crap. I think the mindless chatter is simply a distraction meant to draw my attention away from the fact that the bagger (the one with the classic male-pattern-baldness horseshoe of hair that’s still long enough to tie into a ponytail) is cheerfully, if unwittingly, turning the hamburger buns into tortillas (I learned my lesson long ago and now simply ward off the baggers and do it myself). Wrist Braces is one of those individuals who doesn’t have a high gear, and with one person already in the queue in his lane, I’d probably qualify for social security by the time I came out the other end. That leaves the woman on 16 who’s all business – no feigned interest in my personal life, no sports analysis, just gettin’ customers out the door. Perfect. Even though she has one full cart she’s working on and another in line behind that, the second cart is one of those downsized ‘one-person’ models that are used by retirees and widowers with their pants pulled up to their armpits (the case today) that only hold about a third the volume of a normal cart. I figure All Business can blow through her line in no time, so I cozy up behind High Pants. That’s when I notice that there’s no bagger and the customer at the register is one of those types who refuses to lift a finger to help out. So her groceries are piling up at the end of the conveyor belt, which means All Business will have to abandon her post once she’s done ringing everything up to go do the bagging. Shit! No one is behind me yet, so I can back out easily enough, but by now Wrist Braces has two waiting in the queue and another hovering close by. That leaves New Kid, who’s trying to get Wrist Braces’ attention because he can’t find the code for cherry tomatoes but Wrist Braces is too engrossed in a conversation about the dietary benefits of high fiber with an elderly couple at his register to notice New Kid’s panicked gestures. But wait – the light on 17 just came on. Someone watching on the security cameras probably saw me mouthing expletives and got a cashier to open another register. I start to back out and run ass-first into the mom piloting that Cozy Coupe cart who is just turning in behind me. We trade apologies as she tries to swing her rig around, her kids twisting wildly on their play steering wheels all the while in an attempt to “help mommy drive.” Fully loaded, it’s like trying to turn an aircraft carrier and she gets hung up on the magazine rack (where I think I recognize one of her children as Hillary Clinton’s Alien Baby), thwarting my exit as others who share my haunted look sprint toward the open checkout aisle. Too late she clears the path, but now I feel obligated to move away for having made her put in the effort. I stand in the checkout staging area for a moment, without a plan, before muscling my reluctant cart into New Kid’s lane, where I am next in line because everyone else bailed due to his incompetence inexperience. As feared, every item is painstakingly inspected and cross-referenced, and several price checks are required because I managed to find the only two pieces of produce in the store that didn’t have UPC stickers attached. Horseshoe Ponytail starts to approach but I deter him with the wave of a hand. I have all the tortillas I need, thanks. At one point New Kid rings something up incorrectly, a normal head of lettuce going through at the higher ‘organic’ rate, but I decide to let it slide because the extra 29 cents seems a small price to pay for not having any more of my soul sucked from me by what would surely involve calling a supervisor over to reboot the mainframe or realign a satellite in order to make things right. Meanwhile, every other line has cleared its queue – even Cozy Coupe mom has left the building. Finally I stagger to the parking lot where I pass an employee in a day-glow vest pushing a train of shopping carts toward the front door. “Thanks for coming, and have a great day,” he implores me.

And people wonder how serial killers get their start.

The Case for Autonomous Cars – a Rant


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To the morons my fellow motorists in the left lane:

How is it you haven’t noticed those signs for the last three miles, warning you that your lane is about to end? Benefit of the doubt – maybe some of you are visiting from another country and don’t understand the language. But all the license plates on the cars trying to squeeze past me herald from the good ol’ US of A. Surely not every one of these lane crashers is a stranger in a strange land. So that means there’s a good chance the rest of you are illiterate. Why else would you keep racing along right up to the construction barrels before standing on the brakes and forcing your way into the line here in the right lane?

If not illiterate, then you must be, like Forrest Gump, just plain stupid. Somehow, you are still unable to grasp the physics behind a traffic jam. Controlled merging while our cars are still moving, say, about a mile back, allows for everyone to keep rolling along in a continuous flow. But when you (and an endless stream of your butt-wipe friends) insist on driving down to the last inch of pavement, even as the giant flashing arrows and orange Department of Transportation signs implore you to get the hell over, you diddle us all. Don’t expect to be welcomed into the fold, and most certainly don’t offer a friendly wave as you wedge in front of me – I’m calling you every name in the book behind my tinted windows.

Congratulations, though. You’re now seven cars ahead of where you would have been had you made that controlled merge I mentioned. The irony (something else you seem unable to grasp, so I’ll explain it to you) is that a little cooperation would have allowed us to sail through this lane closure and, even seven cars back, you would have made far better time. Instead, since your inability to act in a judicious fashion has brought the entire freeway to a screeching halt, we’ll just sit here and bask in the glow of the brotherly love this moment has produced.

Is there a solution? Well, we could, as a society, just stop repairing our infrastructure – that would alleviate the problem, at least temporarily. Or perhaps the DOT could go all Mad Max and begin installing spike strips in the last half-mile or so of the lane that’s about to close. Hey, just throwing out ideas, here.

No, I suppose the best we can hope for, barring some government-sponsored electroshock ‘re-education’ program, is that your next car will be a ‘self-driver,’ one that comprehends the subtleties of playing nicely and sharing the road, one that will take the decision out of your hands while offering a friendly reminder as you try to make that last-second merge, “I’m sorry Dave (or Tom or Brian or Jennifer), I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

And maybe, just maybe, it could slap you upside the head with the sun visor, for all of us over here in the right lane.