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I designed software and always had pride in what I created, but that doesn’t seem to be a consideration today when it comes to PCs or the Internet. There are many reasons for that, the major one being greed. The computer manufacturers – software as well as hardware – only want to make money. Who cares if the software works? The product is rushed out to beat the competitors and the bugs can be worked out later. Just think what would happen if car manufacturers used the same approach. You’d be driving on the interstate when all of a sudden the car exploded. GM, Ford or Chrysler can only hope the car wasn’t financed. For a good laugh, check out the GM / Microsoft comparison that I included in chapter 24 of This Page Intentionally Left Blank.

When a crash does occur, is it hardware or software? It could be either, maybe both. The worse part is the consumer doesn’t know who is responsible and the companies will just blame each other. I will discuss one of my experiences in this regard, later. Today’s computers have too many deficiencies and crashes should occur less frequently, if at all. You have probably heard about all the different versions of WINDOWS. They keep appearing, along with the problems that need to be ironed out. In fact, by the time you read this, the latest version will probably be replaced with another.

Wouldn’t it be better to come up with software that worked and not have to modify it, or at least keep the number of revisions to a minimum? Another suggestion is to have a version come out that doesn’t have to be debugged by the people using it. After all, if you pay for something, you shouldn’t have problems with the software. If the manufacturer didn’t rush the software out without thorough debugging, customers would be happier. A few years ago, Bill Gates was doing a demonstration of the new WINDOWS 98 product when the system crashed. I guess it was ready to be shipped to the customers! You may also have noticed that software can’t be returned for a refund. That’s really encouraging.

As far as WINDOWS goes, I don’t think the majority of people are that thrilled with the product. People buy it because it is just about the only “game in town.” It’s the best of all the rest or at least they think so, not much different from the choices that are given people when they vote. If you queried people trying to learn WINDOWS for the first time, the consensus would be that of disappointment and frustration. I have been working with that software for a few years and at first I felt just that way. Now that I have some experience with the product, I still feel that it isn’t very user-friendly.

The difficulty stems from the lack of a definite structure. There are so many different ways of doing the same thing that it really gets confusing. It’s not rigid enough and the mouse is another story. I guess WINDOWS was created by a space cadet, a nerd or possibly both. They decided to make it as flexible as possible. Anyone designing systems knows that the more flexibility there is in a system, the less chance it has of working. A system with almost no rules or too many will consequently break down. Maybe that’s why these systems seem to always have bugs. A simpler system is easier to test and debug. As you make it more complicated, you run the risk of failure.

This is not to say that you couldn’t have a successful user-friendly system with WINDOWS and the mouse. It just seems that the way it “works” today, there are many problems and a lot more frustrated users. Maybe the software today is fine for the creators and like-minded individuals. Unfortunately the majority of users are not rocket scientists nor do we ever care to be.

You might say that it doesn’t matter what kind of a product you put out since there will always be people rushing to buy it. Just consider the scene when WINDOWS 95 was introduced. Everyone and his brother wanted a copy of the software. Perhaps there will always be a demand but there will come a day when people will stop buying software that they suspect has major flaws in it. It’s a foregone conclusion. You can’t expect to sell garbage software forever. If what you’re trying to sell isn’t any good, no one will buy it. More time should be spent in development and this will eliminate problems. The customers will be happier too. I’m repeating myself, but sometimes you need to keep reminding people.

Many gadgets have helped us in our everyday endeavors. This should also be true of computers, but sometimes the effort is just not worth it. You hear advice to save your document every so often as you edit it to avoid losing your input. That is a nice thought but it shouldn’t be necessary and wouldn’t be if there weren’t so many deficiencies in the software. When something does go wrong, you have no meaningful explanation of the problem. Instead you get some completely meaningless message – in some cases you’ll see a dump – that when printed, is only good for lining the bottom of your birdcage. The end result is that a task that should have taken you five minutes results in your spending twice that much time or more because you’re using a computer.

Some time ago, I was called upon to do some editing on a grant proposal for a University at Buffalo professor. He emailed the document to me, and a few others, and told us to get on with the process. At first some of the others couldn’t read the file that he sent. Well I had no trouble reading it but I couldn’t edit it, even after he sent another version. I had a few options, but each one pointed out the burden that the computer had become in our grant process. It may have helped in some respects but in others it just became a nuisance. The problem has to do with all the different formats for documents. Just as we don’t need one hundred versions of software when one or two would do, we don’t need more different formats for files when a handful will suffice.

I believe in efficiency when it comes to work. Working smart beats working hard any day, despite what some have told you. The former method will accomplish more in less time and be better for your health. It seems that computers have caused more aggravation and require more time and effort to accomplish tasks. Even if a manual process for getting something done takes the same amount of effort as using a PC, it doesn’t justify the use of the latter. It just doesn’t make sense.

The different versions of software as well as hardware bring with them the upgrade and update, which are quite annoying. The companies that want us to buy their goods produce these endless versions that keep appearing in the marketplace. These corporations insist that we need the newest version of the PC or word processing software, even if it is inundated with bugs and problems. In turn the consumer discovers and reports them to the supplier, who then charges that individual for a solution. But there is a more serious problem that results if we buy into this plea for upgrading. What happens to the “old” machine that we will be replacing? We may be able to donate it to charity or give it away to a nephew or niece. If no one wants it and we trash it, what about the landfill that now is the new home of this computer?

Because of technology, a new type of toxic environment is being set up to house these computers, in addition to other electronic equipment. There are so many dangerous elements in these machines that I would not want to live anywhere near any of these dumps. A report in The Buffalo News of Sunday, March 24, 2002 mentions that old PCs, televisions and miscellaneous stereo parts can be tossed into a landfill. It also states,

“For now, the law would allow this to happen, despite the possibility that the toxics – the heavy metals mercury and lead chief among them – could seep into ground water and soil, or be released into the air if they’re incinerated. Twenty million personal computers become obsolete each year, but only thirteen percent of them are recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Some of the hazards may be known, but there are others that may not surface for years. It sounds a great deal like the landfill outside Niagara Falls, where ignorance was an excuse to not face potential problems. One thing we do not need is another Love Canal or Times Beach.

There are other unfavorable things about computers. People have gotten addicted to a variety of games, some of which are violent and degrading. Sitting in front of a PC for hours on end does nothing for family relationships. Rather it increases the divide. I also don’t believe having people glued to the terminal results in finding cures for cancer or heart disease. Getting away from the computer for a while may be the best thing you could do.

The slide rule has been made obsolete thanks to the computer but so have basic math skills for many people. There’s a joke about a teller at the bank telling a customer that he couldn’t get change for a dollar just now. It seems the computer is down. That may be funny but it is a sad commentary when it comes to declining basic skills. I applaud the idea of a hexadecimal calculator on the PC. However, if you use a calculator you should be able to do the math to verify that it was indeed done correctly, even if it involves base 16. Don’t forget it is a finite machine and it can make mistakes. Calculators and PCs are only as reliable as those who created them and don’t forget, batteries can fail.

I was at dinner when a friend of mine stated that her school district had just acquired PCs for attendance-keeping and some of the evaluation of the students. She also mentioned that this move was not done with much research and forethought as the instructors seemed to lack the knowledge to answer many of the questions of the people who would be using the computers. With school about to begin, there appeared to be much apprehension and it seemed like there would not be a smooth transition. The reason for this PC install was that some administrator stated that the district would be staying technologically up to date with everyone else. He may also have received some kind of payoff.

The only problem with this situation is that tasks that may have taken five minutes before could not only take twice as long but never be accomplished with this new tool. This then means that people would have to revert to the old way of getting things done. Time is wasted. But what about the costs of the hardware and software? Even if this was a gift, I doubt that the electricity used for this endeavor was covered, and I think you get the idea. Also the frustration for those who were supposed to take advantage of these PCs will not be relieved that easily. If this scenario sounds highly unusual, it’s more prevalent than you might guess.

Consider a small corporation that runs their operation quite well without any computer. One day some executive decides that business would improve tremendously with some new technology. The computer is purchased without any feasibility study and brought onto the premises. A consultant is then called in to “bring the company into the 21st century.” This may sound farfetched but as a consultant, I worked at corporations that did exactly this. Well, before you spend all that money, you better have a pretty good idea of what you will do with that new technology. Return on investment must also be considered. If neither of these is thought out, the small business will get smaller and eventually become extinct. If your company is running quite smoothly without a computer, why even think about buying one?

A company without a computer might feel that it’s time to invest in one in order to keep up with the Joneses. Before you go forward, do some research. First, decide for what it will be used. If there’s no use for it, why get one? Let us say that you want to use it for ordering, billing and payroll. You have to calculate what the yearly costs are for these three processes without a computer and what the costs will be with one. Also coming into consideration is the total cost of the machine: hardware, software and maintenance. If your operations are now running smoothly and you figure it will take you twenty years to recover the cost using the computer, you may want to keep things just the way they are. On the other hand, if after three years you wind up breaking even by purchasing the computer, it could be a good investment.

Any way you consider it, there are many factors to consider. In the past, big corporations invested huge sums of money in IBM mainframes and I’m sure money wasn’t a factor. The costs were part of a huge unlimited budget and no one figured out when there would be a break-even point. The money was there, but this is not the same for a small business.

To buy or not to buy a computer really gets down to the basic questions, “Will this be worth the investment?” “Will this machine make my life easier?” These same questions can be asked about many of the gizmos all around us, such as answering machines and VCRs. Go back fifteen years and you will notice that many of today’s inventions were nowhere to be seen. Some are good and others are questionable. One thing we can conclude is that all these products will eventually break down and load up the landfills.

Even if you buy a PC for your home, you should think about the same things as above. It can save you a great deal of time doing many tasks but it shouldn’t take you longer because of learning the system and recovering from problems. Don’t forget that when you get that box of equipment home, you will have to get started and set it up and this means reading instructions. Need I remind you that technology manuals may be fine for putting you to sleep but are certainly not the best teachers? Yes, some are good and your installation could be quite simple. Don’t count on it, though. One of the reasons why people don’t buy new PCs is because of the time it will take to set up the replacement for what they had. That seems to be true for many electronic products. I call this technology apprehension.

You can read more about my PC endeavors in a later chapter. These tales only point out what too many of us are forced to do with our PCs – you know what I’d like to do with mine – namely, the workaround, which I brought up earlier. It is equivalent to flying to San Francisco from Buffalo by going to Detroit and Paris first. Instead of doing a simple task, we are forced to complete four more difficult jobs. I wind up doing exactly that much too often even though the task gets accomplished. Unfortunately it takes longer and shouldn’t be necessary. I have already pointed out my mail merges earlier.

I stated it before and I will mention it again: PCs just aren’t user-friendly. If they were, people wouldn’t do so much complaining. You can ask someone how she spent her weekend and she will mention that it was three days of fixing the PC after it crashed, and she only had a two-day weekend. Too many people curse the computer and wish they could simply abandon it. On all too many occasions, I feel exactly the same way.

Menus are fine except I really prefer them in restaurants. You will see toolbars – although I never see hammers or saws – and menus all over the place with a great deal of unneeded duplication. This only tends to create confusion. Since I write, I use different fonts. However, there are way more than anyone needs, especially when they all look so much alike. Who actually uses wingdings? Maybe Congress does and that’s why they can’t accomplish anything.

My first word processor was on an IBM system while at the University at Binghamton. I had no complaints and when I bought my first word processor, it too was user-friendly until it was stolen. When I graduated to WORD, I thought things would improve but the result was more complexity and headaches. The fonts I described above are part of that software and there are so many possibilities with WORD. Unfortunately, there are too many and consequently, problems as well. I could write a book about the problems with that software, but who would buy it? To give you an idea how bad the software is – based on all those options – a typical book on WORD is 920 pages long. Now remember, our goal is to create a document. It’s not to solve the energy crisis.

A few more useless accompaniments to PCs are manuals and help. In general, manuals for computers were worthless before the invention of the PC and they only got worse when it arrived on the scene. They are written in English but anyone who tries to decipher the document will walk away in disgust. What is often provided and given the name, help, isn’t any better. Yet, every piece of software has it, or you can get it through the web. You can also call the help desk but they will either charge you or not be able to answer your question. You’ll also be put on hold for a while. Through my experience, I find that technical people who answer the phone for the most part are good candidates for my upcoming books on missing intelligence.

I’ve heard some unbelievable stories about these people. On too many occasions the tech support person told people to just do a restart – their solution to any computer problem, probably the first word they learned from their first day of training. Restart is a word that brings terror into the hearts of PC users, a dumb way to get something to work. It’s true that if your car stalls, you have to restart it or at least try. Let’s just hope your vehicle isn’t traveling at sixty miles an hour on the freeway. The whole concept of a restart only indicates that the product is truly Particularly Challenging. Corporations can save money by not having a quality assurance division. Heck, they can even be more profitable by replacing it with a help desk that charges for service.

The PC evolved from the huge mainframes of the middle of the twentieth century. IBM and Prime Computer were the leaders in this beginning of the computer age. Soon smaller devices came out, specifically the minicomputer. In most cases, these new products were created by people who had either been with IBM or worked on that mainframe. Consequently, there weren’t that many new ideas, just another computer with a different name. In a few instances, people came up with some different and promising ideas. I was fortunate to work on quite a variety of computers so I witnessed some of this innovation.

The big mainframes were huge and expensive but they worked. So did their successors. When the PC debuted, it was different and because of that, some problems resulted. Even more difficulties arose because of the “rush” mentality, that is, the product had to get out to beat the competition. Because of these problems, the alternative of thoroughly debugging before sales would have definitely beaten the other guy, even though the product appeared later. Sadly, that didn’t happen.

When I first entered the business world, I worked on an IBM mainframe. If we made changes to programs at the corporation, we used control software to do that, namely Panvalet and appropriately enough, Librarian. Thus if I had to change the accounts payable register program and Joe did also, we both couldn’t do it at the same time. Supposed I checked out the program on Monday and Joe checked it out later the same day. I then made my changes, tested them and implemented the program. A day later, Joe did the same with his program modifications, including installing the changed program. You can see what would have happened: my changes would have been lost as soon as he implemented his.

The solution is to take turns and Librarian would make sure that the scenario just described wouldn’t happen. It was just like the episode of Seinfeld when George wants to see the video, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but someone else has it. He has to wait until the movie comes back – actually, he took another course. Another option is that Joe or I could make both changes – that would also work, but in either case we need control to avoid disaster, which Panvalet and Librarian provided. A more recent software that I used on assignments was called Changeman and it was everything I just described and more. Unfortunately, it was also complicated and so troublesome that the company had to have a full time person administering it and assisting the programmers using it. Why would any manager replace a product that worked with one with more potential but fraught with problems that only lengthened the workday for the employees? Maybe, someone bought him a new car.

This situation just described can happen on any kind of computer, large or small. It all has to do with software. Any tools that you use can create havoc. A few years ago I was working on the Y2K fiasco and we used some software to test the program changes that were made. I didn’t change the programs, but only tested the changes. One day, I was having a difficult time doing just that and eventually I discovered that the program was indeed changed properly. The software that I was using to determine the accuracy had bugs. It’s no wonder we had 2000 headaches.

Another scenario that arises has to do with software that works on Windows XP but not on Windows 98. This is quite common and frustrating. Thus your system may be fine and you buy something for your computer, but it doesn’t work. The result might be that you figure that your PC has a problem, but that’s not the case. You spend a few hours and finally realize that the solution is simple – you should never have bought a PC. Actually, it’s just a compatibility problem. I’ll talk about a scanner that I bought for my system a bit later that gets right at that issue.

As the decades passed, people felt good about designing their own systems, including interchanging parts. You could get an IBM PC, but didn’t need to use IBM software for everything you did. There were so many vendors that it seemed your choices were unlimited. Today, that is exactly what we have with all kinds of computers. We have so many problems that we really don’t know which manufacturer to blame. That is where the frustration comes in and we wind up spending time on solving problems that should never have arisen in the first place. It’s not a healthy picture.

Still, any computer you use is reliable, to some degree. The banks use them and you won’t find a problem with your checking account balance. It will be exact to the penny. The problems arise because of human intervention. That is, people will cause crashes, bugs, viruses and spyware that will frustrate the users. My highest praise goes out to the computer and those who came up with its creation. Needless to say, the bad has outweighed the good. If you disagree, let me just mention a few common phrases to convince you otherwise: just do a restart, it appears to be a disk crash, it sounds like a compatibility problem, system processing, system is unavailable and can you work this weekend?

7. I’m stuck in the web and I can’t get out

Al Gore’s invention of the Internet – what did other vice-presidents come up with? – brought with it great things, such as information, sales, communication, music and pictures. It also is responsible for pornography, which had a great deal to do with its success. Thanks to the Internet we also got headaches, misinformation, viruses, spyware, long downloads, email, bug-infested software and spam – not the kind you shouldn’t eat. If you care to read a good book on the dangers of the Internet, I highly recommend the work, Silicon Snake Oil by Clifford Stoll. I agree with much of what he writes and will add my own joys of that adventure here. I am sure that many others who use the Internet have run into similar difficulties.

In the spring of 2005, I volunteered to help produce a poster for a concert. The event was called, “Looking for a Miracle.” I took the information I had and came up with a rough draft but figured I needed to add some images. I made the huge mistake of going to yahoo images for some pictures. I entered the word, miracle as well as angel. I’ll just say that the heavenly images that showed up were not fit to show my mom. It got worse as I soon started receiving vast amounts of spam, including suggestive sexual crap. This I surmised from the subject title in the email – most would not have passed any censor on TV – and I had no intention of opening. To me it was very offensive, it wound up in my bulk mail folder and it was a waste of my time. I believe in free speech but I also believe in responsibility. I solved the problem by filling my mailbox and obtaining another. That meant a great deal of effort on my behalf, which I shouldn’t have had to do. I despise unnecessary work and even wrote about it in both my books on work, Tick Tock, Don’t Stop and This Page Intentionally Left Blank.

I myself am partly to blame because I should have tried navigating on the Web to avoid this scenario. On the other hand, this junk that filled up my mailbox should never have happened and I believe there is something that can be done to stop this proliferation of crap. It’s well known that the lowlife that do this sort of thing cannot send this junk without an email address, even if they only keep it for a few minutes. They send some message to a group of people and then use another address for the next installment to annoy others, disregarding the email address they used previously. I will describe a few solutions to this dilemma in the final chapter.

A great deal of the success of the Web is due to slime. In fact, credit card security only came about because some individual wanted to buy some porn from the Internet but wanted it done so as to protect his identity. Thus was born the secure site and the Internet was beginning to flourish. Today, sales on the Web aren’t all wholesome and the buyer may not want to be caught during a transaction.

The newspapers have made their way to the Internet. You need not buy a paper as you can get articles by going to the appropriate web site. Personally, I still prefer reading the Buffalo News – as little as I currently read – or a book the same way my grandparents read them. Nonetheless, there is plenty of information online. Just as there are many inaccuracies in the press, the same can be said for the Internet. In fact, there probably are more untruths, even at a site with the word truth in its title. I did warn you earlier about labels.

Not long ago I worked with a guy whose girlfriend was a frequent user of the Internet. It turned out that she wouldn’t go anywhere unless there was a hookup to the Web. There is no doubt that she was a slave to the Internet. She is certainly not alone and I already alluded to TV addicts, but there are so many forms of technology that you can be dependent upon. I’m sure that the PC and the Internet have destroyed many relationships.

On one occasion, I tried to obtain the proper spelling of a famous Polish dish by doing a google. I have a good idea how to spell it. It was a recipe in my cookbook, so I believe I obtained the correct spelling, which a few people believe is right. Nonetheless, after the search on the Internet, I found two different spellings for golabki or stuffed cabbage, pronounced gah wum key. I could only conclude that either there were a few acceptable spellings or else Polish people aren’t that concerned about the letters in a word, just as long as the food is good.

Without the Internet, there would be no need for web design software. In chapter 13, you can read about my troubles with TopPage, the web design software I use. I really like it, but there are a few problems with web pages. To begin with, if you design a page, you can’t use any font you like because the Internet may not be able to handle it. It might appear fine on your PC while you create the page and preview it, but it could be a blank page or a big mess when you try to view it on the Web. That wouldn’t be a concern if there were only a few fonts, which I mentioned earlier.

There are other concerns about creating a web page and viewing it. As you put the page together, you get to the point where you are ready to load the page to the Internet – what you created is exactly what you wanted. You view it and it looks great. Then you load it from your PC and when you glance at it on your web site, there are a few problems. On your PC, you had about the same number of words in each line for a paragraph – that’s how you put it together. When you look at your page on the web, the first line has eight words, the second has two and so on. It looks like you need to do some more work.

Not long ago, I changed my home page. It was fine on my PC even when I previewed it. When I went to the Internet, it was missing the counter that I use to keep track of the number of visitors as well as all the information below it. When I used a different browser, there wasn’t a problem. Thus, I had work to do and eventually I solved that problem, but why did I have to go through all this trouble? If I look at my web site at home and then view it at some other PC, the appearance is changed somewhat. It won’t be the same using different computers. A different browser might get a slightly different result, including colors.

Another complaint I have about web sites is what has been transferred from the world of PCs. They are in no way user-friendly. For example, if you go to the home page, there just might be a button for “home.” This is to go to the home page. But that’s exactly where you are, so you really don’t need that. It’s worthless and only confuses people. Then you have an option to click at various places on the page and go elsewhere. You just need to know where those hot spots are, or you can try a few and hope for the best. In many cases, a field that is underlined in blue or at least underlined is a link that will transfer you somewhere. That is straightforward but some sites give you linking opportunities without the underlining.

You don’t have to be a web designer to get overwhelmed and frustrated by web sites. In March 2002, I had no clue how to create a home page. Since that time, I took a short course of six hours in web design and now have my own site, which I update almost every day. As a result, I see what has been created on the Web and can only wonder if the people responsible for these sites are in touch with the persons in charge. It appears that the user and the producer aren’t communicating.

A good example is the online application of any bank. The one I used a while ago had a link on their home page for “web banking.” I’m sure they aren’t the only institution with those two words. Are they really necessary? If anyone goes to the site, it’s probably because they want to look at their checking or savings account – their banking – and moreover, they are online or on the Web. Then, when a person gets to the site, it should be quite obvious that they probably want to look at their account. Each of these is personal or business. However, a person may just want to make an inquiry. All in all, there aren’t that many choices, when you think about it. Yet, why is the page filled with so many possibilities?

There is another huge problem. The home page will have a column of choices on the right for all the possibilities, which is perhaps a half dozen. They will also have similar options in a row at the top of the page, maybe eight choices. Are both of these necessary? Doesn’t this setup only confuse? Why not simplify matters and accomplish a few things at the same time? First, it will be a great deal easier to program and there should be less chance for computer problems. It will also be easier to maintain. Another advantage is that the customer will be happier.

The reason for this mess has to do with the fact that the designer never sat down with the user to discuss what the latter wanted. On the other hand, it’s possible that the business person didn’t take into account simplicity or she let the programmer have the final say when she should be the person dictating matters. Maybe there was no attempt to design the page but instead it was just copied from another bank. The model bank turned out to not be user-friendly and the result is that this is now passed on to another lending institution. If you can make things better, why not do it?

In the design of pages for my web site, I have a few options, as there are numerous ways of doing things. One way is to use frames, which you can think of as breaking up the page into pieces. If I put some text into the first frame, it may not exactly fit. I could make the font size smaller, but it may be unreadable. Instead, the web design software allows the text to fit but it provides what I will call “sliders.” These are those gizmos with arrows that you see on web sites that allow you to move the page right and left, as well as up and down. Unless you have a page with minimal information, you can’t escape using them. If you have a page with twelve frames, you could wind up with dozens of sliders. In fact, go to any web site and you will see a preponderance of these things. For this reason I don’t use frames at all.

Since people are reading what is on the site, I feel that a web page should be like the page of a book. You read a line on a page and when you come to the end, you go to the beginning of the line underneath and continue. You don’t turn the page over, continue reading and eventually go back to line two on page one. For this reason, I use only the slider that enables movement up and down and I actually despise the other, going left and right. It is very frustrating reading anything in which you have to go to the right and then slide back to the left and then continue with more of the same.

At one time, I used my telephone to hook up to the Internet. At first I figured I could live without DSL, whatever that stands for. I know, it means a direct hookup without tying up a phone. Then I was mailed a postcard announcing DSL in my neighborhood for $5 a month more than I was paying for a dialup. I figured it would be well worth it so I called but I was told that it wasn’t available where I live. Then why did they say that I could get the service? I guess the technology wasn’t smart enough to figure that out.

In 2007, I finally got DSL. It does speed up downloads – that doesn’t sound right – and uploads, both of which I rely on because of my web site. At other times the system fails to react as fast as I would like, for various reasons. Before I got DSL, I went to the library and got some computer time. I figured the direct hookup would speed things up. Unfortunately, I experienced such a slow response that a letter – even with the post office involvement – would have gotten there faster than email, so I left.

Downloads are a real downer. Some take so long that by the time they’re done, you need an upgrade. I downloaded some web design software one day – before my faster hookup – that wasn’t even done in eight hours. Fortunately, I left the house and came back. Thank goodness, the connection wasn’t severed, but I have had that happen on occasion and that only makes matters more annoying – you wasted a great deal of time and need to begin again. In some cases you’re better off loading the software from a CD.

I wasn’t sure where I should add this last bit, as it could have fit in quite well in the previous chapter. You may recall the little old lady who screamed, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Well, technology has changed that. What follows can also be found in my first book on work, but it has been updated, since we still have those annoyances.

I’ve forgotten my password and I can’t get on!

Years ago there was a television show called “Password.” With the TV program you were supplied a word, which was the password, and were asked for another word. Today “password” has an entirely different meaning. I think it’s another word for “hell.” On the show you were given a clue, but today, with the new game, you aren’t given a chance. You need to provide both an ID as well as a password. Unfortunately, you can’t decline to play this game unless you are a hermit.

The good news is that you set up your ID and password once and for all, but you do have the option to change it when you desire or when you happen to forget either of these. The bad news is that you can’t write it down or shouldn’t record what you created. You don’t want others to see it. There’s more bad news. You have to set up more pairs of IDs and passwords for your bank account, Internet access, Amazon account, retirement accounts and just about anything else that involves the business world. Moreover, some companies may require you to change your password every month. It gets even worse as some businesses ask for the name of your pet or your father’s maiden name to get on the system. “Password” used to be fun.

Not long ago I tried to log on to the Internet. Usually I click on the connect button and I’m on, but that day I got an “invalid password” message. My password is always there, but not that day, so I had to enter it. I was ninety-nine percent sure of my password but what I keyed didn’t work. I called the help desk and was told that I could call a 900 number for technical support, which would cost me about $2 a minute. I was also told that I could get a resolution to my difficulty through an email at no expense. Unfortunately I couldn’t email anyone since I was without Internet access, but I could use a friend’s PC. I wrote down the email address to get me out of this predicament, and headed off to use the resources at my local library.

At the library, I decided to go to the provider’s site and try my luck there. Soon I went to the login screen, which had an option for people who forget their password. The result of this endeavor is that you will be emailed your correct password. That might take time, like days. I’ll get into more helpful ideas later but let me add that to make my life easier, I use a four-digit number for a password on one account and the same four digits followed by ‘XX’ for another. Had I tried the latter combination for the password initially, I would have been home free and I would have saved a few hours and avoided buying a new lamp to replace the one that I threw against the wall. I thought it would bounce back and not break. For me, password purgatory had evolved into password hell.

If you use the Internet, you have at least two passwords to worry about. If you live in the twenty- first century, you most likely have a dozen of those gems to remember, and that’s being conservative. I have many more than that, but that may have to do with the fact that though I care about the environment and conservation, I’m a progressive. When you count them all up, you will probably see that you have more passwords than I have, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg, where all passwords should go.

I spent over twenty years as a computer consultant. At one of my recent contracts, I had close to a dozen passwords, and they couldn’t all be the same due to the various rules of each system. There was one to log on to the PC, a LAN password, one for my phone, another for my email and a few more for mainframe testing. I needed another four or five passwords because I had to test different systems. If you haven’t lost count, it’s now up to about ten. To use the ATM, another password is required. If my funds are depleted, I can get dough with a cash advance, but I have to remember still another keyword. For other accounts that I haven’t mentioned, there are more passwords. I use E-Z Pass, so they provided two passwords, one for Internet access and the other if I care to use phone access. Here is one case where I didn’t double my pleasure. If I want to go see my boss, I need a password to enter his office, which I’ve forgotten so I don’t talk to him. Still, with so many passwords, there’s a high likelihood that I will forget one or confuse passwords, unless I record them somewhere.

I eliminated many of the password problems when I retired from consulting at the end of 2001. I continued my third career as a writer in earnest, and developed my own web site, but guess what? I now have more passwords than when I was a consultant. These evil things seem to be following me around. I did have some ideas that I used and can still be helpful in this putrid password pit.

Let us assume that we need to worry about six passwords. How do you remember them all? You can’t write them down, as that would defeat the purpose. Someone could find the list and all security would be lost. With our half dozen, there are probably that many different systems with all their different rules. One system may require numbers only, a second, letters of the alphabet only, while a third may let you use either. One account requires you to begin a word with a number while a second demands that you start with a letter. At the same time a third system may not have a restriction in this regard. Don’t forget about the difference between upper case and lower case, another potential headache. One password has to be only six characters, another from four to eight and a third might be from five to nine positions.

If things aren’t confusing enough, some systems may not allow you to use the same letter twice in succession. One system may not let you use similar words when you have to change passwords. I ran into that restriction, and how the software concluded that two different words were similar, I couldn’t figure out. Another system may require you to change that magic word once a month while another password may only need to be changed every ninety days, while some systems may allow you to keep the same one without ever changing it. At one company where I worked, different people would change certain passwords for our group once a month. If you’re faced with that scenario, just pray that they let you know of the alteration.

There are further rules, such as the password cannot spell out the name of a New York City taxi driver or you can’t use an “O” with a slash through it. You can’t use wingdings in your password and no obscene words are allowed. Some businesses spoil all the fun. On one contract, I was handed a sheet of password rules and guidelines. One suggestion was to take the first letter of each word of a phase, such as “Be aware Reggie feels television is more enjoyable,” and use that as your magic word. This would result in BARFTIME, but is that any easier to remember than YQSKPHW, which I got by randomly hitting keys in front of me? Some of you may think that that combination is the name of a Russian diplomat. If you follow this recommendation, you now have to remember a different phrase for each password. That will certainly make the situation a great deal better.

Just when you think you have it all figured out, the people in password security (PS) change the rules. Banks are one of my favorite places – more on them later – and they change the rules more than I change my socks – well, they don’t do it everyday, but they do get carried away. When they increase the size of a password, they could allow existing passwords to still work – I think that’s called grandfathering, though neither of mine had to put up with passwords – but that wouldn’t get enough people upset. All these changes are done because the designers want to have so many combinations of symbols to protect the users of the system. So then why don’t they add a requirement that you have to use at least one Chinese character in the password and some of the letters should be upside down or backward? Maybe “PS” stands for “particularly stupid.” What about having two passwords per account, with one for days of the week ending in an odd number and the other for even? It worked during the fuel crisis of the 1970s.

I wish I could say that what I described above encompasses all the rules you will run into, but these will surely change. What I suggest to make our lives easier is to standardize the rules and simplify them for all passwords on all systems. Having fewer rules will be beneficial. Allow numbers and letters of the alphabet with no distinction between upper case and lower, but don’t require either. Words that people can remember should not be ruled out. If these combinations have to be changed at all, make the change necessary on January 1 and July 1 each year and at no other time.

I may also suggest that once the rules are made, no changes should be allowed to them at any time. Perhaps PCs could be made more secure so that hackers can’t get anywhere close to them. Also, why do you need a password if you have a logon ID? When you consider it, this combination of ID and password is really two passwords, isn’t it?

Since my suggestions about standardization won’t be implemented soon enough for most of us, we need another solution right now. While consulting, I did my best by using the same password or at least the basis – and for the most part this worked. But one month while doing the synchronized change, I ran into a snag. It seems one system changed the rules for everyone. Before, you could use a password of six characters, but now you had to have at least seven. This threw a monkey wrench into my system but I solved it by adding an ‘X’ at the end. A ‘9’ would work if you needed to have at least one number present. Note that you can use these additional characters at the beginning of the word just as well, depending on the rules. To take care of the different time requirements, what I did was change all the words after a month even if they didn’t have to be changed. Because of the need for an extra ‘9’ or ‘X’ for some passwords, you will need to be aware of what goes where. Trying all combinations will just take too long. I really think that you need to write down something to keep your sanity.

My system still wasn’t foolproof but it made the entire process somewhat manageable. Of course, I had another concern as I had to remember all the variations. To keep the phone synchronized with the other stuff I made a list of words that corresponded to the numbers on the keypad and tried to use easy to remember combinations such as 667667 and 333363 which translated into MORONS (appropriate, isn’t it?) and DEFEND respectively, both valid in their system.

To accomplish this task of synchronization, you can write a computer program – not an option for everyone – to translate a six or seven character word into the equivalent telephone number conversion. Just decide on the length of the word you want, go to the dictionary and then get all the words that fit. That is probably the hardest part, as the computer program to do the conversion is relatively simple. You can even rule out certain words in your program based on restrictions set forth. Finally print out the list of words and their equivalent and take your choice of what you think is a good word for the month. Just make sure your boss doesn’t catch you doing this. He may not be too happy, but if he does come around, tell him you’re doing password maintenance.

You can take this process one step further and either sell others your password computer program or the list of words. Your fellow employees can still use the program without any software experience. Once again, be wary of management snoops. But if you do get canned because of your efforts, you can use the program at your next job and even make some cash doing this. The possibilities are almost endless. You can to turn a troublesome situation into a moneymaking endeavor. Don’t report these monetary gains to the IRS.

As grim and confusing as all these suggestions and actions are, you have one last option: call the security help desk. Actually, annoying them as often as possible might be a really good idea. Besides, you won’t ever again have to worry about forgetting any of your passwords or writing them down – the less paperwork, the better. This will certainly slow down your productivity, as you may have to wait for the security people to get back to you. However, you get paid by the hour, so why should you give a hoot? Just remember to always look busy and you should be fine. It may even cost you, but the company where you work will wind up footing the bill. This suggestion to frequently call the help desk isn’t worth squat if you are self-employed or retired. Nevertheless, make every effort to never forget your ATM password.

I think I have come up with a password that I hope to use for all my accounts, everywhere: “With_liburty_and_justice_4_awl.” It meets the requirements that you need numbers, letters of the alphabet and even the caps thing. You’ll note that I changed the spelling of two words to thwart the hackers. My only concern is for the underscores and the length. Nonetheless, I think giving up “liberty” is worth the security.

It really is amazing what we are put through just to be productive. How can you not forget a password every so often? When you really think about it, the people whom these magic combinations of letters and numbers are supposed to keep out of the system, namely the hackers, don’t have any problem with passwords. They’re in without them while the normal users are locked out. 8. Meet serious Christian singles

The title of this chapter has to do with the title of an email I received, but didn’t bother to open. I don’t answer every email I get and this is one of many that I quickly sent to the trash basket. If the people advertised happen to be neoConservatives, I want nothing to do with them. I won’t bore you with any more as I mentioned this in the section on labels. Unfortunately, not long after this email, I got another email with the title, “Meet real, honest singles in your area.” I’ll pass on this fine offer, as well.

With the advent of email, the phone and post office are no longer necessary to communicate with friends or family. If I log onto the Internet and decide to communicate electronically, it costs me nothing for each email – since I pay monthly for DSL. That will allow me to send as many messages as I want, provided there’s no disruption in the line, which does happen from time to time. But even that isn’t a concern as I need not worry about getting a no-answer machine, busy signal or a message saying, “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand you,” something my parents said to me on occasion.

It may seem too good to be true, but there are just a few problems that may arise with email, as well as the fact that the conversation is merely one way. You can be on the Internet through a modem or a direct connection. With the former, unless you have more than one phone line, no one will be able to call you if you’re online. That may not be a bad thing, but the problem doesn’t exist with a direct hookup, so you can converse with tech support in Pakistan – I’m not suggesting you’ll understand them – while surfing the Web. Just because you send an email does not mean that you will be able to get in contact with your friends. After all, people have to see the message and then they have to answer it. If they never get what you sent – not unheard of – don’t expect to ever get a reply. What if you email someone who only checks his email every three years? If they checked yesterday and you send a correspondence today, you’ll have a long wait. You may also not hear from some people simply because they don’t answer email, or at least not yours.

To verify the contention that email is oneway communication, consider what you receive each day. It’s not much different from what I get, although I’m sure that I get more unwanted stuff than you do. Ninety percent – probably much more – of my daily email is spam. Some goes to the folder labeled that way or the bulk folder, and there I do find legitimate stuff from time to time. Simultaneously, my inbox is blessed with garbage. Apparently, the discriminator function for my email needs improvement. On February 1, 2008, I saw that Microsoft offered over forty-four billion dollars for Yahoo! – a match made in heaven. They deserve each other.

In general, it’s not smart to open or reply to any spam. Of course, there may be a web site for you to go to in order to make a purchase or do something else that the spammer wants. The junk mail could also harbor viruses – which could be a problem if you haven’t had a flu shot. On one occasion, I did reply but got a message back that said that it didn’t reach the intended recipient. Somehow, I believe it got there after all. For the messages in my inbox that should be there because they are not spam, most are one-way correspondences. Either they are a sales pitch, a bad, racist, sexist attempt at humor – some actually are hilarious and I do save them – or they are informing me of an event and don’t need a reply. A few more may be the response to one of my emails but on too many occasions the question I asked goes unanswered.

Because of my writing, I use email to contact bookstores, marketers, my agent – since made redundant, but not in a criminal sense – publishers and people who may be of assistance to me in what I do. From my experience with these communications, I can only confirm that this method of inquiry and dialogue in the majority of cases isn’t any better than using the U. S. mail, the Pony Express or Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. In each case people can make excuses or the messages never reach the recipient and there will be no contact.

There’s another type of the communication frustration. I have seen people with businesses on the Internet do some crazy things. You can go to their web site but after spending a few minutes realize that you have no way of contacting them, as there is no address, phone number or email address. If you want to buy their product, it’s difficult to do so. Maybe they want you to get it elsewhere. You may think you can contact them since they give their email address. However, when you send them something, you could get a message: “Does not like recipient.” This is really dumb since the person to whom you sent the email is the recipient. This sounds like an image problem to me. I’m sorry, but if someone wants to sell something, they should give consumers a way to get the product from their web site and not reject your email, or at least a link to complete the sale.

Spam has to be the most annoying feature of the Internet and I could have mentioned that in the chapter on the Internet. You could say that unwanted email belongs in either chapter – I think it should be relegated to the garbage can. I have a Yahoo! email account and from time to time that company makes improvements – at least they think so – to the package. I have already described getting slimed after searching for my Yahoo! images fiasco. Maybe a better name for it is Yahoo! damages. Another truly annoying creation of email and the Internet is the spam guard, employed by this email provider. You have to enter a string of characters from a displayed image that is close to impossible to read. This is supposedly done to eliminate spam, but only creates screaming users.

Some time ago, another incident arose of such a nature that I may also include it in a book I write about missing intelligence. I can’t mention any names for security reasons. In fact, what I have to relate will be somewhat vague, but you should see the point. I would not be surprised if this happened to many of you. I got a first-time email from a person – not someone trying to sell me something, in fact this was a very meaningful communication – and not long after that, I emailed in reply. Here is the response I received for what I sent:

I apologize for this automatic reply to your email. To control spam, I now allow incoming messages only from senders I have approved beforehand. If you would like to be added to my list of approved senders, please fill out the short request form (see link below). Once I approve you, I will receive your original message in my inbox. You do not need to resend your message. I apologize for this one-time inconvenience. Click the link below to fill out the request.

I was somewhat surprised by this turn of events. Since the person sent me the email, I assumed that this individual had added my address into a file of acceptable senders. Obviously, that didn’t happen. I didn’t fill out this request but it may be necessary in the future. One thing I didn’t receive was an apology for the sender’s temporary brain deficiency.

I have already mentioned all the old jokes sent by email, but there are other annoying creations, such as the numerous Ponzi schemes. Some of these are commercial and of course illegal, and they are a huge waste of my time, even if they wind up in my bulk folder. Some of the others you receive from ordinary individuals – some even friends and family – who threaten you if you don’t pass it on to at least ten others. If you break up the chain, you will be cursed by having to listen to Donald Rumsfeld speak for an hour, or if you do the will of the sender, something special will happen to you. I have nothing against religion, but I don’t believe it belongs in politics or emails.

One thing I don’t care for is all the secrecy of email. People can send you something but you can’t reply to them, or when you try, you get an annoying response. That’s bad enough, but it’s worse when someone emails me in reply to an email that I never sent. For some reason, an individual emailed a friend and it appeared as though it came from me. There’s no reason why this should ever happen. I am not the only one that has experienced this pathetic deception. It’s a good way of getting a virus on your PC.

In conclusion, if you really believe that email is a great thing, consider my discussion earlier about it. Email is a one-way communication in most cases. The barrage of spam should convince you of that as well as the constant bombardment of your inbox with faint attempts at humor or enticements to buy something you neither want nor need. Also, the email in which people threaten you with ill health if you don’t pass it along is really another communication going one way. Finally, these few words should sway your opinion about the burden of email: spam, viruses, spyware, files that can’t be opened and empty promises of the “free gift.”

9. Better living through chemistry

Before I received (and earned?) my undergraduate degree in mathematics, I took two chemistry courses: one in high school and the other in college. My grades both times indicated that I did all right – for an understanding of those words in italics, you’ll need to read the chapter on education in my 2007 book, This Page Intentionally Left Blank. Because I liked the courses, I thought briefly about a career in that field but chose math instead. It’s much more difficult to blow yourself up in the area I eventually pursued.

I’m not sure precisely when this happened, but it was around the time I was at Canisius College, or maybe just after graduation, that I applied for a job at Dupont Chemical. I was disappointed when I didn’t land it, but looking back now, I am convinced it was for the better.

Years later I became convinced that the home you own should be maintenance free, meaning the deck should be made of pressure treated lumber, and the exterior of the house should be vinyl or aluminum siding that wouldn’t need painting. As I write this, my three homes eventually wound up with both suggestions, including blue vinyl, one of the world’s most dangerous substances. The lumber I described has been proven to be toxic as well. If you don’t change your mind at times, it probably means you’re not learning.

You heard of the expression, “Better living through chemistry,” but maybe it would have been more appropriate to say, “More toxicity and addiction through chemistry.” I hope I don’t have to explain that one. I did cover a great deal in this line of thought in my 2008 book on the environment, Take Back the Earth, so I will try not to repeat what I wrote. We use chemicals to kill pests, but the Bhopal disaster pointed out that when not controlled, innocent people suffer and die. Five Past Midnight in Bhopal by Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro describes that horrific event in details that will depress you and make you furious.

Rachel Carson warned us about the problems of chemicals many years ago in her book, Silent Spring, but many didn’t listen to what she had to say. They were too busy watching Password. What was even more disgusting was the fact that junk scientists – they were probably watching the test pattern for the ratings people – questioned her work. Real science has proven that her research was well documented, but even today her efforts have been attacked.

I’m a scientist – I majored in math – and I have enough intelligence to realize that spraying toxic chemicals is hazardous to the health of humans and isn’t very good for the environment. Moreover, if you use these poisons, the intended pests will build up immunity and soon what is being spread on fruits and vegetables has no beneficial effect whatsoever.

Reading Making a Real Killing by Len Ackland will inform you of the environmental hazards of building bombs, since numerous chemicals were involved. The project involved a great deal of secrecy – doesn’t that sound familiar? – as the only people who really knew what was going on were the government, the Atomic Energy Commission and Dow Chemical. There was also a great deal of missing intelligence as even the scientists weren’t sure of the long term effects of the entire process. This resulted in radiation leaking into the environment, affecting the workers as well as the planet. Disposing of the byproducts of building these weapons became an unsolvable dilemma, which is still not resolved today. Finally, the finished product itself created the worse possible scenario: if it wasn’t used, all that money went up in smoke, but if the bomb was deployed, there was still plenty of smoke and the earth wound up in flames, with death, destruction to the earth and radiation poisoning.

On Saturday, May 13, 2006, Erie County and the Town of Amherst in Western New York held a drop-off day for household hazardous waste. The scene was Erie Community College North Campus, so I collected some items: used oil, old paint and a few batteries. When I turned down Tech Drive, I saw the trucks collecting materials and so many cars that I thought I was tailgating at a Bills’ game. I noticed all the entrances were blocked, so I kept driving and eventually I found an open entrance. I got in one of the four long lines of vehicles. Eventually, after over an hour, I got rid of my junk.

Besides what I mentioned, pesticides, fertilizers, solvents, kerosene, mercury thermometers, propane tanks, household chemicals and cleaners were also collected. The multitude of participants was a good sign: it meant people really cared about the earth and were doing something positive to properly dispose of toxic chemicals. It also indicated that humans bought products that they shouldn’t be using. I only concluded that this gathering should occur more frequently in the area, maybe once a month. Another possibility is to have the various town recycling programs allow for similar drop-offs, here and throughout the nation.

Much of what follows is pointed out in another book of mine, Take Back the Earth, but I think it’s worth repeating. There are alternatives to toxic chemicals as cleaners. Some time ago I lived in a house with three toilets – useful for the day before a colonoscopy, but more to clean. On moving into the house, I found the toilet in the master bedroom to be caked with crud. Talk about a bad frosting! I tried a few agents but cleansers didn’t work, nor did bleach or any other cleaner. I was going to buy a new toilet or at least the bowl, but somehow I didn’t.

One day my mom suggested using vinegar. Since I had other bathrooms, I could pour some into the toilet and let it sit for a while – time wasn’t a problem. I put some of the liquid into the bowl and let it do its thing. I am not sure how long I left it there, but after a time the toilet was good as new. The vinegar did the job, something all those other products couldn’t do. Moreover, the environment wasn’t polluted.

On more than one occasion I have used a combination of vinegar and baking soda to clear up a slow drain. It really does work. Not long ago I had guests over for dinner. About two hours before anyone arrived, I noticed that my kitchen sink was plugged and the water just sat there. Running my garbage disposal didn’t help in the least. I really didn’t have time to call a plumber so I got as much water out of the sink as possible and decided that I would use an alternative to good China and silverware to serve the meal.

I poured some of the vinegar and baking soda combination into the sink and let it sit. I didn’t have much choice. The dinner was a success and later in the evening, I noticed that my sink was remediated – there was no need to call a plumber. So, the vinegar and baking soda combination not only cleared up a plugged drain, it did it in an environmentally friendly way.

There are alternatives for just about every toxic product surrendered on the Saturday I discussed, with new innovations on the way. I applaud Erie County and the Town of Amherst for their efforts. With a more frequent collection process could come work sessions to enlighten the public about alternatives to the toxic products that they are using in and around their homes. Spreading the word will lead to the elimination of these poisonous substances, which could someday result in no need to have these collections, as we will have graduated to a cleaner, less toxic planet.
10. BCCI means Bilk the Citizens of Cash and


If you are down and need a good laugh, head over to a bank or post office. A few of my books have discussed those venues because of temporary brain tumors and you may recall the Seinfeld episode where our favorite postal polluter went to court to avoid a speeding ticket. In that episode, he claimed he was coming to the aid of his friend, Kramer, who was about to commit suicide because he never got to be a banker. I’m not going to dwell on the United States Postal Service but on mortgage corporations, credit card companies and those places where we have checking and savings accounts.

Despite having written about banks for laughs, I am not thrilled with them for a few reasons. To begin with, if you have money and want to get a loan, the bank will grant you one. On the other hand, if you are short of cash and need some, the banks won’t come to your rescue. Having owned a few homes as well as writing numerous checks, I have not been able to avoid these institutions. In fact I have even had software contracts at these corporations that we get to hate.

Banks have failed miserably when it comes to the application of technology. They document every transaction to death and create too many unnecessary reports, resulting in the loss of the forests. On one contract that I had at Chase Bank in Syracuse, I recall a computer report that used over one full box of paper. I ask you, who would read that report or even want to? I certainly wouldn’t. What probably happened was some individual went to the last few pages for some numbers, checked them and then tossed the listing. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just print that page or better yet, have it available online? That would result in the saving of quite a few trees.

Another complaint has to do with the endless number of scandals at banks. BCCI was a doozy but not the only one. I’m sure you have heard of the involvements with the Enron debacle as well as others that are just being uncovered. There may have been a fine or two, but the perpetrators escaped relatively unscathed and returned to work on the following Monday. Some may have been canned, but they didn’t suffer too much with their huge severance packages. Meanwhile, the citizens lost their retirement and now must continue working, even though they had other plans.

Another change that we have seen over the years that doesn’t please customers is the merger of one bank with another. This naturally implies downsizing and compensation packages to those close to retirement, maybe even some outsourcing. There have been so many deals between banks that currently there are few banks left in which you can place your trust. The smaller banks in your town are a good option and I believe that local businesses should be supported as much as possible. It’s good for the region. At one time or another, I have used many of the biggest banks in the country, much to my chagrin, but I decided to change that. In the spring of 2006, I obtained a new checking account – I kept the old one for a few weeks – with a local bank. Less than two months after I made my initial deposit, this Buffalo bank was bought out by a California institution. There are other local banks here, but I really didn’t feel like closing out two checking accounts within a few weeks of each other.

Less than two months after I opened this new account, I called for a wire transfer from one of my investments. Two days later, I decided to log on to the bank web site to see if the cash was there. I just had one problem: I forgot the logon ID and password. I did the dumb thing and tried a few possibilities, with no luck. I emailed the bank and got it and went to the site again. Before I got the information I desired – it turns out the transfer hadn’t taken place – I had to go through a process that I had done before. This included verifying my email address. Of course, a few minutes before this, they had emailed me my ID and password. This was from the bank that I thought would be better than the rest.

The main problem with changing banks may be access to cash, due to the limited ATMs. You will give up convenience in many cases, and that means adapting. It probably will be worth it in the long run. My old bank, which I kept for a while since I still had checks, paid no interest nor did any of the previous ones. My new bank pays a whopping .3 interest. That is a period before the “3,” which may not be quite visible – you can say the same about the interest. Even though it’s not much, over time it might add up – about a million years. Still, it’s better than the other places that had my money.

It’s extremely difficult to survive in the world today without a checking account. You have to pay your phone, gas, heating bill and the subscription to “Gluttony Monthly” as well as the rent and it may not be possible to make a payment without writing a check. Using a small, local bank is fine – if you have that option – and will mean you need not deal with Chase Bank or Citibank. You might have the option of using a credit union. If so, you may be able to get an interest rate higher than what I get now. But as I mentioned, getting cash could be a problem for you since you won’t have as many withdrawal or deposit points compared to the big banks.

Another really annoying part of the banking process happens when you deposit a check into your account. It could take two days to clear or perhaps a bit longer, like five days for a non-local check. Why should the origin of the check matter and why can’t it clear within one day? If I write a check to pay my gas bill, the gas company doesn’t have to wait five days to get the cash. The bank isn’t going to say to the utility, “The funds for the check will be available in two days.” It sounds like there is a bit of an unbalance here.

It gets even worse when I deposit a check from Joe, who doesn’t have enough cash in his checking account, but I am not aware of that. As a result, Joe will have to pay some outrageous fee for writing a check with insufficient funds – $25 is not out of the question. I will get charged as well, even though it’s not my check. I guess banks are equal- opportunity gougers. It could get a lot worse if I write a check or two and now they start to bounce. This problem can be remedied by having a feature – overdraft protection – having nothing to do with getting recruited for Iraq – that waives the fee in these situations, but it will cost you. You also may have to pay your bank if you write more than a certain number of checks per month or if you don’t do a required number of transactions.

There are loads of other fees. You may get charged for using your debit card. There could be a charge by your bank if you don’t use their ATM machine. The use of that device for a withdrawal may not cost you a cent if you use your bank, but it might if you use the network to do a withdrawal or deposit or some kind of transfer. For one checking account, I had a fee because I didn’t use my debit card at least three times in one month. Then I had to use it in a certain way otherwise I would have to pay a fee for the transaction. I think that’s really underhanded, but then again I never did like banks.

Most banks today list “balance” and “available balance.” From a reasonable, logical point of view, the former should be the number that includes deposits that will soon be acceptable, while the latter should represent what you can draw from. From this thinking, the former will be greater than or equal to the latter at all times. Personally, I see no need for two fields – it only results in confusion. If you make a deposit or withdrawal, your balance will be changed appropriately. If money has been deposited but hasn’t cleared, it should not be included in the balance. It’s a simple matter. Banks only confuse the issue because for some of them “available balance” includes pending transactions, and “balance” is what you can draw against right now, which is completely confusing, illogical and the opposite of what it should be.

In the past, you could always get a checking account with no fees – if you looked hard enough. Because of competition today, all accounts are free, to a point. You may get some free checks but will have to pay for the next batch, but fortunately you can get them through different mail-order houses, saving you a few dollars. In the past it was easy to get free checking if you kept a minimum balance of a million dollars in combined accounts. Actually it’s not that high but for some banks the requirement is more than you would imagine.

I had one free checking account that required $20,000 in joint accounts. They waived the fee for the first year. However, I did have a home equity line for $20,000 as well as a credit card with that same bank. Even though my credit card use was high, it didn’t count towards the required balance while the home equity line did. Unfortunately if I made just one payment towards the equity line, the balance could dip below $20,000 and now there would be a fee. Would you keep a checking account with that bank? I didn’t for too long.

At one time I opened up a checking account with a similar scenario except that the minimum balance was $5,000. This balance could be in a mutual fund provided by the bank so I decided that I could handle that. About a year or two later the bank boosted the required balance to $6,500. I did have some dividends from the fund so I had to invest a few more dollars to reach the new minimum. I didn’t complain.

About two years after that, I received my monthly statement and there was a monthly fee. I called the bank and they explained that the mutual fund could no longer be used in computing the minimum, as outlined in the letter that was sent out a month ago, except I never got any letter explaining this. After wheeling and dealing, which seemed to go on for months, I got the fees waived for one year.

I still had this checking account and at one time had a $200 balance. I made a large deposit and when I checked my balance, the latest deposit was accounted for in amount. I was expecting two electronic transfers of tax refunds into my account so I called a day later to see if they had arrived. I found out that my balance was around $200 again. There were no outstanding checks that I had written to cause the balance to dip back to the original amount. I called a teller but got no reasonable explanation for the conflict. Why would the bank post one amount and then actually negate the deposit. I know the check was good. In fact when I checked on the balance a few days later, the recent addition was finally reflected. Maybe I was dealing with voodoo banking.

While discussing this establishment, I should mention their procedure for deposit slips. They didn’t use the normal appendage at the back of your book of checks. They have their own tickets, which resulted when they updated their system. I remember waiting in long lines for a teller while the conversion was taking place. It was no fun being there. The new system created more paper, rendering normal deposit slips useless. The ones they used had carbon copies, so instead of saving the earth’s resources, they were using even more of them.

When banks get to implement some type of computer system – whether for the first time or as an upgrade – you may want to go to the Bahamas until it’s all straightened out. It will be a great deal less frustrating to avoid the bank, because the conversion may take a while. I suffered through a few of these “improvements” and I doubt that you will be spared the same situation if your bank gets a new computer or does an upgrade, even today.

I mentioned my paltry interest rate earlier. My mom generally has more cash in her account but it pays even less – or did – than mine: .1 percent (one tenth of one percent.) Savings accounts give you more, but you have to buy a CD to get a four or five percent return and may have to commit to a few months for your money. Before, the terms were actually better for five years than one, but that is changed and the policy is actually just the reverse. I mentioned the numerous fees that can smack you in the face. In the long run you are probably better off with a free checking account that pays no interest. Of course they may give you a toaster to open the account – more on that, later. This is what is referred to as a “free gift.” When I passed my former bank not too long ago, it still had that sign outside the door and I got an offer from another bank in the mail with those two annoying words.

A few months ago I walked into the bank when it was open – I avoid holding up banks since it could mean time with people you may not want to invite for dinner. As I stepped in line I noticed that there weren’t any tellers to help me make a deposit. It was Destiny’s birthday and they were having cake in the back. I wish I could have used the ATM but since I didn’t have that option, I had no choice but to wait patiently. Finally a teller appeared, but I had never been in one of these institutions before when there was no one behind the “counter.”

When the teller did appear, there was one person ahead of me in line. It turns out that the bank person knew this individual so their meeting turned into a social encounter. This was just what I needed and all the people behind me felt the same. Now there’s nothing wrong with a friendly cashier, but there is a time and place for everything. The customers were bothered enough by the scarcity of tellers and this unnecessary chatter at the counter was not welcome. The banks want our business but somehow their actions seem to indicate that they could care less about us. You may have heard about “on-line” banking, but I really don’t believe you can get on the Internet and get cash. Isn’t that what it’s all about? No matter what we do we still have to go inside the bank for some issues or use the mechanical dispenser of cash for our deposits or withdrawals. At the end of this chapter I will suggest how you can avoid either of these scenarios most of the time.

Another bank that I dealt with for a time did something much worse to people I know. A check was written to a missionary overseas and it took some time before the check was cashed. Actually it was stolen and cashed by some thief who then proceeded to phone the bank or got in touch with it somehow, asking for a withdrawal of some percentage of the funds in the account. This sounds like someone who wants to be able to fly a plane without having to land it.

Wouldn’t you know it, the bank approved of flying without a touch down – I mean to say they sent him the money. When the writer of the check noticed a deficit in the checking account, it was only then that the picture started to get clear as to what had happened. The perpetrator was never found but the bank wound up having to cover the loss, which they certainly deserved for their lack of common sense. Maybe someone should have hit them on the head to wake them when the questionable request for the money was made. I am sorry to report that this bank is still in business under a new name.

In the early 1980s, I was about to buy a house outside Syracuse. I went to one lending institution and was told they could process my application for a non-refundable fee of $150. I accepted their offer and gave them a check. Looking at my investments, credit cards and earnings statements, I figured I would easily qualify. My monthly rent was more than my monthly mortgage would be.

It wasn’t long after that I was turned down and my check returned. All I can figure was they didn’t want to handle my mortgage. If I indeed was qualified, why didn’t I get the loan? If I wasn’t, why did they send back the non-refundable fee? I doubt that they did any kind of processing of my finances. If I worked at that institution, I would certainly not do all the processing and then return the fee, since that wouldn’t make sense. And if no processing was done, how can you make a decision as to whether a mortgage was approved? To this day I haven’t figured what happened in this case.

I did get a mortgage for the house and a few years later I applied for a home equity loan. The bank that I applied to had a commercial where they made fun of other banks that took weeks and weeks to process this type of loan. From what I could gather, it appeared that I should have been able to obtain the loan in about a month. Was I ever mistaken.

About two months later I had a closing date so I went to the bank, but the clerk said that it wasn’t that day. I argued to the contrary but was then informed that the closing was four days later. Eventually I got the loan but it took three months to get it. I really believe the reason for the delay was that too many people were involved in the loan – it seemed like every time I was dealing with this bank, I talked to a different person – and this created all kinds of confusion. Believe me, even one individual working on an application can wind up dazed. Needless to say I will never do business with that bank again.

The home I live in has no mortgage – it’s a condo for which I paid in full. I almost used a bank to get a mortgage, but after considering that the closing costs would be about $4000, I decided to cash in some mutual funds instead. Before I made this decision, I sent the bank $350 to process the application but then that effort wasn’t necessary. However, I didn’t recover the $350, though I tried. My emails and phone calls went unanswered and I eventually gave up. I thought people should rob banks and not the other way around.

I think that some rejections for a mortgage are ridiculous. Consider a couple that has to pay $600 a month in rent along with all their utilities and so forth. They apply for a mortgage for a house that they want to buy and determine that their monthly mortgage payment will be $500, including taxes and insurance. They are rejected because of some determination based on their incomes. For one thing they are already making a payment for their rent that is larger, indicating they can make the necessary payment each month. The lending institution should approve the loan request but instead they lend one hundred times that requested amount to a third world country that will eventually default on the loan. A similar occurrence takes place when an individual gets rejected for trying to consolidate his debts with a lower rate credit deal.

Let’s talk about the convenient ATM at our bank. Assuming your branch is close by, there can still be a problem with this machine. Suppose you are planning dinner on Saturday night at your favorite restaurant with friends but you need some dough. On your way to the restaurant, you stop at your favorite ATM, but wouldn’t you know it, it’s temporarily out of service. There’s no money left, at least not for you just now. Well, there really is, but there is also a failure of you know what. You have another option as there is a branch not far from the restaurant and you pray that it’s not incapacitated for the moment. If so, you’ve got the ATM blues.

When I lived in East Aurora, I used one of two ATMs to get cash and they both left much to be desired. The first one was about two miles from my house but was a pain when you went there late in the afternoon as the sun made your withdrawal a real challenge. The other one was a few miles from my home but close to where I shopped. Unfortunately I have tried to get cash and found that machine out of service too many times.

Another bother with ATMs has to do with the fact that from the car – or walkups, too – the software isn’t the greatest, resulting in frustration to the customer. Over the years I have used the machines of various banks so it happens on too many occasions. I recall trying to withdraw a certain amount of cash but discovering that I couldn’t get it for some reason. It may have been because I asked for $30 but the ATM was out of tens. The result was I had to start all over with my PIN and hope that this time I could get some money from the machine. Above everything, you need to remember that it’s a machine.

Today you can barely exist without some kind of credit card. By the same token, too many people have met their downfall because of this kind of plastic. Try to rent a car with cash as your only alternative or go to a restaurant without it. Let’s admit it: the Discover Card, VISA and Master Card are quite convenient. You just need to have some discipline in your spending habits and realize that you will have to pay someday. Also, come to the realization that little charges of ten and twenty dollars here and there add up to a hundred dollar payment quite quickly.

If you don’t have a credit card, you will probably have to contact the Chase or Citibank criminals to get one – I like alliteration. You may be able to find a credit card with a smaller, more ethical institution, though. As pointed out, be cognizant that you’ll probably have to pay for that coat or dinner for which you whipped out your VISA. I use the word “probably” because there might be situations where you charge something and never have to pay for it. That has happened to people I know on a couple occasions but don’t count on it. On the other hand, you could be doublebilled, which is not as enjoyable as double-dipping. Above all, be aware of what you have spent so that when the bill arrives you won’t have a heart attack – you’re the one with the card.

The credit card companies don’t exactly play fair when it comes to the customers. They will entice you at first and then nail you in really obscene ways. Suppose you have a Discover Card as well as a Master Card. The latter has an interest rate of close to six percent, but one day you don’t pay your Discover bill because it never arrives in the mail. Eventually you settle it but because of the late payment, your Master Card account now results in an increase in the interest rate to 12.9 percent. This increase is done not because you were late with the MC payment – you paid them all on time – but with the Discover bill. Not liking these institutions is growing into hate.

Another thing that might happen is you get a credit card from Chase with a six-month interest rate of zero percent, provided you do a balance transfer – paying off another credit card with the new one. The best part is that ad states that the normal transfer fee will be waved. Once you perform the move, you find in your first statement a fee of $50 for the transaction. You call Chase and mention the problem but they ask to see the document to verify your claim. Unfortunately, you tossed it and wind up accepting the cost, which you really were bamboozled into paying. Blowing up your bank will wind you in the hoosegow.

Not long ago I closed out two credit cards and you should have no trouble guessing their names. If you can’t, I’ll give you a hint: I mentioned them earlier. Today they have their offer in the Sunday paper but years ago it was different. Then you would get an offer in the mail for a credit card that was “pre-approved?” How is that different from one that was approved? People who mess up the language should have to pay higher credit card fees. For this offer, sign your name and it would be yours. The best thing to do was just ignore this wonderful deal. Every so often an “offer you couldn’t refuse” with a very low interest rate arrives, even if only for a limited time. You might have been in a position where in six months you’d have enough cash to pay off the entire amount and that would have made the deal more appealing. The 6.9 percent interest will save you some money as compared to the 12.9 percent rate on your present credit card.

I have received my share of these offers, one having a rather low rate, so I sent it back. A few weeks later I received a letter from the company stating that my “application” was refused. What application? All I did was sign my name for preapproved credit. Needless to say I had happier days. Apparently this lending institution’s approval process was haphazard. What they should have done originally was to perform the checking that took place after I sent in my reply. Then I would never have gotten the initial mailing. Of course, that would have been the proper way of doing things.

Some time ago a similar scenario happened and once more my “application” was rejected. I decided to take action. I called or wrote – I don’t remember which – and asked why? After some time I was given bogus reasons that I couldn’t accept, so I argued my case. It took probably a month or two but I was finally granted the credit card. I then decided to reject the offer after all that had transpired. That was some time ago but today you can get a credit card with zero percent interest for six months with no balance transfer fee when paying down another credit line.

In fact the competition today is go great that the credit card companies are offering rebates on purchases, as high as five percent. The banks don’t really play fair in this regard because unless you read the fine print, you won’t realize that in order to get that percent back, you need to buy a home in Los Angeles or New York City and two Mercedes. At that point, you will get your rebate, but only on groceries and gas. Actually, the threshold is a bit lower, but you get the idea. I only bring this up because my credit cards work exactly that way.

When I resided in East Aurora, I received a correspondence from a major credit card company for the previous owner of my house. I opened the letter before I realized it wasn’t for me and inside there were access checks. Thus it appeared that this wasn’t an application but a mailing for a current customer. However, she had moved away almost seven years before. If she hadn’t used the credit card in a few years why was it still active? If she was a current user of the card, then why was it sent to her old address? I still can’t figure out why this came to my address. I might add that this wasn’t the first one from this same credit card company. There may be more, but I won’t know about it since I too moved from that home.

There will be a time when you want to close out a credit line, whether it is paid up or not. When you talk to someone about this, they will probably ask why you want to do this. They may even offer a lower interest rate just to keep you from abandoning the account. From a business point, this is the thing to do: not lose a customer. On one occasion recently I called about closing an account and they said fine and closed the account. And that was it and I consider myself a good customer. I guess this institution could care less about keeping me on board.

On another occasion I called to close out a credit line and they asked why. I mentioned that the interest rate was too high. They offered a rate that was lower but not good enough for me, saying that was the lowest they could go. I just thanked them and was then switched over to another person who said that since I was about to close the account they could extend me a rate of 6.9 percent for the next 6 months – lower than their final offer. Now why didn’t the first person offer this low rate to begin with?

Not long ago I needed to use my credit for a mail order purchase. I didn’t have the card with me at home so I got the number from my credit card statement but the person on the phone then asked for the card’s expiration date. I didn’t have it, told him so and he said the sale couldn’t go through without it. I said I would call the credit card company and call him back. However, the credit card company said they couldn’t reveal the expiration date to me even after I gave them my bowling average and transcript from undergraduate school. I then called back the mail order company and gave him an expiration date of 06/99, which I made up. The actual expiration date is 10/99, so I was close. The sale was then completed, meaning that the expiration date is irrelevant – but probably has to be a future date. Perhaps, I should have tried that. I question why the credit card company couldn’t give me the expiration date and why the mail order group accepted the bogus date.

Some time ago, I ordered a one-year subscription to a health magazine. I charged it to a credit card and after receiving the magazine for twelve months, canceled it. The magazine kept coming and I received a bill for the same credit card even though I had paid off the account and even closed it. Now I have two complaints: one with the financial company and the other with the magazine. I had a one-year subscription and the credit card was closed and shouldn’t have been reopened without first notifying the account holder. Also magazines don’t usually do automatic renewals without first contacting the customer. There were some big screw-ups in this case.

Many people don’t have and never intend to get credit cards. Despite their limitations, I think the good outweighs the bad, provided you have some discipline and you are vigilant. They eliminate the worry about having huge amounts of cash in your wallet. There is protection when buying a product or service when you use plastic. If the card is stolen, you are not liable, provided you notify the appropriate people when theft occurs. Also, because of the competition, you can easily have fees waived and interest rates lowered by threatening to close out the account. If the credit card company won’t oblige, get another card. That is where we as consumers have a great deal of power.

I mentioned earlier that you can get cash and avoid going to the bank most of the time. First of all, use direct deposit from your place of employment whenever possible and do most of your banking on-line. Use the U. S. Postal Service for making deposits because despite Newman and Claven, that service is quite reliable, overall. That should only mean a delay of one day and you won’t have to drive to the bank. As far as being tied to the ATM for withdrawals, you may be able to use your credit card for grocery shopping and get cash at the same time, thus avoid using those dreaded machines. Depositing cash into your checking account means you will have to go to the bank, but with a bit of ingenuity, I think you even can avoid that.

You could also go out to dinner, use your credit card to pay the entire bill and get cash from the others at the table. If they have the same goal, you could make larger cash withdrawals, thus reducing the number of bank visits but that would only mean more cash in your wallet. The more you have, the quicker it goes. I guess there are few easy solutions to this banking business.
11. You just need an appendix transplant

Over the years, the advances in medicine have been phenomenal, with the elimination of many diseases. At one time not long ago, the diagnosis of cancer was a death sentence, but those dreaded words, “You have cancer,” are no longer as ominous. This is because of the possibility of a cure, with surgery and treatment, and those three words are about as upsetting as, “You’ve got mail.” Many people might not be here were it not for a reputable surgeon, radiation and chemotherapy. Miracle drugs and antibiotics have played a huge part in giving us healing and longer lives, in spite of sickness and pain.

As discussed in my 2008 book, Take Back the Earth, Bill Moyers benefited greatly from scientific advances – but I did as well – without which, either of us may not be around today. However, it is very possible that the reason for my cancer was caused by the failure of technology and the problems of the industrial revolution. Some time after my first colon cancer battle, I did some research into its causes. A report by the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention stated that this type of cancer is caused by tobacco use, diet, obesity and lack of exercise. It attributed two percent of U.S. colon cancer deaths to “environmental pollution.” Scientists have disputed this number as being too low and I tend to agree.

Colon cancer is rumored to be hereditary, that is, it occurs within families. Of course, this cause does not rule out the fact that it could be environmental. After all, if a family lives in an area that is toxically polluted, being related may not be the primary reason why these people all had colon cancer. I can’t prove that mine was caused by my surroundings when growing up, but I exercise daily, eat healthy food, could add twenty pounds to my frame and still be nowhere near obese and have never smoked, except for an occasional cigar, which I gave up years ago. I am convinced that the cause of many types of cancer is indeed corporate pollution. This would certainly apply if you eat food that is tainted by the soil used to grow it or the water that sustains it, and the result happens to be cancer.

While recovering, I had the pleasure of trying a few types of drugs and antibiotics to reduce some of the pain as well as to prevent other obvious problems. Demerol and Darvoset may offer relief after surgery, but they are not without other difficulties. That seems to be true about most drugs. Even if it appears that some pill works without side effects, it’s very possible that somewhere down the road the user will have to pay. Sufficient analysis just hasn’t been done.

I read a few words about how drugs are named. One note was that the first letter or part of the name has a good deal to do with comforting the patient so as to buy the drug, no matter how effective it is. There are so many legal drugs that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Besides the painkillers, there’s a prescription drug or over-the- counter medicine for just about any ailment. Together, these aids provide a great contribution to the economy, but are they all worth it and do they truly benefit the users? Somehow the use of a painkiller or pill to stop stomach discomfort even before it happens seems to point to a flaw in our “I can’t wait – I want it now!” society. Another assumption on the part of many people is that if they see a “wonder” drug advertised on TV or in the newspaper, this product will solve their problem, no matter what it is. It might, but probably won’t. Perhaps there’s a reason for this term “wonder” drug: you wonder if it will work. Sometimes labels are significant.

A short time ago a good friend of mine’s mother succumbed to cancer. She was a great, wonderful woman and we all miss her. She possessed one quality that we should all have: she was brave. She fought as best she could, even undergoing some chemotherapy. After some time she decided that she was done with the treatments; they didn’t seem to be doing that much good. The side effects weren’t worth it. She died at home with her family and with dignity.

A few years ago I felt a sore throat coming on so I decided to try some zinc lozenges to avoid getting the flu. The recommendation was to take no more than one at each meal so I managed two or three for a few days and they seemed to work. My throat was relieved and I dodged the cold. Around the same time I noticed my right eye was twitching, something that I never experienced before. At first I blamed the flourescent lights, as I sat just underneath one at work. I also noticed on the weekend that my eye was doing the same thing again as I sat in the waiting room while the oil in my car was being changed. But then I figured that these lights probably weren’t the cause as I had been in contact with them before the twitching began. I then realized that I had taken the zinc tablets recently so perhaps there was a side effect. I can’t say conclusively, and to this day I am still not sure what caused the twitching.

No matter whether you are talking about chemotherapy, painkillers or drugs to alleviate hay fever, you have to consider the side effects. When you are suffering and in distress, your first thought is to stop the agony. Nevertheless, as I already mentioned, the side effects that occur later might be as bad or worse than the initial pain. My discouraging drug descriptions and those you read before opening the bottle should caution each of us and make us think twice before popping any pill.

Naturally, some situations don’t give us much choice. If there are options, they should be considered. I find it somewhat ironic that some pain, problems and suffering are caused by the side effect of some other remedy to a different problem, and this goes beyond drugs. Consider a company that creates some product to solve the shortage of some material. They come up with a new synthetic that works well as a replacement, but in the process of production they release carcinogens into the environment and this affects people living close to the factory. Eventually, it is discovered that the product was toxic. This has happened more times than some people will acknowledge.

Going without this synthetic replacement would have eliminated some lasting effects of contamination. The same could be said for smoking cigars or eating too many chocolate éclairs. Speaking of chocolate, when I was but a lad I developed a case of hives. The blame was from eating chocolate pudding. I avoided chocolate for some time, as I really didn’t care for the itching and scratching that came with it. I can have taffy for my sugar fix. I am not a chocoholic, but today I can eat chocolate – it is believed to have some great benefits – and it has no similar effect. If there is any food that might give me a problem, I won’t eat it. There are so many choices that we can easily do without those that bother us. For me, key lime pie will do.

They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away, and an onion a day keeps everyone way. Not that long ago I didn’t eat apples regularly, despite the fact that I should have and actually liked them. I ate apple pie and applesauce on occasion but didn’t eat the fruit fresh because some time ago I ate an apple or two and it bothered my stomach. Like Adam, I blamed the apple. I’m happy to report that since my colon surgery, I eat an apple just about every day. It wasn’t an allergy after all.

Another drug that we are all too familiar with is Novocain. The name is derived from the words for new and cocaine. Over the last few years on my visits to the dentist I can hardly recall a time when I didn’t get ’cained. I of course didn’t receive any shot of that pain freezer during routine cleanings, when I could have used it. When I was younger, the occasions when I did get Novocain were as frequent as the times today that I don’t get it. Yet, I made it through the drilling, filling and billing as a child.

The question might be why so much Novocain is shot into our bodies. Obviously we won’t feel a thing while the doctor is in our mouths. But later on when it wears off, it could be another story. Of course that’s why we have the option of another painkiller. Why couldn’t the original work be done without administering that needle that renders half our face numb? Well, this helps to increase the bill that will face us on the way out of the dentist’s office. Without it we could have pain but also a smaller fee.

There are all kinds of pills and drugs to slim down. Some probably work but you might wonder if the weight will stay off. Then there are those dreaded side effects that could come into play. By itself, dieting can be very dangerous if someone cares to quickly shed a great deal of weight. Perhaps the best way is to eat less, avoid junk foods most of the time and get into the habit of exercise, such as walking and getting away from the television set. It seems that what is needed to fight obesity is a great deal of discipline rather than any drug. Just because a pie is on the table doesn’t mean you have to finish the whole thing – at one sitting. Limiting what we eat is a beginning, but then setting aside that half hour each day to bicycle or walk is just as important. If we make this effort, we will feel better and not have to worry about any side effect except perhaps a sore muscle or two. That too will pass.

You see all kinds of ads on the tube for some kind of tablet that will allow you to overcome insomnia. If you can’t sleep at night, you can take that sleeping pill and not think about the side effect. You just might fall asleep on the drive to or from work. You really should consider alternatives and question why you have this difficulty anyway. There are quite a few suggestions without popping a pill. Daily exercise, but not in the evening, avoidance of alcohol and certain types of food, following a regular sleep schedule and getting to relax can all be solutions to insomnia. Maybe we just have to slow down and stop watching MTV. Reading a book helps too.

Getting back to advertising, we see admonitions to try this food and that beer and sure enough we sample it, maybe even overindulge. But don’t despair. In a few minutes there will be an ad on television for a product that can make us feel better. Our problem won’t stay around too long as there is a quick fix. We can proceed to have some more pizza or chocolate and not worry about any stomach discomfort. If we eat so much that we tend to put on a few extra pounds, don’t worry about that either. Just wait a few seconds and there will be a product advertised to lose those extra pounds. Maybe the food companies and the drug companies are in cahoots. You sell your product, we can sell ours and we can all make money. Side effects aren’t a consideration.

But these reactions have to be a concern. It’s like the story of the corporation that destroys the environment but sells their product anyway. With no environment, no one will be around not even the company! – to buy anything. The same applies to the users of these pills and drugs. Some of these “remedies” have been fatal and who knows what some of these drugs will bring with time. It’s just something that research can’t predict because their study is limited to a year or two. The answer is alternatives rather than drugs – prescription or over- the-counter. More concern on the part of the medical profession for patients could result in the use of fewer pills.

The reason why these tablets and injections are prescribed is because it is easier to write a prescription and send the person away and clear the rooms for others, rather than spend some extra time with the patient. Physicians are pressed for time because of their workload and the possibility of litigation also plays a role. Of course the blame does not solely rest on doctors and nurses. The healthcare industry is also a contributor to the state of affairs. Limits imposed relative to what is covered by insurance have a great deal to do with final results.

Another blame lies with the people getting treatment. Some individuals who have health coverage think nothing of journeying to the doctor at the first sign of a sniffle or sore throat. I believe you should see a doctor under certain circumstances but their philosophy seems to be that they have insurance so why not use it? This might help to explain why other people who really need treatment are rushed out of the door. Unfortunately this situation probably won’t change anytime soon.

Just recently have people in the medical profession shown more respect for the patient. In the past you saw a specialist and if he or she talked to you at all it was in a language that only another MD could comprehend – it was English, though. Today, many physicians and nurses are treating people like human beings and the latter are becoming more aware and more inquisitive. At the same time people have to be concerned about taking better care of themselves and asking about alternatives to pills. There still are too many prescription drugs taken by individuals. The usage can be diminished by introspection and looking for alternatives, especially prevention. Don’t completely rule out alternative healing either – I’m not sure about witch doctors. In order for things to improve it will take a huge effort by all of us – patients, nurses, doctors and the insurance companies alike. The good news is that we can succeed by working together.
12. Get a free gift

One of the gadgets for the kitchen that you might get by opening a new checking account is a toaster – another free gift. On May 25, 2006, I put some bread into my toaster oven – I paid for mine – and pressed down the button. The bell rang shortly thereafter, but the bread was still cold. The problem was easily remedied as all I needed do was plug in the toaster. Even writers have lapses. You may disagree with me, but I think this appliance should not have worked this way. A necessary requisite for any process with this device – including bell dinging – should have been electricity. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. On a lighter note, I’m thinking of calling my third book on missing intelligence (which is well on its way), here’s your free gift – send $10 for shipping.

I am willing to bet that this toaster oven will have a short life in my condo. I don’t plan to toss it out or throw it against the wall but rather it will break down sooner than any appliance should. It is a useful kitchen tool as you can toast bread, almonds, re-heat pizza or food from the refrigerator. It’s difficult to warm up a rice dish in a conventional toaster. Even if you succeed, you’ll have a hard time doing cleanup before you toast some bread. Nonetheless, maybe I should have used the oven in my stove for warming food and opened up that checking account and taken the toaster – assuming it was the two- or three-slice job.

My counter top has an empty space where the blender used to be. If you read my first book, The Read My Lips Cookbook: A Culinary Journey of Memorable Meals, you may recall I mentioned that, “I can’t see a kitchen without one.” We’re all allowed to change our minds. My first blender was made primarily of glass, unlike the current ones with the plastic jar. It lasted quite a few years but eventually I had to replace it. I’m not sure how many blenders I have owned – maybe four or five. The last one was not in my possession very long. A few months after I bought it, I was creating a salad dressing when I noticed liquid on the counter. The blender had leaked because the gasket wasn’t on tight. This alerted me to the fact that I had to make sure that in the future, the connection was secure. A few weeks later, I set out to use the blender so I checked the base but to my surprise, found that the plastic had cracked.

I decided that I wouldn’t replace this kitchen tool for a few reasons. First, I had a small device that probably could take its place. Second, the blender I had was supposedly one of the better ones. Third, I did not care for the short lifespan of all the replacements for my first blender. I could probably have gotten a refund or replacement because of the warrantee, except I tossed it away, not expecting to have to worry about such a breakdown so quickly. Even if I dig through my warrantees and find it, it’s too late since I trashed the mixer. As I write this, I changed my mind again and bought another blender. Wish me luck with this one.

I will get into planned obsolescence later, but for now I should talk about another blender I had. A few years ago friends of mine bought me a “Herbie Junior,” a small grinder for processing coffee beans as well as herbs, hence the name. It was a great appliance; I used it mostly for grinding before brewing – coffee, not beer – and it lasted a long time. Its life came to an end and I never replaced it. I don’t drink that much coffee and you can always get that product ground at the supermarket. In addition, I do have a mortar and pestle for smashing spices, so there was no need to get another. The demise also meant that I had one less thing to pack when I moved from a threebedroom house into a condo in 2003.

Another kitchen tool that I owned and even used a few times was an ice cream maker. It’s gone now and just as well because it requires storage space. If you have something that you use once every five years, you really don’t need it. If you use it once in two years, you still may want to donate it to Goodwill. I had an electric wok that is nowhere to be seen in my kitchen today. I did use it a great deal but it’s gone because the surface was covered with Teflon, and I heard a few stories about that chemical that moved me to remove all kitchen products covered in it. These included a large T-fal frying pan that I used quite often and a waffle iron, which made great cinnamon waffles. Maybe these Teflon products are safe for cooking, but I don’t want to gamble with my health or with that of anyone else’s for whom I cook.

You may have heard of electric flour sifters – another great innovation. I never owned one but at one time had a mechanical sifter. It’s gone now. I had no use for it – it just took up room in my cabinet. I bake bread very often, but you really don’t need to sift the flower. That may not be the case if you grow your own wheat or rye, but I don’t think you will have success if you live in an apartment. The landscaping companies will chop it down as soon as it comes up. Each of these supposed time-saving devices is just a means for someone to make a few bucks, resulting in more junk in the landfill.

There are some things we buy and use, even if we really don’t need them. In 2000, I purchased a CD recorder for my stereo system. Since that time, I have learned a good deal about the relatively new technology of recording your own music on disc. I had been very familiar with creating music on cassettes but this new opportunity brought excitement and some apprehension. For one thing, you can’t record over a song that you originally put onto a CD-R (the R stands for recordable) disc. Even if the disc happened to be a CD-RW (RW means rewriteable), it’s not that simple to overlay one song with another, like you could easily do with cassettes. Perhaps the next version of the software will allow you to do that.

When I first began my CD recording – the word is burning, which I think is inappropriate as I never smelled smoke or saw flames – I had a CD with 15 songs already recorded and so I set out to add the next song. I did that but when I had finished, the counter on the recorder indicated that the next selection would be number 18. I was in manually recording mode in which the recording is completely in your hands, but somehow this still happened. The reason was that the machine will advance the selection counter if there are a certain number of seconds of silence while recording, that is, low volume level. The song that I was putting on disc did have a very quiet beginning.

I also ran into a few other disc problems while recording. Two of the CDs turned out to have disc errors and there was not a thing I could do about them except toss them into the trash. Sometimes you can recover the disc and I tried, but it was no use. I also had a few other apparently similar situations where it seemed like I would have to start recording the same music onto a new CD. Somehow I was lucky and recovered the disc so I didn’t have to toss it out – excuse me, recycle it.

As you all agree, audio has made great strides since the wax cylinder was used to preserve music for future generations. The vinyl disc and the reels of tapes that had great fidelity nevertheless were improved somewhat with the cassette and no good whatsoever came out of the eight track, except for those who marketed it. Fortunately the eighttrack tape is history and was not around that long. I didn’t ever own one and wasn’t thrilled with a song that had to be interrupted with a click before completion because of a need to change tracks. Now we have the CD, and music has reached another level of brilliance. There are those who swear that vinyl recordings are superior to CDs but I only remind them of the hiss and pops that were present even on playing a record for the very first time.

Technology for music is still not done, as improvements will be introduced with time. The television and video are also undergoing changes with high definition TV and I won’t go into details as I already spent an entire chapter on it. But let me remind you that any technology can be fine as long as we don’t become dependent on it. A few examples should illustrate my point. Somehow it doesn’t matter in which kind of technology you are involved, you can still become a slave. Consider the person who views very little television but one day decides that to keep up with his neighbor or some relative, he is going to buy a 48-inch screen. He makes the purchase but now feels so guilty that he has to spend more time as a couch potato to justify the money he dished out – pun intended.

Think about the person who decides on buying a lawn tractor to make his work in the yard easier. Let us say that the new device is delivered but now he needs a place to store it since his garage won’t hold both his car and the mower. So now he has to have a shed built; alternatively, he could do it himself. Suppose that the tractor breaks down and he himself can’t fix it. How will he haul it off for service? Maybe it can be picked up, but if not, and he has no truck to haul it, how will it get to the repair shop? He can’t hop on it and drive to the store since it’s broken down. Maybe a better question is, “Why did he buy this machine in the first place?” It could be because his lawn was so big, but then why did he buy property with so much acreage? This may have been done to “keep up with the Smiths” – his name is Jones.

This tractor could have another inconvenience. Suppose it also doubles as a snow blower. That could be a great feature except this involves converting that four wheeler from snow remover to grass cutter or vice versa two times each year. That may be an easy task but on the other hand, it could turn out to be something that the user dreads. Once again forethought has to be used or technology will get you. I bring this up because my father had this combination and twice a year required the dreaded switching of modes.

Besides our everyday lives, the world of sports has tried to take advantage of technology. Instead of hiring better officials, the NFL made the decision to use instant replay, with its multitude of cameras all over the field. Well, they have the means but not the method as indecision and mismanagement of the tools has been rampant over the last few years, with no sign of improvement. The results are huge delays and rarely do you see a call overturned. The NHL uses it also but it too has had the opportunity and not exercised it to ensure proper calls on the ice. Major league baseball still relies on the umpires to make competent calls and they seem to have carried on this tradition over the years. Perhaps it is time for an electronic strike zone to standardize balls and strikes in both leagues as well as from one official to the next.

One outcome of the advance of technology has been an apparent decline in basic skills. Indeed, today’s youth are quite computer intelligent but the ability to do simple math calculations such as addition and multiplication without some mechanical tool is not what it has been. Giving a clerk at the grocery store $10.03 for a $8.28 food bill at a time when the computer terminal is not functioning will mean that you will either not get back the right amount of change or it will be some time before you leave the premises. In many cases, the clerk will be completely baffled. Of course, you could get back more change than you should.

I talked about the obsolescence of the slide rule before, but it is not the only item that is on its way out. With digital watches and clocks, children will soon ask their parents what those time indicating devises with hands are. Today even the calculator seems to be going away as every PC has one built in, with many functions which many will never use, but over which math majors salivate. Nevertheless the rudimentary skills should not be neglected just because any of these calculations can be carried out with the personal computer. In the event of a breakdown there has to be a backup procedure and this seems to be lacking since simple multiplications can’t readily be done anymore.

Just as numerous calculations that were once done by humans have now been taken over by machines, it seems like the library might soon be moved aside in favor of the Internet. You already have books on-line but I really don’t want to sit in front of a PC reading anything, even email. I think many people feel the same way so we don’t have to worry about books and libraries becoming extinct. Not long ago a well-known writer came out with a book on the Web that you could download for a small fee. It was just the beginning of many installments to sell his latest book and there were conditions posted to keep up this process. I am not sure of the success of this endeavor, but it couldn’t have succeeded since I never heard of this being repeated.

I have already pointed out the frustration with downloads and it may not take that long to copy a novel, unless it’s one of the Lord of the Bada-bings trilogy. Once it is on your PC, you could read it but probably would not want to print it out and read it in the den. This effort to move it from disk to paper will create even more frustration so that by the time this effort is done, you may have no desire to read the book. You may have saved money by getting the book through the Internet, but was it really worth it? You still have to pay for electricity, ink and the paper. There’s more money in your wallet but having the book and not the desire to read it saves you absolutely nothing.

Of course, you could have ordered the book through E-Bay or some other Internet service and saved a few dollars and now you have the book and not the frustration as before. Technology has given people the opportunity to shopby getting

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