Friday, May 31, 2013

A cautionary tale in the junk mail age

My father-in-law tried to kill Byron Farquhar. 

But Farquhar lives.  Invincible, he badgers and taunts the old man.   

I offer this true story to you, Dear Reader, in hope of saving you from my father-in-law’s fate.  If you believe you can elude the Junk Mail Man, consider wisely: 

It began before pop up ads and sponsored posts, as a ruse devised by my father-in-law; I’ll call him “Nigel.”  Nigel wanted to ascertain which direct mail retailer was selling his name to other retail mailing lists, thereby congesting his mailbox with junk.   

A crafty old curmudgeon, Nigel subscribed to Forbes magazine under the fictional name of Byron Farquhar, just to see which solicitations would arrive in that name thereafter. 

At first, Nigel triumphed.  When a 3-fold petition bearing Farquhar’s moniker arrived by post, urging him to subscribe to the Kiplinger Newsletter, Nigel laughed gleefully.  “Forbes!” he exclaimed, and set about composing a letter to Forbes, deriding them for selling his, that is, Farquhar’s name to unsolicited solicitors.   

But before he could mail his complaint, a special offer arrived simultaneously for himself and Farquhar.  It included, for a short time only, 67% off the newsstand price of two journals, the Wall Street and the Ladies Home.  Neither Nigel nor his wife could pass up the savings.  

The masquerade snowballed when each plea for Byron Farquhar’s attention came accompanied by a duplicate offer for Nigel himself.    

Stalwart, and determined to follow his plan to a conclusion, Nigel established a separate collection point on the kitchen counter for Farquhar’s mail.  In short order, Farquhar accumulated a formidable stack of missives which Nigel dated and paired with their counterparts in his own mail.  

But soon, it became muddled as to whether these offers arrived because Byron, who seemed increasingly animate, had subscribed to Forbes?  Or was it because Nigel and his bride were valued and preferred customers with Farquhar as a credible tenant at the same address? 

And yes, there lurked in Nigel’s mind a darker possibility:  Farquhar lived. 

The paperwork overwhelmed Nigel.  His tracking system presented loopholes and jukes that could defy the most diligent detective.  That’s when a shift occurred in Nigel’s state of mind. 

Farquhar, he thought, must go. 

But Farquhar would not go.  He delighted in living off Nigel and his wife, slipping around the house, hiding sox and drinking the last Perrier.  He branched out in his interests garnering correspondence from credit card companies and insurance agencies.  He accepted samples of inscribed ballpoint pens and personalized key fobs.   

And catalogs!  Farquhar loved to shop!  When Nigel tried to staunch their delivery, he had to sign onto the list-blocking site with his email address.  Now his e-mailbox overflowed as well!  

Byron Farquhar!  He stalked Nigel’s every movement.  There was no escape.  

Nigel began cursing Farquhar and tearing his mail in half, shaking it at the sky before dashing it into the recycling bin.  For a while, he wrote “Return to Sender” across each piece of junk mail and dropped it into the collection box.  But the flow only swelled. 

Desperate, Nigel’s thoughts became chaotic.  Now gaunt and ashen, he took the latest arrivals and scrawled “ADDRESSEE DECEASED” across each one and drove them to the post office himself. 

But more mail came for Byron Farquhar.  And more.  Soon, Farquhar’s popularity eclipsed that of Nigel.  Nigel’s wife told him to ignore it, but ultimately, he observed her sniffing the envelopes and running her fingers along the seams.  Were they somehow involved?  A collusion? 

At last, Nigel succumbed to Farquhar’s onslaught.  A distracted and angry man with poor posture he huddles on his porch each noonday, anticipating the arrival of the letter carrier, whom he suspects of being Farquhar, or Farquhar’s minion. 

Byron Farquhar broke Nigel with the sheer force of his unrelenting persistence.  And he will break you, too, if you struggle against him.  Like me, you’ve visited a website.  You’ve clicked on a link.  You created an account.  You sent flowers, or bought shoes.  Somewhere, we passed the point of no return. 

Our snail mailboxes are crammed with junk and electronic junk flows from a tireless, infinite source.  Block it?  OK.  Delete it?  No matter. 

Farquhar is Borg.  We have been assimilated.  Resistance is futile.

Friday, May 24, 2013

To Mars and beyond!

I really may have done it this time.  I was researching for this column when things got out of hand.  Snowballed, as it were.  Ricocheted.   

Now I may actually have to go to Mars. 

As I said, it began innocently enough.  I was following my nose, looking for a good story for you, my Reader.  When, what’s this?  Christian Science Monitor?  They never got me in trouble before.   

Their headline:  78,000 to live on Mars: Have you signed up? 

I’ve heard about the Mars rover, but this article says that 78,000 people have already applied to take a one-way trip to Mars?! 

You’d be curious too, wouldn’t you? 

Of course you would. 

So I pulled up the article.  Turns out Mars One, a nonprofit organization based in the Netherlands, intends to land four people on the Red Planet in 2023 as the vanguard of a permanent colony.  They’ll go on to deliver more astronauts every two years thereafter. 

And get this:  They will kick off their two-year, televised search for Mars explorers this summer. 

That’s right.  Mars One will fund its $6 billion mission with a global reality television series that will follow the colonization effort from astronaut selection to the first landing and on through the settlement’s expansion.  With that, and the sales of hoodies, posters and coffee mugs. 

I hope you’re appropriately boggled.  I was.   

A TV show recruiting and selecting astronauts and sending them to MARS!  Shades of “Running Man.”  You remember - Arnold Schwarzenegger and yes, Richard Dawson.  Futuristic and cheesy all at once.  

It’s “Survivor,” but they’re going to vote people off the planet!  For real! 

It was perfect for me.  And for you.  That’s why I did it.  I clicked on the link.  It led me to and from there to the official website. 

Mars One has already posted application videos from aspiring space travelers.  Of the one million anticipated applicants from around the globe, 3,000 will make the first cut.  Then 28-40 finalists will train for seven years before four are finally selected to leave earth and live forevermore on Mars. 

Well, I had to see the videos.  For you.  I had to see.  Oh, register here to view them?  OK.  Email and password.  I’ve done it a million times.  Easy peasy.  

And OMG was it ever worth it! 

Pages and pages of one-minute videos from future space cadets, all answering prescribed questions, many while holding their iPhones at arm’s length.   

What makes you a perfect candidate for this mission to Mars?  Ljubinka from Serbia says she’s ideal because her double major in geology and interior design will allow her to “prettily arrange the rocks on Mars.” 

How would you describe your sense of humor?  Mike from the United States says his sense of humor is “essentially goofy.”  That could be because Mike, sitting shirtless in the dark, seems essentially high.  

Rajkamal, leaning too close to the camera in Bangladesh, says he employs “situational humor including sarcasm and puns.”  Key characteristics for space travel and interplanetary colonization.  

OK, we must know the selection criteria!  I’ll just have a look at the application.   

Oh.  Another form.  Hey!  They’ve already filled in my name, gender and birthdate in that weird Netherland-ic format: date/month/year.  That’s odd. 

It looks like I’ll have to fill in more blanks before I can see the rest of the questions.   

Before I could say “Carl Sagan” I was telling someone in Amsterdam that I’m a curious and engaging person who gets along well with all kinds of people.  As though under a spell I explained my long-standing interest in the cosmos and our place in it.   

I couldn’t stop.  Zombie-like, I was drawn to the Private Questionnaire.  Now we begin to see the kinds of situations they anticipate on Jersey Shore, er, Mars.  

They want me to “describe an event that increased your stress levels dramatically” and “an incident that frightened you.”  Well!  I was a high school principal!  I don’t know how Mars can top that for fear and stress.  I mean, I could tell you stories! 

That’s when I began to realize that I am an ideal candidate.  I’ve come this far.  My conscience won’t let me turn back now.   

Yes!  With your help, I can make the cut.  Look for my video this summer.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Baggy skin? Who ya gonna call?

So I was reading about how to battle baggy skin, for no particular reason, which is good, because in her article titled, “How to Deal with Baggy Skin,” Jillian Michaels, the toughest trainer you ever saw, essentially says hang it up.   

Oh!  Pardon my choice of words.  You can’t take that literally!  That would be painful. 

Jillian says, extremely tactfully, that if you have baggy skin, on your elbows, say, just look somewhere else.  Look at your knees, for example.  Oops.  Well.  Look at someone else’s knees.  Someone who’s a lot younger than you are with skin that’s not so baggy. 

I guess what she’s saying is just pretend that other person’s knees are your knees.   

It’s a bit of the old bait and switch that every mom used on every child who fixated on the gummy bears in the grocery checkout line.  “Oh, look Honey!  Look way over there at the big juicy red apples.” 

Yeah.  It probably won’t work now, either.  Saggy knees and elbows are their own little train wreck of a phenomenon.  No matter how horrified you are, you just can’t look away. 

But to give her credit, Jillian doesn’t mean literally to avert your eyes from your drapey, saggy elbows.  That’s actually my idea.  It’s not as good as long sleeved shirts, but it can be useful if you are on a tight timeline and must not be drawn down the rabbit hole of terror and dread at what next year will bring. 

Maybe you’ve heard the one about the 80-year-old man who went to the doctor for his checkup.  After a series of thumps, bumps and probes, the doc says, “I’ve got some bad news and some worse news.  Which would you like first?”   

The elderly gentleman draws a brave breath and says, “I’ll take the worst news first, Doc.”  To which the doctor replies, “You have an advanced stage of cancer that is untreatable.  Nothing we can do for you.  It’s bad.  It’s real bad.” 

The man shakes his head in dismay and says, “Wow.  That is terrible news.  Unbelievable.  I’m shocked.  I’m numb.”  

Then, he pulls himself together and says, “OK, I’m ready for the bad news now.” 

The doc says, “You have advanced dementia.” 

“Oh!  Thank goodness!” cries the man.  “I thought you were going to tell me I had cancer.” 

But unlike the doctor above, Jillian claims to have good news to go with her bad news.   

It reads like this:  She fields a plaintive question from a devotee:  Dear Jillian, I have excess skin after weight loss.  What should I do? 

“I hear this question all the time,” Jillian responds cheerily, perhaps from the cover of Fitness magazine.  “And I have good news and bad news.”  

Okay, Jillian!  I can take it!  Bad news first!  What’s the bad news about my, er, this poor woman who wrote to you…what’s her bad news? 

Now I don’t know if Jillian is one of those folks who just has to show off how much she knows, but she goes on and on and ON with way more than any old saggy-skinned woman really wants to hear about her predicament.   

“The skin is an organ and not a rubber band,” she says.  I don’t know how it comes through the printed word, but I distinctly heard a neener neener.  

“Skin can only stretch and tighten so much over the course of a life of slothful indulgence.”  OK, she didn’t say that.  She would never say that.  But I’m just sayin’. 

“Sagging skin has nothing to do with how quickly you lose weight.”  What?  She did say that!  I think when she was wearing another of those bare midriff workout outfits that are so inspiring.   

No!  The excess material you’ve been tucking into your spandex has everything to do with your genetics and age.  The younger you are, the more collagen you have giving your skin its elasticity and ability to shrink after weight loss.  

Hey thanks. 

“Ready for the good news?” says airbrushed Jillian, her mane of luscious hair dipping coyly over her eye.  “You are no longer unhealthy and obese!”
Right.  Right!  Thank God!  I thought you were going to tell me I’m stuck with saggy skin.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Mind your own bucket list!

George Carlin said he wasn’t afraid of being dead, just getting dead. 

But nowadays, many of us seem to expect an empty dance card after we cross the threshold.  How else can we account for the rise of the “bucket list”?  Gotta cram in a lot of living, because once you’re dead…Well!  Nothing to do.   

As an aside - An easy way out of this conundrum is to adopt a belief in reincarnation.  Takes the pressure off.  Plenty of time to get to Niagara Falls.   

Of course that approach could be disastrous for procrastinators. 

Anyway, we’re inundated with these lists.  Sure, we all want to see the Great Wall.  Fair enough.  Go hot air ballooning?  OK. 

But the other day I got one of those email chain letters containing someone else’s bucket list, apparently as a yardstick asking, “What have you done in your life anyway?”   

This one admonishes me to “Play along - Whether you've done this before or not, be a good sport!  Do it again.”  

Of course, being a good sport is on my bucket list - my list of things I really must get around to sometime when I’m not such a crab.   

And after all, it’s so simple to join the fun:  Just place an X by all the things you've done on this list, and remove the X from the ones you have not yet done, (but like any normal person must be hankering to do).  Then, and this is where I came in, send it on to at least six of your do-nothing friends. 

But this isn’t a compilation of exhilarating activities or thrilling locales for which the human spirit yearns.  This one’s more a chronicle of stuff the originator of the chain has done over the course of his life reflecting everything from the mundane to “Really?  You really hope to do that before you die?”   

No, this a “look what I’ve done that you probably haven’t done list.”  Or maybe it’s a “look at what I’ve done since I left the holler” list, shuffled together with “some things I saw pictures of in National Geographic.”  

For example, the first thing on the list is “shot a gun” and the second is “gone on a blind date.”  Now why these two things would be numbers one and two in a must-do catalog is hard to fathom, neither being all that life affirming, if memory serves.   

Although, maybe if I’d had a gun back in the day, on that blind date, I could have discouraged the guy whom I’ve referred ever since as “Clammy Hands Hank.”   

Another accidental pairing on the list is the juxtaposition of “skipped school” and “visited Canada.”  As it turns out, I’ve done both.  But my adolescent shenanigans and summer vacations don’t seem nearly as life altering as those of the guys from the ‘60’s who skipped school for the purpose of going to Canada.  Put that on your bucket list. 

I also checked off “camped in an RV” and “cried yourself to sleep,” though I doubt the list maker envisioned the cause-effect relationship that created that outdoor catastrophe. 

Still, I’m playing along.   

Let’s see.  It’s probably an overstatement to claim my single sad attempt at “waterskiing” as “having a near death experience,” but I’m marking both those off anyway. 

A couple of things on the list had me feeling wistful:  Riding a Segway.  No!  Not really!  Dog sledding…Ha ha!  Just driving the point home. 

It’s not my list!  Maybe I’ll modify this list.  You know, make it my own. 

My wish?  To go to some of these places without having to go through airport security. 

I’d just like to whisk myself away to the Galapagos Islands without actually having to pack, commute to the airport, stand barefoot on the cold linoleum, be surveyed in a public x-ray while feeling liked a plucked chicken, wedge myself into the middle seat, and fly for 12 hours while making nice with someone else’s Aunt Julia and telling my bladder “no.”  

So maybe my bucket list item is to live long enough to travel by transporter beam.  

In short, I want to be there without having to get there.  I think George Carlin would understand.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Fake money in the real world

So someone just made up some Monopoly money and is spending it all over town.   

Not only that, other people must think it’s cool or real money or something because now they’re hoarding it, stacking up this imaginary play dough in their fantasy bank accounts.   

According to Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal, this brand new currency is held mostly by speculators hoping to profit from price fluctuations, which have been especially volatile in recent weeks.   

Real people are watching market variations on make-believe money. 

Oh yeah.  Virtual currency – “Bitcoins.”   

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.  Bitcoins?!!  Somebody made this stuff up and now he’s going to make billions of dollars in real coins and nobody told me until it was too late.  

People are deep into buying, trading and even mining Bitcoins!   

Dad gummit! 

How can this happen?  How can it be that someone, “a pseudonymous developer,” named “Satoshi Nakamoto” can just describe a “non-existent digital cash-like currency” and start spending it and buying real stuff with it!?   

He made up his name and he made up some money and now he’s living in a virtual mansion on that famous “cloud” eating pie in the sky. 


“Bitcoins are exchanged peer-to-peer just like cash, making it the Internet’s trusted currency.”  What?  Says who? 

Why the Bitcoin community of course.  On the Bitcoin wiki, where you can go for all your Bitcoin information needs. 

Those folks are happy to tell you that Bitcoin is an “experimental, decentralized digital currency that enables instant payments to anyone, anywhere in the world.”  Translation:  They made it up!  They’re conducting an experiment.   

And it’s working!  They’re buying real jet skis with phony baloney. 

There’s more:  “Bitcoin uses peer-to-peer technology to operate with no central authority: managing transactions and issuing money are carried out collectively by the network.”  Did you get that?  “Issuing money.”  Issuing money!  In cyber space.  Digitally.  With zeroes and ones.    

And with no central authority.  It’s not that the cat’s away.  There is no cat. 

And when I think how my mom told me about the money tree and that it doesn’t exist, quashing my fragile imagination.  My dad winched every time I looked at his wallet.  Whenever I needed gas for the jalopy or a donut, he assured me there was only so much money, you know.    

But now I’m learning how wrong they were.  Bitcoin, an implementation of a concept called crypto-currency first described on the cypherpunks mailing list in 1998, is crankin’ out the moolah. 

It’s a flippin’ concept.  It’s a spendable concept.  Crypto-currency?  Cypherpunks?  They probably wear saggy cyber-pants.   

But you have to give them credit, if you’ll pardon the pun.  Building on the notion that “money is any object, or any sort of record, accepted as payment for goods and services,” these guys created Bitcoin using cryptography to build their own virtual treasury. 

It makes me so mad.  Why didn’t I think of it?  After all, it’s only a step or two away from the persnickety self-righteous record of stars and demerits I awarded my brother according to his treatment of me.  It was an 8-year-old’s idea of behavior modification, but he could have traded it for goods.  I would have swapped my scoop of ice cream, for example, for some peace and a few stars off his chart.   

But no!  He had to twist it.  He just started popping me with rubber bands and saying, “Add that to your little book!”   

Thus ended my future as a visionary entrepreneur in the marketplace. 

You can see why I’m so frustrated to learn that eBay and PayPal may soon integrate Bitcoins into their networks of buying and selling.  John Donahoe, chief executive of eBay, says that within five years, Bitcoin could be converted to cash and used in retail.  It’s already accepted on a few sites like Reddit and WordPress, as well as 

See.  That’s just wrong, getting pizza for Bitcoins.   

And why isn’t it counterfeit?  How are they getting away with making up money and spending it?  I want some free money! 

I’m boggled.  And scared.  What’s going to happen to my crumpled up old dollar bills?  Who’s going to want them when you can get crisp, germ-free ether bucks?  

Dad gummit.