Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fear of Cool

Back in the early 70’s, I worked for an electronics company that employed some genuine eggheads. This is a class of people I respect, and whose company I enjoy, but I have never been a qualified member. In the R&D lab of this company, the engineers were working with a new tool – it was a box about the size of two shoeboxes, with a series of lights and toggle switches on the front panel. It was an Altair 8080, the first true minicomputer. There was no monitor, no keyboard, no mouse. It had to be programmed manually, by flipping the toggle switches to define the instructions, one tedious byte at a time.


For reasons I cannot explain, I thought it was cool. I didn’t have a science background, I wasn’t an engineer, and I have always hated math. A few years later, the company wanted to sell the Altair, and I almost bought it. But in 1980, I bought this thing instead – a Sinclair ZX80:


It had one kilobyte of RAM, an awkwardly tiny membrane keypad (I’ve placed a quarter on the case as an indicator of size), and you had to hook it up to a black-and-white TV set which functioned as the monitor. If you wrote a program, you had to store it on a cassette tape player. It wasn’t properly grounded, so every time I touched it after walking across the carpet, it would get zapped by the static discharge and reset. I loved it.

A few years ago, BMW bought the British company that made the Mini Cooper and introduced it to the American market. It was a squat, boxy little car that had about as much curb appeal as a motor scooter. A guy I know who has a normal supply of testosterone confused me when he told me that he thought they were cool.


I now realize that the concept of coolness is irrational and totally subjective. Throughout my life, I’ve met numerous people with irrational fears. One woman I know used to be an Israeli tank commander, but she will run screaming if she sees a snake. It seems that desire and fear are somehow related, and dwell comfortably in the irrational zone of our limbic system.

This would explain a lot of things, actually. For example, it would help to explain why some women date abusive men. Or why some men engage in risky, thrill-seeking activities.

But now that I understand this strange relationship, I’ve developed a new fear: The fear of the next thing that I think is cool.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Stealing Coffee

Before we start, I want to make it perfectly clear that I did not steal anything, nor do I condone stealing anything. I carry too much Catholic guilt to feel comfortable with stolen goods, even cheap office supplies. If I drive home from work with a ballpoint pen in my pocket, I leave it next to my keys to be certain I remember to return it the next morning.

But my brain is always devising little scams, things I would never do in real life. It’s kind of a pointless hobby, like the guy who sits in his basement tying fishing flies during the winter, but never goes fishing in the summer.

Yesterday, my wife and I went to Costco, where she bought a 2-pound bag of coffee beans, despite the fact that we don’t own a coffee grinder.


“Just take it to the supermarket,” she told me. “Use their coffee grinder.”

I stopped at the drugstore next door to the supermarket and bought a few items, which the clerk put into a plastic bag, along with the receipt. I tucked the bag of coffee beans into the bag as well, and carried it into the supermarket.

Now I’ve never bought loose coffee beans at the supermarket, so I’ve never had occasion to use the grinder. The grinder is a component of a display that includes dispensers containing various types of premium-grade coffee beans. You fill a bag with the beans you want, pour them into the hopper, set the dial to the desired grind, put the empty bag under the chute and push the Start button. Then you simply pay for the bag of ground coffee by weight at checkout.

But since I wasn’t buying their coffee, I opened the bag of beans I had brought with me, poured them into the hopper, filled two empty bags with ground coffee, and walked out.

It occurred to me on the way out that someone might stop me and insist that I pay for the coffee. I figured I could just show them the empty coffee bean bag I had brought in, explain that my wife had bought whole beans instead of ground coffee by mistake, and that would be satisfactory.

That’s when the light went on. I realized that if I saved the empty coffee bean bag, the next time I needed coffee, I could walk in with the empty coffee bean bag concealed somewhere. Once at the display, I could make sure no one was watching, quickly fill the empty bag with premium beans from the display, and then just proceed as though I had walked in with the bag of beans. If I get stopped on the way out, the explanation would be the same.

Of course, this won’t work if the aisle is under surveillance. It also won’t work if you’re Catholic. And if you try this, don’t get too attached to that morning cup of Hawaiian Kona - I hear that the coffee in jail really sucks.