Sunday, December 15, 2013

Imagining Amazon Delivery Drones In La Jolla

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published December 19, 2013] © 2013 

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently announced that within four to five years, Amazon packages weighing five pounds or less and being delivered less than ten miles from a distribution center could be delivered aerially by drones, all within 30 minutes of ordering.  Even Bezos conceded that there were definitely kinks to work out with the new vehicles, like making sure they didn’t land on someone’s head. 

I was intrigued by the demonstration video, and given that the US Postal Service hasn’t been able to find my house even after 66 years, enthusiastic.  But I also think La Jolla would have some unique difficulties with this technology. 
First, our community consists of a four mile strip of land running along the coast where there is already some pretty crowded low-flying air traffic in the form of INS, police, and local military base helicopters, not to mention the occasional golf tournament blimp. 

But the real competition for delivery drone air space would, of course, be sea birds.  Hundreds of pelicans endlessly cruise the coastal air currents over our homes, never mind the ever-present sea gulls who are always on the lookout for picnic leftovers.  How happy would they be with a perceived competitor for pizza crusts?  And who would prevail in a gull-drone encounter of the worst kind? Would the drone (with assorted gull parts) come crashing through someone’s roof?  Would the affected homeowner at least get to keep the Amazon item?  These are details Amazon may not have thought through.   But unlike the birds, at least the drone wouldn’t poop on people’s patios. 
Another issue that Amazon may encounter in La Jolla is that the locals are very big on security.  Think of all the La Jolla bastions with gated entrances which require delivery people to be buzzed in.  How do you buzz in a drone?   It had better not even THINK of landing its four little legs inside the gate unannounced. 

Even in less fortress-y homes, La Jollans are nothing if not picky about delivery instructions.  Amazon would be well advised to seek guidance from the long-suffering newspaper delivery folks or risk the wrath of messages like this:  “Your drone dropped my package in the driveway where my wife ran over it with the Lexus.  Please re-send asap and this time leave it on the second step of the front porch AWAY from the sprinklers and NOT on the driveway or in the azaleas!  I think we made this VERY clear!” 
Will the drone be trained to avoid the ubiquitous swimming pools of La Jolla homes?  Having to fish your Amazon delivery out of the eight-foot end would be annoying indeed no matter how waterproof those boxes might be. 

Then there’s the issue of dogs.  I think the first time, Winston would run terrified from it. The second time, recognizing a postal carrier in disguise, he’d be trying to tear its little droney legs off.  That drop-off time needs to be two nano-seconds or better.

But I see a far worse threat to delivery drones than birds and dogs:  Kids.  There’s even a historical local precedent for it.  From 1942-45, the U.S. Navy trained some 300,000 gunners at the Anti-Aircraft Gunnery School on the cliffs of Bird Rock.  Among the four types of targets used in training were radio-controlled drone planes made of wood and fabric which, if not shot down, would be brought down by parachute, hopefully landing inside the base. But they often didn’t, and the local kids, standing by with bikes, were on them in a flash, usually stripping the chute, engine, radio gear and even the wings before the Navy guys could show up to retrieve its now-skeletal remains.  It was part sport, part education (some of the kids were trying to acquire enough parts to build their own), and part status, as a shirt made of silk parachute material had a definite cachet at La Jolla High School in 1943. 

It may be 70 years later but teenage boys haven’t changed.  I can already see an eBay market in Amazon drone peripherals.  Competitive teams in Amazon delivery drone captures.  Whole websites devoted to co-opted Amazon drone components.  Best of all, it would be a sport you could do in the privacy of your own home, er, yard, even while grounded for previous drone part  purloinings.  Whatever Mr. Bezos sees as the chief threat to delivery drones, think again.  He’s thirteen years old, and his Mom just ordered from Amazon.

Of course, none of this will matter on Christmas Eve, ironically the busiest night of the year for last minute shoppers, when Amazon will be compelled to ground its entire aerial fleet rather than risk a collision with the ultimate low flier, Santa.  There’d be no recovering from the PR disaster when millions of kids around the globe didn’t get their toys because an Amazon drone took out Rudolph.


Two La Jolla youths show off a "found" drone parachute, Bird Rock, 1943

Monday, December 9, 2013

Looking A Gift Grapefruit In The Mouth

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published December 12, 2013] © 2013 

I don’t think anyone would argue with me when I say that the gift-giving season can get totally out of hand.   For years now, I have required the kids and spouses to submit gift preferences for themselves and the grandchildren by EOT (End of Thanksgiving).  I figure that if I’m going to spend all that money and all that time to buy and wrap, it should be something the recipient actually wants.  I go off-list from time to time if it’s something I really think they’d like or if not, can easily return.

My first husband and I used to argue about this as he felt that buying from a list provided by the recipient showed absolutely no imagination and he simply wasn’t going to shop from it.  He is apparently not alone in this philosophy.  Unfortunately, his idea of imagination included tickets to football games, a sport he imagined I’d come to love if I just gave it a friggin’ chance.  (Like THAT happened.)  Never a quick learner, I realized years later that I should have put Chargers tickets on my gift list and made no mention whatsoever of Belgian chocolates.  Dumb, dumb, dumb.

But I have to confess that I’ve given some blooper gifts myself.  When I was eight, my mother, encouraging both creativity and thrift, suggested that I and my siblings (seven and nine) might make craft gifts that year for which she supplied copious quantities of construction paper, fabric scraps, pipe cleaners, ribbon, Elmer’s glue and assorted frills.  The sibs stuck with the program, but I eschewed all this and cleverly made my mother a “stamp book” containing 200 new first class stamps intended for Christmas mailings which I’d found in her desk drawer and which I painstakingly licked with my own pink tongue and pasted on typing paper in fetching patterns.  Ten pages worth.  My mother actually cried when she opened it, but not for any of the reasons I imagined. 

The same year, I made blank scrap books for the relative using two reams of my mother’s expensive rag bond paper, ineptly stapled together, and the words “Scrap book” written on the cover in purple crayon.  You can imagine how thrilled they all were.

After that, Mom, in terror of my creativity, put a padlock on her desk and instead took us to Woolworths, handing us each a red basket, and letting us fill them with gift selections of our own questionable taste.  It was way cheaper than letting me make my own.  I know homemade gifts should be preferable to store-bought ones but I don’t think there was anyone who wasn’t happier with cheapo snow globes than the stuff I made them. 

As an adult, I used to find that sending the aunts and uncles food gifts from Harry and David or Omaha Steaks was usually a pretty safe bet.  I’ve always liked receiving food packages myself.  None of these people were easy to buy for, and they seemed appreciative of my efforts.  All except my retired biology professor maiden aunt in Ohio, an ardent conservationist.  I’ve still got the “thank you” letter I received from her for the package of grapefruits I sent.

Dear Inga:

In our society, why is sex discussable but not Christmas gifts?  Because you are intelligent and mean well, I am rushing off a letter about so-called “food” Christmas gift packages.
During the present domination of the Christmas packaging industry by the plastic packaging industry, I object to the use of scarce organic materials for excessive, useless fancy packaging. Again this year, I was inundated with “food” packages.  Your brother’s so-called petit fours were so well packaged that they were not damaged in shipping; paraffin provides great resilience to chocolate.  Your parents generously sent me several packages of fruit.  The apples were very large, uniformly bright red, each individually wrapped and then each in its own compartment in a plastic-formed tray and then rewrapped and well boxed.  They were quite tasteless but looked well in a dish.  The grapefruit you sent were very large and equally well packaged which was not necessary since the skins were so thick that they could have sustained a drop from a considerable height without injury.  Anyhow the seeds were so numerous that the grapefruit were inedible.  A former student sent me a collection labeled exotic fruit jellies.  Each fancy-shaped tiny jar must have contained at least a tablespoonful.  Each little jar was in its own container that was inside another box that was inside its outer wrappings.  All arrived unbroken and all tasted exactly alike, but like what I never could decide.  And another former student…but no, I’ll stop here.  I do appreciate the thought behind it but it seems wasteful in these times.  Would you please remove my name from your list for all future Christmas food packages?

Believe me, it was strictly magazine subscriptions after that.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Wishing You A World Of Holiday Cheer

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published Dec. 5, 2013] © 2013 

One problem with being a multi-ethnic household this time of year is that I’m always afraid the Menorah will set fire to the Nativity scene. 

Actually, the even more flammable risk on our mantle is our Swedish julbock, or Yule goat, a straw-constructed figure of pagan origins who was credited with bringing gifts to sleeping children before getting the boot from Santa.   Still a universal symbol of Christmas in Scandinavian countries, life-size or even mega-sized straw julbockar are erected in the town squares of many communities in Sweden.  The town of Gavle, unwisely boasting the tallest one (41 feet), has inspired a quaint Swedish tradition involving attempts by neighboring towns to torch the Gavle Yule goat in the dead of night.  They’ve been successful some 28 times.

Over time, the holiday season in our house has evolved into a multi-cultural multi-belief food fest that has incorporated the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and other inclinations of the extended assemblage.  For a while, one family member embraced Festivus, the Seinfeld-inspired alternate holiday celebrated on December 23 that rebels against the commercialism of the holiday season and features a plain aluminum "Festivus pole.”  According to Wikipedia, the holiday also features “the labeling of easily explainable events as ‘Festivus miracles’."  I have to say, you do a lot less wrapping.

Multi-cultural holiday celebrations were always a part of my upbringing, and not just because my own parents were of different religions.  My mother taught ESL (English as a Second Language) so we always had a house full of recently-arrived immigrants who my mother was tutoring on her own time, helping them get better jobs, driver’s licenses etc.  She would also teach her students to drive in our car.  I swear she could yell “STOP!” in 15 languages.

In gratitude, her students often bought us wonderful dishes from their native countries, particularly at Christmas, along with tales of their country’s Yule traditions.  I was fascinated from an early age at the variety of ways that people of different lands celebrated the same holiday.  But I was equally fascinated by holidays that weren’t celebrated in my house at all. 

Fortunately, I was able to be included in some of those holidays as I got older.   Jumping at the chance to spend my senior year of high school as an exchange student in Brazil, I was surprised to find a far different and more relaxed version of Catholicism than I’d been exposed to in the States. Stuff you went straight to hell for in my home town was given a free pass in my host country, a serious dilemma given the six-week turnaround time on mail (no international phone service), leaving me to grapple on my own as to whether sin was location-related.  I also took part in Brazil’s decadent pre-Lenten Carnaval extravaganza and even attended a few macumbas (black magic festivals) out in the jungle.  Definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto, I said to myself at the latter. 

In my first marriage, I had the opportunity to experience the rich oral history of Judaism in which stories are passed down from generation to generation, always accompanied by lots of good food.  I learned to make rugelach, kugel, tzimmes, knishes, latkes, and brisket, and for many years cooked a Seder (Passover) dinner for 20. At my first one, I temporarily forgot why only unleavened bread (matzo) is served and put out a basket of rolls.  (Rookie goy mistake.) 

Olof’s first wife, meanwhile, was foreign-born and exposed him to exotic foods and traditions that he’d never experienced before either.  Olof also had the opportunity to fly around the world as an Air Force pilot and visit many locales large and small (Kwajalein, anyone?).  While our first marriages ended, we look back on the intercultural parts with great fondness and have continued to incorporate those traditions into our current holiday celebrations.  If you can cook it, we’ll eat it.

I’ll have to admit that there were a few tough holiday seasons in there, especially after my first husband and I divorced.  The kids were little and honestly not interested in a lot of exotic holiday fare.  Since it was just the three of us, I let them choose the menu for our holiday meal which for several years consisted, in its entirety, of chocolate mousse and bacon.  By the third one, I determined that cabernet went better with the bacon but chardonnay was definitely preferable with the mousse. 

This year Hanukkah was early (November 27-December 5) in the holiday season, encompassing Thanksgiving.  Our Christmas decorations aren’t even up yet.  But the straw julbock lives on our mantle year round (we’re just fond of him).  Lighting up the Yule goat is one Swedish tradition we have no desire to emulate as it would likely burn our house down as well.  So he’s just going to stay on his side of the mantle.  Waaay on his side of the mantle.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

**Ruining The Family Recipes

["Let Inga Tell You,"  La Jolla Light, published November 21,2013] © 2013 

I have plenty of talents and I’m really not a bad cook so I’m not sure why I’ve never mastered baking.  Maybe I gave up too easily when my pies ended up with the lattice crust floating like flotsam on a soupy apple sea.   For years, I did everyone a favor by ordering pies from a local bakery at Thanksgiving until my younger son fortuitously married The Crust Whisperer. 

One of the things I have loved most about my sons’ marriages is being able to incorporate traditions from the daughters-in-law’s families into our own.  My younger son’s wife is from the East Coast so she has spent virtually every Thanksgiving with us even when she and my son were dating.  She is a first-rate cook and baker and her pies have become an essential part of our holiday. 

My mother was a wonderful baker too but died long before I had the opportunity to really watch what she did.  So I was delighted when my daughter-in-law offered to teach me her family’s treasured pie recipes.  I sat in the kitchen and took copious notes as she made the crusts and fillings.  She told me which apples to use, and crust tips like making sure the Crisco and the butter were really cold. 

So the next year, I was deeply honored when she asked if I could make the apple and pumpkin pies from her recipes since she was busy with an infant.  I intended to do her proud.  Just as I go nuts if an editor mangles text that is under my by-line, I knew that these pies represented her family.  If your name is associated with it, you want – nay, demand – that it live up to your standards. 

In retrospect, having my older son, Rory, help me was not the best idea.  While successful in his career, Rory has always had learning disabilities in math which could be problematical in cooking.  It doesn’t help that he tends to confuse the one cup measure for the two cup measure since they are both, after all, glass containers and end in “cup.” 

We didn’t have dry measuring cups.  Now, I was prepared to argue this as a cup is a cup as far as volume is concerned.  Not necessarily in baking, explained the daughter-in-law after the fact.  (She has to be the sweetest, most diplomatic person on the planet.)  They are indeed the same measurement. It is just easier to get an accurate measure of dry ingredients in a dry measuring cup which you fill to the top and level off with a straight edge.  Even small differences can change the outcome of a recipe, especially, she noted, pointedly, in baking.

I still can’t figure out what happened with the crusts.  We genuinely tried.   Rory and I chilled our dough thoroughly, as instructed, before rolling it out.  We dusted the countertop and the rolling pin liberally with flour.  But the crusts would disintegrate when we tried to pick them up, and after repeated re-roll-out attempts – each one less successful than the last – they ultimately Super Glued themselves to the counter surface.  In desperation, we finally just scraped the dough blobs off the counter and pressed them into the pan.  Alas, there wasn’t really enough visible at the top to do any crimping.  In fact, there wasn’t much dough peeking up at all.

The pumpkin pie, meanwhile, inexplicably listed to one side so that the filling was spilling out on one side but not high enough on the other. 

We couldn’t help but notice that there was nothing about our pies that looked anything like her beautiful Sunset Magazinesque versions.  Not to place blame anywhere, especially considering all my own previous failures with pie crusts, but I do think that cup thing was a factor. 

When my daughter-in-law arrived on Thanksgiving morning and surveyed our work, she heroically disguised her dismay. That her name – nay, her family’s name – should be associated with these fruity fiascoes must have cut her to the quick.  But in her inimitable fashion, she thanked us for baking, even gamely downed a piecelet of each that night.  My personal theory is that after dinner, she got in her car, rolled up the windows, and screamed for 40 miles. 

There hasn’t been any mention of my making the pies since then, even though she is now encumbered with two tiny kids. I’m sure she still wrings her hands at the memory and wonders, how can people not follow simple instructions?  Rather than unleash the Crust Killer and the Math Mangler on her recipes again, I think she’d make those pies with the kids strapped to her body, and peel the apples with her teeth.  Even I would have to agree:  if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

Just for the record, I got a set of dry measuring cups for Christmas that year. 


Monday, November 11, 2013

Don't Call Us, We Might Call You

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published November 14, 2013] © 2013 

In one of my favorite wishful fantasies, every doctor in La Jolla cold-calls his office and experiences the response a patient gets from his staff.  He’d have to disguise his voice, of course, otherwise they’d be uncharacteristically helpful. 

OK, I realize this is an unfair slam of all medical offices.  In fact, we have been under the care of physicians who actually invite you to contact them by email – and even more incredibly, answer.  We have dealt with doctors’ offices who, when you request a copy of the labs, actually send them.  The first time!  We have interacted with office help who don’t act like your sole purpose in calling is to annoy them and who even get back to you if they say they will.  And to all of these people, we are so grateful we almost cry. No, we DO cry.

With two exceptions, we’ve been lucky to have excellent medical care over the years and the practices we deal with are all busy.  So why do some medical offices work so well and others so abysmally? 

Now, I realize that one of the purposes of front office staff is to run interference for the doctor.  One presumes, in fact, that they are following his or her instructions.  It also seems equally clear in some cases that he has sent them to the Mean Girls School of Medical Office Management where they are taught Surliness 110, Stonewalling 220, Terminal Ennui 330, and How to Frustrate Patients to the Point of Coronary Thrombosis 440.    

A friend of mine uses the wonderfully descriptive term “deafed out” to refer to office staff who, after she had a serious reaction to a newly prescribed drug, failed to ever pass on her messages to the doctor.  They just kept telling her not to worry about it. She finally ended up in the ER. She says she has long suspected that this office works on the premise that if you ignore patients’ calls long enough, they’ll die and stop bothering you. 

Given how often our insurance, and therefore doctors, have changed over the years, we always request a copy of every lab or test result for our records.  Some offices cheerfully hand them over (or post them on a portal).  Others just try to tell you that if you didn’t hear from the doctor, everything must be OK. Um, fine, but I still want a copy.  Others treat lab results like national secrets that pretty much any other person on the planet can see but you. They insist that the doctor has to OK it before they will (never) send it to you.  I’ve spent weeks wringing lab results out of some medical offices.

I think the All-Stars of the We Dare You to Contact Us contest goes to an office at Scripps Memorial.  My primary care doctor referred me there for a consult where merely achieving a human to schedule an appointment took the better part of three days.  Whether the office was open or closed, their line had (count ‘em) eight options, none of which were ever answered by a person.  In fact, even during business hours, I kept getting a message to “please call back during business hours.” 

On the third day, I systematically tried every one of the eight options but got a recording on all of them (even the one for doctors which I confess gave me a certain perverse pleasure).  On Option 6, the authorizations line, a truly crabby troll chastised people for taking up her time by calling,  admonishing them that if it hasn’t been at least two weeks, don’t bother leaving a message.   Good thing I didn’t need an authorization!

Of course, complaining to a doctor about his or her front office staff is fraught with peril. In fact, it’s a total loser.   You thought they were uncooperative before?  I always fear they keep a running list tacked to their phones of patients who will never ever get their lab results even if they call posthumously.  Instead I’ve tried to just praise the heck out of the ones who are helpful – both to them personally and to the doctor.  But it also makes me a little nervous.  You’re worried the doctor is thinking, “Hmmm, Debbie didn’t make these people work nearly hard enough to get in here. Back to the Mean Girls School of Front Office Management for her!”

It may not sound like it, but I actually have sympathy for doctors’ point of view since in my youth, I was married to a physician, and lived through the medical school years, internship, three years of residency, two years of Berry Plan military duty, National Boards Parts I, II, and III, specialty boards, and not a single holiday together until we’d been married five years.
It’s a really tough gig.  I know. But it would be really nice if someone just answered your phone.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Snaking One's Way Through the Marital Mine Field

"Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published November 7, 2013  © 2013 

When my husband, Olof, asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I didn’t hesitate to request a top-of-the-line sewer auger.

Now, this might suggest that the romance has gone out of the relationship or worse, could be considered a dismal metaphorical condemnation of our union.

But no, I really really wanted my very own sewer auger.

We live in a house that was built by the lowest bidder after the war with all non-square corners and apparently without benefit of building materials that had become scarce during The Conflict.  It is our only explanation for the shoddy construction.  An abundance of pipe-invading trees and shrubs, not to mention a decade or so of Lego-flushing kids, kept us on speed dial to our local plumber. 

But often the problem was our kitchen sink which could be cleared ourselves (that’s the royal “ourselves”) with a good sewer auger, which just happened to belong to our neighbors.  They were very nice about lending it to us as needed but after a certain point, I began to fantasize about the luxury of having our own.

You’d think Olof (the “ourselves” mentioned above) would have been deliriously happy with this idea but was instead horrified.  He did not feel that a birthday auger augured well for our marriage. 

“Not a snowball’s chance,” he replied. “Besides, aren’t you the one who complained that your first husband got you stuff for your birthday that was really for him?” he said.

“Yup,” I said, “Skis, and box seats to a Charger’s games.”

“And what happened?” he continued.

“I’m now married to you,” I said.

“Exactly.  It is against the Code of Husbands to get a wife a sewer auger for her birthday,” he maintained. 

“But not if that’s what I want,” I said.  “I didn’t ski, didn’t want to ski, and I hated football.”

“I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head.  “This wife birthday thing is fraught with peril.  There’s nothing more terrifying to a guy except Valentine’s Day.”

“But I’m serious,” I said.  “It would warm my heart the next time the sink backs up on a Saturday night” – it’s always a Saturday night – “that ‘we’ could just wheel in our Ferrari-of-sewer-augers and have at it.”

“This is a second marriage for both of us,” Olof reminded me.  “I like to think I’ve learned something.  Buying a wife a sewer auger for her birthday would be a classic rookie husband mistake.  I once bought my first wife a really expensive vacuum cleaner for her birthday.”

“And what happened?” I said.

“I’m now married to you.”

“Well, I’d consider a vacuum cleaner grounds for divorce too.”

 “OK,” said Olof, “I’m willing to buy you the sewer auger of your dreams but you can’t have it within even two months of your birthday.  So you’re going to have to think of something else.”

 “I also really want a hose caddy.” I suggested.  “The kind that’s mounted on the house that I can just crank up.  The hose on the patio is making me crazy.”

“Inga,” he said, exasperated.  “I can’t get you a hose caddy for your birthday any more than I can get you a sewer auger.”

“Well, I really do need a new salad spinner too. “

“No! NOTHING PRACTICAL!  It’s your birthday!  I have no desire to be married a third time.”

“The hose caddy could be for Christmas,” I suggested.  “Remember, it includes installation.”

“Surely there is something totally frivolous with no practical value that you want?” he implored. 

And that’s how I got a two-pound box of Godiva chocolates for my birthday.  And magically, a deluxe sewer auger, a hose caddy, and a salad spinner appeared from an anonymous donor a few weeks later. 

So bring it on, kitchen sink.  Clog up to your pipe’s content.  We’re ready!


Monday, October 28, 2013

Bad Apple

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published October 31, 2013]  © 2013 

As any designer of software upgrades knows, the way to identify bugs is to inflict it untested on your customer base and wait for the anguished cries.  Half of what worked before no longer does, and worse, from my point of view, it all looks different. I really hate different.  Hence, I have an inviolable policy of letting working software lie.

So it’s all the more surprising that I could have accidentally installed the new Apple iOS 7 operating system on my iPhone while we were on vacation recently.  OK, I might have been drinking. All right, I was definitely drinking.  We were up in the San Juan Islands with friends and I was checking email when a message popped up asking if I wanted to upgrade to iOS 7.  I inadvertently pressed yes.

Instantly I realized my error.  I tried to cancel pushing every button I could think of, and even turned off the phone. “Abort!  Abort!” I wailed as the iPhone I knew fairly disappeared before my eyes and was recreated in a Technicolor horror of all new icons.  In desperation I even exhorted Siri to intercede on my behalf.  But as usual, the nasty robot wouldn’t perform.  “I’m sorry,” she simpered innocently.  “I don’t know what you mean.”

Yeah, right. Siri knew EXACTLY what upgrade I meant.  But she knows on which side her bytes are buttered.  She probably gets full medical and dental.  Even when I ultimately told her I hated her, she replied, “Well, I’m still here for you.”  Her exact words. Siri-ously.

Now, as a certified techno moron, it’s not surprising that I don’t like the new operating system but this time I have plenty of company among the internet-posting techno-scenti.

It’s not just that it all looks different but none of the app-y things work the same.  It took me a full year to master them the first time.  Now that's all shot to hell.  A lot of my settings changed too and since I had the sales children at the AT&T office set them up for me in the first place, I have no idea how to change them back.  Even the default ring tone was now a new, and icky, default ring tone.  The iOS 7 calendar app morphed into a sullen, gum-chewing, diurnally-challenged clerical, and it turned out it wasn’t my imagination that the new operating system was sucking the life out of my battery.

But worst of all, a mere week before, I had actually succeeded, with the heroic help of Customer Service for Idiots, to whom I pay $10 a month, to change the number of seconds to voice mail from the default 20 seconds to 40 seconds so I wouldn’t miss all my calls.  IOS 7 changed it back.

So I called my new best friends at Customer Service for Idiots only to discover that overnight, it had morphed into Customer Service BY Idiots.  They have no idea how iOS 7 works either. 

I started by asking them to restore the former default ring tone, called Marimba, to my phone and to help me sort out the seconds-to-voicemail problem.  The Customer Service BY Idiots guy put me on hold for five minutes but finally came back to report that Marimba was no longer available on iPhones. Really?  The classic iPhone ring tone?  So I put him to work on the voice mail problem, and gave him the link to the instructions which had worked a mere week earlier. 

We attempted to implement the instructions four times, but always ended up with the same error message at the end. A bug? A different set of instructions now?  He put me on hold again (ten minutes this time) and while he was gone, I played with the ring tone thing and discovered that Marimba was alive and well; you now just have to access it through a sub menu.  (I do have my techno-idiot savant moments.) 

Customer Service Guy ultimately concluded that there is no reason why the instructions we used shouldn’t work, but he agrees they don’t.  He recommends that I “keep trying it over the next few months to see if it fixes itself.”  Golly, thanks!

So here's my idea for Apple’s next upgrade:  Forget a new operating system. It only annoys people. Instead, tackle the real issues of the “end user experience,” like end users experiencing their phones dropping in toilets.  The way I envision it, as soon as Siri sensed imminently impending moisture (i.e. a commode), she’d shriek May Day! May Day! which would deploy a flotation device from the bottom of the phone cocooning its immersion-averse microchips in blissful dryness as it bobbed like a life raft in a very small sea.  The only downside of this app is that I really wouldn’t mind flushing Siri.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Just Don't Leave Me Voice Mail

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published October 24, 2013]  © 2013 

Just so we’re clear, when the iPhone 75 comes out, I will still be using the iPhone 4S.  I bought the 4S a year ago and learning how to use it has taken at least five years off my life expectancy.  Intuitive?  Only to the teenage technogeeks who design them.  God forbid Apple should provide a comforting printed manual for civilians. 

My husband, Olof, maintains that my iPhone is America’s smallest land line.  That’s because it rarely leaves its perch on the kitchen counter.  I live in terror of losing the thing if I take it with me and then I’d be forced to get a new one.  It’s not the cost.  Against all advice, I bought the insurance along with the Customer Service for Idiots plan.   It’s strictly a mental health issue.  I’d rather extract my spleen with a rusty cheese knife than get another iPhone set up again.   I have a veeeerrry low tolerance for techno frustration.

Last month, the recently-retired Olof and I took the first vacation we’ve had in six years.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that my iPhone was going to be the sole method of communication with family and friends during this multi-stop trip.  Olof turned in his company phone on his last day of work and has elected to go cell phone commando ever since. 

The only people who were more worried about my being the sole source of contact on this trip than me were, of course, the family and friends.  Well known to them, my long-time strategy with cell phones when they ring is to push buttons and scream in the general direction of what I hope is a microphone. (My younger son does an absolutely vicious, and may I say, uncalled for, imitation of this.) 

Surprisingly, I’ve actually mastered texting which I now use a lot more once someone showed me how to turn off Auto Correct. When Olof was sick last fall, I tried to text the friend who was picking us up that we were in front of the Ximed Building at Scripps Memorial.  Auto Correct was not going to let me type Ximed if its last microchip depended on it.  The friend kept texting back “Where?  Huh?”  I was ready to hurl that phone under the tires of the next passing vehicle. 

Before we left on this trip, I realized that the one modification I had to make on this phone was to change the number of rings until voice mail kicked in.  I miss approximately 100% of calls because by the time I realize the phone is ringing and retrieve it from the kitchen counter, it has already gone to voice mail.  I’ve never quite gotten the hang of voice mail which has a habit of making itself deliberately (and frankly, maliciously) inaccessible.  So given the upcoming trip, it seemed imperative to avoid anything going to the voicemail graveyard where it would never be heard from again. 

Now, even on my previous Dumb Phone, changing the number of rings before voice mail kicked in was so easy a child could do it.  More to the point, I could do it.  I looked up the on-line instructions for how to do this on an iPhone 4S and I swear, I really am not kidding here, you need a degree in engineering to do this.  The guy at the AT&T store on Pearl couldn’t figure it out despite being presented with the printed instructions I’d brought him from Apple’s own web site.   Even the lady at Customer Service for Idiots struggled.

Of course, one of the reasons you can’t extend the number of rings until voice mail answers is that, unknown even to Apple Tech support, you can’t actually do that on an iPhone.  You can, however, change the number of seconds from the default 20 to anything you want, although the Customer Service for Idiots lady advised not making it more than one minute or people would give up without leaving a message.  Okay!  Works for me! 

Ultimately, we compromised on 40 seconds.  But seriously, here’s just the first three steps:

1. Open the phone app and dial *#61# on the Keypad. Press the Call button.

2. Locate this text on the screen: "Setting Interrogation Succeeded, Voice Call Forwarding, When Unanswered, Forwards to +" and record the 11-digit number after the + symbol. 

3. Touch the Dismiss button. Now enter this code on the Keypad: *61*+ followed by the 11-digit Forwards to number recorded in step 2, followed by *11 and *ringtime#.  

Clearly, Apple pulled a former writer of Japanese calculator manuals out of retirement to create this text.  A minor detail is that to get the plus sign you have to hold down the zero until the plus sign comes up, a detail mentioned nowhere in the instructions.  More of that Apple intuitiveness, I guess.

Against all odds, we actually managed to get to our various destinations and to rendezvous with friends and family.  And thankfully, I never had to access voice mail.  That’s next year’s project.  I can only deal with so much technology at a time.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

*Life On 50 Amps of Power

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published Oct. 17, 2013]  © 2013 

La Jolla has a number of historically significant buildings and cottages that deserve to be preserved, but every time I hear of a movement to preserve the architecture of the 1947 houses in our neighborhood, I feel compelled to demur.   Or barf.

Don’t get me wrong:  we love our little place (mostly) – but only because the exterior and interior have been substantially upgraded to give it little resemblance to its origins.  The house itself still retains its original footprint, however, one of the few in the neighborhood.  Pretty much everyone else has already put these houses out of their misery.

I’m not unreasonable.  I’d be willing to preserve one of these homes as a cautionary tale so that future generations can see what teeny, dark, poorly constructed cookie-cutter houses built by the lowest bidder were like.

Before we remodeled in 1999, I would tell people that we still had the original 1947 kitchen (except for the appliances) and they would implore us not to remodel it.  It sounds so quaint, they said!  There are so few of these kitchens left!  Maybe you could even find some appliances of the era, even some kitschy countertop mixers, and completely restore it! 

Of course, the people who had seen our kitchen said, “Would you like the name of our contractor?” 

Retro isn’t necessarily quaint.  Sometimes it’s just old.

Even the contractor who ultimately remodeled our kitchen observed, “They sure knew how to build a depressing kitchen back then.”  Think gray Formica counter tops, gray linoleum floor, a single overhead light bulb, cheap pine cabinets, one outlet. 

We used the only outlet in the kitchen for the portable dishwasher as that was another invention that hadn’t yet become a standard fixture in 1947.  A lot of people have never seen a portable dishwasher, which rolls over to the sink and is connected by hoses to the faucet.   Guests would ponder the dishwasher sitting alone in a corner of the kitchen and finally blurt out, “How on earth does that work?”  And I’d say, “It transfers water from the faucet remotely.” There had to be SOME advantages to having the most retro kitchen in America.

The single 100-watt bulb as the only source of light in the standard 1947 kitchen was also problematical.   The many scars on my fingers attest to what a bad idea it is to use sharp objects when your only light source is behind you. 

Another throwback to 1947, of course, is that code at the time prohibited electrical outlets in bathrooms, considering it too dangerous to plug in an electric appliance in the vicinity of a bathtub or shower.  Of course, with the advent of hairdryers, curling irons, electric razors and toothbrushes, and of course, ground fault breakers, code changed.  But we still didn’t have electric outlets in our bathrooms for the first 26 years I lived here, until Olof married me and decided that living in the 19th century was only charming to a point.

And that leads me to the true downside of living in an original 1947 house from our neighborhood:  50 amps of power.  When Olof and I married in 1995 and he moved down here from the Bay area, that’s all the power the house had ever had.  Which he quickly discovered when he’d be working on his computer and the kids would decide to toast a pop tart.  All of a sudden the house would be very quiet.  And very dark.  Well, not totally quiet, as the normally mild-mannered Olof would say a seriously bad word. 

The kids and I had long been used to the fact that you could only run one appliance beside the refrigerator at a time so no microwave if the washer were going, and no toaster oven if the portable dishwasher was plugged in.  Faster than you can say, “Can this marriage be saved?”, a dedicated line was put in for Olof’s computer. 

The 1947 floor furnace was so full of holes that it emitted a lot of fumes and not much heat.  Space heaters blew the circuit breaker in nanoseconds. 

I recently Googled 1947 kitchens.  There were some fairly nice kitchens then.  Just not in this neighborhood and price demographic. 

As of 1999, we now have a kitchen with a built-in dishwasher, 14 outlets (OK, I got a little carried away there), under-the-cabinet lights and eight can lights in an 11x11 space.  Honestly, turn them all on at once and it looks like a nuclear blast.  But having spent decades in the land of single 100-watt light bulbs, I wasn’t taking any chances.  We rarely blow a circuit breaker, have central heat and even sport skylights to diminish the darkness of small rooms. 

So as far as preserving the 1947 house for posterity, I’m afraid the romance is gone for me.  I’m happy to have one of these houses preserved – just so long as I don’t have to live in it.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

*We're Free! We're Free!

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published October 3, 2013]  © 2013 

In May of this year, I wrote a column called “So done with medical science” after articles began appearing in both scientific journals and the popular press that calcium supplements, the sacred cow of medical advice for women, could actually cause you harm.

But it’s only gotten better – or worse, depending on how you look at it.  If I didn’t have a character limit, this column would be titled “Totally absolutely never going to believe anything medical science says again and this time I really mean it!”

When one reads about medical treatments through the ages, one is frequently horrified at the amount of suffering that was inflicted upon people by what passed for medical science in their day.  Of course, you say to yourself, they didn’t know what we do now.  Lately I’ve begun to wonder if we know anything at all.

In 1973, Woody Allen presciently released the movie “Sleeper” about a health food store owner whose body was accidentally cryogenically frozen and who wakes up 200 years later in 2173 to find that the real health foods are tobacco and red meat.  The doctors who unfreeze him are dismayed to learn that he consumed the likes of wheat germ and organic honey.  “What?” they exclaim.  “No deep fat, no steak, no cream pies, no hot fudge?” subsequently observing that “these were thought to be unhealthy  - precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.” 

Guess what, folks.  It’s 2173.  We just got there 160 years early.

Frankly, it’s all changing faster than I can keep up with.  In the wake of the calcium revelation, vitamins have been declared to shorten your life, and saturated fat has become good for you.  The saturated fat argument, of course, has actually been around for a while in the form of the Atkins diet which maintained that it wasn’t harmful – IF you didn’t pair it with high carbohydrate intake.  Otherwise, sayonara, baby.

But now even that line has been crossed with the sudden popularity of foods like coconut oil.  I started seeing it more and more frequently as an ingredient in recipes and even Dr. Oz is flogging it as a health food that fights illness-causing viruses and bacteria, wards off yeast, aids in thyroid and blood sugar control, improves digestion, and improbably as it sounds to me, increases the good HDL cholesterol despite its 12 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon.  Surely even a bacon cheeseburger dipped in a hot fudge sundae can’t have 12 grams of saturated fat per bite? 

I’ve never had a primary care doctor who didn’t caution that artery-clogging saturated fat puts you on the fast track to counting worms.  Still, since a whole display case of coconut oil had magically appeared in my local supermarket, and Dr. Oz said it was OK, I decided to add a jar to my basket.  But I only got five steps before the chest pains started and I put it back.  It's like Mao waking up one morning and exhorting the Chinese to embrace democracy.  I may have jettisoned the calcium supplements, but I don’t think I have enough life expectancy left to embrace coconut oil as a health food.  I’d probably end up dying from a reverse placebo effect:  in my heart (literally and figuratively), I know it will kill me. 

As for new findings in the vitamin world, a June article in the New York Times entitled “Don’t Take Your Vitamins” maintained that even non-megadose use of vitamins has been shown to increase mortality and cancer risk.  So have all those years of vitamin ingestion only hastened my demise? I am beyond annoyed.  You can positively feel the breeze blowing through my empty medicine cabinet these days. 

Of course, not all the news is bad.  Mere weeks after the calcium news came the revelation that 60 years of research has been wrong and that now it’s good to be pear shaped.  It has NEVER been good to be pear shaped.  Looking like an Anjou has always been linked to an early death.  Now the word is we pear shapes are getting an extra ten years.  I may have to re-do my estate plan. 

Most people I know shrug and say, “Moderation in all things.”  Nope, I’m predicting the next big medical headline screams  “Moderation kills!  New research urges wretched excess!”   Remember, you read it here first.

So what is a gullible health-oriented sucker consumer to conclude?  There only seems to be two possibilities:  (1) nothing is bad for you  (2) everything is bad for you.  Either way, it seems to me that there’s only one reasonable path:  eat whatever you want.  Finally, at last, we’re free!  We’re free!

So bring on the Krispy Kremes!  And thank you, Woody.