Show Me the Way to Go Home

What should have been a nine-hour drive yesterday turned into eleven grueling hours for my wife and me. The cause of this was mostly the complete absence of adequate signage at critical points, or else the ambiguous placement of signs at spots where they might be beckoning you to take either of two exits or turns. At one point, I simply had to stop and ask directions (especially since the skies were clouded up and I hadn’t the slightest sense of where true north lay). The answer I received was a bewildered, “Well, I’m not sure, but… don’t you have a GPS?”

We did, actually—but the roads had changed so rapidly in certain areas that our unit couldn’t handle all the conflicting information. Sometimes the little box reminds me pathetically of that robot in the Isaac Asimov story walking circles on Planet Mercury and going crazy because the elements of its basic programming have been made contradictory. Funny how you almost feel sorry for your unit at those moments (“in 800 yards, turn left—turn right, turn right”)… after you get over being furious at it and then feeling shame because “it’s not the poor thing’s fault.”

What’s really interesting here is how fully we have already surrendered our sense of direction to the machine. For years, I’ve been hearing people say, “If this keeps up, nobody will know how to read a map.” That day has arrived. Maps are obsolete. The notion of inferring direction from the slant of the shadows at a particular time of day has grown bizarre. Even locals in small towns don’t seem to know how to tell you to get from Sunset Boulevard to the Joe Kowalski Sports Complex. “Well… don’t you have a GPS?”

And apparently the various state and local departments responsible for posting signs don’t care much about the situation, either. Seriously, I think we may be very close to the time when these government entities alert us (to nobody’s great surprise or concern) that they will no longer be squandering funds on signage. Just tell your car’s dashboard where you wish to go, and then listen to instructions—or turn over the driving entirely to the vehicle. That’s another stop or two down the road, but it’s surely coming, as well.

And the technophile will mock, “So what? Why does anyone need to know east from west? Unless your plane crashes in the Sahara and you have no bars and no radio, why would you ever need to know which way to go? Even then, after the crash, your best bet is probably to stay put and wait.”

Yeah, yeah… but what happens when you have to pay through the nose for system updates (the refusal to accept which blackmail was the specific cause of our GPS’s inadequacy)? What happens in the event of a solar flare? What happens if the data are simply wrong for any one of a thousand reasons, ranging from accident to sabotage? I don’t like the sound of a world where I must absolutely have a machine to transit from A to B.

Yet we’re already there: that’s what I learned this weekend.

Greed Downs Honesty 10-0 at Coors Field

My son, knowing of my fascination with the physics of baseball (and perhaps mistaking it for a love of the game as it’s now played), wanted to surprise me with tickets to the Cubs-Rockies game when I was in Denver last week.  That was the day when an afternoon hailstorm broke out windshields all over the city.  Rain continued non-stop: it was perfectly clear to anyone with half an eye and a two-digit IQ that no baseball would be played that night.

Yet the official word was that the show would go on.  So we duly drove downtown during rush hour in a cold, steady drizzle to crawl our way into a parking deck and trek miserably to the ballpark.  Since nobody could take a seat in the unprotected areas (and since Cub fans represent a massive cult in any American city), the bottled-up throng could scarcely be navigated.  Moving from A to B was like trying to get a red square on one corner of Rubic’s Cube without shifting the blue one on the far side.  (I could never master the Cube.)

With my martyred wife in tow, we tried to find something edible.  Really amazing, how a big league ballpark can’t even give a concession to Chipotle or Subway.  Disgusted by the options, we exited the stadium to explore nearby sports bars and bistros.  Of course, all were overflowing… and the rain continued to pour.

At last we returned to the park and managed to find a dry spot.  (My son had paid pretty good money for seats that turned out to be sheltered.)  No longer hungry, we just watched the great green field soak up more water under blazing light towers.  Half an hour later, the game was officially postponed.

No one can convince me that the string-pullers of this operation ever had any serious intention of giving the green light.  No–they saw a chance to draw thousands of people downtown to spend a pointless wait milling about beer, burger, and nacho concessions.  I’m sure the local bars also loved the decision.

This is one thing I hate about Big Baseball.  It’s big business, in the worst corporate sense.  It taps into a clientele so vast that alienating a few hundreds or thousands here and there, now and then, poses no threat to the overall Product.  We’re cattle, straining to get through the chutes and to the troughs wherein the Operators have poured an insipid swill for us to slop down.  No consideration for the struggles of the little guy fighting weather and traffic, not a thought given to the several dozen fender-benders that likely occurred around game time, a big shrug to the hundreds of cases of sniffles that children and oltimers would suffer the next day… hell, it’s a business.  If you don’t like the risks of patronizing it, go fishing.

Message to MLB: I’m not holding anything in my hand (or my wallet) that I’m willing to pass to your side of the table.  Go fish.

Does It Matter Who’s Truthful When All Action Is Corrupt?

Have you heard why Megan Kelly really left FOX News? Or why Christina of HGTV’s Flip or Flop really split from her husband, or why the same station’s Joanna Gaines is in hot water for arriving late on the set of Fixer Upper? It’s the same reason in all three cases, according to certain stories that pulse along the side-panel of your screen: they were all so busy marketing the same company’s beauty secrets that the bonanza of prosperity distracted them from their boring day jobs.

This isn’t quite the same level of aggressive, in-your-face duplicity that characterized (for instance) the History Channel’s idiotic “mockumentaries” about mermaids, megalodons, and Sasquatches… but the kinship is of a first-cousin order. “Fake news” is now so embedded in our cultural consciousness that we have apparently given up being outraged by it. “Kim Jong Un just nuked a small Pacific island… and the only survivors were using Apollo Sun Tan Lotion (improved formula)!” We swallow the b.s. with scarcely a grimace. The most worrisome problem is that, should the chubby child of Dearest Friend indeed decide to vaporize an entire populace, we would already have been rehearsed in passing over the news and looking for the next thrill.

“The Boy That Cried Wolf” Syndrome has deeply infected us. I don’t even know if most of my freshmen would recognize the folkloric reference… but I do know that they’re convinced, almost to a boy or girl (or whatever lies between), that human beings are causing a disastrous climate change. Chemistry and biology majors cite data to me that I can’t dispute, since their fields extend far beyond my intellectual reach. So maybe they’re right. But then a celebrated academic appears on national television and claims that carbon dioxide is a more lethal toxin than sarin gas. Even a chemistry-challenged numbskull like me knows the difference between monoxide and dioxide—yet our guru was apparently conflating the two. Could his ilk have been among the teachers of my freshmen?

I don’t like cars. Never have. I probably walk more in a week than most atmospheric scientists do in a year—and I don’t consume jet fuel flying to conferences that might have been held on Skype. Reducing car traffic is fine by me. Why, however, can we not address the problem by scrapping our special-interest-fueled zoning laws and oppressive regulations that prevent people from running shops out of their homes? Why is the “green” solution always more government intrusion into our personal lives? And why are the insane windmills that now deface much of the Southwest a step forward when the effort of constructing, transporting, and rigging their blades requires more energy than they are likely to restore in a century of steady gales?

I will postulate, for the sake of argument, that the science behind climate change is compelling: then why are the measures that we take in consequence so patently ineffective and mired in sordid political boondoggle?

On this issue as on so many others, I don’t know who’s telling the truth, and I don’t think I’m capable of knowing—not in the earthly time I have left. I know this much, however. On one side I see lies proliferating as part of popular cultural and consumerist marketing; on another I see our elected “saviors” getting sleek and fat as specially targeted problems only worsen; and on yet another I see campus culture shutting down free speech with thuggery and shouting down open debate in fanatical zeal. Maybe the wolf is really coming this time… but when the watchdog is a hungry Bengal tiger, maybe I’d rather have the wolf.

A Sadly Instructive Joust with Holiday Inn

I needed to do some traveling, and so I chose a Holiday Inn where I had stayed before. The trouble was that the rate was rather higher this time—and I also got little sense from the agent on the phone that my request for a top-floor room would receive serious attention. I told him distinctly at one point that I wanted to do more research before booking a room. He virtually pleaded with me to go ahead and book, however (“They’re going fast at this locale—must be some kind of special event”), and to cancel later if I discovered a better deal. I took the bait. As Jeremy Wade would say. “Fish on!”

Within 24 hours, I did indeed find a better deal. I called to cancel. The girl on the line was happy to oblige… but informed me that I’d be rung up for thirteen bucks. I was furious. I asked why I hadn’t been alerted to this fee when making the reservation. She didn’t know. Whatever. I told her to cancel my room, to forget about my ever staying at Holiday Inn again, and to consider our call at an end. I’ve never hung up on anyone before in that manner. Our changing world is transforming us before our very eyes.

The confirmation email did indeed mention the charge in its fine print, as I found upon double-checking:

For the room type you’ve selected, you can cancel your reservation for a full refund up until noon on [Month. Date] (local hotel time). If you decide to cancel your reservation anytime between noon on [Month. Date] and noon on [Month. Date+two days] (local hotel time), the hotel requires payment for the first night’s stay. You will be charged for the first night’s stay including taxes and fees. Any remaining amount will be refunded to you. Refunds or cancellations are not available after noon local hotel time on your day of arrival [Month. Date]. The $12.99 USD fee included in the total is non-refundable. We do not charge any additional change or cancellation fees.

I logged onto the Holiday Inn comments page and gave them my response to their little landmine hiding in the confirmation notice:

I made a reservation at the H Inn and Suites yesterday (Rome, Ga) ONLY because the agent assured me that I could cancel without penalty up until [Month, Date] at noon, two days before my arrival.  As anticipated, I had to cancel this morning… and the agent on the phone informs me that I’m being rung up for $12.99.  I happened to look at the receipt sent to my wife’s email, and I noticed the charge stipulated in fine print… but, of course, even if I’d been checking the fine print, I wouldn’t have seen this email as I was in the act of booking with your rep, who essentially talked me into the transaction.
I won’t stay at a Holiday Inn again.  I won’t be staying in any related properties again.  I’ve taken my IHG rewards card and trashed it.  I have plenty to say about this on my blog site and to my friends.  I consider what you have done to be outright fraud, and I despise people who treat customers this way.  Your business practices are contemptible; and if I were a lesser man, I would wish that you would have a lifetime of dealing with nobody but shysters like yourselves.  It’s bloody disgraceful!  For thirteen bucks!  Disgraceful.

At least the cancellation went through. I promptly received the following, which of course was wholly unrelated to my own message just above:

This email is to confirm our conversation that your reservation is cancelled and you will be receiving a refund. The $12.99 USD fee included in the total is non-refundable.

Please allow 3 to 10 business days for your bank to post it to your account. And should you need further assistance please don’t hesitate to respond to this email, and we will be happy to take care of you.

I’ll just bet you will! But all irony aside (for there was neither irony nor humor nor sympathy in any of these exchanges on the part of the company hacks), I at last received the wooden missive below:

Hello John,

This email is being sent to confirm your request to waive the booking fee. The refund will be processed within 24 hours back to your credit card, but you should allow 3 to 10 business days for those funds to post your account. If you would like to expedite the process, you will need to contact your credit card provider.

For any other questions or assistance, please respond to this email, and we will be sure to take care of you.

Still and ever wanting to take care of me! No, Holiday Inn, I think I’ve been taken care of quite enough. In the first place, don’t call me John. You don’t know me like that. In the second place, I didn’t request a waiver. I told you that you were scavengers and scoundrels. And in the third place, I never did get an apology from you. Your agent set me up so that you would be assured of bleeding me for at least a little change, no matter what… and then you thought you’d patch everything up when I turned out to be one of the 1% that complains. Yes, I wanted my money restored to me; but I wanted an apology just as much, and I got something that any half-intelligent robot could easily have out-performed.

This is why young people are suspicious of capitalism—or why some young people think they can enter the capitalist workplace with the ethics of a Visigoth. Our corner drugstores and Mom & Pop storefronts on Main Street are all gone. Everything’s a video game. And as for robots… yes, even a robot would be more pleasant to live around than the post-human degenerates that e-culture is turning us into. Robots stick to their programming: humans keep following the trend—and if it’s a downward spiral, they keep spiraling downward.