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.