Ritual vs. Convenience

Lately, I’ve been noticing a trend in how I interact and consume media in my life, and I’ve noticed I’m not alone. Let’s take.. music and records as an example.

I have access to Google Play Music, and I can listen to any song more or less ever recorded I want, pretty much everywhere I have a data connection. Even better, between Pandora, Spotify, and Google Play’s own algorithms, I can give it vague idea of what I’d like to listen to and get a complete playlist in one click.

I was one of those 80’s kids who made mixtapes and carried them around in my Walkman and in my car stereo. When Minidisc became a thing, I made the same mixtapes on Minidisc, and carried my goofy-ass Minidisc recorder pretty much everywhere. That escalated (quickly) to MP3s as data on writable CDs as soon as the first MP3 capable CD players came on the market. As the cloud has come into my life, I started uploading the more obscure stuff into Google Play, and made playlists of the stuff I used to make mixtapes of.

Recently I got one of those cheap-ass Crosley phonographs and I’ve been keeping an eye out at thrifts for old albums I might be interested in. Originally I was more interested in the novelty and nostalgia of having vinyl (a format I quite honestly avoided like the plague as a youngster, even though it was ubiquitous in my younger years) .. but yesterday I found myself doing something that I haven’t done in years.

I actually LISTENED to two albums. it wasn’t just background, it wasn’t an augment to what I was doing.. it WAS what I was doing. I found myself sitting at the turntable, doing nothing but actively listening to the music coming out of the speaker. And I was enjoying it. All the imperfections of the analog format, the pops and clicks, and having to turn the record over and place the stylus on the record… it was a complete experience.

While I could have searched for the same recordings and listened to digital copies on my smartphone, there was something .. real about handling the physical media.

I’m not saying it is the sort of thing I’d do every day, but as a ritual in and of itself it was a pleasant use of my time. Sitting down in front of the phonograph, gently pulling the record from its sleeve, gently removing as much dust as possible with a microfiber cloth, and putting this disk of plastic down in and of itself was a ritual.

And an enjoyable one at that.

The Real Reason I’m For $15/hour

It’s no secret to anybody who hangs around me that I’m for the $15/hour minimum wage. But you may not understand all the reasons I’m for it. It may not be why you think.

I truly believe in the concept of The Singularity. We are approaching a society whereby people don’t actually “need” to work to get by. We grow enough food to feed the entire planet (so much so that we can write 40% off of all the food we make as “spoilage” in transport) and we do it with about 2% of the population involved in agriculture.  Automation has turned the family farm into a machine, growing uniform crops that are picked, packaged, and trucked to market with ruthless efficiency, ever in mind of the commodity status of most of the foods we eat.

And the amount of automation that can still be performed is staggering, and increasing.  Because, let’s face it, farm work sucks.  It’s a lot of drudgery and back-breaking work.  Fuck it, let a machine do it.

Increasing the minimum wage to $15 has the effect of making human labor too expensive to waste.  It forces the issues of “how do we support a society where there isn’t enough work for everybody” to the forefront.  Because regardless of what you might think, there isn’t.  I strongly disagree with those who say “well, automation took jobs before, and look what happened: better jobs came along”, and while that might be true for some that’s rapidly changing.

I call this the “third wave” of automation going on now.  There’s a big difference between the automation of the first two.  The First Wave of Automation was the “leverage” phase.  That phase was dominated by using machines as “leverage” of human labor.  The human operator was still highly involved in the process… think of a farmer using a tractor pulling a hay bailer.  You still needed the human to drive the tractor, and typically humans still needed to handle the hay to load it.

Second wave automation went beyond leverage.  Second wave automation was when we started to make machines “think”, at least at a primitive level.  Telephone exchanges went from a human operator to a meshed network of machines that not only handled calls based upon numbers dialed but actually made decisions about how to route around damage and congestion.  Computers started talking to each other over this network, and started automating deliveries.  As products were sold at stores, the computer could order more all on its own.  “JIT” (Just In Time) manufacturing and delivery techniques are the pinnacle of Second Wave Automation, and is the herald of the Next Wave.

Third Wave Automation combines the two: the muscle leverage of the First Wave and the thinking leverage of the Second Wave.  We are now building machines that do.. well, anything.  You want to build a machine to make burgers?  Totally doable (and you can bet McDonald’s already has one in their labs).  3D printing technologies have created that Third Wave: if you can draw it, you can “build” it.  Machines to self-drive?  Here they come.  Machines that program themselves?  Yes, what do you think Watson is, anyway?

Third Wave Automation is coming for your job.  It’s coming for mine, it’s only a matter of time.  What jobs will exist in the near future?  How many people do you think need to fix these robots, and how long until they simply fix themselves?

Here’s an example that should scare you if you think “you have to work to eat” is how the future economics are going to work out.  How long until you can live in San Francisco, hail a self-driving cab, it breaks down on the way.  No problem, self-driving car is aware enough to know it’s not moving, it hails you a replacement car, and you ride away in the second car.  What happens to the first?

A self-driving tow truck picks it up, drives it to the recycling yard where it is dismantled (automatically, of course) for parts, and the factory JIT delivers a new “disposable” self-driving cab to town.  They maybe even predicted this failure based upon a MTBF model and have the replacement already there.

Before you get home from your little jaunt to the Embarcadero the car that broke down has already been dismantled and the replacement is the one that takes you home.

This is possible TODAY with the technology we have.  The only thing stopping it is that at the moment it costs less in human labor to deal with the broken cab, the tow truck, and in some cases even the driver.

Guess what the $15/hour minimum wage does.  It makes human labor less competitive with robotic labor.  And it should be: humans can be injured, suffer long-term disabilities and repetitive stress, and overall a lower quality of life when forced to do drudge work.   As a human being, I (and you, and even the Hispanic farm worker) are worth more than $15/hour, period, and we’re worth having a quality of life free of such drudgery.

Is your life worth $15/hour?  Mine isn’t, it’s worth a lot more than that.  So I’m willing to let the machine do the work for me, and I will rejoice on the day I can order a cheap burger and have a robot gleefully fling out that hockey puck that has never been touched by human hands.  That’s one less person subjected to the indignity of wage-slave labor.

What does this mean for jobs is an exercise left for the reader.  But I feel it is going to escalate the arrival of the robotic Singularity, and it’s a future I welcome.

No, you don’t need an app for that.

App fatigue.

It’s a real problem, and something that’s beginning to even rub me the wrong way. Every place has an app. The convenience store has one. My grocery store has one. My credit card has one. My bank has one. Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, and the kiosk on the corner has one The pretzel kiosk at the mall has one..

Knock it the fuck off, people.

Not that long ago people were getting burned out on carrying “frequent shopper cards” for all the places they shopped. Walgreens, Kroger, AutoZone, Chipotle, Blockbuster, and the coffee stand punchcard fattened our wallets needlessly.

Today my phone is stuffed with apps for places. And I’m getting sick and tired of it.

The worst part is the apps we have often don’t work. Walgreens wants me to use Android Pay for everything, which is fine.. except it hardly ever works when I need it to. Walmart Pay also seems to never work when I need it, and I spend five minutes at the cash register scanning the stupid barcode, fiddling with my fingerprint, tapping things on my phone… when I could have simply handed them my debit card and been out the door.

If your app doesn’t make my shopping easier (or give me a substantial discount) you can stuff your app up your ass.

Fuck UPS (both the verb and a noun…)

Sometimes you can do nothing wrong, customer service wise, and still lose a customer. Thus is my saga with PillPack.

It all begins when my employer rather abruptly a few months back stopped allowing us to ship personal packages to work. Up until that point I was getting my medications largely from PillPack, and generally happy with their level of service. But when that changed, I tried working with PillPack to figure out a way to get my meds delivered to me, and it proved to be a fiasco regardless of what I did.

First off, medication cannot be delivered without a signature. I actually understand this, and generally don’t have a serious problem with the “law” that restricts medication shipments this way.

The problem is UPS. See, the Post Office has ways of dealing with this: if you have something shipped to you Priority Mail, Signature Required, and you aren’t home, you get one of these magical salmon-colored slips in your mailbox and you pick it up at the nearest Post Office. If you have a PO Box, it’s even easier. Same thing, pink slip, wait in line, get package. Done, and done.

UPS purchased Mail Boxes Etc. some time ago, so in theory they can provide the same level of service, no?

No, they can’t, apparently. It seems like every time I have a package fall into this “Exception Wonderland” something weird happens to it. It becomes Schrodinger’s Package: existing in a state of Delivery and Non-Delivery, existing but not existing; lost in the bowels of United Parcel Service’s nearest “warehouse” and it seems to take a minor miracle before UPS is able to arrange a time and place for you to pick it up.

At some point recently UPS launched a “My UPS” product. You can poke in your address and (in theory) have packages re-routed to the nearest UPS Store “automatically” rather than go through the old way (attempt delivery, tag door, you get package from nearest customer service counter).

So, this was working for a short while. I got a couple of PillPacks and my insulin this way without incident, re-routed to my nearest UPS Store. It’s nice and convenient: it is literally right around the corner from where I live.

Then, my most recent PillPack happened. PillPacks are shipped in small, brown boxes no bigger than a kid’s lunchbox, and are typically light: they have about two weeks worth of meds in the box packed in individual plastic envelopes on a roll, so they’re 1/4 of a cubic foot in size and maybe 1 and 1/2 pounds. I (and PillPack) were both hoping that using the My UPS tools I could just intercept the package and pick it up from the UPS Store.

That didn’t happen. My most recent PillPack couldn’t be delivered to the UPS Store, for whatever reason. I was told there was “no room at the UPS Store”, but that’s preposterous: there’s no room for a small box the size of a loaf of bread (and about as heavy)? C’mon, I’ve been to that UPS Store. It’s largely empty. I have another guess as to what happened, but I’ll go into that conspiracy theory later. 1

What did happen is the most frustrating thing that could have happened. UPS at that point couldn’t tell me where my package was, where it was going, or anything about it. It was if my package fell off the UPS truck.

PillPack ships their packages out so they will be delivered on Monday, for your meds that begin on Wednesday. Now, personally, this is awfully close spaced (and I’ve expressed to them that this is a problem, too, precisely because my experience with UPS is that when they fuck up, they fuck up royal and it can take 2-3 days to unfuck it up). A couple of the meds I take are of the type that “not taking this med regularly and on-time can result in some serious side effects”, I’ve been warned by my doctors. One of them (a blood pressure medication) is known for causing heart palpitations if stopped suddenly, for example.

Um… no.

So, this sets up the expectation that if I don’t have my meds in my hands by a few days before I run out I better start worrying. And believe me, I worry when that happens ever since receiving my aortic diagnosis. Aortic dissection is not my idea of a Good Day Starter and keeping my overall blood pressure low and my heart beating normally is how we keep my Big Ass Artery from going bewm.

When getting my meds conventionally (ie. typically from the local Kroger brand’s pharmacy) I’ve kept a week’s buffer of meds on hand. I start looking for next month’s refills once I get down to about 7 pills in the bottle. So PillPack’s “two-day buffer” is very uncomfortable. But, I’ll be honest, if the delivery vehicle was reliable enough and worked like clockwork (package was THERE someplace I could get it on Monday, for example, every time all the time) I wouldn’t sweat it.

So, you can imagine me starting to panic when it not only wasn’t where I was expecting it (the UPS Store), but UPS couldn’t even tell me where it was.

After talking to UPS “Customer Service” on the phone, they told me I could get it from the Customer Counter in nearby Commerce City, CO, in the evening.

I missed that window. We had a snowstorm blow into Denver Monday, I couldn’t get to said customer counter before they closed. No worries, I thought, it’ll be there tomorrow morning and I’ll just get it then.

Yeah, about that. When I went there on Tuesday, it wasn’t there. And they couldn’t find it. I waited around the UPS Customer Counter for over an hour and they couldn’t find it.

That brings me to my point. Sometimes you can do everything right as a company and have your best laid plans fucked up by an incompetent subcontractor who can’t find their ass with both hands and a road map.

That’s how I feel about PillPack. They insist on using UPS for reasons. UPS perpetually fucks up my packages, almost like they know I’m the son of a USPS Postmaster and every time they see “Baumann, Archturiat” on a package they TRY to fuck it up. I recently shipped my Macintosh from Portland to Denver and that was an exercise in frustration, as my attempts to use the same My UPS tool to redirect it was foiled by the UPS Store in Portland putting “A BAUMANN” as the addressee on the package (and I didn’t have “A BAUMANN” as an alias, so therefore… NO PACKAGE FOR YOOO!). Before that I had that series of incidents when I lived in Oregon City and I would watch as the UPS driver would walk up to my apartment complex door with nothing but a yellow post-it in his hand claiming attempted delivery, and UPS never doing anything about this even when I had VIDEO EVIDENCE that this was being done.

I like PillPack. I like the fact that my meds came in easy-to-use little plastic sleeves. I like the fact that every day my medication was laid out for me, pre-dispensed, so that even if I had to travel I could peel off the next four days of meds off the spool and go on. It wasn’t without bumps, but they were all minor except for UPS, well, becoming “OOPS” again in my mind and raining brown turds on my already grumpy disposition. What can brown do for me?  Let’s start by not ruining my day.

And that is why I would behoove ANY shipper to never hitch your wagon to one horse, regardless of who it is. I know people have Postal Service horror stories… my love for the USPS and the proud men and women of blue notwithstanding. And I’ve had FedEx foul things up too. If PillPack would ship USPS Priority Mail EVEN IF THEY CHARGED $10 PER PILLPACK I’d gladly pay it, give them my PO Box number, and I’d be happy. But they won’t ship USPS (even if I’m willing to pay for it). So they just lost me as a customer, and I’m going back to the monthly chore of King Sooper’s Pharmacy and metering out my meds into my own teeny little Ziplock baggies.

Even though I really don’t want to.



Show 1 footnote

  1.  Theory: Since UPS Stores are franchises, independently owned and operated, I suspect the owner got sick of seeing the same name on deliveries and just said “fuck this guy in particular”, because I wasn’t paying for a mail box from his CMRA.  Well, guess what, now I’m NEVER going to use your store even to ship things, so go out of business.  Please.

How to upgrade your phone without upgrading..

So one of the nice things about the Otterbox cases is even the “less rugged” ones like the Commuter still do a fantastic job of keeping the phone encased in a protective blanket of rubber and plastic. I picked up a new Otterbox Defender for my Galaxy Note II, put in a new battery and it’s like I have a new phone, without having to go through the process of moving apps and login credentials.

Downside: FINDING a new Otterbox was a pain. My number one complaint about Otterbox is they are quick to discontinue product, often times before the lifetime of the phone they design them for has ended. Prepaid providers are especially victims of this: Sprint (as a prime example) uses their various MVNOs to dump previous generation devices at bargain prices, and that means NO OTTERBOX FOR YOU if you have a couple of generations behind.

Thank the gods Micro Center is like Frys and they hold on to inventory probably longer than the manufacturer would intend..

Why I’m bear-ish on Bitcoin

OK, this has come around again, so I guess I need to actually fill a few of you in on something. I hate to be the one to break this to you. But, Bitcoin isn’t going to ever achieve any kind of mass success.

There’s no conspiracy theory, no “big banks are keeping it down, man!” plot. The reasons why Bitcoin will fail like EVERY OTHER ATTEMPT to create a digital currency before it simply boils down to this.

Social and political issues have never been solved technologically. They’ve always been solved.. well, socially and politically first, and the technology has only played a factor long after the shouting has stopped.

The reasons for this involve “tipping points”, and I won’t go into the whole theory on tipping points and macroeconomics here. Go read Freakonomics and The Tipping Point if you want an exhausting analysis as to the reasons Bitcoin has yet to achieve enough critical mass (and more importantly, enough critical mass in the right areas).  The TL;DR edition: until you can use Bitcoins at a mass-market retailer, fuhgeddabout.

But let’s wander back to the first point, which is, technology never solves social ills by itself.  It only solves social and political problems when it is clear to enough “somebodys” that Societal Ill A can be solved by Technology B in a direct, linear fashion.  And, to that end, Bitcoin doesn’t even serve to solve the societal ill it claims to combat.  And that goes double here in the US, I’m afraid to say, because we do live in a self-styled “democracy”.. and I’m ashamed to admit this, but most Americans are too dumb to understand any cause and effect that can’t be summed up in a 15-second infographic on CNN.

Bitcoin is trumpeted up as being a way for, say, the Occupy Movement to finally free us from the financial tyranny (*snort*) of the Big Banks.  Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but.. please explain to me how any third-party currency, be it Bitcoins, Lindens, or Disney Dollars, “frees” me from dealing with the Big Banks when it is impossible to buy any of the “necessities” of life (food, clothing, shelter, and transportation) without using US Dollars.  It’s not just difficult, it is impossible.  Even the handful of small merchants who accept Bitcoin are doing it largely via automatic exchanges that are converting the coins into US Dollars at clearance.  You can probably count on one hand the pure-play merchants who are keeping any quantity of Bitcoins on hand.

And that shouldn’t surprise anyone.  How many brick and mortar merchants keep a large quantity of cash on hand?  None of them do, don’t be silly.  They may keep a few hundred dollars in change, and they may have a day’s receipts worth of cash because they haven’t made the bank run yet.  But in the back of the grocery store on the corner there isn’t some massive safe with thousands of dollars locked away in it for any longer than it has to be.

And that goes double for Bitcoins, because of the very volatile nature of the “currency.”  Minute to minute prices of Bitcoin fluctuate, so if you’re a merchant that accepts Bitcoin you are playing a game of “beat the clock” every time you accept Bitcoin.   You want to get that out of the liquid state of Bitcoins into cold, hard US Dollars as quickly as possible, lest you potentially lose the entire value of the transaction when the Bitcoin market has one of it’s frequent and violent cases of shitting itself.

Businesses are highly risk-averse, and there is no greater risk heavier than acting as a currency exchange.  In effect, every merchant that wants to accept Bitcoin has to know the value of Bitcoin to whatever they’re paying out in expenses in (and with rare exception, regardless of where in the world it is, that essentially becomes the US Dollar).  There is actually one or two of the major Bitcoin trading houses who do this automatically via a “shopping cart”: and guess what they clear the funds in.  Usually, the quicker the better.

Point is, even in some hypothetical future scenario where Seven-11 takes Bitcoin (hey, it could happen, they take PayPal, amirite?) they’re not going to be trading in Bitcoin, just accepting it and converting it to a more fungible, negotiable currency.  Right now, that currency is the Federal Reserve Note US Dollar, who.. yeah, we know.  Big banks.

At the end of the day, big banks have their hold over us precisely because they’re.. big banks.  When Kroger needs a loan to open a new store, they’re not going to launch a Kickstarter. They’re going to talk to their banker, and depending on their financial solvency they may issue more stocks, or a capital bond, or borrow the money.  In all three cases, the people who are giving them the money will be giving it in US Dollars, and expecting payment in US Dollars.

And why not?  The US Dollar is a reasonably stable currency.  You know that if you loan out $1,000,000 at 5% interest exactly how much you’re going to get paid back.  And the only calculation you have to make as the loaner of the money is the risk of the investment itself compared to other potential investments: you don’t have to necessarily worry that the currency will be worth substantially less in five years’ time.  The ups and downs of the US Dollar are “well understood”, the risks are largely able to be mitigated.

The only way Bitcoin will ever succeed as a widely accepted currency is if the US Dollar fails.  And to be honest, if that happens, no cryptocurrency will save us: there will be no capital available to keep the lights on to even think about a cybercurrency.

Urban Planning and the bourgeois tourist, or “Oh hell, how did I miss that?”

So, I have this friend James. James and I would, when we both lived together in Southern California, get in his Toyota pickup and drive to all sorts of weird remote places.. ostensibly to look for telephone company related crap (a lot of which is now gone).

One of the side effects of this extensive traveling is I’ve discovered I get this weird.. well, “Spidey sense” for urban planning. I get this minor “unsettled” feeling when I’m in a neighborhood and I haven’t seen what I consider to be the “normal” parts of a neighborhood.  “Is there something I’m missing,” is the feeling.

Even the worst planned neighborhoods typically contain a school, a gas station, a grocery store, a fast-food establishment (or, the seemingly Pacific Northwest variant of same: a coffeehouse), and a family restaurant somewhere within it. In post-war Southern California, the tendency was to build major boulevards about a mile apart on a Euclidean 1 grid, put the businesses along those boulevards, and fill in the spaces between with residences. 2

Since moving to the Pacific Northwest, I’ve noticed the trend is more or less the same. In Portland and Seattle, you need to think a little outside the box.  The lines tend to follow old streetcar lines instead of the modern automotive street: in Portland, this has resulted in most of the major retail corridors being on east-west streets, and the pattern seems to imply the housing was built FIRST, and the commercial corridors added later.

The point is, if any attempt at urban planning is being done there is somewhere within a neighborhood some commercial development for people to buy food and fuel.

As a side effect of this observation, whenever I’m exploring a new urban landscape I always seek out these neighborhood commercial clusters, because they give you a great window into the demographic makeup of a given area.  Five minutes in the grocery store and lunch at the neighborhood fast-food joint (or coffeehouse) will tell you more about a particular place than any map or Chamber of Commerce summary.  You see (what the neighborhood considers) “normal” people doing the normal things people do.

I recently discovered a neighborhood in Bend that had me stumped.  There was no commercial corridor here.  In fact, it was kind-of an island by itself, a little bit disconnected from the city (although still very much IN the city).. but it puzzled me.  There was no grocery store I could find, no gas station.. nothing.  It was a little unnerving: I wound up saying to myself “where the hell does Mom get the sugar she forgot to get at Fred Meyer?”

Today I discovered the shopping district I missed.  It was actually buried on the southern edge of the development.  It didn’t have the gas station I would have expected, but it had the grocery store, the coffeehouse, and the sit-down restaurant I would have expected.  When you looked at it on the map, you could almost tell that this wasn’t supposed to be where the city stopped, this was supposed to be near the center of this little development.  The economic realities of the housing market bubble of the 2000’s stopped “progress” dead in its tracks.

It’s interesting that I’ve developed this sort of “sixth sense” for knowing that there HAD to be a grocery store / strip mall there.

But more interestingly, maybe if I spent less time as a young adult trashing around looking for phone company shit and more time with biochemistry maybe I would have cured cancer by now.


Show 2 footnotes

  1. Orange County went so far with this Euclidean madness they actually named a major north-south boulevard.. “Euclid St.”
  2. It’s worth noting that even in South Orange County, which attempted to get away from the “uniform grid” style of city building, does the same thing except the roads are curvy and often don’t follow any general cardinal direction: but the tendency to build commercial strips along them and fill the spaces between with residences is still the norm.

One Million Moms vs. the other Three Hundred Million Americans

One Million Moms is at it again against JCPenney. And it would be humorous, if it wasn’t so sad.

JCPenney, like most middle-class focused retailers, has been watching their classic demographic wither and die. They’ve already watched as many of their contemporaries.. once proud national retailers like Montgomery Ward.. and regional retailers like Mervyn’s.. have folded. Sears is a shadow of it’s former self. And even the upscale retailers have not been exempt, as chains like The Broadway and Meier and Frank have found themselves consolidated into Macy’s, while others have just simply vanished.

JCPenney is smart to be inclusive. Increasingly, as the next generation matures into adulthood, they already carry a much higher level of tolerance to alternative lifestyles. With each passing generation American society is becoming more inclusive and more open.

For the rest of us, let’s remind JCPenney that One Million Moms.. even if they do indeed represent “one million Moms”, is 0.3% of the population of the United States. We should not allow a small, hateful, bigoted organization to dictate terms under which we all should live.

It’s time for that minority to go into the closet.

I’m going somewhere with this…

Blu-Ray will go down in history as the last successful mass-market media distribution format. From here on out, all distribution of content will be via Internet.

It’s largely a generational thing, really. Most kids (up to people in their early 30’s, generally) seem to be pretty comfortable with electronic delivery of their content. They’re perfectly content getting the majority of their content from their game consoles’ media stores, on their iPad or phone, or from Netflix or Amazon.  The older generations are not likely to really see much advantage with any media beyond Blu-Ray.  Even now, many in the 50+ age bracket seem happy with DVD.  I know more than one person in that age range that still actively uses VHS…