Saturday, February 20, 2010

TV on Acid

I vividly remember a lurid magazine cover from the early fifties, declaring that we’d all have flying cars by the mid-sixties. I used to feel cheated that this exciting consumer technology never materialized, but these days I’m thankful that nobody has a flying car. The reason I’m thankful has nothing to do with terrorism or infrastructure. I’m concerned about economics. Let me explain.

Another futuristic prediction of the fifties was video conferencing. This concept enabled people all over the world to actually see one another in real time, at a moment’s notice, without the burdensome hassles of traveling to some common meeting place in a flying car.

My new company makes extensive use of video conferencing to conduct meetings and presentations with personnel in far-flung locations. In fact, when I was interviewing for this position, one of the managers in New Jersey interviewed me this way.

Each of our offices has at least one conference room with a large television screen on one wall and a camera mounted above it. The camera system includes a wireless controller box that enables an operator to pan, zoom and focus, manage the audio feed and switch between the camera view and a presentation on a computer. It all seems so incredibly cool and irresistible, but there are two depressing problems.

The first problem (and in hindsight, the most obvious problem) is that almost all high-ranking corporate executives think they are compelling television personalities. So the technology isn’t used in any meaningful way. Instead, most of the time, some guy in a suit stands behind a podium and reads bullet points from a PowerPoint presentation.

The second problem only exacerbates the first. Economics decrees that technology doesn’t have to be good, it only has to be good enough. So despite all of the nifty hardware, the video quality sucks. It all starts out OK, although rather blurry, jerky and flat. Despite sitting through hours of these presentations, I’m not convinced that I would recognize any of the presenters on the street.

teleconference 1

But then, weird imaging errors and artifacts begin to creep in, and the video begins to deteriorate.

teleconference 4

I’m not going to talk about my college years, but before long, the video feed takes on a hallucinogenic quality. The images no longer represent human beings, but terrifying blood demons from another dimension.

teleconference 3

Strangely, the audio is always perfect, providing a soothing, reliable, mantra-like drone that keeps viewers from bolting out of their chairs.

Economics proved that best-selling car in history was also the cheapest: The original Volkswagen Beetle. If flying cars ever became a reality, they’d be small, uncomfortable and dangerous. But they’d probably have really good audio systems.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Dental Anguish

When I first moved to Florida, I had a dentist who was a consummate professional with two flaws: He had an irritable personality, and he wanted all of his patients to have perfect, unnaturally white teeth. He expected that his patients would gladly spend any amount of money to achieve this goal. It became tedious denying his grandiose plans for expensive crowns, braces and veneers, and then suffering through his demeaning lectures, so I eventually moved on to another dentist.

My next dentist was an ex-Air Force dentist, with a phony, annoyingly cheerful disposition. Once she got my mouth stuffed with instruments, she would tell me long, dull stories about her horses and her kids, in that order. If the procedure was brief, but the story was long, I’d have to sit there drooling on myself until she finished. When she leaned me back in the chair, I discovered that she had pictures of her horses taped on the ceiling, so that I could enjoy them and envy her.

I recently got fed up with the stupid horse stories and decided to find yet another dentist. Using the Web site of my insurance company, I found a few in my area, and examined the information provided. Some of them have degrees from universities in Pakistan or Costa Rica, so I crossed them off the list (not because they’re foreign, but because I don’t know which universities in those places are considered excellent schools).

Also, some of them are shown as bilingual, which always makes me suspicious that maybe they don’t speak English as well as I’d like.

Doctor Swaraminibintu: “Meester? You want Novocaine thees time? Or you want aspirin?”

Me: “No, Novocaine please.”

Doctor Swaraminibintu: “No Novocaine? OK but thees gonna hurt.”

Me: “NO! I want Novocaine!”

Doctor Swaraminibintu: “You say no Novocaine.”

Me: “I know I said no. No aspirin, not no Novocaine.”

Doctor Swaraminibintu: (long pause) “OK, but thees gonna hurt.”

Some of them have offices in inconvenient locations. Eventually, I settled on a conveniently located, English-speaking dentist with a degree from a good university.

On my first visit, the hygienist seated me in the dental chair, and made polite conversation while checking out my teeth. She seemed pleasant enough, but she had a kind of creepy, nervous laugh.

Eventually, it was time to clean my teeth, so she leaned me back in the chair, stuck in that suction gizmo, and started to work on my molars with that rotating rubber scrubber. As I lay there, helpless and gagging on the raspberry-flavored gritty polish, she said, “You know, I was reading Proverbs 31 this weekend? The part about the wife who must get up while it is still dark? And I thought that describes my life perfectly.”

Really? Bible lessons now? Is it possible to find a dentist (or a hygienist) who doesn’t take advantage of the captive patient in some manner? Shouldn’t that be listed on the Web site? “University of Kentucky. Fervent Christian. Owns horses. Irritable perfectionist.”