Archive for October, 2010

A descent into voicemail hell

October 21, 2010

Yesterday, we followed along as Davis attempted to close a dormant health savings account and stop quarterly statements from being mailed to his home. First, he tried going to the HSA website and met with nothing but frustration. Today, in search of even more exasperation, he attempts to negotiate with voicemail and offshore customer service reps. We join him now as he makes the call to the toll-free help line.

I was greeted by that pre-recorded woman’s voice we’ve all come to know and hate. She mixes a tone of delight, casualness and enthusiasm that lets you know right away she’s not a real person. She welcomed me to the “Solution Contact Center” (SCC) and ran through the options she thought I might want to select from: I could press one for account information, two for frequently asked questions, three if I was an employer, four if I was a broker, five if I was not yet an account holder, and six if I wanted marketing support. Already, I longed for an option seven, which would send a high-pitched screeching tone into an SCC operator’s ear.

None of the six choices seemed quite right for what I wanted to do, so I tried pressing zero. Sometimes this gets you directly to a live customer service representative.

“We’re sorry but your menu selection is not available,” the fake woman said patiently. “For more information, you can visit our website at”

Yeah, well I already tried that and it didn’t work. Why do you think I’m calling you?

I listened to the menu options again and figured number one, account information, would be my best bet. I was informed that due to the current load of callers, it would be five minutes before I could talk to someone. I was encouraged to stay on the line, because calls would be answered in the order they were received, if at all. The “hold music” began — at first, a thumping bass that seemed more appropriate as house music at a gay disco, then quickly replaced by a tune that could only be described as “lilting”.

I settled in for what I hoped would be a short wait, playing the game I always play in similar situations — trying to write lyrics for that gentle instrumental designed by psychologists to soothe the angry customer.

A real human being will be with you soon
If you’re lucky at all, it’ll be before noon
Try to relax as you sit there and wait
Do a sudoku, don’t ponder your fate

Within about 90 seconds, the music paused and my heart leapt at the prospect of being served.

“Your call is important to us,” said a new woman’s voice.

“Well, that’s good to know,” I said. “I just have a question about how I can stop getting –”

“Please continue to hold,” I was interrupted. “A representative will be with you shortly.”

And a return to the hold music. I tried to relax, imagining a green meadow, a cloudless sky, gentle breezes, perhaps a fawn and its mother romping in the distance. My thoughts slowly turned away from my worldly problems, and I was transported to another place in time, a soothing, idyllic setting where insurance and healthcare and service charges didn’t exist, a place where a pair of white-tailed deer could halt the mailing of unwanted statements to my home with a magical twitch of their noses.

The music paused again, and I was jolted out of my repose. “Thank you for holding. We look forward to talking with you soon. Please hold the line and we’ll be right back with you.”

These slightly different, alternating messages of unfulfilled encouragement continued on and off for at least ten minutes. Around the sixth or seventh time, the woman’s voice was replaced by a man’s, which I gathered to be an attempt to establish some higher level of authority, lest the caller was becoming agitated with the nice lady. Once he had re-established who was in charge here, the man’s voice left and the woman’s voice returned for several more pre-recorded assurances that they’d get to me whenever the hell they felt like it.

I was fully prepared to ignore the guy as just another pre-recorded voice when “George” finally came on the line. He was as much of a “George” as I am a “Harish,” but I wasn’t about to let any cultural preconceptions interfere with my glee at finally talking to a real human, even if he was oceans away and reading from answer tree while dreaming of the day his country would take its rightful place in the world, deposing those lazy Americans and their petty annoyances to the scrap heap of history.

“For security purposes, can you verify your address for me?” he asked in an accent-free voice.

I read off my address, then proceeded to tell me tale of woe, how I had closed the account and didn’t care about the lousy $2.69 and didn’t want to get any more paper statements because of the 25-cent service charge and — oh, yeah — I cared about the environment too.

“Do you still have the checkbook?” he asked. “You could write yourself a check.”

“I probably have it somewhere but it would take forever for me to find it,” I answered.

During the brief pause that followed, I could sense him thinking about my embarrassment of plenty and being disgusted by it. Not only did I have $2.69 that I didn’t care about — probably enough to feed his entire family for a year — but I had mounds and mounds of paper records documenting my (comparatively) enormous wealth. It was too much trouble for the decadent American to exert himself a little.

“I think I’ll join al-Qaeda,” is what he thought of responding, but instead came up with exactly the offer I was hoping for: “Can we zero out your balance?”

“Yes,” I answered. “And that will also stop the statements from coming?”

“It will take one billing cycle for that to happen,” he said.

“Wonderful,” I responded. “Thank you so much.”

“Can we help you with anything else at all today?” he asked. I thought of mentioning I was having some trouble with the transmission in my car, and that I needed someone to fix a warped board on my back deck, but decided he had helped enough already. Then, oddly, he asked me to do something for him.

“Do you have a moment to take our automated survey?”

“If I have to press one for English, two if I want Spanish and three if I want Hindi, I don’t think I’ll have time for that today,” I thought of responding, but left him instead with a “No, thanks.”

Now, all I have to do is sit back, wait for about 100 days, and hope that I haven’t killed any more trees.

In search of online customer service

October 20, 2010

There was a time not that long ago when we harbored the quaint notion that we could control healthcare costs if we just threw enough three-letter acronyms at them.

So we had the HMO, the PPO and the PCP (which stood for “primary care physician,” though it didn’t hurt your perception of how much you saved if you also used the psychotropic drug). We had the HSA, the HRA and the FSA, accounts that gave us pre-tax healthcare dollars we could always use to buy a boxcar of Tylenol if the year ended before we could spend it all legitimately.

In the end, though, the only initials that fully addressed out-of-control insurance expenses were DOA and RIP.

I gave up trying to work toward sensible costs several years back, opting instead for the top-of-the-line Preferred Premium package and just hoping that I’d get really, really sick. Sure, it’s expensive. In fact, as I review the enrollment options my employer is offering for next year, it looks like I’ll have to pay them to work there and get health insurance. Still, it’s easier than jumping through hoops to eke out every penny of savings. A person could get hurt on those hoops.

I did have a health savings account (HSA) about six years ago, and it worked okay as long as you dedicated half of your waking life to managing it. My company put in $1,500 on January 1, and I could write checks on the account for any medical expenses not covered by other parts of my insurance. When the next year rolled around and the company match fell from $1,500 to $200, I dropped out.

I managed to get the balance in the account down to $2.69 before I forgot about it. Financial giant BNY Mellon still sent me statements every 90 days, and I did consider writing a check for a couple of value menu burritos just to zero it out, but I didn’t want the IRS on my case. I could try to convince the Feds that Taco Bell could contribute to a person’s health, if you counted negative contributions as well as positive ones, however that seemed like a lot of trouble.

I called BNY Mellon in mid-2008 to close the account, telling them they could put the balance in their coffee fund for all I cared, as long as I stopped getting the statements. Still they continued to arrive, never-changing in their columns of data: $0.00 in deposits, $0.00 in withdrawals, $0.00 in interest paid, 0.00% annual percentage yield earned, 0.00% year-to-date interest, and that incessant $2.69 balance.

When the quarterly statement arrived about a week ago, it included an “important message.” It read, “Go green! Elect electronic statement delivery. Log on to the website listed below and select ‘update account profile’. A $0.25 charge for receiving paper statements will begin September 30.”

I wasn’t about to see my $2.69 nest egg whittled away until it disappeared completely in 2013. And who doesn’t want to help the environment by not cutting down the old-growth hardwood it takes to create my mailing? I went straight to the website. I was finally going to shut these people down for good.

Except that the site wasn’t exactly user-friendly, and I spent a good half-hour there flopping around trying to get security clearance for such a high-stakes transaction. I clicked on the “First Time User” button, which asked me to create a user ID. I found an acceptable name, typed it in, and hit the “Log In” button. This took me to a page with a group of smiling generic faces at the top and an ominous stop sign below them.

“You cannot proceed without a security code,” read the bold type. “We need to verify your identity before you log in.”

I was directed to check the email address they had on file for me where I would find the code. I logged into Gmail and, sure enough, there it was. I wrote down the code, went back to the HSA log-in screen, and carefully typed in the letters they had sent me: “ekcyyp”. (Scammers, please help yourself to my $2.69, if you have any better luck getting to it than I did.)

“The security code you have entered is incorrect,” I was told. “Please try again.”

When I tried again and it still wouldn’t take, I logged out completely and came back around for another shot. This triggered another e-mailed security code to Gmail, and “du52eq” didn’t work either, and when I went through the whole process again, neither did “hy4jmo”. I was going to have to give up and attempt to call the customer service center. I put in a vacation request at work to take my remaining six days off so I could dedicate myself fully to the voicemail nightmare I’d now be forced to navigate.

Will Davis try again to change his account profile online? Does he really have any hope of remembering a password issued in 2004 that he hasn’t used since? Is there a hidden meaning in “hy4jmo”? Or will he instead telephonically scour the Indian subcontinent, looking for that special individual who can walk him the maze of user names and security codes? Tune in tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion.

Fake News: Democrats court Jackass vote

October 19, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Oct. 18) — Trying to regain political momentum from the young voters who carried them to electoral victory in 2008, Democratic leaders announced yesterday they will stage a “Jackass”-style nationwide tour in the final weeks leading up to midterm elections.

“We’re calling it ‘Jackass 2010-D,'” said party chairman Tim Kaine. “With the donkey as the Democrats’ mascot and so many dumb-ass Tea Partiers as our opponents, it seemed like the logical connection.”

All the leading stars in the majority party will spend the next three weeks traveling to states where key races for Congress are taking place. There, they’ll risk their lives performing dangerous and ridiculous stunts to draw notice to their candidates.

“You look at our record and you can see we’ve accomplished quite a bit in the last two years,” Kaine said. “Unfortunately, most voters don’t have the time or the reading skills to comprehend what we’ve done, so we’ll go out and risk a grisly death to try to get their attention.”

President Barack “Bam” Obama will spend the next ten days aboard Air Force One criss-crossing the Midwest to drum up support for Democrats in that region. Among the feats he’ll perform will be the “Bam Can’t Fly” jump, where he’ll attempt to descend from the presidential 747 using only a huge umbrella. He’ll also stick a chicken in his underwear and walk a tightrope over a pool of alligators.

“Some might say this stunt is beneath the dignity of the nation’s highest office,” Obama told reporters at the White House. “I say, bring on the chicken!”

Vice President Joe “Joe-O” Biden will be responsible for the mid-Atlantic states. He’ll appear Thursday at a fund-raiser for Delaware Senate candidate Chris Coons, who’s waging a tough battle against Republican Christine O’Donnell. Biden will use a 120,000-volt stun gun and a 50,000-volt Taser on himself to demonstrate how O’Donnell’s right-wing values are “outside the mainstream.” Then he’ll stuff wasabi up his nose.

“She’s called evolution a ‘myth’ and she opposes masturbation, despite being pretty cute,” Biden said. “That’s much more shocking than what I’m going to attempt.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who’s become a target of many Republicans running for Congress, will tour the West Coast, performing a stunt in which she’s launched in the air while inside a port-a-potty filled with excrement.

“Since I’m likely out as speaker of the house, it seemed almost poetic that I’d be campaigning from an outhouse,” Pelosi said. “I’m already comfortable being showered with dung in the work I’ve done in Congress, so this one seemed like a natural for me.”

Elsewhere on the “Jackass 2010-D” trail, former vice president Al “Johnny Nashville” Gore will head up a tour around the Southeast. At each stop, he’ll tie one of his teeth to his battery-powered bus and have it extracted as the motorcoach pulls away at high speed. In the Southwest, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will attend rallies in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado at which he’ll play tetherball using a hive filled with Africanized bees. In the Northeast, Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank will have his chest hair removed by super glue, though it’s not clear whether this is part of the campaign or simply part of Frank’s daily grooming regimen.

Elsewhere, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer will make several appearances with House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn in which they’ll jump on trampolines until their hair becomes entangled in a ceiling fan, undergo a tattoo procedure in the back of an off-road pickup truck, and be blind-folded and rammed by a charging yak.

Even the Clintons and some members of the former president’s cabinet will be getting into the act. Bill and Hillary will lace each other’s morning coffee with industrial-strength poisons, a seemingly deadly feat made possible by the immunity each has built up to the toxins administered over the last 30 years of marriage. Former secretary of labor Robert “Wee Man” Reich will serve as human bait in an attempt to fish for sharks, and will later try to milk a male horse. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former secretary of energy Bill Richardson will reach out to women and Hispanics by surgically removing each other’s appendix without anesthesia.

“You hear a lot of talk about an ‘enthusiasm gap’ in this election, and this effort is designed to overcome that gap,” said chairman Kaine. “You can’t get much more excited than having high doses of electricity charging through your body.”

Democrats hurtle toward victory, and possible death

Monday snippets: The baseball edition

October 18, 2010

There is no sport that abuses one player so much more than all the others than baseball abuses its catchers.

The rest of the team spends its time in the field essentially loitering, waiting for the occasional play that will require the exertion of moving several feet to the left or right. The pitcher has to throw every pitch, but for his efforts he’s given three days off. Bench players stroll the dugout, trying to think of innovations in spitting and scratching technology.

The catcher is involved in every play, defending himself against the 100-mph fastball with his mitt and his mask. About the only relief he gets from this assault is when the batter fouls one off the catcher’s thumb, or his chest, or his foot. Even though he wears more protection than an armadillo practicing safe sex, he still finds himself bruised from head to toe following each game.

And if the physical abuse isn’t enough, there’s the mental torment. He wore his cap backwards decades before it became the hottest trend in headwear, though he’s given virtually zero credit for this style innovation. He’s nominally charged with calling his hurler’s pitch selection, yet is constantly told “no” by his pitcher, like he was some kind of very bad dog. To communicate these signals, he has to finger his crotch in front of a national television audience.

Then there’s the squatting. What other occupation, in sports or elsewhere, requires its workers to sit on their haunches all day? I can think of the Bangladeshi beggar and that’s about it. The catcher’s knees are a mass of damaged cartilage by the end of each season. Their wives scoop them off the field in a wheelbarrow after the final game, then bring them home to recuperate.

I say it’s time for the catcher to rise up, both figuratively and literally, and end this oppression. On pitches where there’s no one on base, the catcher’s only real purpose is to protect the umpire and keep the backstop from getting all scuffed up. On these plays, he should instead pull up a lawn chair next to home plate and enjoy the action in comfort. Let the pitcher come retrieve all the passed balls. He’s got a day off tomorrow. And the day after that and the day after that.


The intentional walk is a mainstay of baseball strategy. Rather than face a powerful hitter at a key point in the game, the pitcher will — on purpose — throw four pitches way outside the strike zone, allowing the batter to take first base.

I like the concept of intentionally screwing up one task to benefit the larger goal of accomplishing a later task. Is this something I can use in the business world?

“Sorry, boss, about that expense report I turned in with all the random numbers in it,” I could say. “Now that that’s out of the way, I can do a better job on those sales projections.”


What’s the deal with all the stuff in the dirt behind the pitcher’s mound these days?

It used to be there was a resin bag and that was it. Now I see there’s the bag, there’s a towel, there’s an access panel to the sprinkler controls, there’s even a coffeemaker for the pitcher.

It looks like a yard sale out there.


We’ve benefitted from a lot of behind-the-scenes insight into the game of baseball with recent technology advances. You can now see the speed of each pitch displayed, super-slow-motion replays, and statistical analyses that break down a hitter’s on-base percentage by lunar phase.

And yet still, we aren’t privy to what’s being said in the meeting on the mound, where a struggling pitcher is advised by his manager, his pitching coach, his catcher, most of the infield and the guy selling popcorn on how to get out of a jam. We’re left with only our imagination to guess about the topic of discussion.

Manager: “Have you considered throwing a few strikes?”

Pitcher: “My control … it’s just not there today. I need to bear down.”

Catcher: “You need to stop throwing stuff at me.”

Pitching coach: “Alright, guys, let’s not make this personal. We’re all on the same team here.”

Third baseman: “Why can’t I play some? Those guys play catch all afternoon and no one every throws it to me. I’m gonna tell my mom you won’t play with me.”

Manager: “This next guy, let’s pitch him down and in.”

Second baseman: “Se me olvido mi cuaderno. Donde esta la biblioteca?”

Pitcher: “Would it be okay if I lay down for a while?”

Shortstop: “Did anybody see the new ‘Hawaii Five-O’ last night?”

Popcorn guy: “Popcorn! Get your fresh hot popcorn!”


Those memorial patches the Yankees are wearing to honor their late owner are a nice touch. Right above the breast pocket of each uniform, it reads “GWS — The Boss,” in remembrance of George Steinbrenner who died earlier this year.

The only comparable show of compassion you see in other sports would be NASCAR, where drivers and pit crews honor the memory of car companies, detergent manufacturers and erectile dysfunction medicines that used to be profitable before the recession.

Rest in peace, Tide Ultra Liquid Clean Breeze Scent. You will be sorely missed.


Have you noticed that fewer baseball players are wearing necklaces and gold chains around their necks during the game? Maybe some high-kicking flame-thrower finally got his foot caught in one of these and the neckwear was officially banned.

Some of the flashier players still sport earrings, but that’s hardly the fashion sense we had come to expect from our national pastime. I had been hoping the jewelry trend would continue, beyond chains and ear studs, into brooches, pendants, charm bracelets and delicate cameos. Eventually, we might’ve even seen some clothing statements, such as veils, bustiers and cinched waists. Then perhaps on to high heels.

If you think a speeding base-stealer bearing down on the second-baseman with cleats up is a riveting sight, imagine the same scenario with stilettos.


Lots of pretty stupid TV commercials during the playoff games so far. There’s the Liberty Mutual ad, where everyday citizens watch each other being responsible and become inspired to help the mom with a baby carriage to avoid being run over by a bus. “When it’s people doing the right thing, they call it responsibility,” reads the tag line. “When it’s a company doing the right thing, they call it Liberty Mutual.” They also call it protecting the bottom line by not paying out so many financial settlements.

There’s the ad with a bunch of happy animals gathered around a watering hole, enjoying each other’s company instead of preying on each other’s entrails. Wouldn’t it be nice if the world was so safe that the butterflies could ride on the horns of the Cape buffalo, that a squirrel could ride on the back of a crocodile, that a lion and wildebeest could romp together in carefree abandon? Never answered is the question, so then what would they eat for dinner?

Finally, there’s the E*Trade baby, dispensing his usual slacker-inflected advice while standing in his crib. Mom comes in and takes away the toddler’s laptop and he makes some typical wise-beyond-his-years comment. Then up flashes the logo, the website address, and some fine print that stops Investor Babies in their tracks: “You must be 18 to open an account.”

Stylish but otherwise pointless picture of a baseball

Revisited: How about a little help with MY life?

October 17, 2010

One could make the case that Republicans didn’t do such a great job of managing something as large as the federal government when they had the chance. Though I rarely find myself in agreement with them on most issues, I must admit they’ve recently shown some real potential.

Specifically, I’m thinking about many of the smaller-scale suggestions they’ve made recently about President Obama’s governing style. Certain members of the GOP have shown genuine insight into what might be better ways for the chief executive to be using his time.

Glenn Beck criticized Obama for his recent attendance at what he called a “Latin dance party,” otherwise known as part of a White House salute to the nation’s diverse musical styles. The president’s visit to Copenhagen in a failed attempt to bring the Olympics to Chicago was roundly repudiated by Republicans as a poor use of time that could otherwise be spent on the nation’s economic woes. Even last week’s trip to New Orleans — which hosted no fewer than seven extended visits by former President George W. Bush, including a flyover where he looked out the window at them — was rebuked as too short, clocking in at a mere four hours on the ground.

He hardly even had time to get his feet wet.

I’m starting to think the conservatives’ strength lies in the minutiae of government. President Obama might have grand ideas for ways to address large and chronic problems facing America but, let’s face it, the guy is hardly a master of time management. The eye for detail that helped us find the WMDs in Iraq, capture Osama bin Laden and avoid the largest financial crisis in 80 years is a real strength for the Republicans. And since they’re so eager to pipe up with observations of every little thing the president is doing wrong, I’m hoping they might be available to help me run my own life more efficiently.

So if there are any Republicans out there who can offer me the same incessant advice they’re giving to Democrats, I’d like some help with the following pressing issues facing me on an everyday basis.

  • When I make a sandwich to take to work for my lunch each day, I’ve been adding a thin slather of mayonnaise to both slices of bread. Might it be better to add a slightly thicker layer to just one slice?
  • I’m getting a little tired of’s online Solitaire offering to get me through the slow times at work. What’s a better alternative — Rise of Atlantis or Cubis 2?
  • I’ve found myself putting on a little weight lately. Should I buy myself some new slacks that are a size larger, or simply diet myself down a few pounds? I know a shopping trip to Target would help the October consumer retail numbers, but I also realize any healthcare reform that passes is going to be so narrow that it’s unlikely to cover the gastric banding procedure I’ve been looking at.
  • When I go running on the treadmill at the gym, does it look better for me to wear ankle-high socks or those longer tube models that go halfway up my calves?
  • On my daily commute to the office, is it better to get off the interstate and deal with all the traffic lights on Westinghouse Boulevard, or drive about five miles farther and end up closer to work on South Tryon? I’d consider using MapQuest for help, but I’m afraid of the mainstream media.
  • Should I visit Starbucks or Panera on my coffee break? Panera often has abandoned copies of USA Today I can pick up for free, yet Starbucks is more likely to have free samples.
  • I love watching “PTI” on ESPN every day. I’ve got it set up to record on my DVR but I usually get home just as it’s halfway through. Should I watch the second half live, then back up to watch the first half on tape, or wait till the whole thing is over and watch it in order? Does the fact that I don’t like Guinness beer factor into this decision at all?
  • Should I personally invade Iran, or are the efforts of one person not going to make that much difference?
  • If there’s no one driving behind you and you’re making a right turn on a largely deserted street at 3 o’clock in the morning, do you really have to use your turn signal? I know it’s “the law” but it just seems like an unnecessary government intrusion. Also, do I have to stop at stop signs?
  • Is it worth the effort to offer cashiers a penny along with my paper money when a purchase ends in .01, .06, .11, etc.? I think I’m just confusing them.
  • Is it absolutely necessary that I add a comma after this phrase, or is it just as clear without?
  • I forgot to pay property taxes on my car, and had to show up at the assessor’s office to pay in person. The woman in front of me in line spent at least five extra minutes at the window telling the official that “people were getting fed up” and “I think we’re in the end times and ready for the rapture” because “I just heard on the radio there was another earthquake in Indonesia, and there are all those hurricanes in Mexico.” Is it okay for me to be steamed, or should I have added “yeah, and how about that tsunami in Guam?”
  • Paper or plastic? Credit or debit? Do I want fries with that? Can you help me decide once and for all?

Revisited: You call these benefits?

October 16, 2010

Opposition to health insurance reform seemed to be crumbling across the country this week as employees began receiving notification that it was time for their annual benefits enrollment meetings.

“No! Anything but that!” said John Beck, head of the Atlanta-area Tea Party Movement and a systems analyst at BellSouth. “I’m not going to have to sit through one of those boring human resources presentations am I? I don’t think I can take that.”

“Oh, God. Is he going to use that same PowerPoint again?” he added. “No!”

Typically, most Americans who consider themselves satisfied with their healthcare coverage are receiving insurance benefits through their employers. The traditional process has been a painful autumn full of angst and frustration as workers learn how much will be deducted from their paychecks each week for medical coverage.

Enrollment is completed in November, then the holidays intervene, with most forgetting how much it’s costing them. By the beginning of the new year, most have returned to a vague notion that they’re getting healthcare for very little out-of-pocket expense.

At the moment, however, they’re wrestling with heavily shaded rows of spreadsheet data, clunky brochures and HR representatives whose answer to every question is “I’m not sure about that — you should really check out the website that Corporate has set up.”

“Was I supposed to be able to read those numbers?” commented Alan Jansen after he attended a presentation at the suburban Washington bank where he works. “They had like a 70% screen on the category that applied to my situation. I think they sent me something in the mail but my wife thought it was junk and she tossed it out.”

Jansen said he had been a strong opponent of the reform plan that seems most likely to pass the Senate next week, saying it represented a slippery slope toward socialized medicine. Now, he admits he’s reconsidering his position, especially since he’s forgotten both the user name and the password needed to sign up for his employer’s plan.

“It’s the same crappy routine every year,” Jansen said. “There’s always several smaller sites that are teleconferenced in to the meeting, and those people ask the dumbest questions. I can barely tolerate sitting through it.”

Harold Taylor, a part-time Republican campaign worker and a full-time document specialist at Chicago’s United Airlines headquarters, agreed. He complained about the flexible spending accounts, the health savings accounts and the so-called “wellness credit” that will reduce his premium by $1,000 if he completes a health questionnaire on-line and agrees to quarterly counseling sessions with some idiot grad student at the University of Michigan.

“I studied all the stuff they sent us before hand, and they still made me go to the meeting,” Taylor said. “I can’t believe there’s money taken out of our paycheck and yet we still have a co-pay, co-insurance and a deductible that would choke a horse. I’d take a death panel over this mess any day of the week.”

Tea Party leader Beck said he now feels like a fool for attending the anti-reform rally in Washington last month, and thinking that his employer and the big health insurance companies were giving him a better deal than the government could.

“I’ll admit, for maybe ten months out of the year, it feels like you’re well-covered,” Beck said. “Then you sit down and study the difference between ‘Plus’ and ‘Select’ and ‘Preferred’ and you think, aw, they’re just messing with us, now.”

“I hope I don’t have to try to get anything out of that ‘new dental partner’ they were talking about,” said Jansen after his company meeting. “Every year they say they’ve brought in someone new because the old plan was so bad. I could’ve told them that last year.”

“Long live Obama,” Taylor said. “I’m ready for Scandinavian-style socialism after watching that HR woman fumbling with her laptop. She didn’t even realize she accidentally backed up ten slides — she just read the same thing over again, in the same steady robotic tone. I say, bring on Big Brother!”

It’s not what you are that counts; it’s what you aren’t

October 15, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Oct. 14) — Negative advertising has long been a staple of political campaigns. This year, however, more candidates than ever are going the extra mile to define themselves by what they aren’t rather than what they are.

In the current anti-incumbent environment, it’s understandable that many don’t want to be defined as a “career politician” or “Washington insider.” But many are denying more fundamental aspects of their lives in order to curry favor with voters.

Most Republicans, for example, have rejected the label “sentient being” in favor of portraying themselves as some type of messenger from God. Democrats, facing a backlash against what’s seen as a government that’s gone out of control during the four years they’ve held majorities in Congress, are positioning themselves far from the policies of President Obama, claiming they’ve “heard of” the man, though they couldn’t say what he looked like.

This phenomenon has been most pronounced in the Delaware Senate race, where Republican Christine O’Donnell has bought TV time to declare publicly “I am not a witch.” Not since President Nixon’s famous “I am not a crook” pronouncement has the denial of something you’d hope would be obvious become such an essential component of the campaigns.

Now, other candidates are adopting the same tactic, hoping to build an image in the voters’ minds of someone who’s outside the tradition of conventional politics-as-usual and yet not completely batshit-crazy enough to think they’re a farm animal or a visitor from outer space.

Nevada’s Republican challenger Sharron Angle claims she’s not a referee in the defunct American Basketball Association, not an oil painting, and not a sable coat. Her opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, says he’s not a bottle of bourbon, not a proprietary file format and not a beanbag.

O’Donnell’s Democratic opponent in the Delaware race, Chris Coons, asserts he is not a junior dragster, not an amorphous silica wall and not a Toronto Maple Leaf.

California’s incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer says she is not a pinch runner, not a charter school and not a fan of the fugue, while her Republican opponent, former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorino, claims she is not a funnel-shaped valley, not a predatory sea snail and not an infinitely typing monkey.

Florida’s three-way Senate race features Tea Party favorite and Republican nominee Marco Rubio claiming he is not a near-earth asteroid, not a horseman of the apocalypse and not a gangbanger. Democrat Kenneth Meeks declares he is not a camel, not an interstate highway and not a plantar wart. Former Gov. Charlie Crisp is conducting a campaign as an independent in which he states he is not a coherence therapy practitioner, not a totem and not a member of the rock group The Cro-Mags.

In Kentucky, Libertarian-turned-Republican Rand Paul has announced that he is not an Australian zookeeper, not an adder, and not a Jewess. His opponent for the Senate, Jack Conway, asserts that he is not a maestro, not a concentration camp survivor, and not an ecumenical patriarch.

In the race in South Carolina, incumbent Sen. Jim DeMint says he is not a foxhound, not a lubricant or gel, and not a morning anchor. His opponent, the little-known Alvin Greene, admits he is not a monthly manga magazine, not a plateau, and not an internal combustion engine.

In neighboring North Carolina, Republican Richard Burr asserts that he is not cooking show host Paula Deen, not a microbiologist, and not the world-bearing elephant of Hindu mythology. His opponent Elaine Marshall claims she is not a Daughter of Bilitis, not a cowboy, and not the president of Niger.

Sarah Palin favorite and Alaska Republican nominee Joe Miller reveals he is not a hip implant, not a Japanese prefecture and not a superbly aged pinot noir. Opponent Scott McAdams says he is not the creator of Dilbert, not the first runner-up in the European song contest competition, and also not a hip implant.

Finally, in a tightly contested race in Wisconsin, Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold claims he is not a low-pressure system, not an archer and not a mound of decaying organic matter commonly known as a compost heap, while opponent and businessman Ron Johnson says he is not a river-access homesite, not a pair of shoes, and not a violent sexual predator.

“These things are good for voters to know,” said political analyst and senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation (but not a front-end loader nor a supermarket franchisee) Allen Rigby. “I guess.”

The miners’ rescue: A review

October 14, 2010

The helmeted hugfest that was the rescue of 33 miners trapped for two months deep in a Chilean mine may have been a ratings hit with viewers around the world, but how did it stand as a piece of television drama? The reviews are mixed.

For one thing, the show played itself out long before it ended late last night when the final miner was pulled to safety. A good story line needs to start with a pop, and this one did. The appearance of the first survivor Tuesday night, rising like a phoenix from the depths — points off, by the way, for the person in charge of titles, who misspelled it “Fenix” on the escape capsule — was TV at its best.

But having the same plotline repeated another 32 times, and dragging it out over the next 22 hours, eventually became tedious. I’m all in favor of bringing back the long-form miniseries as a staple of broadcast entertainment. A little variety, though, would’ve been a nice touch.

You half-expected survivor number 16 to arrive at the surface rattling his cage and calling out “Hey! Over here! Somebody let me out!” as the focus gradually shifted elsewhere while the operation grinded on. By then, workers on the surface, and much of the estimated billion-person TV audience, had checked out and switched their attention to something more riveting. Like watching paint, or the tears of the families, dry.

You certainly can’t fault Chilean officials for scrimping on production values. The site was blanketed with cameras, with one even placed deep in the cavern itself, though a stage manager had to constantly remind milling victims to get out of the shot. As CNN’s Anderson Cooper noted, the lighting and sound were superb, the blocking crisp, the staging splendid. (Cooper seemed especially intrigued by sight of all those burly men being inserted into a shaft and then shot deep up the bowels of the earth, but I think that was just him). The drama, however, soon wore thin.

The second and third acts definitely could’ve benefitted from punching up by a Hollywood screenwriter. An action sequence or two around the 15-hour mark would’ve gone a long way in holding onto the diminishing audience, especially that key 18-to-35-year-old male demographic. I heard that each evacuee was given a small charge of dynamite to help dislodge any rockjams they might encounter during their ride to the surface. Once rescuers realized this wasn’t going to be a problem, would it have ruined the atmospherics of an intimate drama to have an explosion or two? Who could’ve resisted watching the capsule rocket out of the hole in a shower of flames?

A little comic relief would also have given this offering more staying power. Have the capsule emerge into view only to find that the miner was put in upside down. Stage a “Cash Cab”-style game show on the transit to the surface, peppering the victims with trivia questions as they rode through the unforgiving rock. Bring Baby Jessica out of retirement for a cameo appearance.

And speaking of casting, I’m all in favor of giving unknowns a chance at their big break. Heaven knows it was refreshing to see Hispanic men in roles other than Landscaper In Yard or Drug Pusher #2. It’s just a little tiresome to see a Jorge following a Carlos following a Pablo following an Estaban, all 5-foot-4, all dark-featured and all rocking the monobrow. Was Matt Damon suddenly not available?

Even some small touches could’ve delivered more entertaining fare. I know post-production sweetening isn’t an option with a live event such as this, but there’s a lot that could’ve been done in real time to elevate this teleplay to levels that might’ve garnered Emmy consideration.

In the area of costuming, the sunglasses were a hit with early focus groups, though the clunky helmets, drab jumpsuits and lack of accessories other than a canvas harness were being judged more harshly. Props and sets were only okay; I appreciate the austerity of a simple wheel, rope and hole, but must admit I was a little disappointed with the lack of high-tech-iness. The musical score was sparse and realistic, with the chanted “Chi, Chi, Chi … Le, Le, Le” lending an air of authenticity, and the rousing show-stopper of a national anthem bringing down the final curtain with a flourish. I just found myself longing for the haunting tones of Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa.” (Technically, yes, that’s a Peruvian style of music. However, to the rest of the world, South America is South America).

All in all, I’d still give “Miracle at the Mine” a positive review, as long as I had a crossword puzzle standing by. I agree with Omar Reygadas, miner number 17, who offered two thumbs up as he was carted away on a gurney. True, he’d had most of the rest of his fingers blown off in a previous mining accident. But his spirit, and that of an ambitious production that now seems ready for translation to the big screen, video-gaming and possibly even Broadway musical theatre, showed that the human spirit can prevail. Even if it wasn’t prevailing in high-def.

Needless technology marches onward

October 13, 2010

I show up at work Monday morning and wade through a dozen email messages, all telling me I need to restart my computer because of a technology update pushed out over the weekend. Seems my company, one of the world’s largest publishers, had to load a new font. So tens of thousands of employees in three dozen countries around the world each waste five minutes, just so we can have access to Lucida Sans Unicode. Whoever she is.

A few hours later, I take a break at a nearby coffeehouse and attempt to fire up my netbook. But first I have to answer the question: Update with Internet Explorer 9 now, or Ask me later? Apparently Microsoft has designed a new hourglass icon that will keep me better entertained while I wait for the inevitable crash to follow, and they’re eager to rush this innovation out to their users. “Ask me later,” I answer, but only because they don’t have a “Don’t ever bring this up again” option.

Finally I get to WordPress and — oh, joy — they’ve added some new features. My daily view stats are now shown in bar graph form instead of the line chart that seemed perfectly adequate only last week. More upgrades are doubtless to come from the restless geniuses who brought us webhooks and widgets. I anticipate stats will next be shown in a pie chart, then a scatter diagram, then finally a Rorschach inkblot. (The more it looks like an upside-down bat wearing headphones, the more hits your blog has had.)

I’m getting a little tired of the endless and increasingly pointless applications of new technology for technology’s sake. I’m pretty certain that everything of value has already been invented, and now developers are simply gilding the lily in a never-ending attempt to seem current. The great leaps forward are over. We’re down to the new wrinkles and, as someone who’s pushing sixty, I can tell you that new wrinkles are not what I’m hoping to find as I boot up each morning.

Three recent examples of useless know-how have come across my radar in the last few weeks. How we ever picked our way through the digital landscape before these arrived, I’ll never know.

The Gap

Retail clothing giant The Gap announced a few weeks ago that it was replacing its 20-year-old logo with a new iteration. The company name is still spelled correctly, which is good enough for a fashion-challenged Ross Dress For Less shopper like me. Apparently, though, that wasn’t enough for its trendy customers who not only want to overspend on their wardrobe budget but be aesthetically uplifted by a blue insignia at the same time. Customers rebelled and took to the digital realm to show their displeasure.

But The Gap didn’t get to be The Gap without keeping its finger on the pulse of its clientele. They know customers without a detectable heartbeat aren’t going to be opening up their wallets, nor will customers whose artistic sensibilities are shaken to the core by the grotesque eyesore on the right above. The Gap used its Facebook page to acknowledge the growing protest.

“Thanks for everyone’s input on the new logo!” they crowed optimistically. “We know this logo created a lot of buzz and we’re thrilled to see passionate debates unfolding! We love our version, but we’d like to see other ideas. Stay tuned for details on this crowd sourcing project.”

And so the people spoke, and by “spoke,” I mean they tried to type coherent comments without the benefit of grammar-check:

“That is a horrible logo,” said Ashanti Ward. “I am a huge gap fan but this is not a new logo its lame!!!”

“As if your new logo isn’t enough of a slap in the face to the design community,” wrote April Moen, “now you want us to provide you with free work?”

“HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE!” observed Nicole Guillen. “Please bring the old logo back! The new one is horrible and not classy at all! It looks so cheap, I just hate it!”

“You’re the freakin’ Gap,” wrote Joanna Dee. “You got loads of money! Use it to pay for a new logo designed by industry professionals and trash this disgusting new logo that looks like someone’s vomit.”

This is how people protest corporate malfeasance these days? In my time, we held Big Business accountable through actions, not words. When defense contractors made huge profits off the carpet bombing of Southeast Asia, we organized boycotts and held candlelight vigils. When New Coke was introduced to replace Classic Coke with a sweeter, more Pepsi-like formula, we besieged the Atlanta headquarters, refusing to allow executives to leave the building until they saw the error of their ways. We didn’t whine and moan on their Facebook page.

But that’s apparently what works in these modern, plugged-in times. The Gap issued a press release Monday, quoting company president Marka Hansen as saying “All of the comments say over and over that they are passionate about our blue box logo and want it back. So we’ve decided to do that.” What else could they do? A Twitter account opposing the change had gathered 5,000 followers and more than 2,000 comments were posted on Facebook. The people had spoken and the people had won.


My favorite bagel and free wi-fi outlet is a franchise called Panera Bread. When I stopped by for a sesame and a schmear not long ago, I was asked to join the new MyPanera customer loyalty program. At an online terminal set up right there next to the counter, I could enter all my personal information and, in return, I’d receive a colorful piece of hard, swipe-able plastic and something called “rewards.”

Just for signing up, I got a free pastry. If I offered up my new card every time I made future purchases, I’d eventually earn other as-yet-unspecified rewards. I could only hope this included the right to keep my birthdate and phone number out of the hands of minimum-wage employees eager to sell my data to scammers.

I was issued a user name and password so I could keep track of my “account” online if I wanted to. When I investigated further a few days later, I expected to find perhaps a list of future premiums, maybe a list of participating locations, maybe a way to opt out of junk emails. Instead, I found out way more about my dining habits than I cared to.

Did you know that I ordered a cinnamon roll at 8:37 a.m. on Sept. 28? That I bought a Fuji apple chicken salad the following evening at 6:49? That I purchased a decorative mug at 4:12 on the afternoon of Oct. 2, returned it three minutes later (I found a crack in the base), then bought another mug two minutes after that?

Every transaction I now made with any of the 1,362 Panera locations around the world was being recorded and tracked. I’m not sure I understand the benefits of having access to this level of detail about my loyalty to Panera. But if I ever have to prove in a court of law that I couldn’t have murdered the victim in question because at the precise time of death I was buying a bowl of low-fat chicken noodle soup with a whole grain baguette as the side, I now had a digital alibi.

The Charlotte Observer

No need to adjust your glasses if the photo above appears out of focus. It’s supposed to be that way. It’s something called 3-D printing and, apparently, it’s the latest way for the NASCAR-loving readers of the Charlotte Observer to look at the pretty pictures while ignoring all those boring wordy parts.

Our largest regional newspaper proudly printed a two-part supplement on Sunday titled “Comin’ At You.” It came with a pair of disposable 3-D glasses and featured some 20 pages of fuzzy photographs recounting the history of NASCAR and promoting the upcoming race being held at the local speedway.

There’s a huge blurry picture of a Winnebago RV, barely outrunning an exploding fireball to jump over the world’s biggest outhouse from a 1996 pre-race show. There’s a huge blurry picture of U.S. Army helicopters executing a touch landing just off the front-stretch of the Coca-Cola 600 race in a reenactment of the 1983 American invasion of Grenada. And, as you can almost make out in the image above, there’s a huge blurry picture of a pit crew changing tires in as little as 14 seconds, or maybe it’s the massacre at Tiananmen Square, or maybe that scene in the movie 300 where a bunch of naked guys jump off a clip.

Even some of the ads are in stereoptics. There’s a particularly compelling one from the folks at MetLife, which includes a 3-D chart showing the monthly premiums for 10-year term life insurance for non-smoking males between the ages of 40 and 70. The Bank of America ad shows tailgaters enjoying a pre-race cookout. Enjoy the ad; just be sure not to wear the special glasses into your local bank branch unless you want to be charged with attempted armed robbery.

Besides giving me a gigantic headache from which I’m still recovering, this special section demonstrated that print media can still be relevant in the digital age. It also provided future excuses for the Observer production team to explain how the notoriously unreliable four-color printing process is again out of register. It’s not hazy and ill-defined because of our poor quality control on a high-speed press. It’s supposed to be that way. And the huge blob of black ink covering half the editorial page, the mangled comics section, and those annoying thin ribbons of newsprint that have fallen into your lap. Those are intentional too.

It’s all high-tech, don’t you see?

Fake News: Miners will be rescued ‘in the pink’

October 12, 2010

COPIAPO, Chile (Oct. 12) — The rescue of 33 men trapped for two months in a Chilean mine was delayed early this morning to allow time for the miners to receive and don pink accessories to promote Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Americans who have watched NFL match-ups over the past two weeks may be familiar with the campaign to raise awareness of the disease. A number of players have worn pink shoes, tape and stickers during nationally broadcast football games. The Chilean miners, however, were unfamiliar with the effort, and expressed disappointment with the delay.

“We are certainly all in favor of breast awareness, after having been down here for ten weeks. In fact, we have thought of little else,” said Hernando Soto, a spokesman for the entombed men. “We will wear the pink rescue harnesses, the pink helmets and even the pink socks if they want us to. We just wish they could’ve been delivered sooner.”

Workers at the site predicted it would take little more than three to four days for the colorful equipment to be transported down the half-mile shaft. The commemorative clothing will be personally delivered to the trapped miners by pop singing star P!nk, who is currently finishing up a 36-city North American tour.

“We don’t want people to think this delay is simply to allow P!nk to perform her last two concerts in Miami,” said Allen Mooney, the chief engineer on site. “We also had to widen the shaft by another four inches to get her down there. She’s a healthy gal, you know.”

Rescuers hope they won’t have to grease the two-time Grammy winner with “arrollado,” a local pork belly specialty, to squeeze her down the narrow tunnel. They fear the sudden appearance of the glistening star will permanently scar the already frail psyches of the interred workers.

"So What?" if I'm a little late, P!nk sings

Meanwhile, reports that the miners were squabbling amongst themselves to be the last, rather than the first, to escape the underground chamber appear to have been misinterpreted. Some of the men believe the risky maneuver to bring them to the surface is doomed to complications, and want their fellow miners — “especially the guy who kept hogging all the soda,” according to one report — to go ahead of them. Others say they rather liked life deep in the bowels of the earth, and were reluctant to leave.

“They say location and amenities are the keys to a good piece of real estate and, frankly, this place is hard to beat,” said subterranean realtor Chrissy Haverford. “There’s very little seasonal variation in the weather, you’re close to shopping and entertainment that come out of that big tube over there and, when you eventually pass away, you’ll have the convenience of already being buried. Yes, it’s a bit of a fixer-upper but many of these guys have become quite handy in their two months down here.”

The trapped men who want to remain behind may have some competition for the home they’ve built out of solid rock beneath an arid Chilean desert. A number of groups have expressed interest in claiming the location once it is abandoned. Democratic congressional candidates, victims of home foreclosures and Atlanta second-baseman Brooks Conrad, who made three errors in one game to cost the Braves a key game in the National League playoffs, have all made inquiries into when the desolate cave will be on the market.

“I’m prepared to make a very attractive offer,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is expected to lose her leadership position in a Republican landslide next month. “All those Tea Partiers who have encouraged me to ‘go to hell’ got me to thinking what a good idea that might be, especially if the U.S. is taken over by reactionary chuckleheads.”

When the miners do finally emerge from underground later this week, they’ll encounter a very different world than the one they left behind the day they were trapped in August. For one thing, it’s getting cooler outside now, especially at night, and they’re going to have a lot of raking to do when they get home. They also may not be aware that David Hasselhoff and Michael Bolton have been voted off “Dancing With the Stars,” and might be surprised to find there are people who aren’t witches running for the U.S. Senate, and that veteran actor Tony Curtis has died.

Plus, they may be confused by a new set of traffic signal colors being rolled out around the world, to increase understanding of several ailments plaguing the planet. The traditional red, yellow and green that had previously been a near-universal presence at intersections around the world have been replaced by pink, a sort of mustard brown, and a metallic blue. The pink, of course, is for breast cancer awareness; the golden brown is for boils, carbuncles and other pus-based skin eruptions; and the blue is for victims of a rare silver-eating disorder.

“It’s true, they’ll have a substantial adjustment period ahead of them,” said NASA psychologist Karen Moreland. “We just pray there aren’t too many car accidents.”