Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Mechanically Correct

I keep seeing the terms “steamroller” and “steam shovel” in things I read. In this era of Political Correctness, when a mailman is more accurately called a “letter carrier” and a fireman is now a “firefighter,” can we finally bury these steam-power terms that have been outdated for nearly a century?

I recommend “power roller” and “power shovel.” Don’t confuse “power shovel” with “backhoe,” which is merely a type of power shovel. And “earth mover” applies to all earth moving equipment, not just power shovels.

Also, I’d like to see the terms “tape,” “disc,” “CD” and “DVD” removed from common communications, since technology changes so often, they’re doomed to become obsolete soon anyway. I know lots of people personally who don’t actually know which term applies to which media, and use them interchangeably. My mother-in-law refers to movie DVDs as “tapes.” My brother refers to the hard drive in his computer as a “CD-ROM.”

Instead, I suggest we call all forms of recordable storage as “media.” It’s not often that the conversation requires that we identify which type of media, exactly. More often than not, it’s implied by context. Everyone will know you’re not talking about videotape. And if DVDs are replaced by Blu-Ray which is in turn replaced by Blu-Ray Holo-Discs, which are replaced by Mini Blu-Ray Holo-Discs, all in the span of 5 miserable consumer years, the terminology need not change.

So a hopeless sci-fi geek will be able to tell someone that he has the latest enhanced, expanded release of the Star Wars movies on media. It’s immaterial whether he bought commercially-released discs, or downloaded the movies and copied them onto a disc of some kind. Everyone will understand that they now exist in his possession on some form of transportable digital media. It’s only if a friend asks to borrow them that they’ll have to get into specifics about whether the friend owns a Mini Blu-Ray Holo-Disc player.

While we’re at it, can we get rid of the term, “digital?” Is anything analog anymore? I didn’t think so.

Health and Beauty

Most of the sections in the supermarket consist of collections of related products. For example, “Drinks and Snacks,” “Bags and Wraps,” “Condiments and Spices.” But I’ve always been confused by the “Health and Beauty” section. Certainly you can have health and not have beauty, and lack of health hasn’t been considered beautiful since the Tuberculosis epidemic in the 1600’s. So it always seemed like an artificial pairing of consumer package goods. But recently, I found out where Health and Beauty are inextricably joined in real life.

When we returned from our vacation in St. Maarten, the palm on my right hand began to itch. Back in the 1600’s, this was considered a good omen – a sign that you would come into money soon, which you would probably spend on doctors to treat your tuberculosis. Eventually, this itch developed into a lumpy spot the size of a dime. Then another, smaller spot erupted, then another, and another.

I assumed that it was some kind of fungus infection, and tried treating it with athlete’s foot cream, which I purchased in the Health and Beauty section at the supermarket. But it simply wouldn’t go away, so I decided to see a dermatologist.

The office was decorated in a style I prefer to call “early French whorehouse.” As I lounged in the waiting room, I looked through some literature and realized that if you’re in the dermatology profession, treating mysterious rashes isn’t where the money is. This place makes money by offering skin treatments to combat ageing, the removal of unsightly moles or unwanted hair, and collagen or Botox injections. Sure, they treat health problems, but they’re in the beauty business.


I was shown into an examination room, and the doctor arrived, who turned out to be from India. I explained the problem, including the fact that it occurred just after we returned from vacation. He took a look at my itchy hand and recommended a biopsy. “We want to be sure that you didn’t bring back anything exotic from the Caribbean,” he explained. When a doctor from India tells you that he’s concerned you might have something “exotic,” it kind of sends a chill down your spine.

A nurse loaded up a syringe with lidocaine, and injected three of my itchy spots. Just for the record, injections in the hand hurt like hell. She then took out a curved razor blade and scooped a chunk out of each itchy spot to be sent off for some poor pathologist to examine.


The doctor says it could take a couple of weeks before I know the results. If it turns out to be nothing mysterious, he said I can treat it with Cortisone cream, which of course I can buy in the Health and Beauty section at the supermarket.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Trying to Refuse Insurance Coverage

It seems like a long time ago that my wife fell through the attic floor into the garage, breaking her left ankle and left shoulder. Oh wait, it was a long time ago – December, 2006 to be exact. The accident occurred just before she was scheduled to have surgery on her left foot to correct an arthritic condition in her big toe. She later had that surgery in February, 2007, while still recovering from the previous injuries.

To no one’s surprise, the arthritic condition has now caused problems in her right foot. Here you can see the titanium screws that were put into her left big toe, and the bone spurs in her right big toe.


She needed surgery to correct the problem, but there's been a stupid hassle with the insurance. My wife was covered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield from her work, which will pay 80% of the cost of the surgery. The insurance from my company pays 100% of such things, so she called Blue Cross/Blue Shied to cancel, and they told her it would take as long as 30 days to cancel the coverage. In other words, their bureaucratic inefficiency will cost us about $2,000. It seems incredible to me that we cannot refuse coverage until the insurance company says we may do so. Fortunately, my Human Resources manager informed me that our insurance will act as secondary insurance on the procedure, covering the 20% not covered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

So we hobbled back to surgery today and an hour later, she emerged with her foot wrapped up for two weeks of inactivity, punctuated by frequent pain medication.


My daughter and I will reprise our roles as gofers, caddies and chauffeurs. Thank goodness my wife doesn’t have any more big toes.

You Don't Need a License to Drink Coffee

Because my workspace at my new company is laid out differently than my old workspace, I’ve been having problems with my morning coffee. In my old workspace, I set my coffee down to the right of my computer, where I could easily reach it with my dominant right hand. However, in my new workspace, I can’t set the coffee cup down on the right side, because it’s out of my line of sight. While groping for the mouse, I knocked over the cup of coffee, which spilled into my keyboard. Twice.

To solve this problem, I moved my coffee cup to the left side of my computer, which means I don’t bump it reaching for the mouse. I’ve trained myself to turn my head and look at it when I want to take a sip, so that I don’t fumble with my admittedly spastic left hand and spill it. Nonetheless, I’ve spilled it twice, because the training process is incomplete, and I forgot to turn my head and look. So I have a problem remembering to turn my head. My daughter, on the other hand, has a problem remembering NOT to turn her head.

Over the past week, I’ve been engaged in a terrifying ordeal, teaching my daughter the skills necessary to pass her driver’s license exam. The most difficult part for her seems to be parking the car in a straight-in parking spot (the ability to parallel-park is not tested in Florida, thank God). The requirement states that the vehicle must be “centered” and “straight” in the parking space.

To conduct this test, I took her to the rear parking lot of a nearby grocery store. I borrowed some empty milk crates and stacked them on either side of the parking space and had her pull in and out of the space repeatedly. Whenever she knocked one of the stacks over, I made a point of saying “That was someone’s SUV and that little mistake is going to cost you a thousand dollars.” She doesn’t have much tolerance for those remarks, which irritate her. Too bad, that’s my job.

Here’s the parking space, and here’s a typically off-center parking attempt:



She has one other problem that I’ve tried desperately to correct: The requirement when driving the car in reverse is that you keep your head facing backward until the vehicle comes to a complete stop, and that requirement exists for good reasons. But for that last 3 feet or so, she turns her head back the front of the car. Whenever she turns her head back early, I shout (perhaps a bit too loudly) “YOU FAIL!” This really, really irritates her, but I have to impress upon her that the DMV officer who administers the driving test isn’t going to tell her to be careful and try it again. She’ll just fail.

Yesterday, she took the test at the local DMV office.


The place was stifling hot, and the male members of the DMV staff had to work in that environment wearing neckties. I took this as support for my theory that people who work at the DMV aren’t actually human beings.

We had a 45-minute wait, which was agony to my keyed-up daughter:


While we waited, I saw several instances of panic-stricken people about to lose their license to drive because they ignored a court summons for six weeks. Some became verbally abusive when they showed up without the required documentation. The DMV staff remained incredibly calm and polite, further confirming my theory.

At long last, my daughter’s name was called, and she made that long walk out to the parking lot.


I waited nervously, chatting with all the other parents of teens getting their first driver’s license. It was like a support group. Eventually, she returned, looking glum.


“I forgot to signal once, and during the 3-point turn I kind of ran up onto the curb,” she confessed, believing that these two mistakes had cost her dearly. But to her delight, such minor transgressions aren’t considered that serious, and she was issued a Florida driver’s license within a few minutes. I drove home, not wishing to hit any more curbs that day, while my daughter gleefully called all of her friends with the good news.


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Living In ...

I was looking at a map of Florida today, and discovered this tiny community:


It seems like that would be a great place to live, if only so you could say “I’m living in a Dreamworld.” But it got me wondering if there were other places you could live that would be fun to tell people. I immediately thought of “Fear,” “Denial,” “Filth,” “Squalor,” “Oblivion” and “Obscurity,” but there are no such places.

One interesting place to live is “Fairyland,” which is located purely by coincidence in Queensland, Australia.

I looked for towns called “Sin” and “Mycar,” but struck out. However, there is such a place as “Avan” in Kazakhstan. But it seems like a long way to go for a joke, and it’s not down by a river.

But I was cheered by the fact that there’s a town called “Misery” in France, which is a lot closer than Kazakhstan. Even better still, you can live in “Poverty” in Kentucky.

On the flip side, there’s a “Comfort,” Texas.

I tried “Purgatory” and “Hell,” but nobody loved those names enough to name a town after them. Or if they did, the town council voted to change the name a long time ago. But “Paradise” is everywhere: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, California and Nova Scotia.

Even more popular is “Harmony,” which can be found in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Maine, Indiana, Florida, Texas, Wyoming and California. Equally popular is “Utopia,” which can be found in Alaska, Illinois, Kansas, Florida, Ohio, New York, Ontario and New Brunswick.

If you find this kind of research troubling, you can always go to live in “Asylum,” California.

Sunday, July 6, 2008


Last month, my wife opened the cell phone bill and I had to fetch the smelling salts. Our cell phone bill is usually a predictable amount, because we have one of those “rollover minutes” plans, and we seldom use them all. So we have a tidy account of banked minutes we can use whenever we exceed our allotment, avoiding those expensive additional minutes. Our plan did not include text messaging, which cost us 20 cents apiece (sending or receiving). Until last month, I was the only person using that feature, and I seldom spent $10 in any month on text messages.

Last month, however, my daughter decided that texting was way cooler than talking and the bill was $167 over the normal amount.

My daughter sends and receives text messages constantly, using barely-comprehensible text shorthand, like “OMG I 8 1 2! LOL!” You would think for 20 cents apiece, she could spell complete words.

We quickly rectified the situation by changing our plan to include unlimited text messaging for an additional $30 a month, which seems like a bargain. But then, my daughter’s phone started to exhibit erratic behavior, with dead keys and short battery life, so my wife went shopping with her and upgraded to a fancy new phone. My daughter was thrilled with her new personal appliance.

She enjoyed it for 5 days, and then dropped it into the toilet “by accident.”

I immediately pulled the battery and had her spend 20 minutes heating it with a hair dryer, only to find out later that’s probably the worst thing you could do (you should suck the water out with a vacuum cleaner). Our efforts were to no avail, and the phone was declared DOA at the cell phone store about an hour later.

Because the phone was an upgrade, the sales agent told us, “You’ll have to pay full price to replace it … unless…”

“Unless what?” I asked.

“Well, you’ve only had it for 5 days. You have 30 days to insure it. The only thing is, insurance doesn't cover water damage. But for 50 bucks, you can insure the phone, wait a couple of days, then call the insurance company and tell them you ran over it with the car,” he explained. “They’ll send you a new one.”

“But she didn’t run over it. She dropped it in the toilet,” I insisted.

“Then run over it,” he told me.

My daughter, who had been sitting in glum misery at the prospect of spending the rest of the summer with no phone, listening to repeated lectures on the subject of responsibility and the value of a dollar, sat up with a bright glimmer in her eye. “I’ll pay you back!” she said.

Now I have to spend the rest of the summer lecturing my daughter on the subject of insurance fraud.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Awkward Moments

Back in the 1970’s, I was catching a ride home in the evening with a friend of mine. I asked him if he wanted to stop and get something to eat, but he told me that he had some plans. However, he did tell me he needed to stop at a pharmacy briefly before dropping me off. As he got out of his car to run into the pharmacy, I told him to lock the car, and I’d come in with him. He hesitated for a brief moment, as though he wanted to tell me not to follow him. But he realized there was no way he could ask me to wait in the car without arousing my suspicions.

So I wandered into the pharmacy behind him, chatting about something. He wandered up and down the aisles, making a show of looking at some shelves, hoping to shake me off, but I stuck with him. Eventually, he gave up and went up to the checkout desk, looked the 20-year old girl behind the register right in the eye and, blushing with embarrassment, asked for a box of condoms.

This was before AIDS. Genital Herpes and Chlamydia weren’t the problem they are today. Back in those days, condoms weren’t displayed openly, because children might see them. I’m serious. In the 1970’s, most people used condoms to prevent pregnancy, not disease. Since the Catholic Church forbade the use of any form of contraceptive, displaying them in pharmacies would, in the view of the Church, encourage their use. People who bought condoms bought them surreptitiously.

I’m afraid I reacted badly, bursting into a fit of laughter at his embarrassment. These days, nobody would raise an eyebrow. But back then, it was comically awkward. I’ve become something of a fan of awkward moments, since I witness so many of them.

Yesterday, I was following a knot of people down a hallway. Two men were standing on either side of the hallway, speaking in hushed tones, obviously having a private conversation. The group of people I was following passed between the two men, and then stopped suddenly for some reason.

As I approached the two men, I heard one of them say, “They were able to save the…” He broke off, hoping I would pass before he finished his sentence. But I was forced to stop directly between them until the group moved on. Unable to leave the sentence dangling, he said, “Rectum.”

To my credit, I maintained a rigid poker face. Obviously, they were talking about a serious subject, and my intrusion was accidental. But it was one of those priceless awkward moments that somehow brightens my day.