On a future without the car…

I read an article today that prognosticated the death of personally owned vehicles and the internal combustion engine within the next 20 years. It made many fine points projecting how much safer, more convenient, less expensive, and environmentally conscience eliminating the traditional family car would be. We could all hail them like an Uber, let them drive us to our destination while sleeping or fidgeting with our spinner, and paying a “nominal tax” for the maintenance and upkeep of this new and exciting public service.

It’s an interesting concept, to be sure. Then, of course I look at how well we’ve managed to maintain the current generation of public infrastructure and wonder what madman would willingly give up his clean and well maintained personal vehicle in perpetuity for the joys of the sights, smells, and sounds of public transportation in automobile-sized formats? I’m thinking of the guys I’ve seen taking a leak on the DC Metro and the noxious mix of whatever it is that makes taxi floors so disgustingly odoriferous. Add in the part that one of these marvelous transportation pods might not be available when and where you need one, and it sounds like a real winner of a plan to me.

Look, maybe it’s the kind of thing that would make some flavor sense for someone living in a dense urban environment or those consciously deciding to forgo privately owning a vehicle – a group that already seems largely served by things like trains, buses, taxis, and ride sharing schemes. For those of us who made the conscious decision to live in a rural part of the country, I have no idea how something like this makes sense. The density of pods needed just to get people in my rural county to and from work would seem to be prohibitive at first blush. Then add in the times you need to have something like a pickup truck to haul trash, or furniture, or firewood, or just to make a trip to the garden center and the plan frays even further around the edges. Are there going to be special freight pods that come with even less unit density than the normal passenger pods and how much inconvenience are people as a group going to tolerate to make this concept work?

It’s an interesting notion, but for the foreseeable future is going to be a hard no from me. I like knowing I have a machine only a few feet away that I can climb into and, with a reasonable amount of maintenance and upkeep, transport myself anywhere on the continent at the time and route of my own choosing. I have no intention of giving that up that level of freedom and convenience to feed someone’s nightmare hellscape dream of a “future without cars.”

Two out of three…

I have a standing order with Amazon to deliver dog food, cat food, and litter on a monthly basis. It hasn’t been an altogether satisfying relationship thus far. Two out of the last three orders have been what I’ll just call “defective.” Today’s order included a bag of cat food in fine shape, a box of cat litter in fine condition, and a bag of dog food with a blown out corner that emptied half the bag’s contents out into the shipping box.

Look, the dogs loved the fact that I schlepped this 50 pound box through the middle of the house trailing kibble behind me, but it wasn’t the kind of experience I’d have paid for if given the opportunity. I’m a simple guy who just wants things to arrive undamaged. I don’t feel like that’s really an unreasonable position on my part as the consumer.

I dutifully fired up Amazon’s customer service chat and to their credit they immediately offered to ship out another bag of food or give me a refund. The Amazon business model is a real wonder of the modern – as it seems it’s cheaper for them to replace every fourth or fifth thing I buy than it is to spend a few extra cents on proper packaging for their products.

Amazon isn’t the only game in town, but they are generally the most convenient for setting up recurring orders so I’ll keep using them. They’ll keep sending out items in piss poor packaging. I’ll keep sending for replacements. And the whole machine will keep on working. Somehow, though, it feels like there could be a better way.

Spiked…

I like to know numbers when it comes to household operations. I track metrics on utilities because I like knowing how and why the bills are what they are. I’ve seen something on my utility statement that’s always kind of bothered me, but that I’d never bothered to investigate in detail.

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You see, every 7-8 days I have a surge in the amount of electricity that I use. For a long time I wrote it off as the increased demand caused by my being home on the weekend. I took a closer look, though, and realized that the spikes in use don’t exactly correspond to the days when I just happen to be home all day. If they did, I should see three columns out of every seven standing out instead of just the periodic one day spike. I thought briefly that the spikes might be tracking the day I work from home – when I tend to have two or three computers fired up, the furnace running, and maybe a load or two of laundry snuck in to the mix. Those are all things that logically I understand consume electricity.

The problem is, that none of the usage spikes corresponded to anything like that. Some hit days when I was here. Some didn’t. Being slightly obsessive, I still wanted to know why.

I wish I could tell you I slipped off the toilet while standing on it to hang a picture and had a vision of the Flux Capacitor, but alas that isn’t the case. The culprit showed himself when I was laying out a couple of chicken breasts for a long cook. It turns out every spike in electrical draw showing on my most recent bill actually corresponds to a day when I had dinner cooking away in the crock pot.

I just assumed that the little fella sat there on the counter and cooked up a nice hot meal without drawing off as much power as I use to tend to every other electrical appliance and device operated in this house on any given day. I feel like this is something I should have known kind of intuitively since by definition the thing is sitting there drawing power for eight or more hours at a time, but honestly I’d never given it much thought.

If I were all green and earthy I might consider altering some of my crock pot recipes for oven-based cooking… but as in most things, there’s a prince to pay in terms of convenience. As it turns out it’s a price I’m happily willing to pay. I’m just glad that I now know I’m paying it… though it might just be time to go out and see if I can upgrade my 15 year old slow cooker to something newer and (maybe) more efficient.

What Annoys Jeff this Week? The

1. Water and ice. I had to pull the refrigerator out for the first time since I moved in to Fortress Jeff. It’s a nice enough refrigerator and it came with the house, but I’ve always been a little annoyed that it didn’t have an ice maker – or better yet, water and ice through the door. After almost three years of living here I’ve now officially discovered that the place is actually plumbed for a refrigerator that could make all the cold water and ice I could ever want. And now I’m even more annoyed by the people who made the conscious decision not to buy a fridge that takes advantage of it. Seriously. Who does that?

2. Republicans. I remember when one of the central planks of the Republican Party was controlling the deficit and reducing the national debt. The “budget bill” now before Congress is something that would make any decent Reagan-era Republican choke. I miss real Republicans.

3. Democrats. I remember when one of the central planks of the Democratic Party platform was building up social programs that benefited America’s most needy citizens. Based on the fight being put up in the House of Representatives, the Democratic Party now seems more concerned with securing rights for foreign nationals who are in the country illegally than they are taking care of business for actual United States citizens. I miss real Democrats.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Bagged salad. I need a steady supply of fresh “exotic” greens to keep the resident tortoise healthy and happy. The most convenient way to procure these greens is usually by picking up a bag-o-salad since I’m more focused on variety than buying in bulk. What I end up with half the time, though is a slimy gelatinous mass in my crisper drawer – often before I’ve even opened the bag. There’s got to be a better way to package this stuff that doesn’t leave it turned into a bag of green, foul smelling water the minute it leaves the supermarket.

2. The next question. Most people are OK at asking the question. What they generally suck at is asking the next question or the one after that. Most people are crap when it comes to really drilling down through an issue and getting at real causes. The surface answer is usually the easy one – the one that doesn’t offend anyone or hurt any feelings. Drilling down into the what and why tends to be invasive and means putting more noses out of joint and occasionally making life uncomfortable. Go ahead and be the person who make things uncomfortable now and then. You’ll be amazed at what you can find out.

3. Leftovers. I usually like leftovers but I’m in a rut at the moment. The last few weeks I’ve made my traditional big Sunday dinner and then a pot of soup on Monday. My logic was that it would give me plenty enough to ensure non-sandwich lunches and minimal cooking the rest of the week. I’m coming to the unhappy realization that even as much of a creature of habit as I am, I can’t eat the same two meals four four days in a row. It’s really kind of a disappointment, because it was a wonderful time saving plan… which seems to have lots a lot of points in execution.

Momentary inconvenience…

As I was sitting at my desk this morning going through the usual early Saturday routine of paying bills and administering the other minutia that goes along with running the household, the power cut out briefly. Looking out the window towards the woods, annoyed, I counted the seconds – fifteen of them before the genny cranked over and sent it’s homemade electricity surging down the wire and taking life from the 19th century to the 21st in a matter of no more than 30 seconds. From time to time I regret purchasing a big ticket item that isn’t strictly a need, but I can tell you true that I’ll always consider the cash sunk into that generator money well spent.

It’s probably a good day when the most annoying part of a power failure is having to turn the coffee maker back on and wait for the cable modem to reset. Momentary inconveniences though they are, I suspect I’ll be spending some time this weekend looking at battery backup options for some of those “key systems.” Because once you’ve eliminated the big inconveniences, the small ones somehow become even more obnoxious.

Picking easier…

With of the ludicrous cost of cable television I’ve toyed off and on for about a year with cutting the cord and trying to cobble together a collection of streaming services that would get the job done. After some exhaustive research, the real problem became the fact that to get all of my non-negotiable programming I was going to end up needing essentially all the streaming services.

I’m grudgingly forced to admit that cost not withstanding, cable is just the most convenient way of getting what I want. Getting those 40 channels means I end up paying for 300. As much as I hate writing that monthly check, I’m resigned to the fact that I’m just going to go ahead and keep paying for the convenience of having it all piped in through the same service.

For the better part of a decade I’d been living with my old 40-inch 780p plasma screen in the living room. Its picture quality didn’t justifying the full HD experience and I’d always resisted handing over the extra $10 a month for HD channels. The 58-inch monstrosity now residing in my living room, though, made standard signals look like absolute rubbish. So I gave in and took a Saturday side trip to my “local” Comcast storefront.

I have to confess the swap out to HD boxes all around was quick and easy. The truth is, I’m tremendously impressed with the picture quality that’s getting sent over the wire. I’m impressed enough at least to keep paying the bill until a real industry disruptor comes along.

I set out last weekend to make my life cheaper and easier and was forced into a choice between the two. Under those circumstances I’m going to pick easier just about every time.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. People who can’t end a meeting on time. I’m perfectly fine admitting that in consideration for your money, I am perfectly willing to sell you eight hours of my time. It’s a done deal. However, I feel an increasing need to make it clear that level of payment does not include any extras. I know that everyone is busy – and that we’re forced to live within an artificially constrained manpower allowance. All that means is there’s likely to be more work than people available to do it in the time you have purchased from us. As this is not a circumstance I created, it’s therefore important to know that if you want more of my time over and above that agreed to in the basic service package, well, the meter is going to have to start running. Or you can just start ending meetings on time. Either way.

2. People who use my desk as a phone booth. I don’t have any earthly care if someone needs to take a personal call at the office. Life happens and often it happens during weekdays. Please, go take that call if you need to, but for the love of Christ the Almighty Redeemer, can you please take it back to your own desk, or out in the hallway, or anywhere other than hovering three feet away from me while you’re doing it? I know these calls are very important, but I don’t have any need or desire to listen in on one half of the discussion about your latest trip to the doctor, what a shit day your significant other is having, or the baby’s last bowel movement. As it turns out, the concept of privacy doesn’t just protect you, but it also protects me from thinking you’re an enormous asshat.

3. Seeing the cashier. Generally when I pull up to the gas pump it’s because I want to top off the tank and be back on the road in as expeditious a manner as possible. What I don’t want to experience is card #1 being rejected, card #2 being rejected, and then hearing a tinny voice over the intercom letting me know that I need to come inside to pay. No, I don’t. That’s especially true because we’re not living in 1985. If the 20 credit card readers you have outside aren’t working, what on earth would make me think one of the two you have inside would be up and running? Walking inside and then standing in a line fifteen people deep to find “we’re only taking cash” would pretty much just add insult to already wasted time. So no, if you’re not going to make it easy for me to give you my money, I’ll happily drive next door and give it to your competition.

The virtue of big boxes…

I don’t generally spend a lot of time perusing through Salon, but an article ended up in my news feed today that caught my attention. The rise and fall and rise and fall cycle of the American downtown is something I find endlessly fascinating – particularly why some communities can make their stretch of Main Street thrive while others never manage to clear the tumbleweeds.

Today’s article, like so many, place the blame on our friendly neighborhood “big box” retailers. I don’t doubt that they create a business environment where it’s awfully hard for the average corner store to compete. Volume pricing and favorable tax incentives to bring jobs to a community are hard to overcome. The piece that no one ever seems to discuss in detail is the shopping habits of the average American.

Of course I would never consider myself average, but if I use my own experience by way of example I find that the time I want to allocate to shopping for weekly essentials is pretty damned limited. If I go to the magic big box, I can find ample parking and pick up everything from spark plugs to underwear to fresh fruit and be on my way home in well under an hour. If I’d shop for the things on my average weekend list at small local businesses it would take three times that long because I’d have to make at least six separate stops, look for four or five parking spaces, wait to check out six times, and then go somewhere else when one of those retailers doesn’t have a specific item or brand I want. That’s not a slam against small business. It’s just the reality I’ve experienced.

I don’t hate small businesses by any stretch of the imagination, but if they want my business they need to deliver something I can’t find at the big box – there’s a shop here locally that sells fresh roasted coffee of fifty or more separate types and styles. They get my business because I’m willing to suffer a little inconvenience for a superior coffee experience. As for the anything else on my list, it’s not a matter of looking for the best, but rather simply a matter of time. The virtue of the big box is that even if it doesn’t always save me money, it saves me time and that counts for a lot.

Time is the most limited resources any of us have and the less of it I have to spend shopping – whether for bread and eggs or for a new car – the happier I’ll be with the entire process.

Learning to wait…

I’ve said it before but it seems to bear repeating: If you call my desk five minutes before the end of the day there’s a good chance I’m not going to answer – a) Because there’s absolutely nothing I’m working on that can be discussed in less than five minutes and b) Because it’s just rude to delay someone who’s already put in a full day for anything less than a full blown (and legitimate) emergency. I hold the same line on email too – if the building isn’t burning down and it requires more than a yes or no answer, you’re going to wait until there’s time on the clock to provide a complete and well-reasoned response.

In case you think this is just about managing expectations at the office it really isn’t. I have no problem at all letting the phone ring at home if it’s not a convenient time to have a conversation. My Gmail box will occasionally go untended for a day or two. Hard as it is to believe sometimes Facebook posts even go unliked and messages even go unreturned if I don’t have anything of substance to add to the conversation or the time with which to attend them.

All this technology surrounding us is supposed to be a convenience, you see. It’s supposed to let us engaged on our own schedule and in our own way. Instead of using these tools to manage our schedules and actions, many seem perfectly willing to let their scheduled be managed by the tools. As much as I love my iPhone, make no mistake that it is the servant and I the master. It’s the only reasonable way I’ve ever found to even attempt keeping things in their proper perspective.

All of that’s probably just a longer than necessary way of saying don’t call or email expecting great and wonderful operational insights at 3:55 PM. You’re going to be disappointed. Along the same lines, you probably shouldn’t bother trying to reach me between the hours of 10PM and 5AM for anything, really. My ringer is off because even if there is an emergency there probably isn’t a damned thing I can do about it before the sun comes up. Even if it is an actual emergency, it’s probably best for everyone if I’m allowed to face it after a few hours of sleep anyway.

Priorities people, priorities.