Bah. Bots.

Am I the only person who hangs up on an incoming phone call the moment you hear that pause at the start that means that a predictive dialer is looking for a human to take over?

You’d think they’d game it to make the system make a little noise during that pause, like a cough to make you think the person who’s calling is there, but momentarily inconvenienced. Admittedly, we’d all learn to recognize those little tricks as well, but it’d work for a while.

I was sitting at my desk at home this morning when the land line rang. Absent-mindedly, I immediately answered it.

Pause. Classic predictive-dialer dead-air sound.

Then a human voice came on the line: “Hello?” Without even thinking I hung the phone up. 

Some time later I tried to check the caller ID to see who I’d hung up on, but for some reason the call wasn’t listed. Perhaps it’d been too short in duration to be captured.

I idly wonder who it was… but I don’t really care. They didn’t call back. Can’t have been very important.

(I’d turn off our land line entirely but having it is how we get DSL.)

Unread Email

  I work for a software company. I travel all over the USA consulting with and training our customers. As a consequence of this, it’s not uncommon that I get a glimpse of someone’s email — usually because they’re connected to the projector and happened to need to go into their email to look something up. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to restrain myself from going “you have HOW many unread emails?” Earlier this week, I was at one such customer site. And one of their staff did exactly what I said above — launched their email while connected to the projector. And right there on the screen, next to their inbox, was the indicator that they had 20,000 unread emails. Twenty freaking thousand. And this was otherwise a very competent, intelligent person who was a pleasure to work with. We’re not talking some computer-challenged person who calls the Web “the google” or thinks that everyone still uses America Online. I wanted to say “you know, it might be an idea to just mark everything older than a month read, and get a fresh start, so you can actually use the unread indicator for its intended purpose: letting you know you have new email.” But I didn’t. Wouldn’t have done any good. There are two types of people in the world: hoarders and non-hoarders. Even in the world of email. A hoarder is terrified of getting rid of anything because it might be important some day, and that includes all those unread emails. The idea of marking everything over a month old — or, heck, over six months old — “read” would be in their eyes equivalent to tossing out the chemical process for turning lead into gold. Now, if you’re reading this and you have lots of unread email in your inbox, you may not fall into the “hoarder” category. You might just get a lot of email, or you might be one of those people who feels that every email deserves a deep and personal and well-thought-out response. I try to keep my inbox all but empty. In my personal email, I have Gmail rules to file new emails to folders, and I use the “is:unread” search to review them. If I look at them and go “You know, I can live without that” I just mark ’em read. I recently started unsubscribing to every mailing list I’ve signed up for over the years because, in the sober light of day, almost none of them really added any value to my life. As for personal emails from actual humans, it’s generally not hard to identify those that do need a response from those that don’t. And I just don’t let myself fall behind on those. As a result, the only stuff that ever winds up in my “inbox” folder proper is stuff from people I’ve never heard from before, which therefore don’t hit any of my rules. And I file those, and set up rules if appropriate, and my inbox goes back to its pristine emptiness. As for work emails, well, I’m terrified that I might miss something critical… which in my job, might mean that I show up 3,000 miles away from where I’m supposed to be. I have Outlook rules that file all the corporate heads-up messages and “we’ve hired a new VP for a region of the company’s operations you’ve never heard of and will never interact with in any way” emails to a folder where I can happily mark them read and ignore after a quick glance. Other stuff gets automatically sorted into folders by customer, so I can quickly review everything relating to a given customer without having to go searching for it all. If I encounter something that’s important that I be able to find quickly, I don’t leave it unread — I flag it using an Outlook category like “Critical” or “Project Code” or “Really Important To Not Forget”. And then I have search folders where I can quickly go to those messages. And when they’re no longer important, I remove the flag. Marking things unread just because you think they’re important is so … weird. How can you then tell the true unread stuff from the stuff you’ve read before and just need to be able to locate quickly? Which, incidentally, you can’t because it’s all mixed in with several hundred or thousand other real unread email messages? Makes no sense to me. But on the other hand, there are people out there who eat dirt and people out there who keep sewer rats as pets. It takes all kinds to make a world.

Ruined Songs

Ever had a favorite song get ruined by its getting played at a really inappropriate/bad/awkward time and ever afterwards, finding yourself thinking of said tragedy whenever you hear the song? Like, oh, having your favorite Muddy Waters song playing at the exact moment a huge tree branch falls on your garage and wrecks it … and every time thereafter you hear Muddy Waters you flinch, expecting a tree to come through the roof? I used to be a big Creedence Clearwater Revival fan. Not that I ever went to any of their concerts — they broke up when I was what, five? But I enjoyed their music. Then came the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech. I’m an alumnus of Virginia Tech. I’m also a native of Blacksburg. I was a thousand miles away when it all went down, but I couldn’t help being … rather upset each time I saw a news anchor reporting from the campus and sharing each new detail about the shootings and the deaths. Don’t see the connection with CCR? Well, Fox led off the 2008 Orange Bowl (pitting Virginia Tech against Kansas) pregame show with “Who’ll Stop The Rain”. As an announcer spoke of the incredible tragedy and the Tech community’s attempts to overcome the grief and shock and loss, John Fogerty’s voice was right there wailing “I went down Virginia, seekin’ shelter from the storm” / “Crowd had rushed together, tryin’ to keep warm”. Never been able to listen to that song since.

Ethically Not Weighing Coal

Copyright: oleandra / 123RF Stock Photo

I am a Vermont resident (been here 20 years as of May 16) and, as it happens, duly appointed Weigher of Coal for the town of Richmond, Vermont (population 4000 or so). Said job has no actual responsibilities or duties whatsoever — it’s a carryover from long-bygone days. Since the town voters have never seen fit to get rid of the position, the Town Manager finds some sucker to take on the title each year and the Selectboard ratifies the appointment. Then the Weigher of Coal gets down to the hard work of not actually weighing coal. From the Vermont Statutes Online: 24 V.S.A. § 1032 § 1032. Weigher of coal. A weigher of coal shall be sworn and shall not be directly or indirectly interested in the sale of coal. Upon request of the seller or purchaser, he or she shall weigh all coal sold in his or her town. 32 V.S.A. § 1677 § 1677. Weigher of coal. The fees of a weigher of coal shall be $0.10 for the first ton and $0.04 for each additional ton, to be paid by the person applying for the weighing. This dates back to the days when homes were primarily heated by coal and you wanted to make sure you got a fair weight for the price you paid. Towns would have official municipal scales and the Weigher of Coal would be in charge of them. As it happens, Richmond doesn’t have official municipal scales. No town in Vermont does. I’ve thought about showing up at the Selectboard meeting and asking them to buy some, but I figure I’ve only got so many opportunities to be the town kook and I want to make the most of them. So anyway: today, after being the Weigher of Coal for three years or so, the town finally got around to asking me to read and agree to abide by the town officers ethics policy. I take my non-performance of my duties VERY SERIOUSLY so I read and signed. You can read the policy yourself: Code of Ethics 2018 I’m very glad to have finally gotten a copy. My masters degree is in public administration and I know about these sorts of things. It makes sense that there would be one; it’d just never come up before. I will need to take all this very seriously — I want no conflicts of interest when it comes to my not weighing coal. I want to show no favoritism to family members and other individuals in the non-pursuance of my duties. This is Very Important. But even as I sit here, enlightened and filled with a new sense of responsibility regarding the public trust placed in me as Weigher of Coal, it occurs to me: … There are more stated policies for ethical nonperformance of coal-weighing than there are for the office of President of the United States.

From the “Things I Will Never Understand” Department

Like most people, I’ve uploaded a few videos to YouTube over the years: mostly videos of the Burlington Concert Band performing at Battery Park, but a few other things as the occasion has arisen. Most of my videos have gotten ten, twenty, sometimes as many as forty views. (Who knows how many of those were me, looking at my own videos and tweaking something?) Video of our local concrete ‘n’ cement company doing festive things for New Year’s and St Patrick’s Day have done a bit better. Then there’s my all-time champion: That little video of the ice cream truck was taken one sunny day in June of 2016 when our building arranged for an ice cream truck to pay a call. I stopped and recorded a short video as it pulled up. Totally pointless. So, of course, I uploaded it to YouTube for posterity to enjoy. I grant you that just shy of 25,000 views is nothing in an era where Rebecca Black can get sixteen million views spitting phlegm into a Kleenex, but it is perplexing when such a video is head and shoulders above everything else I’ve uploaded in terms of viewership. Is there some unmet need out there on the Internet for ice cream truck videos? Am I missing my calling?

Proof that I’m insane

Carole and I live in the woods, in Vermont. We’ve got about three acres in the town of Richmond, up on top of a hill with a deep gully behind the house. Trees all around. We see all kinds of wildlife criss-crossing our lawn: deer, rabbits, raccoons, skunks, foxes, wild turkeys, even the occasional bear. We may have moose now and then but we haven’t actually spotted any and we haven’t been motivated enough to go out after a fresh snowfall to examine tracks. Anyway, Carole bought me a wildlife/game camera for our 20th anniversary last September, something I’d put on my wish list on Amazon and hoped to get one day. It’s got lots of features — infrared pictures, video, all kinds of groovy things. And I haven’t installed it. I know where I probably will install it, on a post in the middle of our back yard or by the back of our deck, both places that I know we get a lot of critters. But I haven’t taken the minute or two it would take to go strap it to a post and configure it for nighttime shooting. Why? Well, Carole bought it for me in September. In Vermont, the cold weather rolls in pretty early; we’ve gotten snow in October before. And it tends to stick around; we’ve gotten snow in May. And … I haven’t hung the camera up yet because I’d feel sorry for the animals stuck out in the cold. If I got a picture of a bunny hopping across our snowy yard, I’d just feel so sorry for the poor little cold bun looking for something to eat. Obviously, this hypothetical bunny is out there whether I’m taking photos of it or not, but if I don’t take photos, I don’t have to think about the bunny. But in a few weeks when the weather does warm up, I’ll hang the camera up then… Watch the first picture I capture be one of some weasel or fox or something eating our hypothetical Mr. Bun.

Wish Lists

I’ve got an Amazon.com wish list. Woo-hoo! Okay, so what? So do a lot of people. It’d probably be easier to list the people who don’t. I’ve got a friend who has a pet bunny and the bunny has a wish list. You wander around the net, reading stuff on blogs and forums, and it’s more or less inevitable that at some point you’ll come across some stranger’s wish list, posted on the off chance that a random reader might be so taken by the author’s analysis of Freud’s seduction theory as to want to drop $25 and send the author a pair of Hello Kitty snow socks. Some people want a lot of Harley-Davidson miscellany. Some people want semi-precious rocks. You name it, someone’s probably hopefully added it to their wish list in hopes some stranger might one day have a momentary lapse of reason. (Okay, I can’t recall seeing anyone posting their wish list for Leather Masters, but that’s probably because I don’t tend to hang out in those communities.) If you were bored enough to look at my wish list, you’ll notice my tastes and wishes are a little more pedestrian — mostly I use it to keep track of books I’d like to buy and read but haven’t because I, er, already have a library cart full of impulse purchase books and don’t want to have to buy another right away. But I also keep a few stupid-ass items on my list just to confuse someone who might wind up there, maybe some randomly-paired Secret Santa partner who winds up trying to buy me something despite having absolutely no idea who I am. Case in point: Well, Carole usually has no idea whatsoever what to get me for birthdays and Christmas and most years just gives me a card and shaves my back and calls us even, but this year she decided to put in a little effort. And promptly wound up on my Amazon wish list, which I hadn’t really expected anyone to actually use — as I said, it’s mostly books I want to remember to think about buying one day, and strange crap put there to confuse strangers. Punchline: Thanks, honey! And, oh — I almost forgot… Thank you, my 2017 Secret Santa!

College Football

I’m a graduate of the University of Georgia (class of ’88) and of Virginia Tech (master’s, ’90). In other words, I matriculated at two of the biggest “football factory” universities in the USA. They’re fine institutions in their own right, but when you mention either to the average American, the first thought that comes to mind isn’t “excellent engineering programs” or “cutting edge bioscience research”. It’s “football”. I’m not immune to the all-pervasive influence of the gridiron. One of the main reasons I attended UGA despite growing up in Blacksburg, Virginia (home of Virginia Tech) was to attend a university with a lot of school spirit, and Georgia had that and then some after being named the college football national champions in 1980 and playing for the championship the next two years. People cared about attending UGA. A visit to the Georgia campus in the spring of 1984 showed that plainly: everywhere I looked, people had on Georgia spirit wear. Back in Blacksburg, which hadn’t yet started its climb into the national football spotlight, people basically didn’t seem to care at all. It was just a place; you went there, you got your degree, you left. A lot of that had to do with the Hokies’ sports programs — never played for a championship in anything, never set the world on fire, never had people talking about ’em at the water cooler on Monday morning. Academically, does it make sense to evaluate a university on this basis? Obviously not. But then again, when I was 17 and applying to college, I didn’t give a damn about academics. I’d been a loser my whole life and wanted to go off somewhere where I could start over, have a lot of opportunities, enjoy being there. Academics was pretty far down my list of criteria. (The phrase “Brilliant, but lazy” could have been invented to describe me.) All across the USA, sports seem to make a huge impact on perception of institutional worth. You win your conference, you win a big bowl, you make the basketball Final Four, etcetera, etcetera — alumni open their checkbooks. Anyone who’s ever followed college sports knows this. Sad, really. My raising this point probably all comes as pretty out of the blue, given that Georgia is going to be playing for the football national championship on Monday night against Alabama, their first shot at the national championship since I packed my bags and headed off to Athens in the first place. I know what you’re saying: “now he speaks up?” I’m full of contradictions. I’m still a big Georgia and Virginia Tech fan, but on the other hand, I can’t help wishing football and sports in general played a lot less of a role in our society, and certainly in higher education. Football runs academics. Universities are more like sports programs with classrooms attached. The NCAA Power 5 conferences behave as a law unto themselves, doing whatever they want and to hell with right and wrong. They refuse to let the NCAA actually run the football playoffs as they do in every other college sport — football money is too important and those NCAA bureaucrats would just screw things up! They lock the “Group of 5” teams into second-class status, even if, like UCF did this year, they go undefeated and beat the best the Power 5 conferences have to offer (Auburn, which beat both UGA and Alabama). It’s all about money, who has it, and who wants to keep it. Sports = money, and money = sports. In 39 states, the highest paid public employee is a college football coach. People care more about whether “their” team is going to “win big next year” than whether they can pay their own bills, the quality of their kids’ schools, the environment, you name it. Here in Vermont, we’ve got a group of what I frankly consider idiots who are still fighting the South Burlington school board’s decision to change the high school sports’ teams mascot from “Rebels” to “Wolves”. I mean, really? That’s what you consider a huge priority? I want to go shake these people and say “Are you so entrenched in the past, so rooted in your glory days from high school, that you can’t imagine the high school’s freakin’ MASCOT changing without grabbing a pitchfork and lighting a torch and heading down to the school board meeting with the rest of the angry mob?” Don’t even get me started on those psychos in Pennsylvania who are still obsessed with proving Saint Joe Paterno was blameless and innocent in the Sandusky child molestation crimes. There are high schools in Texas who’ve eliminated their foreign language programs at the same time they’ve paid for multi-million dollar football stadiums. Priorities, people? And yet, I’m a pot calling the kettle black. If you ever stop by my house, check out my closet. I’ve lost count of how many Virginia Tech and Georgia and Atlanta Braves and Durham Bulls and Vermont Lake Monsters caps and shirts and hoodies I own. I love sports, I love having something and somebody to root for, even if in the end I’m just using an imagined membership and affiliation to make up for how empty my own life is. I love football. But if I could, I’d eliminate it tomorrow. And I’d probably accomplish nothing, because some other sport would just come along and replace it and continue to keep us from paying attention to society’s real problems.  

Will Trade Cat Hair for Quora Upvotes

I’ve had a cold for the last few days. It’s been annoying but manageable. Last night and today, a bad cough set in and I’m feeling a lot more puny than I otherwise had been. Carole had the same cold, but hers seems to be much better, which is good, since she had to start back to work today and I don’t really have to be anywhere work-related until next Monday. When I feel sick and punchy, but can’t sleep any more because I’ve more or less slept myself out, I start posting idiotic answers to questions on Quora, the crowd-sourced advice site. I tend to focus on questions that haven’t gotten any answers so far, and as a consequence, my responses don’t attract a lot of attention either. And if you’ve ever been on Quora, you know that the big thing is getting “upvotes” for your answers. So here I am, feeling sick and irritable, posting inane gibberish, and then going “UPVOTE ME ALREADY I NEED VALIDATION”.  Sigh. Back in the day when you were home sick from work you could just sit down in front of the television and watch morning game shows and then afternoon soap operas, but today we have more … refined ways to make time pass. And for whatever reason, good or ill, in my case, that means “babbling pointlessly”. (And bringing in references to Cheez Whiz whether it’s relevant to the question at hand or not.) Oh, if you actually wanted to see my blathering, click here.

My Heritage

The following gibberish was inspired by an IFLScience! article about white supremacists sending their DNA off to be evaluated and finding out, to their horror, that they’re not as lily-white at a genetic level as they thought. Carole bought us MyHeritage genetic origin testing kits for Christmas. I had never bothered to do so myself since we don’t have children and aren’t going to have children and consequently there’s really no one to pass the results down to. That said, I’ll be interested to see what the results come back with. (And in any event, I can share my data with my sister, who does have kids.) Now, here’re my reasons for sharing my thoughts on this issue: As far as I know, I have pretty much 100% White Southern Redneck ancestry. Dad’s people go back to the mid-1700s in the area just north of Charlotte, NC, and Mom’s family have been in the central Florida area (north of Tampa) for a pretty long time as well. All this probably means that I have a lot of your typical Southern USA Scotch-Irish genes and so forth, as well as some German/Swiss genes since that’s where my name original derives from (one Heinrich Furrer came over in 1742), but… I also have a rare blood trait called thalassemia minor — I have tiny little red blood cells (microcytes) and only 75% of the amount of hemoglobin that you probably do. I’m always anemic as a result and so I can’t give blood under the current Red Cross rules. This trait is predominantly found in people who live in hot, swampy, mosquito-laden parts of the world, like the Mediterranean basin. It’s so common in Cyprus (1 in 6 Cypriots are carriers of the gene) that screening is mandatory to avoid having kids born with the much more serious thalassemia major, which would happen if both parents had the minor trait. So, long story short, I just about certainly have some ancestry in the Mediterranean basin or in Africa — my particular strain of thalassemia is common there. I might be part black! Or Arab. My father at one point had a theory that we might be part Melungeon, which would certainly be interesting if you like obscure genetic subdivisions. I screwed around on Ancestry.com a couple of years ago but didn’t go back past the 1850s except in the main Heinrich Furrer line, which sure enough came from the area around Zurich, Switzerland as we’d always thought. Long story short: I’m certainly not as Pure Strain Northwest European White as one might have initially concluded, if one looked only at where my last several generations of ancestors came from. And …? And this bothers me not at all. You go far enough back, we’re all descended from African rift valley homo habilis.