Category Archives: Consumer Issues

Return to New York City—Jazz and More

That reads like the title of a novel, but it was just us finally getting back to the Great City for a visit, the first since moving to Washington on December 1, 2020. We stayed in the Loew’s Regency on Park Avenue, a nicely updated hotel with a surprisingly large room and, except for the bathroom, well designed.

We had planned this trip for some time and near the departure date learned that Birdland, one of New York’s legendary jazz clubs, would be re-opening for live performances just before our arrival. So, of course, we booked ourselves in there for Saturday night to see a group we had not known before – the Emmet Cohen Trio. The owner of the club opened the music part of the evening with a special welcome back to a packed and enthusiastic crowd, everyone excited to hear live jazz again. Then Cohen led the band in an opening medley of well-known jazz standards. Everyone was moved by the first piece—the classic Lullaby of Birdland made famous by George Shearing back in the day. An emotional and perfect way to start the evening.

Emmet Cohen proved an adept pianist in the jazz genre, moving easily among classical forms and more contemporary vibes. He and his musical mates, Russell Hall on bass (details about him here: http://www.russellhallbass.com/bio)  and Kyle Poole on drums (details about him here: http://www.kylepooledrums.com/about-1)  were perfectly matched and clearly had a great time entertaining the crowd.

The food at Birdland was decent and the service excellent, especially considering they had just reopened two nights before. Interesting to us that there were so many young people in the audience. Here are photos of the line waiting to get in for the second show:

When we emerged after the show, we saw this:

a moving reminder of the scene just out of our apartment window during our three-year sojourn in the big city.

Sadly, we have lost the Jazz Standard to the pandemic, but the Village Vanguard and Smoke will hopefully reopen soon, and jazz will once again resound through the streets of New York.

On Sunday we lunched with a New York friend at Tavern on the Green, another great nostalgic return. That night, we dined at The Leopard at Des Artistes on West 67th. Our guest was my wife’s ballet instructor, Finis Jhung, New York City’s renowned ballet master. He danced with Joffrey Ballet, had his own company at one point and has trained some of the world’s greatest ballet dancers and Broadway stars. A very interesting person with whom to chat.

On Monday my New Jersey-resident daughter and family, my two grandsons in tow, joined us for lunch at Rosa Mexicano near Lincoln Center, which is just up the avenue from our old apartment. After lunch, we walked to Josie Robertson Plaza, the center element of the Center with its Revson Fountain running again. The Plaza has been completely covered in AstroTurf, with seats and other features (food stall, reading area) and is perfect for lounging around on a lazy day, which is just what we encountered:

Finally, when in NYC, one should always look up. In addition to surprising art and architectural features, there is the sheer magnitude and daring of buildings like these:

If you don’t look up from time to time, you miss it.

Time for Strong Action Against Unruly Air Travelers

Back in July 2020, when the pandemic was still raging around the country, the Association of Flight Attendants called on the Federal Aviation Administration to mandate masks be worn by passengers on commercial flights. https://bit.ly/3yGZqgm The AFA called the FAA’s failure to act “absurd,” and it was. One can easily imagine that the FAA was, like many other federal agencies, intimidated by Donald Trump and his overt resistance to admitting the seriousness of the pandemic which (despite his assurances it was under control and would soon disappear “like magic”) has been responsible for the deaths of what is approaching 600,000 Americans.

Frankly, madam/sir/whomever, I really don’t give a damn about your “rights” and your claim to “freedom” to put others at risk. Air travel has proved to be relatively COVID-risk- free, and the widespread implementation of vaccinations is making it more so.

Nevertheless, many remain vulnerable and while the federal mandate is now at long last in place, enforcement remains a problem. The union president noted that while airline crews were doing better in protecting themselves with masks, some customers continue to resist. Threatened bans on future travel were insufficient deterrents. Flight attendants were subjected to verbal abuse and even physical attacks, for which, apparently, the airline employees are left to their personal legal remedies.

Most recently, it was reported that a Southwest Airlines flight attendant was attacked by a passenger and lost two teeth, among other injuries. https://bit.ly/3hYwbjb  Once again the president of the local flight attendants union sent a letter to the airline’s CEO calling for more aggressive action, since this was “just one of many occurrences.” The letter said,

Today’s traveling environment requires a new level of firmness in both tone and direction to ensure proper control in the cabin of our aircraft as the attitudes and behaviors of the flying public have, unfortunately, declined.

Part of the issue is, as the union noted, “Oftentimes, appropriate actions to maintain a safe environment have been misconstrued as being unkind or inhospitable. As alcohol sales are added back into this already volatile environment….” Airline reluctance to engage passengers aggressively may be particularly affected now that the pandemic appears to be receding and national policy is opening the door to increase travel. Pent-up demand for travel is very strong, so a near-term major increase in both travel and incidents may be in the offing. Airlines are likely concerned about any action that will be seen as off-putting by some passengers.

If so, that’s no excuse for inaction. The union letter noted there were 477 incidents on Southwest Airlines alone in the five week period ended May 15. The total incident count nationally must therefore have been in the thousands.  This is not just a Southwest Airlines problem. According to USAToday,

The FAA has taken notice of a spike in passengers behaving badly, adopting a zero-tolerance policy in January and extending it in Marchso it’s in place throughout the pandemic.

Since Jan. 1, the agency said it had received approximately 2,500 reports of unruly behavior by passengers, including about 1,900 reports of passengers refusing to comply with the federal facemask mandate.

The agency has proposed hundreds of thousands of fines, including $258,250 so far in May.

That’s all well and good, but likely more must be done to stop the escalating attacks on flight attendants working to keep everyone safe in flight.

The union letter asked for three steps:

  • Better inform passengers that misbehaving could land them on Southwest’s restricted travelers list and result in potential fines, criminal charges and possible imprisonment:  “The flying public needs to understand that egregious behavior will result in being banned from flying with Southwest Airlines.”
  • Be consistent in policies: “No passenger should be removed from one flight only to be permitted to board the very next Southwest Airlines flight after a noncompliance incident. We ask that you take a strong stance to ensure that unruly passengers are not welcome to travel with us. Period. Full stop.”
  • Demand the U.S. government increase the number of federal air marshals on flights and request that they “get involved and take action” when crew members are threatened.

Those steps are all good, but I believe more is required. A number of possibilities come to mind.

  1. Give each boarding adult passenger a card that states unequivocally the mask and other pandemic-related rules, that these rules are requirements of federal law and/or airline policy and not subject to discussion or debate and will be enforced strictly throughout the flight. Failure to comply will result in arrest at the next stop.
  2. Anyone physically attacking a flight attendant will be sued on behalf of the attendant by the employing airline. Not may but will. For serious actual and punitive damages. Count on it.
  3. Any person physically attacking a flight attendant will be, not may be, will be banned for life from flying on that airline.
  4. The federal government should add a new policy that if a passenger is found guilty and/or liable for assaulting a flight attendant or other crew, other airlines will be notified of the identity of that passenger, so they can take whatever action they want to take in the circumstances. Such passengers are clearly unsafe for those around them, so safety considerations warrant such disclosures.

In short, adults will be expected to act like adults. If you can’t comply, don’t fly. If you do fly and you don’t comply, you will, not may, face severe consequences, guaranteed.

This will seem harsh to some and downright un-American to others. Too bad. It is intolerable and unconscionable that flight attendants should be subjected to the reported abuses by inconsiderate and violent jerks who think the laws and regulations should not apply to them. There is no doubt that flying commercially involves a degree of regimentation. This is done for the safety and comfort of everyone involved, not just the few who think they are above the law. This is not new.

If the union and my reforms are implemented, it seems most likely that violent incidents in air travel will decline swiftly and significantly. With any luck, in the slightly distant future, the masking rules may be relaxed. Until then, it’s time for the airlines and the government to act decisively to restore consumer confidence in air travel and to protect the people who are in place to protect the rest of us.

Visit to Brookside Gardens

This Sunday we drove to Brookside Gardens for a bit of outside time. https://bit.ly/3yqMwTu The 50-acre Gardens sit within the larger 556-acre Wheaton Regional Park in, where else, Wheaton, MD, which is, what else, a census-designated place in Montgomery County, MD. I suppose when Wheatonites (??) are asked where they live, they reply with “I live in a census-designated place called Wheaton which is ….” as the person asking drifts away.

It’s amazing what you can be forced to learn on a Sunday drive. A census-designated place is a statistical geographic entity representing closely settled, unincorporated communities that are locally recognized and identified by name but not legally separate. They are, in other words, statistical counterparts of incorporated places. Oh, never mind.

The Gardens are huge, with meandering, paved paths and are divided into the Aquatic Garden, Azalea Garden, Butterfly Garden, Children’s Garden, Rose Garden, Japanese Style Garden, Trial Garden, Rain Garden, and the Woodland Walk. The Formal Gardens areas include a Perennial Garden, Yew Garden, the Maple Terrace, and Fragrance Garden. There are two conservatories open year-round. Admission to the Gardens is free but the conservatories that house tropical and flowering plants require free timed tickets. Check the website cited above for more information.

Sunday was a classic spring day in the Washington area, with comfortable temperatures- humidity and little wind. As natives will tell you, that’s not going to last. Plus, we are told that any day now the cicadas are going to emerge. Anyway, it was a very pleasant experience, not too crowded so distancing was easy. Highly recommended.

The featured image at the top of this post was an unexpected surprise. The heron (more shots below) scooped up a huge goldfish as we were watching. With some effort, he was able to swallow it whole. Fortunate to catch the action.

Below you will find more photos,  a sample of what we saw.

We also saw some interesting animals:

AMTRAK — Communications 101

Late at night, I received an email from AMTRAK. I am a big fan of AMTRAK. I strongly prefer train travel over air travel between Washington and New York City and have used the regular trains, business class and, occasionally, Acela over the years. Most of the time, everything works pretty well, despite the horrors of the restrooms.

Here is Amtrak’s message, inspired no doubt by the CDC’s latest guidance:

Hi Amtrak Passenger,

Starting May 23, Amtrak will return to selling full seat capacity on most of our trains.  While you may have someone sitting next to you, our trains offer large spacious seats, ample legroom, no middle seats, and the freedom to move about the train.

When searching for travel, you will see that we added a percentage indicator that shows how full each reserved train is at the time of booking. You can use this feature to book trains that have more space and check how full your train is prior to travel.  If capacity exceeds comfort levels, you can change your ticket without incurring a fee (a fare difference may apply).

[In this spot was a screen capture of the Amtrak listing showing the percentage of seats full on a particular train. For reasons that defy understanding, WordPress will not permit that item to display]

In the meantime, Amtrak has been upgrading our technology, fleet, stations, and processes to make travel as seamless and safe as possible. This includes upgrades to the Amtrak app, where you can book, get boarding information, and check train status from a mobile device and receive real-time information before boarding. We’ve also been focusing on making the experience touch free, including contactless boarding, scanning tickets directly from the Amtrak app and installing new kiosks, which we will be rolling out throughout the year.

Thanks for being a valued Amtrak customer.  We’ll see you onboard!

The most up to date arrival and departure times are available on Amtrak.com, our free mobile apps, by texting “Status” to 800-872-7245 or by calling 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245).

Join us on facebook.com/Amtrak
Follow us on twitter.com/Amtrak

That’s grand, as far as it goes. My question is simple: why didn’t this message use this opportunity to reinforce the federal mask mandate? Given all the uncertainties associated with changing CDC guidance, plus the hysterical anti-vaccination, anti-mask, anti-public health, etc. crowd continuing their foolish anti-science ranting, you would think someone at AMTRAK would have piped up to note the absence of a reminder about the mask policy.

The failure to cover this runs the risk that travelers will show up, sans mask, claiming they saw the AMTRAK email and it said nothing about masks, therefore “I DON’T HAVE TO WEAR ONE AND YOU CAN’T MAKE ME, MY RIGHTS, MY RIGHTS” etc., you know the drill by now. This obvious omission of an important message may place complying passengers in a difficult place, as has occurred on numerous airplanes in recent months (kudos to the Federal Aviation Administration for imposing major fines and deplaning the morons who refuse to comply with crewmember instructions).

AMTRAK, do yourself and your passengers a favor and put out another message that makes clear the federal mask mandate still applies in AMTRAK stations and on trains.

 

Is DC Sinking?

Since returning to live in DC four months ago, one thing that has struck me, literally and figuratively, is the condition of the District’s streets. Roads I drive on frequently, long sections of I Street NW, Pennsylvania approaching Washington Circle from the east and in the 24-to-25th block, and long stretches of L Street NW, are in really poor condition. A remarkable number of axle-busting holes are everywhere and either jolt you out of your kidneys or cause cars to suddenly veer out of their lanes in avoidance maneuvers. And then there are the manhole covers. Some streets are “littered” with them and they seem to be set in the precise path that car wheels follow if the car is centered in the lane. All too frequently the covers are an inch or more below the road surface. These are not acceptable conditions for the capital city of what purports to be the greatest nation on earth.

I recently learned, courtesy of the DCist newsletter, https://bit.ly/3sWOXZT, that a monster machine, named Chris, has just finished digging and lining the walls of a 5-mile, 23-foot-wide tunnel 100 feet below the city. The 650-ton machine is reportedly longer than a football field (100 yards for the unknowing). We better hope that Chris does not become sentient one day and decide it doesn’t like working underground anymore.

Anyway, the purpose of the tunnel is to “prevent sewage overflows into the Anacostia River and stop flooding in low-lying neighborhoods, including Le Droit Park and Bloomingdale,” which seems like a really good idea. My theory, however, is that one explanation for the condition of the roads may be subsidence induced by Chris’s underground excavation.

My theory is no doubt a bunch of hooey, but I need to understand why Washington’s roads are in such terrible shape, so I make up stuff. There is, however, some hope. This morning I noticed, as I was flung about the interior of my car, that a long section of I Street NW has been “shaved,” perhaps by a relative of Chris, in preparation for resurfacing. Now the manhole covers protrude above the road surface. It was dodge-em cars the entire stretch as drivers tried to avoid blowing tires on the edges of the covers that, as I have noted, seem to be everywhere and in all the wrong places.

I am now aware that Mayor Bowser “has committed to eliminating all poor quality roads in the District by 2024.” More details than you want to know may be seen at the DDOT Paving Plan. https://bit.ly/3dZbpxh Hmmh. 2024? That’s easier to grasp if you look at the history of road improvement expenditures. https://tabsoft.co/3nqSxKM To paraphrase a paraphrase, it’s a long road ahead.

 

Sunday at the Mall

It was a beautiful spring day, albeit quite windy, so a visit to the Mall was in order to see how advanced the budding of trees was coming. [Technically, I am advised, the area from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial is called West Potomac Park. Field Guide to the Natural World of Washington, DC but it’s the Mall to me] We got a late start and found parking was scarce in the area close to the Lincoln Memorial, but persistence (and a questionable U-turn) paid off eventually.

We were closest to the World War II Memorial. A few signs of spring were present but most of the trees were still bare, with few showing significant budding.

The Memorial contains some of the most compelling bronze (I believe) figures I have seen – a laurel wreath representing peace held by eagles, representing the power of the United States. At least that’s how I see it:

The artistic background of the Memorial can be read at https://bit.ly/3100BYF

The Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool was a busy scene with mallard ducks feeding in pairs. A Hooded Merganser was also present, his white patch prominently reflecting the sun when he came up from his quick and repeated full dives to, presumably, catch small feeder fish.

The Lincoln Memorial, as always, was a dominant visual presence, along with the Washington Monument and the Capitol in the distance.

The sole negative on this visit to the Mall was something that may be an even bigger problem when warmer weather and vaccinations encourage more people to visit. I refer to the presence of people of all ages riding electric scooters and, far fewer, rental bicycles, along with riders of Onewheels who rode roughshod over the grass and sped past us at speeds estimated above 15 mph.  Pictured below are two of the leaders of a “parade” of Onewheelers, numbering about a dozen, along with a person on a bicycle who chose to ride in the Reflecting Pool.

Numerous people chose to ride scooters and bicycles in the inner ring around the still-drained central pool. As warmer weather leads to larger crowds, conflicts and injuries may occur.

 

Amazon as a Social Network

I confess that I had never thought of Amazon as a social network. Especially since the pandemic, we buy a lot of items there to avoid going to stores. We’ve tried to use other mass providers, like CVS, but more often than not, either the product is not available or the prices are way out of line. That said, we do try to buy from others – most recently from Holabird Sports.com who delivered just as fast as Amazon. We also wasted a trip to the Container Store to find the in-store selection was not close to what they claimed online. Since we wanted to see the item before committing, we did not buy.

All that aside, I was surprised to discover that Amazon functions as much more than an electronic marketplace. I have called it a “social network” because it appears to be used that way by a large number of people. Examples follow. Buckle up. I have not corrected spelling or grammar. It is what it is.

If you are sensitive, as I tend to be, about what other consumers have said about something you’re considering for purchase, you have likely taken the time to look at the Questions and Answers by other buyers. This is one of the advantages of a digital world. You don’t need to know someone to find out what they think. But, and this is the point, many of the answers come from people who did not buy the product but who have elected to answer anyway. I promise I did not make any of this up. These are an actual small sample of questions and answers from Amazon pages:

Question: “Does the paper towel holder have a non slip bottom?”

Answer: “I did not purchase this. Not me.”

Question: “Is this acutally tilex or clorox with tilex? is the product just as photo shows? i ordered a bottle of tilex and received the clorox replacement.”

Answer: “Can’t answer your question …. but I had a serious mold problem & this stuff is amazing be sure to wear clothes you don’t mind getting bleach on & wear safety goggles. Some of the product hit the wall & bounced back in my eye 😦 no perminet damage”

Question: “Does it kill flu virus”

Answer: “It does not.”

Question:I got clorox with Tilex. Did i get the wrong thing? It looks different than the picture?”

Answer: “I did as well. I don’t think they sell the Rolex.”

Question: “Does they remove things off of outdoor bounce houses”

Answer: “Not sure what an outdoor bounce house is. We use it inside the house primarily. It’s not so secret ingredient is highly concentrated bleach which removes most stains on the white tile, porcelain and Wood. Very wise to test on a small spot before using it widely. Hope this helps”

Question: “Can I use this on concrete walls down my basement?”

Answer: ‘Never tried that so I don’t know”

Question: “Can I use this on front loading wash machine?”

Answer: “I don’t know. I use it on shower doors.”

Question: “will this work on wood ?

Answer: “I have no idea I can tell you it did not work on tile”

Question: “Can this product be used on a 23 month old. He has a case of ringworm that won’t go away.”

Answer: “I dont know but it a safe soap i think u can u should google it n see”

Answer: “YES! It is gentle enough for your babies soon and powerful enough to combat the ringworm, I recommend you also use the Globe Clotrimazole cream with it and it should be gone within a few days”

Answer: “I’m sure it is as it is very gentle.”

Question: “I have fungle in my toe nails. Will this stuff help.”

Answer: “Haven’t used it for that, so sorry. But I think it is worth a try as part of a multi-treatment approach. :)”

Answer: “For toe nail fungus get pure tea tree Essential oil therapeutic grade and apply a drop on the nail twice a day only on the affected nail, if you’re wearing sandals. If you’ll be wearing socks and shoes, apply on the affected nail and on the sock on top of the nail. I hope it helps, it’s working for me.”

Answer: “If you soak your feet, it might help a little but you’ll probably want to use an ointment or see a podiatrist. If it’s bad enough, a doctor can laser your nails.”

Answer: “I didn’t buy for that purpose however I think, as the promotion says, it may help guard against it but I don’t believe it will clear it.”

Question: “Why can we see the ingredients?”

Answer: “I don’t know! Good question.”

Question: “Porque me cobraron siempre lo de el envio para ahora? Si no lo recibi el producto cuando pague para entrega rapida”

Answer: “I dint speak Spanish”

Question: “How many dish detergents are there, 1 or 4?”

Answer: “Unfortunately I can’t answer your question. I haven’t received my orders.”

Question: “How many Dawn soaps are there actually and how many ounces are they a piece?”

Answer: “Haven’t received product yet”

Answer: “I have not received this order yet. It is due to deliver 11/7.”

Question: “How many oz per bottle”

Answer: “I do not remember & no longer have any.”

Question: “Has anyone tried this to cover blemishes on embossed croc handbag?”

Answer: “Not to my knowledge.”

Answer: “Nope. I Do not recommend this .. it will ruin the smell and it will transfer on your clothes when in contact.. buy leather lotion for Bags ..”

Answer: “Sorry, I can’t help you with that.”

There are some obvious explanations for this, such as “pandemic loneliness,” but I can assure you I observed this behavior even before the pandemic. Another is simply that some people want to be helpful to others, but one wonders what “I don’t know” does to support that explanation. I leave this mystery to the reader because I’m sorry, but I don’t know.

Me & My Manuals

Subtitle: More Than You Want to Know About My Technology Skills

Subtitle: Why We Are Doomed

Modern life is complicated. Much more so than when I was growing up (some people say I was never actually young – not so, but I won’t argue). I am, however, astounded that anything actually works any more.

Growing up, I was a tinkerer/investigator. I would skulk around the neighborhood and remove broken radios/lamps/vacuums, anything electrical, from neighbors’ trash  to disassemble and study how they were built and what made them work. I didn’t learn much but it was something to do.

I was a “technology leader” in my profession. While still a young associate back in the 1970s, I introduced my law firm to its first electronic calculator. It cost me $125, grudgingly reimbursed by the partnership that saw it as wasteful and pointless, an enormous sum at the time for a lowly associate lawyer. It had only four functions. It was the junior model to the first Bowmar breakthrough product, as reported at www.bowmarllc.com:

One of the company’s biggest defining moments came in 1971 when it produced the world’s first hand-held calculator. The Bowmar Brain sold for $240 and ushered in a new frontier of global technological advances. However, since its inception, Bowmar’s primary market has remained aerospace and defense.

While I couldn’t afford a Bowmar Brain, I bought the next best thing and thus it was Bowmar and me on the frontier of technological innovation. The firm resisted but I persisted and soon the partners were secreting the device in their desks to prevent others from secreting it in their desks.

Leaping from Memory Lane to almost-today, I once again faced the technological frontier.

I had owned two inexpensive, limited-function devices to work with my high-powered iMac computer. One was a flat-bed scanner that scanned documents and photos one page at a time. Like an old bike, reliable but slow.  As time passed, the controlling software became somewhat squirrelly (details spared—thank me later).

The other “device” (device, that’s what we call them now) was a simple printer. It did both black/white and color and had a limited but functional sheet feeder. The company that produced this inexpensive marvel decided it was a good idea to modify the software in some fashion that caused the printer to … die. Since the device was far out-of-warranty, multiple tries to download/update the software failed and there was apparently no one home at Hewlett-Packard anyway, I made a command decision: give the scanner to a friend who could use its limited functions and trash (recycle) the moribund printer, replacing both with a more modern, all-purpose single box that would do everything I needed: copy, print and scan. Fantastic. What could go wrong?

My extensive online research led me to what turned out to be a very large, incredibly heavy (circa 50 pounds) All-in-One (AiO) machine from a well-known brand not Hewlett-Packard (some affronts cannot be forgiven). Algorithms at American Express, acting on their own, “decided” that the company identified in the purchase order was “suspect,” and rejected my charge. Stunned at this development, I called Amex which promptly said, “oh, ok, no problem.” So, no problem.

Reasonably believing the algorithmic rejection of the charge had invalidated the first purchase, I returned to the source website and purchased the item again. I also bought a service contract with a firm that claimed to offer turnkey setup and technical advice for years. Little did I know that algorithms in the seller’s website had kept the first transaction “alive” following the credit rejection, so now I had unwittingly ordered two of the devices, each of which was half the size of a Volkswagen beetle.

These particular devices would not connect to my wi-fi system for reasons never understood. The algorithms did not like my network, I suppose. The service contract also turned out to be useless, as, after multiple excruciating waits “on hold,” the “technical experts” at the service company simply told me to call the manufacturer for advice on set-up. They had no idea what to do and really weren’t much interested.

So, I returned the devices. Both of them. Fortunately for me, the seller had a UPS pick-up system so all I had to do was get the devices, in their original boxes with all wrappings, wires, etc., down to the concierge desk. Done and done, sore back and all.

The search for a viable machine resumed. I located another AiO, from a different well-known brand, sold by Best Buy. Well-known brand. Free shipping. What could go wrong? Chastened by my earlier experience, I paid for another service contract with the “famous” Best Buy Geek Squad that claimed to include 24-7 installation/setup advice, guaranteed. I’m on a roll now. Stand back and stand by.

The device was delivered promptly enough but, and this is a big but, this device also was unable to connect to my wi-fi system and thus could not, for example, print documents that resided on my computer. It was the  algorithms, I’m sure. I spent more than two hours on the phone with various “representatives” from the Geek Squad, mostly on hold, none of whom had any helpful advice on the rare occasions when I was able to actually speak with someone. And, Best Buy, it turns out, does not pay or arrange for returns.

Since by this time we had moved from New York City to Washington DC, but had no car, we paid an Uber fee to return the machine to the nearest Best Buy. The staff there was singularly uninterested in why we were returning it: “just drop it over there.” But, without argument, they did refund both the purchase price and the cost of the utterly useless Geek Squad service agreement. [Note to self: don’t forget to send Best Buy a bill for the Uber fees].

Sooo, the search resumed yet again, eventually settling on an older, smaller AiO from Epson with more limited features (e.g., a smaller sheet feeder) available at Amazon, where, in my experience, returns were usually pretty straightforward. Now, my prime criterion for buying anything was whether it was easy to return the item when, most likely, it didn’t work. Ben Franklin said “experience keeps a dear school but a fool will learn in no other.” That is what we have come to. I declined to buy the service contract this time. It was me and my manual or bust.

Well, and here I reach the point at last, the substantive portion of the user’s guide for my device is only available online and is 350 pages long! That’s in the upper end of the range for New York Times Best-Seller Non-Fiction books, since the list began. I don’t know what the significance of that is, but it seems important.

Suffice to say that the manual was pretty much useless. Recalling my early successes in the law firm back in the golden era of the 1970s, I succeeded on my own in enabling “print from computer” and “copy from on a roll using my wi-fi network to connect the devices.

BUT, not so fast. The scanning function would not work! The Epson device in scan mode would not “recognize” my printer sitting just a foot away. “Recognize?” Don’t you love how we’ve anthropomorphized computers? We think they’re like people but, of course, people can do things. Algorithms just say no.

After multiple hours on hold with Epson Support, lengthy discussions with multiple technical reps, including several “Level II” senior advisors, several dropped calls after being put on hold “for just a minute while I check something,” I suggested that maybe a direct connection between the printer and the computer with a USB cable might solve the problem. “Oh, for sure, that will do it,” the Epson guy said, as if this obvious solution had been under discussion all along.

I bought a cable, Amazon delivered it the same day (a miracle right there) and then a fellow named “Albert” [uh huh] walked me through a software uninstall/ reinstall of two of the dozen software programs involved in running my device and voila! I was able to scan while using the “buttons” on the front of device, which had been my simple goal all along. It was a victory worthy of Game of Thrones.

Of course, no one at Epson thought it might be a good idea to offer to pay for the USB cable as partial compensation for the staggering time I had spent while setting up the device, not to mention that it was I who came up with the solution.

Now, standing alone, this story has little meaning in the grand scheme, whatever that it. BUT, as I mentioned earlier, we just moved to Washington from New York City, thereby necessitating the purchase of a car. After extensive research, we decided to buy a Ford Escape Hybrid similar, but much more fuel efficient, to the one we owned three years ago before decamping to NYC from Alexandria and giving up our cars. But, no, not so fast.

There are no Ford dealers in the District of Columbia! None. Mon Dieu!

We ultimately settled on two options in the near Virginia suburbs, based on distance from our apartment and the late-season availability of the car type/color, etc. we wanted (relevant but probably ineffectual).

Suffice to say, the salesmen at both dealers knew next to nothing about the cars they were selling nor about how they are taxed or financed. Actually, not next to nothing. Just plain nothing. But, OK, cars have only been around a short while and young guys no longer tinker with them, so nobody knows a damn thing about anything. So be it. I can always look things up. Right?

And that, my reader (if you’re still here) is where the gist of the gist is found. The car manual is an actual book. And when I say “book,” I mean “book.” The manual is 550 pages long! Not only does the inside of the car resemble an airplane cockpit, but you need a degree in aeronautical engineering to understand how to operate it.

Lest you think I exaggerate, something I never do, permit me an example or two. At p. 54 of said manual, one encounters “Keys and Remote Controls.” The first subheading is “General Information for Radio Frequencies.” Radio Frequencies!?! Why do I need to know about radio frequencies to drive my car????

Following three bolded “Notes,” there is a subheading for “Intelligent Access (if equipped).” Parenthetically, I don’t know whether that is a reference to a car feature or to the possibility that the owner may not be intelligent. Maybe it’s just a linguistic oversight because no one knows anything anymore.

Returning to Keys & Remote Controls,” there are three ways to unlock your car door (details unimportant) UNLESSexcessive radio frequency interference is present in the area,” which I take to mean you are parked under a military radar installation (in which case you are about to have other problems). Anyway, if your car won’t unlock electronically, you can always do it with the “mechanical key blade” hidden in your “intelligent access key” as to which “see Remote Control (page 54),” which is, as it happens, immediately below and unsurprisingly reads “REMOTE CONROL” followed by “Integrated Keyhead Transmitter” and another paragraph of instructions. Finally, all of this is on page 54. All of it. Who, then, thought it was useful to direct you to Remote Control on page 54 when you’re already on page 54? Is proofreading now a completely dead occupation?

The above information is followed by pages of information about keys and their uses, including 11 “photos” of various keys and functions most of which do not resemble my keys.

Thereafter, it gets … worse. There are, for example, seven pages devoted to Starting and Stopping the Engine and another seven on Unique Driving Characteristics, which seems likely to be important. Someday I will read about it.

Well, I have to go now. If we’re ever going to actually use our new car before the warranty expires, I have to study up to be sure I don’t accidentally activate the passenger automatic ejection seat (we did not get the moon roof option) while trying to turn on the ten position/six speed variable/fixed windshield wiper/cruise control. Wish me luck. And remember, this is why nothing works any more. You read it here.

Baseball in the Pandemic– Fix It!

Having tried to watch my team, the World Champion Washington Nationals, in their opening “season” games against the New York Yankees, I am experiencing serious withdrawal symptoms. It’s not just that it’s early in the season – this year there is no “early” because the entire regular season is only 60 games long. The problem for me is that there are no fans. Piped in sound or, as I saw in a West Coast game the other day, human cutouts in the stands behind home plate, are no substitute for the real thing.

I expressed that sentiment during the season opener, and my wife came up immediately with an inspired idea: why not let the active military (maybe all veterans), first responders, and healthcare workers attend the games at no charge? Even a few hundred or more fans would add a lot of energy to these vacant ballpark situations while providing a reward to people who without doubt deserve one. MLB ballparks are plenty spacious to permit this concept with plenty of social distancing and mandatory masking. There would, of course, be some limited costs involved but surely MLB can afford them. There may be some logistics challenges but, viewed from a distance, they don’t seem insurmountable.

I tweeted the idea to the Washington Nationals but, of course, received no response. I can’t think of a sound reason not to do this. With a committed effort, a workable process could be developed in under a week and initiated soon enough to add some much needed “reality” to the nation’s pastime.

Did I mention that my team, the Washington Nationals, won the World Series last year?

Pandemic Influences on Higher Education Choices

My good friend and professional colleague, Kevin Mitchell, founded the Business Travel Coalition (http://www.businesstravelcoalition.com/) many years ago and publishes a subscription based daily newsletter of important reporting on the entire travel business. The newsletter, now called tVillage Intelligencer, is seen by thousands around the world.

Kevin is prolific writer and thinker and has published a thoughtful and, as always, well-crafted essay addressing the implications of the pandemic on the decisions being faced by many families and young people whether to go to college or pursue other options. I responded to the piece and, with Kevin’s permission, am republishing the exchange here (without the graphics; his original essay can be seen at  https://publicate.it/p/KqXmdg152169):

A Pandemic Consequence: The Questioning of Higher Education

No idle Memorial Day weekend exercise for some

This weekend as Americans think about and honor the more than one million patriots who gave their precious lives for the promise of America, there is even more on the minds of parents. The economic fallout of the COVID-19 (C19) pandemic is causing parents of children already in college, about to enter college or considering applying to think long and hard if such an expensive commitment is the best and only path for their children.Indeed, there is a counter-push against the American must-go-to-college mantra that is increasing in strength. I believe that like previous pandemics, C19 will accelerate many existing or latent economic and societal trends. The crisis is likely, for example, to push a lot of parents and their children to rethink the cost/benefit of a traditional college education compared with alternative paths.

Sadly, a lot of kids today go to college because all their friends do without considering whether that’s what they really want to do and if it is worth 4 years of their lives and a lot of expense, including lost wages, versus other options. For sure, some have a dream of becoming an architect, physicist, astronaut or the next Olympic track star. However, that’s different in that those young adults have strong personal life-purposes and visions. Still, for others, they want to explore new intellectual, social and cultural experiences that are important and valuable to them to better understand.

Higher education has been justifiably pedestalled as a highly valued tradition in Western and non-Western cultures for its numerous and far reaching societal benefits. My grandmother and grandfather, for example, immigrated from Ireland to America in the early 20th century and originally took jobs in Boston as a maid and policeman respectively. They were determined to put my mother and her sister through college to improve their lives. My mother graduated from Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia in 1940 when very few women of her parents’ means were able to attend college. Both went onto long careers in education touching many thousands of lives and living the American Dream. So, I am all-in for this important tradition of higher education and its linkage to upward social mobility.

Today, however, especially against the backdrop of a C19 economic crisis, where close to 40 million Americans have so far lost jobs in a highly unsure future-looking economy, many are beginning to challenge the assumption that college is the only path on which to responsibly put their children to achieve the American Dream and a productive, fulfilling life.

It’s not just the high cost. Also at issue is the perceived uneven quality of the education itself, the totality of today’s campus experience and the enabling public policy. Many point to the financing model of higher education as a root cause of the $1.6 trillion college tuition debt-bubble that is more likely to burst during this C19 economic malaise as parents making loan payments are increasingly under financial duress. And let’s not forget the superrich buying their kids’ entry to prestigious universities; not a good look for American society or higher education! In combination, these developments reinforce some parents’ weariness and instincts that it’s time for a revalidation of assumptions. This should worry U.S. institutions of higher learning that have already seen student enrollments decline every year since 2011.

It’s fair to ask if recent graduates are better prepared to work hard, take risks and achieve success than if they had chosen to take a different path, or waited for a while until they discovered their keen interests or passions to make the best possible decisions for themselves.

Perhaps with some irony, a pandemic is once again poised to insert itself in the trajectory of higher education – which has been forever short on innovation and long on cost increases. University education was democratized for the masses as an eventual consequence of the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century wherein prior to that time those of us with European roots had ancestors some 75% of whom were serfs largely confined to their lords’ fields and heavy-handed restrictions. However, while there is something very important about the pursuit of university study that should be understood, valued and safeguarded, there is reason for healthy skepticism as well.

I graduated from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia in 1980 with a 4-year tuition debt of a mere $10K, which I easily paid off in 3 years. Was it worth it for me? Yes, because I learned that jobs in a big company without a degree were virtually non-existent. In my case, a bachelor’s degree in international relations apparently provided an employer with an indication of some competence and/or other positive attributes. I was offered a job by CIGNA Corp.

Beyond getting my foot in the door at CIGNA, did I secure new skills and knowledge from investing four years of my life and working full-time, year-round? Yes. Was it an even-trade for the benefit? Leaving aside that it represented the key to the CIGNA door, my answer is a resounding no. Very little of what I learned in class helped me in my career and I did not benefit from the interactions of living on campus with fellow students because I lived at home.

The university model should be fundamentally reformed. However, it should also be cherished and safeguarded while culturally celebrating the upward-mobility successes available to those in America who want to strike out with personal visions and work hard and achieve their goals without four-year college degrees. Options include self-education, job training, trade schools and technical certifications, as an example, for aircraft mechanics.

The classic American expression “self-made man” was coined in 1832 by U.S. Senator Henry Clay to acknowledge the inner promise and strength of individuals who work hard and succeed irrespective of the circumstances in which they find themselves. There are enough examples in America to fill a university library.

Born poor in Kentucky, and with a total of one year of school, self-educated Abraham Lincoln led our country through its most profound crisis ever during the American Civil War abolishing slavery and fundamentally modernizing the American economy. Lincoln pursued a path that diverged from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Penn, Haverford, Fordham and other institutions accepting students at that time.

Lincoln, instead, chose a version of distance-learning enabled by borrowed books to become a self-taught lawyer at age 25, state legislator, Member of Congress and President of the United States. With some irony, in 1862 Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Land-Grant Act enabling the creation of soon-to-become prestigious universities such as Cornell, MIT, Penn State, Rutgers, Ohio State, Texas A&M, West Virginia and the University of California.

Not such a bad path, role model or agent of change! 

Perhaps it would be counter-intuitive, but fruitful, for colleges and universities to celebrate and embrace alternative paths to four-year degrees and lifelong learning and reinvent themselves by taking a leadership role in a comprehensive national initiative to prepare future generations of Americans to be productive, highly successful citizens. Lincoln, the epitome of the self-made man, was able to appreciate accomplishment without the benefit of a college degree and, at the same time, to champion the strategic importance to our nation of expanding institutions of higher learning.As pandemics are wont to do, I am sure many Americans this Memorial Day weekend are using the reflective time to think over many long-held assumptions about important components of their lives from college, to work-life balances, to placing their parents in nursing homes.

My response:

I read with great interest your essay on the questioning of higher education as a partial result of the economic disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. I have been mulling this subject for a long time, inspired by some much earlier published pieces in which (1) a successful entrepreneur (one of your “self-made men”) argued that college was useless, that his son would have to make his way as an innovator, just like dad, or fail, without wasting time in college; (2) arguments were presented that the cost-benefit analysis, comparing future earning differentials for college graduates v. non-college people showed conclusively that, as you have suggested, it’s “not worth it.”

Having been blessed with a scholarship-financed liberal arts education at an Ivy League college, also with associated debt to repay, I must dissent.

You are no doubt correct that the economic destruction wrought by the pandemic will force many to rethink their ability to pay for a college education. This is but one of the many tragedies to emerge from the pandemic. But that, I suggest, is a separate issue from whether a college education is so valuable that, if the opportunity exists, it should almost always be chosen. The value is properly determined not simply by traditional “cost benefit” analysis but by a broader range of intangible considerations.

For example, an on-campus college education presents the opportunity for young people to engage with a range of intellectual and other mind-expanding stimuli in an atmosphere that, if properly run, expands understanding of how the world works. It forces students to confront different points of view and to think more deeply about hard questions about which they previously just assumed the answers. They have the opportunity to confront and understand complexity. Ultimately, they learn to think, often about subjects they had no original interest in and would never have been touched by in the absence of the “cloistered” college experience.

Viewed this way, college is not just a trade school, a place where you learn how to do something. It’s a place where you come to understand what you can and should be doing and then you move on to more advanced studies or enter the world and take up the rest through direct experience.

I do not suggest, however, that college is right or necessary for everyone. But it is right for most young people who life paths are still being sorted at the time college is an option .It is not just the ticket to superior employment – it is the essential prerequisite to the fully examined life.

I believe we are seeing now in our society the consequences of having a large population of adults who did not have this experience. The polls refer to them as the “non-college educated white people.” They tend to support Donald Trump, to revere destructive rhetoric, support anti-immigrant and anti-diversity policies, to “hate” the “other,” defined as people not like them. Their thought processes embrace ideas like “fake news” and are unable to distinguish truth from ideology. They don’t think deeply about anything because they’ve never been required to do so. They see themselves as victims and engage in much magical thinking, including attraction to conspiracy theories.

Obviously, not all non-college educated people are like that but I believe the shockingly large segment of the American population that the above does describe is in significant part a function of the lack of higher education and the exposure to “other” ideas and “other” people that such education most often provides.

It would be ideal, of course, if the United States offered both paths, so that those people who only want to learn a trade and pursue the resulting life can do so. In the past the country did have trade schools but the shifting of manufacturing to foreign sources caused job opportunities in many trades to dry up, leading to the closure of many related educational opportunities. The demand now is for computer science and related skills and while there are schools devoted largely to teaching those things, the emerging students will likely lead more rewarding lives, all aspects considered, if they also have some learning experiences in literature, history and the like.

You and I are probably not as far apart as might appear with respect to the above. Where we more seriously diverge, I suspect, is regarding the notion of the “self-made man,” for which you cite Abraham Lincoln as a stellar example of what can happen to individuals with the “inner promise and strength … who work hard and succeed irrespective of the circumstances in which they find themselves.” Lincoln certainly stands out in the pantheon of such people, but I suggest that the chances today of more “Lincolns,” or even more Steve Jobs emerging and doing great works, as opposed to simply making themselves rich with some new technology they imagined, is slimmer than ever.

That is not just a consequence of the greater complexity of today’s knowledge-demands; the system has been rigged to suppress many of the potential innovators. I wrote about this in my blog post entitled, The Larger Meaning of “Hidden Figures” https://bit.ly/2TGx172, the gist of which was expressed thus,

 As bad as slavery, Jim Crow and segregation were for the direct victims, and most of us cannot comprehend how it was to be the constant target of such practices every  day of our lives with no hope of change, the larger lesson from this movie is, I believe, the staggering cost to everyone, in the United States and everywhere, of the lost  contributions and achievements of which these practices deprived us.  And still do.

In the millions of people directly suppressed by these practices, it is a certainty that there were multitudes of people who would, in other circumstances, have become  great scientists, inventors, artists, musicians, athletes, caregivers, writers, teachers and on and on. All of us have lost forever the benefits of the achievements of those  people who never had a chance to develop into their individual potentials as human beings. The frightened people of no vision who perpetuated these practices from    America’s earliest days even to today in some places have deprived the country and the world of an immeasurable gift.

One of the most surprising aspects of that blog post, written in in early 2017, is that visitors to the blog to this day seek it out more than anything else I have written. From where I sit, there may still be some chances for so-called “self-made men” to emerge but the odds are heavily against them. And, I must say, that the term “self-made,” in my opinion, grossly understates the contribution that others made to all such people, including Abraham Lincoln properly understood.

In conclusion, having staked that position, I now declare that I agree strongly with you regarding the need for reform in our education system. Those reforms should certainly include opportunities for future “tradesmen” to learn and proceed with an honorable path through life. They should, I think, also provide for a viable economic path to and through higher education so that everyone who wants to study anything serious should be able to do so without assuming overwhelming debt that take decades to repay and have all manner of deleterious impacts on individuals, families and society at large. I readily confess I don’t know how to get to that idyllic state, but the price we pay as a society of failing at this may well be our undoing, not just as a nation-state but as a civilization.