Tag Archives: stories

Remember When the Internet Was Anonymous?

Today marks four years since I started this blog. Seems like just yesterday. Thank you all who have read this blog and taken the time to comment. I know that I don’t post as often as I used to, but I’ve got a few big projects I’ve been working, and I’m going to share one of them with you very shortly. In the meantime, enjoy this post.

The Director was sitting in his office, enjoying a pumpkin spice latte. He did not like pumpkin flavor, but it was the law of the land that pumpkin flavor must be consumed in the fall.

There was a knock at the door and an intern entered.

“Sir, I’m sorry to bother you. But do you remember when we demanded that all social media websites turn over all of the personal information and preferences of their users? Well now they say they are not producing the information.”

“They’re not? I was afraid of this. All right, time for Plan B.”

“Sir, you don’t mean…”

“Oh, yes, I do. House calls.”

The media at first was skeptical of the government’s new program, whereby they sent government agents to canvass the neighbors, door to door, asking the inhabitants for their personal information. Many pundits thought it an intrusion on people’s privacy, while others thought it a patriotic duty and a chance to expose themselves to some new germs.

Analysts on both sides, however, agreed that people would not want to reveal their personal information to an agent of the government who showed up at their doorstop uninvited and in most cases without even a bottle of wine or piece of fancy cheese wrapped up in nice paper.

So they were really surprised by the responses. People provided their names and ages, of course, and their email addresses and phone numbers, and where they like to shop, and what they think about the things that other people’s kids do, versus the things that their own kids do. They asked about music tastes and food tastes and whether they were more likely to choose a table or a booth when offered both at a diner.

The program was so successful and the responses so thorough, that the government turned it into a reality tv show.

“You know, usually I go for the booth. If I’m offered both, I go for the booth.”

“So you’d classify yourself as booth in response to question 19a?”

“Well, now, sometimes I don’t feel like a booth. I gotta be honest, I like booths. But sometimes – I don’t know – I just feel like a table.”

“So would you classify yourself as a hybrid booth/table? There’s a choice for that.”

“Well, you know,” he says with his finger in his mouth, and looking up at the ceiling. “Now that I think about it a little more, I’m not sure if I ever chose a table over a booth when offered both. I think I was thinking of something that happened to my mother. Maybe I really am a booth guy after all.”

In fact, so effective was the government program that the social media websites started offering the government money for the personal data of the citizenry, in hopes of offering content that would attract more viewers. The official answer was no, but then some Congressmen and Senators got into a bit of hot water over selling of personal data to social media companies, and had to do penance by reciting the 80s pop hit single “Safety Dance” a cappella, including all of the instrumental sounds, before every session of Congress.

Advertisements

5 Comments

Filed under Government, Social Media, Technology

Remember When People Did Not Put Pictures of Their Kids on Facebook?

The young man lounged on the psychologist’s chair, looked up at the ceiling, and exhaled.

“I just couldn’t believe my parents would have put pictures of me on Facebook.”

“And does it bother you that they did that?” the psychologist asked.

“Of course it bothers me,” the young man said. “I mean, imagine you are going through life, thinking about what you are going to have for dinner, or whether it’s time to throw out the ice cream because it has that ice beard growing all over it, and one of your parents’ friends posts a picture of you on Facebook from when you were an infant and in a diaper, with the caption, ‘Remember those days!’ And when you investigate a little to find out how this friend of your parents obtained this picture and proceeded to post it without your written consent, you are told that the picture was already posted by your mother 25 years ago! And then upon even further investigation, discover that this was not the only picture she posted, nor the most revealing.”

“And you think it was inappropriate for your mother to do that?” the psychologist asked.

“How could it be appropriate? How would you like if someone was posting pictures of you without your consent?”

“So people do not post pictures of you now without your consent?”

“Oh, of course they do. Like, when we’re all out at a party or a bar or something. People take pictures of the evening and then post the pictures on Facebook so that the world knows we have a life. If I happen to be in the picture, then I get on Facebook. But that’s totally different. I knows what’s going on. I have some control over what I’m wearing.”

“So is it the not having control over your wardrobe what bothers you about your mother posting pictures of you as an infant?”

“That’s only part of it. Because it wasn’t just the pictures. As I started to speak, there would be these little snippets of dialogue that my mother would share with the world.”

“What were these snippets like?”

“Oh, you know. These little witty things, like ‘Mommy, how come the moon doesn’t fall down?’ or ‘Mommy, why does garbage stink?’ I mean, really, why did the world have to know that?”

“And you don’t think that the ‘world’ as you put it would think it nothing more than the ordinary things that a toddler would say?”

“But that’s just the point! There’s a permanent public record of me saying ordinary things to an ordinary mother who took the ordinary step of bragging to the world about the ordinary things her toddler says and does. If she had stayed silent, the world might have thought me extraordinary!”

“I see. So you believe that by posting your childhood pictures and verbiage on Facebook, your mother removed all the mystery that would have otherwise surrounded you.”

“Exactly!”

The psychologist nodded and jotted a few final notes. Then he looked at the wall clock.

“It looks like that’s all the time we have for today,” he said. “I’m a little jammed up next week so my assistant will call you to schedule your next visit.”

After the young man left, the psychologist went on his computer, logged in to his Facebook account, and started typing a post.

Just when you think you’ve heard it all, a patient comes in with a truly extraordinary complaint….

7 Comments

Filed under Technology

Remember the Cold War?

Is it East versus West
Or man against man?
Survivor, “Burning Heart”
Rocky IV Soundtrack
(Volcano Records, 1985)

The President of the United States wasn’t having one of his better days.

“He wants to annex what?” he asked into the phone. “Moldovia? I’ve never even heard of Moldovia…What’s that you say?…It’s ‘Moldova’ and not ‘Moldovia’?…Well, I’ve never heard of Moldova, either…I don’t care how many athletes they sent to the Olympics.” An advisor walked into the Oval Office and the President glanced at him briefly. “Listen, John, I’ll have to call you back.” The President slammed the phone into its cradle.

The advisor spoke without preamble. “Mr. President, the President of Russia says he won’t withdraw Russian troops from Crimea and he won’t give Crimea back to Ukraine.”

“Really? Did you make him the offer?”

“Of course, Mr. President. And he said thank you, but that he already had a neck basket.”

The President frowned and nodded.

“Okay,” he said. “Time to think outside the box.” He went up to a white board along the wall of the Oval Office and wrote “military action” in red erasable marker. “Let’s brainstorm. Give me some options for dealing with Russia.”

“Military action, Mr. President,” said the advisor.

“Great! Now, let’s flesh that out a little. What are some things that go with military action.”

“Um, troops,” said the advisor.

“Yes, okay.” Underneath “military action” the President drew a dash and wrote “troops.”

“What else?”

“Tanks.”

“Okay, great.” The President wrote “- tanks” under “- troops.”

“What else?”

“Planes.”

“Great. We’re moving right along.” The President added “- planes” to the list.

There was a knock at the door.

ya

“Come in!” yelled the President, wiping away some stray marks from the white board. In walked the Secretary of Defense.

“Mr. Secretary!” said the President. “Come on in. Take a doughnut. We’re just doing a little brainstorming on what to do with Russia. As you can see, we’re off to a great start.” He presented the white board with his hand, palm turned up.

“That’s very good work, Mr. President. But I don’t think military action is going to work. The Russian forces are well set up inside and around Crimea, and our forces are frightened of going into a country that has a backwards ‘R’ in its alphabet.”

“Hmm, that’s a good point. I never trusted that backwards ‘R’ either,” said the President, shuddering.

“Mr. President,” said the Secretary of Defense with a tight smile, “may I offer an alternative strategy?”

The media did not respond favorably when it was announced that the President of the United States had formally challenged the President of the Russian Federation to a game of Flappy Bird to determine the ownership of Crimea and Russia’s overall designs on world domination. The criticism was especially sharp over the fact that the challenge had been issued over the President’s Twitter account. But to everyone’s surprise, the challenge was accepted, and the coverage shifted from anlysis of foreign policy to analysis of the two leaders’ video game skills.

American historians noted that when the President of the United States was in law school he had won a Super Mario Bros. tournament against the other students in his constitutional law class.

But Russian historians noted that the President of the Russian Federation had been the top scorer in a first-player combat video game developed just for Russian government officials, called KGB versus Journalists.

Flappy Bird was a two-dimensional, side-scrolling game with primitive graphics, like Super Mario Bros., but required laser-like precision and impeccable reflexes, like KGB versus Journalists. So both Presidents had an edge.

As the time of the match approached, people were anxious. No one wanted to be unpatriotic or find themselves imprisioned. But Vegas odds never lie, and the odds on the two contestants were neck and neck.

TV stations had arranged to broadcast the match during primetime. Since Moscow is nine time zones ahead of Washington, DC, to prevent either President from playing the middle of the night, the match was arranged for 10 a.m. eastern standard time, and 7 p.m. Moscow time, on the same day. Video cameras were set up so that in the left corner of the screen would be live video of the American President, and in the right corner would be a live video of the Russian President, and the middle of the screen would be the video screen of the leader who happened to be playing Flappy Bird.

The rules were simple. A coin flip would decide who would go first. Then they would take turns, and whoever had the most points at the end of ten rounds would be declared the winner. If the American President won, the Russians had to withdraw from Crimea and forget about the Soviet Reunion.  If the Russian President won…well, no one really wanted to think about that.

Everyone – East and West – was nervous as the coin was tossed at a live video feed in Reykjavik. As the coin flipped end over end the Russian President said “Golovy!” – heads.  And the coin landed heads.

Immediately there were arguments all around the world over whether it was better to go first or last. The Russian President chose to go first, and his compatriots cheered him for taking the initiative. But the Americans were, for the most part, relieved, as more than a century of baseball had taught them the value of last licks.

In the end it didn’t matter who went first.  Flappy Bird was so hard that even after ten rounds neither man had scored a single point. There was no winner and nothing changed in the geopolitical world. But since it had stayed unchanged without a single shot being fired, both sides declared victory and were wrapped in the flags of their respective nations by the warm embraces of their citizens.

I’d like to wish Renée A. Schuls-Jacobson a hearty welcome back to blogging.  It’s good to see that familiar title in my inbox again. – MK

3 Comments

Filed under Current Events

Remember When Delivery By Drones Was Not Within the Realm of the Possibile?

The assistant walked into the big office.  “Sir,” he began.  “I – ”

“Hold on.  Here, look at this screen.  Our drones cover 75% of the U.S. airspace.  Isn’t that wonderful?”

“That is wonderful, sir.  But there appears to be an issue with the drones.  People are getting upset.”

“People?  What are people?  Oh, you mean those creatures who are always eating and losing things, and walk around sniffling when it’s cold.  Ugh.  Why don’t they blow their noses?”

“I don’t know, sir.  But yes – those people are now getting upset about the drones.”

“Is this about that accident last week?”

“Well, sir, when a drone carrying a snowblower falls out of the sky into the middle of a bar mitzvah, there is usually some negative public reaction.”

“But I told them, it wasn’t our fault.  The ground-pilot was texting with his wife about what they were going to have for dinner.  Totally unforeseeable.”

“I know, sir.  But these accidents aren’t the only thing.  People just didn’t anticipate that the sky would be filled with thousands of drones at every moment, so that you couldn’t even see a clear patch.”

“Well what did they expect?  Invisible drones?  Hmm.”  He pulled out a little notebook and scribbled something.

“Sir, the point is if we don’t stop the drones soon we may find ourselves the subject of a scathing op-ed piece.”

“Whoa, whoa.  We definitely don’t want that.  But what alternatives do we have?”

“Sir, we could go back to shipping by truck and regular air mail.”

“And go back to the Dark Ages of delivery that took all night?  We may as well trade in our toilet paper for corn cobs while we’re at it.  No, if we have to stop the drones, there’s only one option.”

“Sir, you don’t mean…”

“Oh, yes, I certainly do.  Delivery by catapult.”

It was an unusual change to the system but soon everyone got used to it.  The delivery centers were reorganized throughout the country so that every home and business was within catapulting range of at least one delivery center, and every delivery center was within catapulting range of another delivery center, so that no matter where the ordered product originated, it could be conveyed via catapult to any place in America.

Instead of the skies being filled with unstaffed aircraft, the skies were filled with packages being lobbed to the next destination.  But there was no noise, and because the calibration had to be done only once – at the point of catapult – the packages did not need constant mid-flight monitoring.  The accident rate dropped dramatically.

The catapults were also amenable to automation.  The packages would be sorted and placed on conveyor belt, but instead of being directed to a drone, the packages were directed to one of the catapults.  There were multiple catapults at each delivery center.  At first the catapults were arranged in a circle, with every point of the compass covered.  But then someone realized that by placing the catapult on a swivel chair, all compass points could be achieved with far fewer catapults.  A computer algorithm calculated the direction, angle, and force required to catapult each package to its destination, accounting for weight, drag, and wind speed.

In the middle of the delivery center was the reception zone, made of a large canvas piled up with couch cushions.  This model was copied at households and businesses across the country.  In every backyard or office parking lot was a reception zone where packages could land.  In households that didn’t have the yard space, the most athletic member of the family would run outside at the scheduled delivery time and catch the package by hand.  The increase in concussions and broken packages was more than offset by the increase in general fitness.

“Sir, I can’t believe it.  The catapult system is a success!”

“Of course it is.  The packages arrive just as quickly as with the drones, but we don’t have to hire ground-pilots.  We’ve been able to lay off so many people!  Think of all the money we’ll save on tissues.”

“Yes, sir, that’s wonderful.  But now the sky is filled with so many packages being catapulted that it’s no longer safe for airplanes.  How are people going to travel?”

“I am so glad you asked.  Let me show you.”  He got up, handed the assistant a helmet and parachute, and led him outside to an empty catapult.

Thank you all for reading this year, and have a happy and healthy 2014.  Can’t wait to see what’s in store!  -MK

2 Comments

Filed under Commerce and Marketing, Current Events, Technology

The Private Universe of Shopping Carts

Did you ever notice how a shopping cart in any place other than a supermarket or a supermarket parking lot looks extremely out of place and even a little disturbing?  I saw one during my morning commute a few weeks ago.  It was so near the road that I almost clipped it.  It was there the next morning.  And the next.  And the next.

The evening commute takes me on a slightly different path that did not go past the shopping cart, and so I only saw the shopping cart in the morning.  I did not the shopping at all until I passed it, and when I did, I would be reminded of all previous encounters.  At first I was disturbed just by the sight of the shopping cart, but after a few days I became disturbed more by the fact that I only thought about the shopping cart when I passed it in the morning, and wouldn’t think about it again until the next encounter the following morning.  It was like the shopping cart and I shared a universe for a few brief seconds and then separated into distinct realities.

Did the shopping cart feel the same way about me?  “Every morning a car with Mark Kaplowitz inside drives by,” the shopping cart says to itself, “but I don’t see the car in the afternoon, and I don’t think about it until the next morning when it passes by again.”  Did the shopping cart find the routine as unsettling as I did?  I began think the shopping cart was looking at me when I passed it.  I began to feel self-conscious during that stretch of road.

Then, a few mornings ago, as I approached the shopping cart spot and started anticipating its presence and steely gaze, I saw that the shopping cart was gone.  Then I saw that it wasn’t gone, but merely pushed over on its side.  Someone must have had the same feeling I had, and finally could no longer stand the stare of the shopping cart.  It must have been dangerous to stop a car in the middle of a road to push over a shopping cart.  Maybe it was done late at night when traffic was light.

Whatever the circumstances, the spell was broken.  I can now think about the shopping cart at any time of the day.  And I do.  I picture it lying there, among the tall grass, enjoying the precious last days of summer.

5 Comments

Filed under Commerce and Marketing

Remember When Smartphone Protectors Weren’t A Cottage Industry?

A few weeks ago I did my patriotic duty and upgraded to an iPhone 5. At a third of an inch shorter and nearly one ounce heavier, my iPhone 4 was like something out of the Middle Ages.

“Do you want to get an iPhone protector, sir?” the salesperson asked me as our dealings were drawing to a close and our teams of lawyers were shaking hands. He waved his hand over a display.

“These go for $38 apiece, but if you buy one now as part of your upgrade, I can probably give one to you for, oh…” he scratched his chin “…how does $30 sound?”

I looked over the display. “Do you have any in blue?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “Just black, pink, and leopard.”

“I was really hoping to get something in blue.”

“You should stop hoping.”

“Thanks, but I think I’ll pass,” I said, and started to sign the reams of paperwork that go with the upgrade.

“Sir, are you really going to leave the store unprotected?” the salesperson asked. “It’s dangerous out there. If something happened to your new phone…” He didn’t have to finish the sentence, but looked down at the ground and faintly shook his head from side to side, pondering the consequences.

I went with the leopard case. It was sleek and thin and was particularly effective against Vervet monkeys. The peace of mind was invaluable…until I saw the protector my sister-in-law had obtained for her iPhone 5. Hers had been custom-made by a company called OtterBox. The protector had three main components to it: an inner shield, a clear covering for the glass face, and a hard plastic outer shell that could withstand being dropped or burned at the stake for heresy.

I have never dropped or scratched a cell phone but the very sight of the OtterBox got me thinking. What if I did drop my iPhone? What if I threw it? Sartre says that we are condemned to be free. With the terrifying freedom to throw my iPhone, how could I go another moment without an OtterBox? I stayed home for a few days with a “family emergency” and safeguarded my iPhone with the cheap protector until the custom-made OtterBox arrived—blue—delivered by an otter that balanced a ball on its nose while I signed the receipt.

As I clicked the hard outer shell closed I felt my worries lift like a morning mist. At last I could safely take my iPhone out into the world, and to celebrate I let my iPhone sit on the edge of a table for half an hour.

That night I had a terrible dream. It was still the Cold War, and the Soviet Union had discovered my iPhone 5 to be part of a secret operation to take photographs of nuclear warheads and put them on Instagram. I watched helpless as my iPhone was crushed under the treads of a Red Army tank. Even the OtterBox could not stop the guts of my iPhone from running blue through the streets of Leningrad. I awoke in a sweat and, after wiping my hand to prevent smudging, held my iPhone close. When would we feel safe?

I located a man in my town who had designed the craft that the space program sent to Mars. He told me all about it while I stood in his trailer. With a home equity loan I commissioned him to build me an iPhone protector that could enter the Earth’s atmosphere at 33,000 miles per hour, slam into the ground somewhere in Russia, and still give me push notifications on Manti Te’o’s draft status. He found an old tank on Craig’s List, cut holes for the headphones and power cord, and painted it blue.

It is a little strange driving around the neighborhood in my blue iPhone protector tank. The kids point and stare and street parking is next to impossible. But at night I sleep the sleep of the innocent knowing that nothing can damage my iPhone 5. I do not care that I cannot touch the screen to make a call. I never got good reception anyway.

19 Comments

Filed under Technology

Remember When the Toilet Worked, Part I?

I know I haven’t blogged in a while.  I’m working on a book – my first – and just coming up with the right approach has taken up all my writing juice for the past month.  I know what Kristin Lamb would say about that line, but there it is.  I appreciate your patience, and pray that you’ll be even more patient as I experiment a little with these posts.  -MK 

The toilet ran every ten minutes whether the flush handle had been pressed or not.  I could not sleep at night.  I would lie in bed, waiting for that lonely sound of water rushing into the porcelain tank.  When the sound would start again, I would tense up as if startled by gunshot or a wild animal.

To understand what was wrong with my toilet requires some knowledge of toilet physics.  The toilet comes in two large pieces: the bowl and the tank.  Prior familiarity with the bowl is assumed.

The tank has three internal organs: the fill valve, the flush valve, and the flapper.  A pipe from the wall sends water into the tank through the fill valve.  The fill valve stops the water from coming in when the water level in the tank is at a certain level.  That is what is happening after you flush, and you hear the water running, and then it stops suddenly.  The water level in the tank has reached the appropriate level and the fill valve has stopped the water from flowing into the tank.

Attached to the outer side of the tank is the flush handle, colloquially called “the handle,” as in “jiggle the handle.”  And at the base of the tank is a large hole that leads into the bowl.  Under normal conditions, a piece of rubber known as the “flapper” prevents the water in the tank from flowing through that hole into the bowl.  Attached to the flapper is one end of a chain, and the other end of the chain is attached to one end of a long lever that runs parallel to the base of the tank.

The other end of the lever is attached to the handle.  So when you press on the handle, you push one end of the lever down, causing the other end of the lever to rise, in turn pulling up on the chain, that lifts the flapper, and permits gravity to pull the water in the tank down into the toilet bowl.  This is the act of the flushing.

When the handle is released, the flapper is brought back down by the force of gravity, once again sealing off the tank from the bowl.  So the tank begins to fill with water again, and does not stop until the fill valve stops it as explained above.

The flush valve is a vertical tube.  The flapper is affixed to the base of the flush valve in two points, around which it pivots when pulled up by the chain.  The flush valve definitely does something else, but I’m not sure what it is.

The entire premise of the tank rests on the assumption that when the flapper is in the down position, it will not allow any water to leak from the tank into the bowl below it.  For if water is permitted to leak from the tank into the bowl when the flapper is in the down position, the water level will fall, causing water to rush into the tank because the fill valve now thinks that the toilet has been flushed.  And since the fill rate is far greater than the leak rate, the water level will of course rise enough to stop the flow again, until the leaking lowers it again, and on and on into infinity.

For some reason, water was leaking through my flapper even when it was in the down position, causing the infinity cycle just described.  This was why I could not sleep at night.

I bought a shiny new flapper.  A red one.  When I returned home and took the top off the tank, there was the old flapper.  “You’ve had a good run,” I said, and unhooked it from the base of the flush valve and dropped it in the bathroom wastebasket with a great showing of respect.

I hooked the new flapper onto the base of the flush valve.  I could already see the difference.  The new flapper was heavier at its center, and it hung over the hole with greater authority than its predecessor.  And it was red.  My troubles, I believed, were at an end.

But mere moments after tucking myself in to bed I was startled by the sound of the tank filling up.  The new flapper had done nothing to stop the trickle of water into the bowl.  I would have to fight another day.

13 Comments

Filed under Home Improvement