Tally from Simbe

When I was grocery shopping last, I encountered this thing. Tally is a robot that inventories the products on the shelves. It scoots Roomba like down the aisle, laser scanning bar codes and counting items on the shelves. It does the regular audits, replacing the half-a-dozen crew, who used to do that work. I’m sure one person still manages Tally and most of those stock boys still have to manually restock those shelves, at least for now, but that’s still a lot of shifts that nobody works anymore.

As a life long computer programmer, I marvel at this robotic application. Not from a technological point of view, but that someone had the insight and means to recognize this opportunity. It’s a perfect application. It performs a task that was once labor intensive. It involves almost no customer interaction and does it all, without being intrusive. It moves slowly enough and is small enough that any customer can easily reach around it for anything on the shelves.

Tally isn’t the only robot in the store. Earlier this year, the number of U-Scan registers doubled. Now there are as many of them as there are of the traditional checkout lanes. And their increase is a trend that I don’t see slackening.

Another recent innovation that doesn’t involve automation, but still helps to facilitate it, is the rise of the professional shopper. I see more and more of these green t-shirted individuals pushing a cart, while consulting an app. These young contractors will do your shopping for you and deliver it to your door, for a fee. They give an easy out to older luddites who cannot fathom all this progress. At least those luddites who can afford this extra service.

In this vein, the liquor aisle likely accounts for an outsized proportion of the stores revenue, all the while being run by only one employee. This is possible because all the vendors do their own stocking. This model is also used in the bread, chips and snacks aisles. I’m sure that the store would like to see more of their other departments also adopt this sales strategy.

Bottom line our store is continually attempting to diminish their workforce. The fact that it is a union workforce is only icing on management’s cake. Now, I don’t expect that our grocery store will ever get to where many big box retailers are now, manned by only two employees. One tied to the register in front, while the other is tasked with doing everything else or maybe trying to hide in back. Working in retail looks like being perched on a precipice, waiting for the fall. 


Driving Me Crazy

1937 Packard Goddess of Speed Hood Ornament

Buckle-up, Buttercup! Someone just flicked on the bitch switch. Yesterday, when we were driving home from the environs of Motor City we shook-up our usual auditory literary selection and instead of listening to a “book on tape”, we listened to a selection of New Yorker magazine articles that digitally come both written and read. One of the articles seemed particularly apropos for road-tripping, Nathan Heller’s Was the Automotive Era a Terrible Mistake? Heller, a lifelong non-driver, gave a brief history of automobiles in America and then went on to sepeculate on the future of automotive travel.

Interestingly, the introduction of the auto featured a battle between gas powered and electric vehicles. Even though early electric out-performed early gas in both performance and range, gas won out, because it was cheaper than electric. Low cost allowed gas powered cars to be sold as personal vehicles. The marketing plan for electric cars relied upon a ride-sharing model to mitigate its higher cost. Heller recounts America’s love affair with the automobile from the Roaring 20s to the 60s of the Beach Boys. But all good things come to an end. Ralph Nader pointed out that our cars were trying to kill us. High oil prices ushered in cheap foreign imports. An invasion that Detroit has never learned to stem.

Now ride-sharing and electric cars are back and autonomous vehicles are on the horizon. Pundits predict that when the robot revolution hits the open road, America will see as great a change as the initial introduction of the automobile first wrought. Except the robots are already here. Our phones tell us where to go. Even as we were yesterday, traveling a route that we have followed dozens of times, our phones guided us around traffic jams and construction detours. If we buy a new car, we’ll likely opt for a safety package. These packages now only assist a driver, with a gentle tug on the wheel, if you start to stray from your lane. Some even provide emergency braking if an accident is imminent. How much longer will it take before cars can drive themselves?

Throughout yesterday’s drive semis dominated the weekday rural interstate traffic and I longingly dreamed of un-employing these modern day cowboys. Come the robot revolution, over-the-road truckers look as competitive as buggy whip makers. A robot doesn’t need to sleep and once purchased costs less than a man does. I shall not mourn their passing. 

Sand Dune Arch

Anne and I at Sand Dune Arch

“I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” A Jedi at playing Solitaire that is. My Dad plays Solitaire on his PC, while I play it on my phone. Either way, it is a solitary pursuit, but also a pleasure that we have in common. I’ve had to throttle the phone App that I use though, cutting off its access to the Internet. I prohibit it from using any part of my data plan. If granted access it would only download annoying ads that I don’t want to watch. Likewise, I’ve turned off its use of the phone’s speaker, because occasionally this naughty App circumvents my will and plays an ad. It has figured out how to do this in two ways. First, if wi-fi is on and I enter the game, then it uses wi-fi to download and play ads. I’m usually pretty careful about this and turn wi-fi off, before entering the game. Its other method is when the App is occasionally upgraded. Each upgrade is accompanied with a new ad. This is how yesterday, the game finagled an ad. It also introduced a new future ad generating feature. Previously, I could choose to play a new game or replay the old one. I rarely chose the later option, but I did occasionally. The new feature that was added to this list was to choose to play an “easy” game. This option was seeded with three free games, which I played and handedly won, but I was left feeling somehow cheated, as if the deck had been stacked in my favor, which it had. I never even thought about buying more easy games, by watching an ad. I’ve gone back to the way that I have always played this game and have somehow earned another three free easy games. So far, I have not had any inclination to play them. I like messing with this App almost as much as playing the game of Solitaire.


NYC telephone totem from Life Underground, Tom Otterness, 2001

This is the first Monday after daylight savings time has returned. We were awoken by a call from Kelly, asking Anne, if she wanted to work this afternoon. The job offer was for the Early Childhood Center (ECC), which the Kelly robot always pronounces as Eek! We refer to it as plague central. Why Kelly felt obliged to call so early on what is arguably one of the hardest morning to get up on, is a mystery. A normal person would have waited for a more decent hour before calling, but in this personification, Kelly was just another heartless automaton.

I also suffer from robocalls, but their root cause is even more mysterious. I have a suspicion though. Just before I was inundated, I signed up for the rewards program at Schuncks, where I use my cell number as an identifier to get a 2% discount. It could just be coincidence, because I’ve used said number for other things too. Caller ID shows that most of these robocalls originate locally, in neighboring Ladue. It does seem somewhat incongruous that hoity-toity La-dee-do hosts a call center, but if even tonier Frontenac can house a trailer park, then why not a phone bank in Ladue? Or, the spammers could just be spoofing me.

I’ve railed against this epidemic before and recently I did something about it. Our provider, AT&T offers an app called, Call Protect. It is supposed to block these unwanted calls. I downloaded it over the weekend, making today, its first real trial. So far, I am underwhelmed. It has not blocked a single call. It does offer an easier way to individually block spam calls and supposedly will give an accounting of its success, but that still remains to be seen. The app was free, but can be upgraded for four buck a month. I am reluctant to pay for three reasons. I haven’t seen any benefits yet, I already pay AT&T way too much already and I am adverse to giving money to a business that is arguably part of the problem.

It smacks too much of ransomware. Neither do I hold out much hope with my manually blocking of numbers. There are some 6,400,000,000 possible legit phone numbers in the US alone. This number is way too conservative though, because many of these robocalls have illegitimate numbers or no number at all, think blocked numbers. Hey, maybe the Donald is trying to reach me?

Fueling my rage, John Oliver has just harped on this subject too. His trenchant satire is guaranteed to at least bring a smile to your seething. He stuck it to HBO’s “business daddy,” AT&T, mocked Susan Collins for a contrived spoofing stunt, but saved his most venomous enmity for FCC commissioner and “goober,” Ajit Pai. His closing stunt was to unleash an avalanche of robocalls upon Pai and his fellow commissioners via a giant button-pushing fake finger. It was a futile and stupid gesture that left the audience roaring. 

Your Sign-up Checklist

Zinging Rings

Signing up should be easy, but when the real world meets the Internet things can get complicated, fast. Don’t worry though, because there are lots of people who want to help you. Lot’s of people! Too many people. That is why a checklist can be helpful. Here is one that we followed and I offer it now for your evaluation: 

  1. Late night. last night at the Fox.
  2. Sleep-in today. 
  3. Why?
  4. See #1
  5. Rainy day
  6. Garbage day
  7. Is that thunder or someone just rolling their trash bins?
  8. Probably both
  9. Create online account. 
  10. Flub account creation by choosing an illegal password. 
  11. Find software bug. 
  12. Get locked out of account creation process for 24-hours
    1. “Come back tomorrow… Because I said so, that’s why! See you tomorrow, Indiana Jones.” 
    2. How did Indiana Jones get on this checklist?
    3. Never mind, it was a joke.
  13. Wait a day.
  14. Repeat #9, with a valid password this time
  15. Success!
  16. Study options. 
  17. Shoo spouse away. 
  18. Revisit #16
  19. Get lost in minutia.
  20. Get frustrated with said minutia.
  21. Try bull-rushing through the process to see what happens.
  22. Get cold feet with this approach.
  23. Call the help-line.
  24. Navigate its automated call tree looking for a human operator.
  25. Make a callback appointment.
  26. Wait an hour.
  27. Miss call.
  28. Give up in frustration.

I’m sorry that this checklist didn’t work for you. It didn’t work for me either.  Instead, stare at the red circle in the graphic above and the outer bands will seem to move. Continue staring until at it until you feel dizzy, then blink. Repeat.