Friday, March 24, 2017

Expensive Wristwatches


This post was inspired by a recent New Yorker article, “Time Out,” by one of my favorite current writers, the Russian émigré Gary Shteyngart.  The article concerns Shteyngart’s growing obsession with expensive wristwatches, brought on by the 2016 presidential election and its outcome.

I was also inspired by a print ad for a wannabe elite wristwatch, the Stauer Magnificat II.

But most all, this post is the (perhaps inevitable) result of my long, troubled love affair with my own wristwatch.

Shteyngart’s article

As expected, I found Shteyngart’s article funny and touching.  (For a sample of his style of humor, click here.)  But I was also nonplussed.  I understand his angst, but not his reaction to it.  That is, I grasp that most people found the 2016 election exhausting and stressful, and millions of these people (roughly half the US population) are suffering even more given the outcome; based on Shteyngart’s background and his politics, it’s a no-brainer that he’d be one of these millions.  But his headlong plunge into retail therapy seems like a weird response.

Quick synopsis:  after a panic attack on the subway, during which staring at the soothing glide of the second hand on his $1000-dollar watch helped him cope, Shteyngart dropped over $4,000 on a fancier watch, a German-made Nomos Minimatik Champagner.  Just before Election Day, he says, “as my feelings of dread spiked, I decided to buy a Rolex.”  Then, to bolster himself for the inauguration, Shteyngart bought another expensive watch.  “I knew I had to stop,” he declares, “but I had an excuse.  I desperately needed a waterproof watch for swimming, my only form of exercise.”  WTF!?  His $4,000 Nomos isn’t even waterproof?

That’s not all.  He goes on to admit that his fancy watches don’t actually keep very good time.  The Nomos loses five seconds a day, and the Rolex gains fifteen.  This amazes me.  Apparently the lack of a quartz crystal, and thus the need for incredibly complicated workings, keeps these elite watches from doing their core job very well. 

Okay, that’s not fair.  The actual core job of these watches is simply to look great and be elite.  And that, for me, is the real irony.  The depth of Shteyngart’s existential angst about Trump presupposes that, like most hand-wringing Democrats, he is opposed to Trump’s unapologetic, ostentatious wealth and socioeconomic elitism.  So why would Shteyngart cope by laying out thousands of dollars on needlessly expensive and prestigious luxury products?  Shouldn’t his taste in watches be closer to Bernie Sanders’ than the Donald’s?  (Actually, Trump’s choice in watches is a bit more complicated than you’d think.)

I won’t dwell further on Shteyngart’s retail therapy because a) emotional trauma is a complicated and deeply personal affair, and b) this post is threatening to get political so I’d better nip that in the bud.

Stauer and the paradox of the luxury brand

I certainly don’t mean to imply that I’m above, beyond, or impervious to branding.  I don’t actively seek out prestigious brands, but I instinctively recoil at any product that’s trying to pass itself off as something fancier than it really is.  Which brings us to the Stauer Magnificat II.  I’ve been sneering at Stauer ads for years.  They seem targeted directly at people who suffer from acute brand envy and badly wish they could afford luxury and class.

The ad in question, which is very similar to the online version here, announces, “Upper Class Just Got Lower Priced,” and goes on to say, “Finally, luxury built for value—not for false status.” 

Okay guys, first of all, “luxury” and “value” are not compatible concepts.  They are opposite ends of a see-saw.  Second, there is no such thing as “false status.”  What would that even mean?  Status is a perception of somebody’s standing … errors in judgment are possible, of course, but that’s not the same as falsehood.  If “false status” means “trying to impersonate a higher status,” nobody could be guiltier than Stauer.  But they’re implying that wearing an actual Rolex is pretending to be high status.  How is that pretending?  You buy a Rolex, you put it on your wrist, and then—what?  You laugh maniacally like a criminal mastermind?  You think, “Hahahahaha, when I wear this Rolex, nobody will know that I’m actually lowbrow!”?  It’s as weird a concept as the evil giraffe

The ad goes on to ask, “Do you have enough confidence to pay less?”  It chides the wealthy person whom their target market presumably resents, declaring, “Status seekers are willing to overpay just to wear a designer name.”  This is absolutely true, but Stauer isn’t really an alternative.  If they were marketing their watch as “a really nice timepiece that looks great,” that would be fine, but they’re calling their product “upper class” and “luxury.” 

Look, Stauer people:  your watch is $87.50.  It might be a fine watch (okay, “timepiece”), but nobody will mistake the wearer for a 1-percenter.  If anybody even notices the watch and examines it, he’ll either ignore its lack of pedigree or snicker at it.  He won’t decide the wearer is horologically sophisticated, particularly confident, or in any way elite.

One thing I learned from Shteyngart’s article is that people who appreciate really expensive watches are not actually that ostentatious about it.  Their pleasure comes from their awareness of the delicate workings inside the watch that nobody can even see.  Shteyngart calls these workings “perversely opulent” and goes on to say, “Parts of the mechanism are finished by hand but are never meant to be seen  by the owner; only the watchmaker and subsequent watch repairers will see the work in full.”  In the case of Stauer, a watchmaker didn’t make the watch, and the watch wouldn’t be worth ever repairing.  Noone will see anything, if there’s even anything to see.

The painstaking human effort required to produce these watches, Shteyngart contends, is also central to their allure:  “The Nomos was not a quartz watch built by robots in a giant Asian factory.  A German man or woman with real German problems had constructed this piece, blue screw by blue screw.”  This completely flies in the face of the Stauer ad, which boasts, “By using advanced computer design and robotics, we have been able to drastically reduce the price on this precision movement.”  Yeah, you and everybody else producing run-of-the-mill, non-luxury, value-oriented cheap consumer goods.

Shall I bag on Stauer some more?

Let’s have a closer look at the Magnificat II itself.  (Perhaps you’re wondering:  was there an original Magnificat?  Not that I can find.  Somebody in marketing must have determined that “II” at the end would increase the perceived luxury and class of this timepiece.)  I enjoyed the amateur reviews for this.  One review is titled “A watch that is ok.”  I love this headline.  It’s so sad, and so much more profound than “OK watch.”  I’m somehow put in mind of Eeyore.  A donkey who is depressed.

The reviewer goes on to declare breathlessly, “I was so happy but after a few months I have one problem with the watch, in the morning when I get up to look at the time the time is off and have to reset the time and I have to look at my phone to see what the real time is and I was even late for work when I relied on the time my Stauer Magnificat II Watch had.”

Another reviewer seems happy enough—he gives the Stauer five stars—but, to my mind, inadvertently damns it with faint praise:  “I set this watch to my smart cell phone time and today I checked it again. Still accurate to the minute.”  Um … isn’t the gold standard “accurate to the second”?  Are we supposed to be impressed that this watch lost or gained less than a minute in a day?  (The Magnificat II, like the really expensive watches it’s trying to be, is mechanical instead of quartz, which seems like a really poor choice—like buying grocery store sushi or ordering puffer fish at a culinary academy.) 

The reviewer goes on to say, “Great valve, great looks and will buy again.”  I was trying to figure out what valve a watch could possibly have before realizing the reviewer meant “value.”  (Maybe he was trying to be fancy in the Classical Latinate manner, à la  E PLVRIBVS VNVM?)  Moving on to “will buy again,” this suggests loyalty, sure, but doesn’t it also imply that the reviewer expects this watch to have a short life?

My own beloved wristwatch

Honestly, between a) being a lifelong cheap bastard, b) despising the pathetic yearning that causes people to pretend to be wealthy, and yet c) loving well-designed, well-machined stuff like racing bikes, I don’t know what kind of watch I’d buy if I had to buy one.  Fortunately, I haven’t had to grapple with this decision.  I never had to shop for my beloved watch—instead, it kind of found me.

(It’s not like I never bought a watch, of course.  After the inevitable cheap digital Casios of my youth, I decided as a young adult to buy a fairly cool but also humble Benrus analog wristwatch.  I got it for a song because it was a display model and the box & instructions had been lost.  I liked this watch just fine until the original burly rubbery band broke and I had to replace it with this crappy two-tone metal thing that looked like it would smell like an old man.  Meanwhile, the glass face of the Benrus got pretty scratched up over time, to the point of being a bit cloudy.  Still, it never occurred to me to replace this watch.)

Out of nowhere, in 2002, I won a big contest at work, which normally would have resulted in a lavish vacation to an exotic locale where I would get to meet the president of the company.  The problem was, the president at this time was in hot water with the SEC, and the company was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, so nobody was attending lavish corporate junkets.  So instead of the normal prize, I got 1,000 “e-motivation” points, which worked kind of like cereal box tops—you saved them up and exchanged them for valuable prizes.

What was I going to get?  This was an enormous number of points.  I could have had a whole slew of lawn furniture, a mountain bike, or a giant TV, or a bunch of random Hammacher-Schlemmer-ish stuff I didn’t want.  I felt I had to choose something fast, though, because any day the company could go under and the whole e-motivation program could be shut down, its points becoming as useless as my company stock options.  So I rashly threw 250 points at a 512 MB MP3 player, and the rest at a Swiss-made Tag Heuer wristwatch.

In retrospect, the watch was a stroke of genius:  almost 15 years later, this very watch can be purchased used for more than twice what the e-motivation catalog originally valued it at. The MP3 player, meanwhile, is basically useless and inarguably inferior in every respect to a modern one you can buy for about $30.  A watch like mine ends up being a good investment:  it’s impervious to obsolescence, and is as beautiful today as the day I got it, because the face is made of sapphire (meaning only a diamond could scratch it) and the rest is stainless steel.

Does my watch have a soothing sweep second hand, like Shteyngart’s watch (and the Stauer Magnificat II)?  No, its second hand ticks one second at a time, like that of a cheap Timex or a fake Rolex.  Is the movement mechanical?  No, it’s quartz, which I guess the true watch aficionado would find embarrassing.  Do I care?  No, because this watch keeps almost perfect time!  It loses a second about every two months!  (I end up setting it only when I change time zones, or to accommodate Daylight Saving Time.)

It’s kind of hard to imagine why anybody would prefer a mechanical (vs. quartz) movement.  If you stop wearing your mechanical watch for a few days, it runs down and has to be re-synched and wound up.  Plus, as I mentioned, mechanical movements keep crappy time.  Okay, fine, there’s no battery to replace, but check this out:  not only does my Tag Heuer’s battery last about five years, but the watch came with lifetime free battery replacement, by a super fancy outfit in San Francisco that actually pressure tests the seals to make sure, after they put the back back on, that the watch is still water resistant to 200 meters (which is far deeper than I would ever swim, by the way).

Okay, I get that you’re starting to be bored and annoyed by how pleased I am with my watch and myself.  Don’t worry, as always, there’s…

Trouble in paradise

Not everything about this watch is perfect.  For one thing, the bezel stopped clicking at some point and now just spins, which is kind of a bummer.  Also, this watch has a bracelet design feature that backfired.  The bracelet has two modes:  regular and extended, the latter giving you a bit of slack to fit over the thick neoprene sleeve of your wetsuit.  As if!  People buy diving watches because diving watches are cool, not because anybody actually scuba dives.  (Same deal as the basketball shoes I wore in college.)  A tiny metal tab on the little extended bracelet doodad broke, so the bracelet would pop open, and this couldn’t be fixed.  The price of a new bracelet—$250—surely reflects a built-in luxury tax which I am congenitally incapable of paying.  So I decided to epoxy the bracelet extender shut, which is a bit kludgy and makes the watch harder to put on.

Meanwhile, five or six years after I got the watch (which was two or three years after the warranty expired), the date counter stopped working.  This is bad enough by itself, but it carries an extra sting because the date also stopped working on my Benrus, decades ago.  That watch was still under warranty so I sent it in for repair with a clearly written note explaining the problem; waited for weeks and weeks; and then got it back unrepaired with a work order that read “CHECK ALL HANDS DOES NOT ADVANCE.”  The technician must have watched the hour, minute, and second hands for a minute or two, shrugged (or some other equivalent of “Okay, I checked”) and mailed it back without ever considering that the date hand might be frozen.  So now, whenever I reflexively check the date on my Tag Heuer before remembering it doesn’t work, the stupid little voice in my head says, “CHECK ALL HANDS DOES NOT ADVANCE.”

The last time I had my watch’s battery replaced I asked how much it would cost to fix the date.  This put a real gleam in the jeweler’s eye, and though I don’t remember the precise figure he quoted, it was somewhere in the realm of “your firstborn child.”  Bottom line, this is too fancy a watch for the likes of me to properly service.  (Sure, one could argue that since I paid nothing for this watch—other than the income tax on it—that I am already ahead of the game and can afford to splurge on a repair.  But that’s just not how my cheapskate brain works.)

But wait, there’s more!  The big problem is, I suffer from constant dread:  what happens if I lose this watch?  What then?  Normally, the fact of owning something expensive means that at some point you convinced yourself that you deserved it and could afford it.  This means you can replace it as necessary.  For example, if my $1,000 bicycle wheels were to wear out or be destroyed in a fiery wreck, I’d have no problem going out and buying a new pair.  Sure, the outlay would sting, but the decision is a no-brainer.  I’m a bike geek, and that’s the cost of doing business.

But with this watch, I never made that decision.  I never took that bold step of saying, “Yes, I’m worth it.”  It would be difficult to decide this.  I mean, what am I, some kind of dandy?  Am I the slave to status that Stauer so routinely mocks?  Is it fair to my children to make them wipe with regular old toilet paper instead of raw silk, just so I can be all fancy with a decadent Swiss watch?

Given this mindset, which despite my existentialist leanings seems as unalterable as the size of my wrist, the only way to continue having a nice watch is to own this one forever and take good care of it—because there are no do-overs with this thing, no chance of another 1,000 e-motivation points falling in my lap.  The watch feels like a miraculous a gift from Fate, like my wife and kids are.  I didn’t buy my family; I was blessed with it.  This watch represents a one-time chance to live way above my station, so I better hold onto it.

Am I exaggerating this anxiety?  No, and here’s an anecdote to show you I’m serious.  Last summer I was in Colorado on vacation, and played some full-contact water basketball with my brother and my kids at a swimming pool.  Then we went to the diving pool and slid down this giant slide a bunch of times, then went next door to the grown-up pool, swam a few laps there, relaxed in the hot tub, then went back to the kiddie pool.  Suddenly I realized—OMG!  Where’s my watch?!

In a panic, my brother and I swam all over that pool, combing it for my lost watch.  (Yes, my brother was actually in a panic too, because he also wears a Tag Heuer and could fully relate to my situation.)  Amazingly, I found my watch (minus a broken pin).  My relief was twofold:  1) that I was able to find it, and 2) that I had even noticed in time that it was missing. 

Upon reflection, though, I realized that it was inevitable I’d realize my watch wasn’t on my wrist.  There is a process that runs continuously in my brain from the moment I put that watch on until the moment I take it off, that checks for the watch against my skin.  I’m reminded of this mental process whenever I go through airport security:  after taking off my watch and storing it safely in my bag, I go to check the time a minute later, see my bare wrist, and panic briefly before remembering I’d stashed the watch away.

It’s kind of like how a PC has a job that runs around every five seconds or so checking all the USB ports to see if something has been plugged in.  How much RAM does that USB-checking process eat up?  And what is the equivalent in terms of brain power devoted to checking for my watch?  And given how much I always have on my mind already, as a working stiff and husband and parent, doesn’t this kickass watch start to look like an unnecessary burden?

Yep, it sure does.  But what can I do?  I love my wristwatch, and that word “love” carries with it all the burden we bear in looking after everyone and everything we love.  A burden, yes, but not one I wish to give up.  In this context, Shteyngart’s watch collecting strikes me as a bit sad … if he loved that first luxury watch, why would he buy a second and a third?  If he’s looking for a watch he can really love, the way I love mine, I don’t think he’ll get there.  To extend my analogy, he’s kind of like the womanizer who leaves in his wake a series of neglected bastard children.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

From the Archives – The Crystal Ball


One of the unfortunate habits of the middle-aged is our tendency to bemoan the decay of our minds and bodies.  It’s like picking a scab that, rather than healing over, grows all the time.  We can’t remember things, we’re always tired, we’re putting on weight, and blah, blah, blah.

How refreshing, then, to look back at my prime, almost thirty years ago, and see that I was bitching and moaning about my decline even then.  Since I was obviously possessed of a fine mind and body in those days, but didn’t’ want to admit it, I now have hope that my current complaints are similarly exaggerated.

Better yet, looking back at the story below, I can’t help but admit that my writing has improved over time.  Join with me as I mock my younger self.

Letter from UCSB – “The Crystal Ball” – ca. November, 1988         

Well, I took a good, hard look at myself today and I’m not too pleased.  I got my French midterm back:  84%.  Had it been a hard test, I would have still been miffed, but might have cut myself some slack.  But this was a really easy test; I’d made every dumb mistake in the book.  I wasn’t worried about the grade, but only about what it might mean:  I’m obviously losing my ability to think clearly.

And now that I think about it, my mind isn’t the only part of me in decline.  My gut has been getting awfully big this year.  No matter what I do, I can’t seem to get the weight off.  When I went back home last summer, I got a lot of crap for my spare tire.  I tried to deny it, but it is obviously becoming a problem.  Even my cycling has suffered lately.  I didn’t ride much at all last week.  The only thing I’m getting better at is making excuses.  What could be the root cause of my descent toward mental and physical decrepitude?  Probably a bad attitude and low motivation.

I figured maybe a shrink could help me with this.  But psychiatrists charge too much, and besides, so many people who go into therapy never make it back out.  But I heard about this medium named Wanda who is supposedly very insightful.  For something like 20 bucks, she has helped lots of college kids, according to this tall goony guy I ran into in the University Center.  I was looking at the bulletin board and caught the guy looking at me looking at the bulletin board, which was kind of creepy, but he did hone right in on my mental/emotional distress, which showed more insight than my friends had.  So I decided to check out this medium for myself.

The goony guy drew me a map, or I’d never have found her tent.  It was a greasy, frail, ratty old thing in the middle of a field west of campus.  Every so often, it was said, the cops go and bust her for vagrancy, so she has had to move quite a bit.  This hadn’t done wonders for her tent, but I wasn’t there to pick up tips on interior decorating.  The medium herself was more like a large.  She seemed like a pretty wretched old woman, with long, grey, stringy hair that fell in front of her eyes.  “Wanda?” I asked.  She gave a little nod, as if to say, “Who else?”

I mumbled a question about personal coaching and insight into my soul, etc.  She just stared at me, as if she were truly sad that I’d shown up in her tent.  Finally she spoke:  “I don’t do anything but show you the future.  You wanna see it, great—you’re a client.”  She chewed on her hair as she spoke.  Her voice was low and gravelly, as if she had smoked a pack a day for the last ten years.  I knew, however, that she wasn’t a smoker, since cigarettes would have covered up her hideous breath, which smelled a bit like mold and a bit like the thick, mustard-colored ointment my dad uses.

Wanda gestured to a card table flanked on one side by a little wooden stool and the other by a lawn chair.  I sat on the stool.  On the table was a lump covered by a black, oily cloth.  With a practiced, but half-assed, flourish, Wanda snapped back the cloth, exposing a crystal ball the size of a grapefruit.  Wanda intoned, “My crystal ball can tell you all, how high you climb, how low you fall.”  I couldn’t suppress a little snort.  Dropping into the lawn chair, she continued, “Fine, I’ll spare you the incantations.  Five bucks for the first minute.  A buck a minute after that.  Just look at the ball and if you like what you see, keep the green energy flowing in my direction.”

I handed her my five spot.  I’d been clutching it, all wadded up, in my hand and it was damp with sweat.  Wanda stuffed it down the front of her gown, but she wasn’t wearing a bra, so it continued southward.  Reflexively, I watched its descent.  It stopped around her belly, which I didn’t want to linger on, so I kept dropping my gaze until it reached the edge of her dress, which was almost black from dragging on the dirt floor of her tent.

I raised my gaze to Wanda’s face.  “Don’t look at me—you’re on the clock!” she said.  “The ball!  Look at the ball!”  For half a minute, I stared at the ball and saw nothing.  I decided I’d been had.  There was nothing happening on the surface of the “crystal,” which looked like nothing more than frosted glass.  Closer observation revealed a crude seam and a tiny “Made in Taiwan” label.  I glared at Wanda.  “Fifteen seconds,” she growled.  I was about to protest, but then a faint glimmer appeared on the ball.  It resolved into a clear image of myself, sitting in my French classroom.  I slipped Wanda another five-spot and stared intently, in disbelief.  The vision in the ball was like magic.

The ball showed me sitting in my French classroom, drumming my fingers nervously on the table.  The teacher was passing back exams.  “I know I failed this final,” said Molly, the blond girl next to me.  “I didn’t study at all.”  She snapped her gum.  I was in love with her.  This was not important, though, in the moment.  The teacher handed her her test.  Molly had scored a 92%.  The teacher handed me my test.  It was a 68%.

I jumped in my seat.  It’s true!  My life is unraveling!  I returned my attention to the ball, staring until my eyes watered.

I was riding in a bike race.  I seemed to be keeping up, but I was with obviously riding with a group of beginners.  As we rode into the mountains, my breathing became faster and heavier.  The entire group rode away from me.  I stared remorsefully at my stomach.  It sagged lower than I had ever seen before.  The elastic waistband on my shorts was so tight it was digging in.  I took both hands off the handlebars, seized the waistband, and ripped it in two.  Now my belly was liberated, but my shorts began falling down in back.  I reached back to pull them up, and realized to my horror that the crack between my buttocks had climbed at least an inch up my back since the night before.

My heart skipped a beat and I looked up from the ball.  Wanda removed her index finger from her ear and stared at the fingernail, which was long, chipped, and dirty.  “I want to see farther ahead!” I cried.  She pointed indifferently towards a button on the base of the ball, labeled “>>.”  Fast Forward.  I pressed it for a few seconds and released. 

I was in a bike shop, trying to remove a crank from a wretched old Peugeot.  My physique was somewhere between E.T. and Moomintroll.  My jaw hung slack, as I’d become a mouth-breather.  My legs were somehow thin and flabby at the same time.  I grunted slightly as I shoved on a crank extractor.  The threads in the crank I was trying to pull were stripping rapidly.  Realizing my catastrophic failure to have removed the fixing bolt, I flung my wrench across the shop, cursed, and spat on the floor.  A young man in a clean shop apron, who was working on a beautiful pro racing bike, said nothing and left the room.  A moment later, an older man walked into the shop, shaking his head, clapped me on the shoulder, and said, “Dana … I’m lettin’ ya go.”

The crystal ball winked out.  Wanda was staring at me, her hand out.  I gave her my checkbook and pressed Fast Forward again.

A man was lying slumped in a dumpster, clutching an almost empty bottle of Yukon Jack.  His hair was past his shoulders.  There was no way to know what color his ragged overcoat had originally been.  His shoes didn’t match.  A bag of garbage flew into the dumpster and landed near his head.  His face was haggard, filthy, and—mine.  “NOOOOOOOOOO!”  I yelled.  I seized the crystal ball and threw it at Wanda.  It missed, and shattered on the dirt floor of the tent.  Wanda flew into a rage.  “You little bastard!” she shrieked, and came at me across the table, her arms outstretched, her long fingernails bared.  The table collapsed, and we grappled atop the wreckage. 

Wanda had her hands around my neck.  She was immensely, supernaturally strong.  I couldn’t get any air.  She herself began to wheeze.  Her hands were getting sweaty.  A tiny ridge of my skin found its way between her thumbnails, and then something amazing happened:  a perfectly ripe whitehead burst, discharging its seed-like head on her nail.  She instinctively recoiled and frantically wiped her hands on her filthy gown.  I took this opportunity to make a break for it, charging the light leaking through the flap of her tent.  I ran and ran and never looked back. 

Was the crystal ball’s forecast binding?  Or was there still time to turn my life around?  The next day was Saturday and I spent eight hours in the library, studying with a fervor I’d never before had.  Then, exhausted, I snatched up a copy of the school newspaper, seeking a poorly-written story as diversion.  The front page headline read, “VAGRANT DIES OF VELVEETA POISONING.”  I wiped sweat off of my forehead and went back to hitting the books.

Later—how much later, half an hour? an hour?—I found myself waking up, slumped in the study carrel with a stiff neck, a puddle of drool forming on my French textbook.  I checked my watch: 7:28 P.M.  I looked around for the newspaper article on the gypsy.  Had it really said Velveeta poisoning?  But that headline was nowhere to be seen.  The lead story was “UCSB TO OFFER ‘COED STUDIES’ MAJOR IN ‘89.”  The gypsy, the tent, the crystal ball, the visions of hopeless decline … they had all just been a dream! 

And my poor score on the French midterm … could that have been a dream, too?  I flipped open my binder.  The exam peered out at me, with “84%” written at the top in red ink.  Damn!  Still … things could always be worse.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Cough Drops & Mimetic Theory

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and an instance of shocking grossness.


Does advertising work?  Clearly.  Does it work on me?  I’d like to think it doesn’t (like most people, I imagine).  But advertising is complicated.  In this post I examine the matter by looking at a product brand—Halls cough drops—that I am loyal to, both because of and in spite of its manufacturer’s methods of hawking it.

A bit of history

Back when I was a teenager, when we all watched TV because it was all we had, Halls ran TV commercials. Most, such as this ad from 1979, were variations on a single script, which ran something like this:

MAN #1:  “Wow, smell that bacon!”
MAN #2:  “Nothing can penetrate this stuffy nose.” (Because he has a cold, this comes out as “Nothig can penedrate dis stubby dose.”)
WOMAN:  “This can!”  (She holds out a package of Halls.)
MAN #1:  “Halls Mentho-Lyptus?”
WOMAN:  “Mm-hmm.  With vapor action!”  (MAN #2 is shown undergoing vapor action treatment, with cheesy special effects and the helpful caption “PENETRATING VAPOR ACTION.”)
WOMAN:  “Halls vapor action penetrates deep into clogged nasal passages to help your stuffy nose feel clearer, while Halls soothes your throat to help your cough!”
MAN #2 (after using Halls, and while inhaling deeply, with evident satisfaction, through his nose):  “Hey, this is somethin’!”
MAN #1:  “The bacon?”
MAN #2:  “No, the Halls!”

The commercial I remember best involved the regained ability to smell roasting chestnuts.  I actually envied that guy with the cold, because I’d never had the opportunity to smell roasting chestnuts in the first place.

So did this ad work?  Not exactly—at least, not right away.  For one thing, I was so healthy back then I never needed cough drops.  But the commercial did get my attention, obviously.  And why did it?  Because, even for its day, it was pretty corny.  I guess that’s what drew me to it—the unabashed earnestness of it, which I respected even as I mocked it.  (Of course I mocked it—I was a teenager.  I mocked everything, as do all teens everywhere.)

In college I started having frequent sore throats and congestion (which afflict me to this day).  So, remembering the Halls ad, did I run right out and buy that product?  Nope.  Being highly skeptical of ads, and probably even then having a natural desire to punish companies for advertising at all, I bought some other brand of cough drop I’d never seen advertised.  They were cherry.  They didn’t work worth a damn.  I don’t think they had any active ingredient.  Only after they failed me did I think back to that commercial.

I wondered:  could Mentho-Lyptus be an actual drug?  And could vapor action really be a thing?  My back to the wall, I was just crazy enough to try it.  And guess what?  This Halls shit is for real.  The cough drops do work.  Halls actually has a bona-fide active ingredient, menthol.  (Is it fair to say I totally respect the company?  No, I won’t go that far … they make other non-medicated products, Halls Super Defense and Halls Breezers, that are essentially candy masquerading as medicine, which is pointless and confusing.)

My brand loyalty to Halls has held up.  My wife sometimes gets seduced by Euro or boutique-y products, such as Ricola or these weird Thayers Slippery Elm lozenges.  Ricola are basically candy and the Slippery Elm taste and smell like the ‘70s.  (You know, like the floor of somebody’s filthy old Ford Pinto after the AC has flooded the food-littered carpet.)  These other products don’t work.  I always go back to Halls.

(By the way, I did not get any free product or compensation of any kind for promoting this brand.  I think I’d be legally required to disclose this if I did.)

Past vs. present

Okay, fine, a stupid ad in the late ‘70s worked on one guy—big deal, right?  But wait:  if you’re old like me, you’ll recall that many, perhaps most ads used to be sincere and informative like that.  They were a basic appeal to reason, and showcased attractive features of the advertised product.  This camera is easy to use!  This car gets great gas mileage!  This lite beer won’t slow you down!  Peanuts in peanut butter nougat!  Four out of five dentists surveyed recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum!

I, for one, feel nostalgia for those days.  Needless to say, other than Shane Company radio spots (which I adore), ads are much slicker now and often make no outward promises of any kind.  They just show really sexy, happening people juxtaposed with (and not necessarily even using) the advertised product.  Instead of gas mileage figures we get “the heartbeat of America.”  Instead of “flame broiled!” we get “I’m lovin’ it!” 

Okay, I’ll admit these examples could be a bit dated already (I don’t watch TV … sue me).  So I googled “most popular TV ad” and got this one, for the web domain company Squarespace.  It’s a perfect illustration of what I’m talking about: it shows the actor John Malkovich getting really frustrated because some other John Malkovich has already taken the domain  Naturally, the viewer is expected to share the actor’s frustration. But think about it:  aren’t we much more like the average joe—in this case the mere mortal who snapped up—than we are like the famous actor?  And since all domains are first-come-first-served, isn’t this scenario utterly irrelevant to the value of Squarespace?  Yes, of course—but only by old-fashioned ad standards.  In our modern advertising era, these things are beside the point.

Why this shift in advertising approach?  Hard to say, but it seems like modern consumers are just too cool to be pandered to in the traditional check-out-these-great-features! way.  Maybe today’s ironic, knowing, sneering ads have shaped us this way.  Maybe this modern mindset, that cares more about what this product will make us into, is just a natural extension of our growing insecurity in this youth-and-beauty obsessed culture.

Rather than continue this indulgent bout of mere speculation, I’ll share with you now the literary theory of mimetic desire, as described in a great book, The Possessed, by Elif Batuman.  The theory comes from René Girard, a Stanford professor in the ‘60s, and was (as Batuman puts it) “formulated in opposition to the Nietzschean notion of autonomy as the key to human self-fulfillment.”  Now, I hope you know more about this Nietzschean notion than I do, because I’m not going to explain it for you.  I’m afraid to read Nietzsche, because in my experience the people who admire and cite him are usually tools.  I’m not alone in this; consider this cartoon by the wonderful Gahan Wilson:

Just think of autonomy in general and Nietzsche’s popular uber-mensch concept, and that should be enough for purposes of contrast.

Batuman goes on to say
According to Girard, there is in fact no such thing as human autonomy or authenticity. All of the desires that direct our actions in life are learned or imitated from some Other, to whom we mistakenly ascribe the autonomy lacking in ourselves… The perceived desire of the Other confers prestige on the object, rendering it desirable. For this reason, desire is usually less about its purported object than about the Other; it is always “metaphysical,” in that it is less about having, than being.  The point isn’t to possess the object, but to be the Other.  (That’s why so many advertisements place less emphasis on the product’s virtues than on its use by some beautiful and autonomous-looking person; the consumer craves not the particular brand of vodka, but the being of the person who chose it.)
At the risk of warping this explanation a bit, I’ll try to say it more succinctly:  ads have gone from “Enjoy this product” to “Be someone else—someone good.”  In terms of modern insecurity-based advertising, L’Oréal was an early adopter with its slogan “Because I’m worth it.” This message may seem affirming, but it’s also a challenge:  “If you don’t spring for this product, you’re accepting that you’re not worth it; i.e., you’re beneath it.”  Moreover, you’re beneath the beautiful woman presenting the product.  You’re beneath the Other.

It probably goes without saying, but I despise the cynical whatever-works ethos behind this approach.  I love this indictment, from the TV writer George Meyer:  “I hate [advertising] because it irresponsibly induces discontent in people for one myopic goal, and then it leaves the debris of that process out there in the culture.”

Where does this leave Halls?

Let’s face it:  products like cough drops will never be sexy.  It will never be possible to advertise them in the modern way, and the corny old-school style of product-feature-based advertising would be laughed at today (unless somebody were to tweak the ad to be ironic and meta and knowing, which would only work like once).  So how do humble products like Halls hold their ground in this Brave New World?

For one thing, manufacturers can put messages on the product packaging itself to reinforce the consumer’s choice to purchase it.  These messages need not be limited to product information.  For example, a message might take something humdrum and unpleasant like a cold and make it seem empowering.  I’ve actually seen this more than once.  As I’ve noted before, a Kleenex box included this consumer-oriented text:  “Say goodbye to the stiff upper lip.  Tell calm, cool and collected to take a hike.  When tons of stuff stuffs up your nose, blow it loud and blow it proud!” 

Halls has also gotten into this game, via inspirational messages (A pep talk in every drop™) printed on their wrappers:

So you won’t have to squint, here are some example messages: 
  • The show must go on. Or work.
  • Seize the day.
  • Nothing you can’t handle.
  • Get back in the game.
  • Impress yourself.
  • Tough is your middle name.
  • Be resilient.
  • Hi-five yourself.
  • Be unstoppable.
  • Elicit a few “wows” today.
These aren’t ads per se, but they serve approximately the same purpose:  using consumer-oriented messaging to build brand loyalty via positive associations.  Do these miniature pep talks fit the modern advertising model?  Sort of … after all, they’re pithy instead of earnest, and slightly snide (e.g., “The show must go on. Or work.”).

On the flip side, this way of reaching consumers doesn’t offer any version of the Other.  Where illness is concerned, you can only present the consumer with a better version of himself (e.g., one who is productive even when fighting a cold).  After all, it’s not like you can just show sexy people frolicking on a beach saying, “Look at me not having a sore throat anymore!” or “Look at me being able to smell the sunscreen!”  The hundreds of people surrounding us who don’t have a cold aren’t obviously superior; after all, everybody gets colds.

As I see it, the Halls pep-talk messages are more in the Nietzschean model:  eliciting wows, being unstoppable, and impressing yourself invoke the idea of the authentic, autonomous uber-mensch.  (At least, as far as I can tell given my glancing acquaintance with Nietzche’s ideology.)

So if memetic theory is in opposition to the Nietzchean notion of autonomy, and I hate the way memetic theory is applied to advertising, and the Halls pep talk campaign embraces Nietzschean autonomy and thus opposes memetic theory, does that mean I admire or respect the Halls pep talk campaign?

Well, no.  I can and do dislike either—perhaps any—approach to advertising that leverages behavioral theory in order to subconsciously manipulate consumers.  Moreover, the pep talk snippets on the Halls wrappers are disappointingly trite, predictable, and tame.  Halls could do a much better job with these, not just by getting back to product information but by being funnier, more varied, and more surprising.  I could really get into this pep talk stuff if the wrappers had stuff like this: 
But you know what?  I’m glad I don’t like the Halls pep talks.  I’d rather be confident that I’m using this (or any) product only because it works, as opposed to admitting that I’m swayed to any degree by a company’s consumer-oriented messaging.  I won’t be Madison Avenue’s bitch!

Postscript: a few Halls suggestions

As I said before, I rely on Halls a lot of the time.  All matters of complicated theory aside, here are some practical tips to maximize your cold relief: 
  • Buy the oval-shaped cough drops in the bag, not the square ones in the stick.  The ovals are easier to suck.
  • Buy the sugar-free Halls.  No sense letting sugar foul your teeth (especially if you use these at bedtime).  Also, over time the sugar ones start to dissolve and get sticky, so they’re harder to unwrap.  The sugar-free ones don’t do this.
  • Get the honey-flavored Halls because they have the most Mentho-Lyptus. 
  • Don’t mess around with Ricola, no matter how compelling their ads are.  Seriously, Ricola cough drops don’t work, and sucking them won’t make you Euro or “authentic.”
For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Newbie’s Guide to Poison Oak and Poison Ivy

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and comprehensive grossness.


Maybe you’ve never had a rash from poison oak or poison ivy.  I didn’t either, until recently when Mother Nature caught up to me with a vengeance.  If your avoidance techniques and/or home remedies aren’t cutting it, you might get some benefit from this post.  On the other hand, if you seem immune to this malady, or if your techniques are totally effective, you may yet enjoy reading about my suffering, and feeling smug in your superiority.

What are poison oak and poison ivy?

Poison oak and poison ivy are plants in the Toxicodendron family.  Do not fail to note the word “toxic” hiding in there.  And before you go casting aspersions on oak trees, note that poison oak isn’t actually oak.  Some dumbass called it that and the name stuck.  (If I seem grumpy, it’s because large swaths of my skin are grossly red and itchy and have been for over a week.)

Here are two photos of poison oak.  One is pretty good and should show you what it looks like.  The other photo is pretty blurry, which is more realistic—usually you don’t get a clear view because you’re chasing a dog or a ball or have lost control of your mountain bike, and you only realize it’s poison oak after it’s too late.

Half the time, when people say “poison oak” or “poison ivy” they’re referring to the rash that these diabolical plants can give you.  The technical term for this rash is “urushiol-induced contact dermatitis.”  (Why hasn’t somebody come up with a catchier term for this, along the lines of saying “the clap” for an STD?  You got me.)  Using the plant name to refer to the ailment goes back at least as far as 1963, when the song “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” included the line, “I went hiking with Joe Spivey, he developed poison ivy.” For the purposes of this essay I’m going to refer to urushiol-induced contact dermatitis as “rash” or “hell-rash.”

Is this rash contagious?

For God’s sake, no!  This myth about contagiousness is oddly persistent, probably because the hell-rash is so hideous to behold.  People must lose their normal faculty for healthy skepticism when they look at the disgusting blistering and pus-oozing sores on your skin.  Here’s the full story on how this rash develops: 
  • The oils on the leaves of the actual plant can spread like crazy, so you want to be very careful around the plants (more on this later).  But…
  • Once you have the hell-rash, it will seem to spread across your body gradually, creating the impression that you’re causing this spread, but…
  • The urushiol oil spreads only until you shower, and no matter how much you scratch at the ensuing rash, and no matter how much pus you may cause to smear around (isn’t this disgusting?!), you won’t spread the rash.  It’s not the pus that causes the rash, it’s the oil, which you surely washed off long before you saw the rash (but obviously not soon enough).
  • There is no way to spread the rash from one person to another, but you could spread the oil to another person if you got really friendly right after a hike (i.e., before your shower).
Will this post include some gnarly photos of the hell-rash?

No, I wouldn’t do that to you.  It’s bad enough having to look at this rash.  I’m not even going to describe it to you, though that would be a fun literary exercise.  Suffice to say, the right photo or description would have you PUKING FOR DECADES.  I was actually so worried about the severity of my rash, I even considered going to the doctor, until I showed it to a fellow mountain biker who said, rather casually, “I’ve seen worse.”

How long does the rash take to develop?

The rash can take anywhere from like 12 hours to 10 days (maybe even longer) to develop.  This might have to do with how sensitive you are.  Or maybe it’s just one of those things.

Anecdotally, the rash may be brought on by noting a friend’s terrible rash and thinking, “Sucks to be you!”  That’s what happened to me.  A week after a bike race at a notoriously Toxicodendron-infested course I was on a team ride and saw this other racer’s rash in full bloom, and thanked my lucky stars at my apparent immunity, and then BOOM!two or three days later I woke up with blood all over my legs.  I’d evidently scratched the crap out of my hell-rash, in my sleep.  Several days later I got an even worse rash on my left arm, starting at the wrist.  (Could this have been a separate exposure?  Sure it could!)

How can I avoid getting this rash?

A surefire way to avoid Toxicodendron plants is to stay indoors at all times, and avoid snuggling with a hiker until he or she has showered.  Unfortunately, staying indoors all the time leads to sloth, lack of muscle tone, depression, arthritis (via video gaming), brain-drain (via passive video entertainment), and myopia (from too much reading).  This indoor lifestyle can even lead to rickets.

The fact that in over 47 years I never had a reaction to poison oak/ivy, despite doing a lot of hiking and mountain biking among these plants, may be a simple matter of luck (more on this later).  That said, I have almost always taken steps to minimize my risk, and maybe they are effective—so here goes: 
  • Cover as much of your skin as possible; i.e., long pants and sleeves when hiking, and arm warmers and leg warmers when mountain biking.  (It helps if you live in a cool climate, obviously.) 
  • Watch out for the plant, though this is pretty tricky because a) many plants resemble poison oak; b) it’s practically everywhere; c) even when there are no leaves, the stupid twigs carry the oil; d) the oil gathers in puddles which splash on you when you’re mountain biking; and e) when you’re biking you can’t always avoid crashing into a large clump of this or that Toxicodendron and/or whacking against it like a slalom skier against a gate.
  • As soon as you get home from your outdoor adventure, a) take a cool shower (cool because hot water will open up your pores, allowing the oil to spread), and b) wash all the clothing you wore because the oil can stay on it, spreading to you and/or the person who does your laundry for you, you lucky dog.
  • Use Tecnu, an anti-urushiol skin cleanser.  (Note:  I haven’t tried this yet but several mountain bikers have recommended it.  I’ll update this post later when I have some firsthand intel on this.)
Are some people immune to the Toxicodendron hell-rash?

It seems like some people are indeed immune to this awful rash, but I have always suspected you simply get some number of freebies before your body decides it’s allergic to the urushiol oil.  I’ve done my best to avoid it all my life, which might have extended my grace period.  There have certainly been times when I came in contact with poison oak without suffering any consequences.  One time my wife said, “Dana, look down,” and I discovered I was standing right in a big clump of poison oak, while wearing shorts.  A couple months ago I crashed into it on my bike.  Neither time did I develop a rash.  It’s possible this was due to my cool-shower regimen but probably I just got lucky.

The case I have now hit me about ten days after my race.  It’s worth noting that this was the first time I was unable to shower right after my exposure.

If you still think you’re special and immune to this rash, consider this chilling tale: at summer camp back in the ‘70s, a very stupid kid rubbed poison ivy all over his hands to show off how he was immune.  The rash hit him after just a few days and it was so bad, his hands looked like entrails and he missed the second half of camp.  Everybody had a good time talking about how stupid he was.  Looking back, I don’t think he was especially stupid.  He was just stupid in a way that lead to a very dramatic situation.

Speaking of kids, my kid has this rash.  Does that make me a bad parent?

Look, your kid didn’t ask to be born, okay?

I have come down with the hell-rash … what should I do?!

Okay, first of all, DON’T PANIC.

What stupid advice.  Of course you shouldn’t panic.  Ever.  I don’t even know why I wrote that.

Second, assure your friends and family members, who are recoiling at the sight of you, that the rash is not contagious.  It’s okay to be visibly exasperated at their silliness, but don’t complain in their presence about your discomfort, because they already hate you for the disgusting spectacle you present to them.

Third, try to avoid scratching the hell-rash.  At least, that’s what your spouse will tell you, over and over.  It seems a) intuitively obvious that scratching is a bad idea, and b) almost impossible not to scratch, especially if you tend to sleep ever.

Now, I have to temper this no-scratching advice with the following tidbit, related by a friend who heard it from a former Olympic cyclist:  “Get some 80 grit sandpaper, scratch the shit out of it until it bleeds, and clean up the wounds.  Believe me, I’ve tried everything over the years and it’s going to spread a bit anyway.  Just succumb to it, relish in the scratching because it feels so good, and treat it like a scab.  If you’re not man enough for that, there is a gel available now that is powerful stuff and helps with the itching.”  I haven’t followed up on the gel bit yet, because a) I don’t want to seem unmanly; b) I can’t see how I’d use this gel without making a mess of my clothes; and c) this rash itches so bad I can’t even remember the third thing.

I’ve found that the rash itches more when it dries out.  You can keep it moist by bandaging it, and my favorite product here is Tegaderm, a “transparent film dressing.”  It’s like a big piece of clear tape, but it sticks only to skin and not to the wound.  (It’s great for road rash, too.)  Brace yourself, though:  Tegadarm is really expensive.

If the itching is driving you crazy, Benadryl does seem to help.  I had to take this before bed a couple times, which did help me sleep, but man, the hangover from that drug is a real bitch.  There’s also a spray version of Benadryl.  (My wife tried this a couple decades ago.  I don’t remember whether it worked or not, and would probably have forgotten all about it except for something funny:  she was in such dire need of relief, we didn’t wait to get home before applying it.  We went out behind the grocery store and she was spraying it on her legs when this store manager came bursting out from a back door and yelled, “CAUGHT YOU!”  His initial look of triumph evaporated very quickly when he saw our bewildered expressions.  Apparently he’d been lying in wait for teenagers who’d been tagging the wall with spray cans.)

If things get too bad, you can go to the doctor and get a prescription for a steroid.  This might be necessary in severe cases, particularly if you’re highly sensitive, and/or get it in your damn throat (yes, this can happen), or if you’ve inhaled the smoke caused by some shit-for-brains who decided to burn a big pile of poison oak leaves.

Is there any redeeming value in Toxicodendron plants?

No, there’s nothing good about these plants and I cannot see why somebody hasn’t designed a miracle herbicide to eradicate the entire species from the face of the Earth.  Probably scientists would feed you something about the “interdependent ecosystem” or the “web of life,” which is easy for them to say because they’re not straining to avoid scratching themselves to death.

I guess the only silver lining is that, as with all suffering, the hell-rash can give you an opportunity to commiserate with others.  But that’s a pretty thin lining, and probably fake silver, like the cheap pseudo-chrome they put on plastic car bumpers that eventually gets scraped off and looks bad.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

How to Survive a Phishing Attack


This post describes a super easy way to avoid falling prey to phishing and spear-phishing.  While I’m at it I’ll explain about ransomware and botnets so you can sound impressive during fishing  trips and/or ladies’ luncheons.  I’ll even provide a real-life example of a recent situation requiring me to apply my method.

Couple quick notes:  1) You cannot get a virus by reading this blog or clicking on any link within it, ever; and 2) I actually did my homework on this post, and ran my anti-phishing technique past the Chief Information Security Officer of a giant corporation, who gave it her blessing.

Some terminology

In a previous post, I covered plain old spam, which is simply unsolicited e-mail that doesn’t even pretend to be personal.  For example, the subject line is “Enhance your male member!”  The sender hasn’t targeted you based on knowing anything about your, uh, membership … from the sender’s perspective, every man should enhance his mail member!  (And if a woman receives this message, no harm done—she can just forward it to the man in her life.)  Spam is basically electronic junk mail.

Phishing is an attack on your computer which relies on you clicking on an embedded link or opening an attachment, which either loads a virus directly on your computer or takes you to a bogus website that attempts to lure you into disclosing personal information.  Phishing messages are usually blasted out like spam, though the sender will often pretend to be a company you do business with, such as your bank.  There’s usually a sense of urgency, something like “Account locked – update password!” (i.e., “Tell us your old password, sucker!”).

Spear-phishing is more targeted and requires the sender to find out stuff about you in advance (e.g., thru social media) to make the e-mail look more realistic.  Is it important to differentiate between regular phishing and spear phishing?  Probably not.  I think the latter term was contrived mainly to help security experts sound cool.

Ransomware is a computer virus that encrypts your computer’s entire hard drive, so that only the fraudster can decrypt it, which he or she will only do upon being paid a ransom.  (A criminal with no hacking skills can actually buy “exploit kits” from the fraudsters to carry out his own attacks.)  Ransomware is one of the biggest reasons to be careful with your e-mail.

You know how vampires and zombies can make you one of their own by biting you?  Similarly, computer viruses can take over your computer and use it in a separate attack.  Such an infected computer is called a bot, and when hundreds or thousands of them are herded together to mount a large-scale attack, you’ve got a botnet.  (Think of it as an online zombie apocalypse.)  Note that as more devices—not just computers and phones but thermostats, security cameras, DVRs, etc.—are connected to the Internet, they become targets for botnet attacks as well.  In fact, they’re ideal candidates because they’re often cheaply made, poorly designed, and lack security.  They’re like really dumb zombies.

How to survive phishing attacks

My phishing survival technique employs a single simple rule:  if an e-mail appears to be from any bank (even yours), or any other business with which you have an account (e.g., a utility), automatically assume it is a phishing attempt and just delete the e-mail.  You can apply this rule even before opening the message.  It’s that simple.  The decision tree looks like this:

 There is a very small risk, with such a broad rule, that you’ll miss a legitimate e-mail from your bank, but a) it’s better to be safe, and b) remember, your bank knows how to reach you!  They have your money and are very resourceful about getting their business done.  In general, they prefer to phone you or send postal mail because they hate phishing as much as you do and have no interest in training you to fall prey.

The one blanket exception would be account statements.  If you signed up for electronic statements and receive them on a predictable schedule every month, and these statements provide account information without asking you to do anything, you’re probably fine.

As for these “Oh, no, you need to do something!” messages, keep in mind that if there’s really something wrong with your account—like your card number has been compromised, for example—that’s ultimately the bank’s problem.  They are on the hook for the cost of the fraud, so let them do the heavy lifting.  If they can’t be bothered to pick up the phone or mail you a postcard, they can face the consequences.  (For what it’s worth, my card number has been compromised a number of times, and in no case did I get an e-mail.)

All of this being said, I recently decided to amend my very simple rule.  If you’re interested in my amendment, read on.  If you’re already bored and/or have no problem with the simple rule outlined above, you’re done—goodbye!  Go get on with your life!

Sometimes it’s not quite that simple

What if you made a purchase that falls well outside your normal pattern of behavior?  For example, you just made a purchase for $2500, and the largest purchase you’ve ever made previously with this card was $1000?  Or what if you normally shop at J. Crew and Brooks Brothers, and one day get a ghetto impulse and buy something at J.C. Penney?  If you do something outside of your norm and then immediately receive an e-mail purporting to be from your bank, you might consider evaluating it further.

I got an e-mail recently from titled “Your Corporate Card.”  This “From” address and subject line didn’t look obviously wrong.  The capitalization in the subject line, “Your Corporate Card,” was a bit odd, but not obviously wrong (e.g., it wasn’t “Security fraud alerted corporate card!!” or “Account info updating needs!” or some other butchered English).  The return address,, struck me as feasible, though these things can be spoofed.  Only because I half-expected Amex to choke on a recent transaction, I decided to open the e-mail:

Note how it’s in plain text with no logos or anything.  That might seem a bit odd, but actually it’s completely okay.  Fancy logos and formatting are methods hackers use to make their e-mails look legit.  Don’t be fooled!  It’s far easier to manipulate graphics and logos and such than to say the right things, in perfect English, in an e-mail. 

This brings us to my analysis of the grammar etc. in the e-mail itself.  There is a stray bracket in the message (toward the end:  “Corporate Payment Services}”).  That’s a bit spotty, and such things should be considered suspicious.  There’s also a dangling participle:  “In order to assist you in a timely manner, please call us at the numbers provided rather than responding to this message.”  (The first clause refers to them—i.e., they would be assisting you—but the second clause refers to you; i.e., here’s what you should do.)  Certainly this is bad grammar, but it’s the kind of error a native speaker would make—even an Amex employee.  It’s not the kind of error made by dastardly foreign hackers who hate America.  Even still, as a general rule I would normally delete this e-mail on the basis of this, or any, grammatical error.  If this makes extra work for your bank, shame on them for filling corporate communications positions with people who can’t write a decent sentence.

All of this aside, there was one fundamental characteristic of this e-mail that caused me to take it seriously:  it didn’t ask me to click on anything, and it suggested I call the toll-free number on the back of my Amex card.  That is exactly the kind of action a bank would legitimately ask you to take, and dialing this number is an inarguably safe thing to do.  (I cannot imagine how a hacker could print a fraudulent toll-free number on the back of my card.  He would need physical access to my wallet, in which case he would presumably have no need to do anything online.)

I did note that the number provided in the e-mail didn’t match the number on my card, but it’s not uncommon for a financial entity to have multiple toll-free numbers.   You should never dial a toll-free number provided in an e-mail.  While that’s not as obviously dangerous as clicking on a link in an e-mail, it could still get you in trouble.  What if you reach a voice-response system that sounds authentic, and asks you to enter your card number?  That would be an easy way for a fraudster to hack your account.  Always go with the phone number printed on your statement or card.

Based on the e-mail above I called Amex, and sure enough, they had locked out my card because my last transaction looked suspicious to them.  During the call they authenticated me based on my caller ID, and accurately described the suspicious transaction.  I told them it was legit, they unfroze my account, and all is well. 

So:  does this mean opening the e-mail was a good idea?  No, not really.  If I had my life to live over, I’d probably have deleted the e-mail and just called Amex.  The slightly more complicated decision tree is this:

How common is all this, anyway?

Is this much ado about nothing?  Actually, I think this stuff is important because phishing is so rampant.  Looking in my junk mail (i.e., messages my ISP determined were fraudulent), I see the following: 
  • 2 messages from Apple on 2/11 saying “Your account is locked”
  • 3 messages from my regular bank between 2/3 and 2/9 saying “Action Required”
  • 1 message from my Visa card issuer on 12/21 saying “Notification ID: 2591912…”
  • 1 message from Apple on 11/07 saying “Apple Inc | Security notice”
  • 1 message from PayPal on 10/27 saying “Your PayPal account ha…”
Along with this, I see messages seeming to be from friends of mine that somehow triggered my ISP’s junk mail filter.  What if my ISP hadn’t filtered these?

Address book phishing

I’m not aware that the phrase “address book phishing” has any widespread meaning, but I’m talking about viruses etc. that replicate by forwarding themselves to everybody in the victim’s e-mail address book.  If your ISP lets these through, it can be tricky spotting them.  Here are a few ways.

Message is unexpected – Often I’ll get an e-mail from somebody I know, but who very seldom e-mails me.  For example, my friend’s wife e-mails me every so often and has done so for years.  Why would she?  Either her PC’s got a virus, or she’s trying to start an affair.  Either way, my reaction is the same:  delete that message!  If she really needs to contact me she’ll surely find another way.

Here’s a true story:  my wife e-mailed my brother several times to ask about some bike thing she wanted to buy me for my birthday.  My brother didn’t respond, either because he suspected phishing, or was just really behind on e-mail.  So the next time my brother called me on the phone, my wife intercepted the call and, before fetching me, said to my brother in a low voice, “Call me!”  He was totally perplexed, and she eventually had to call him herself.

Subject line is missing or suspicious – Of the four bogus messages I received recently purporting to be from friends, three have no subject line at all and the fourth has the subject line “RE: ” with nothing else.  The lack of a subject line is usually a giveaway unless you have really lazy friends.  Other suspicious subject lines would be the sender’s name, your name, or something insanely generic like “Hello.”  (If I e-mail a friend just to say hi, I’ll say something a bit more specific, perhaps involving an inside joke.)

Text of message doesn’t read right – Say you’re fooled into opening such an e-mail and now have text to look at.  The hardest thing for fraudsters to get right is grammar (either because they’re foreigners or because they’re stupid).  If your friends use terrible grammar and spelling, I recommend you find some better friends.  Otherwise, be very careful with messages that don’t read right.

If, for whatever reason, you decide not to open an e-mail that appears to be from a friend, it never hurts to create a new message, address it to the friend, give it a subject like “Suspicious e-mail…” and ask if he or she e-mailed you recently.  You can leave the original message in your Inbox while awaiting a response (unless you’re afraid you’ll open it by accident, like if your software is set up to automatically move from one message to the next).

So, here’s a more complete flowchart of how to handle messages:

Will this approach keep me safe?

Actually, avoiding phishing scams is not enough to keep you safe.  We’re probably all eventually doomed, because data breaches of giant databases have become so common.  For example, an insurance company I do business with was hacked awhile back, and had over 70 million customer profiles compromised, including mine.  So, if you screw up and disclose personal information and/or help a virus to spread, you shouldn’t feel too bad. 

Still, I guess it’s nice to have a methodology for not being a complete sucker, and that’s what I’ve endeavored to provide.

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Monday, February 13, 2017

From the Archives - A Valentine Poem


I wrote a Valentine’s Day poem back in 1989, and built a little essay around it.  (The idea of footnotes didn’t occur to me at the time.)  My essay was titled “The Safety Valentine,” because the poem—which I encouraged my readers to pass off as their own—was so non-steamy and understated it couldn’t possibly incite the recipient to, say, slap the poet. 

That essay wasn’t very good so I’ll spare you.  The footnotes here, below the poem, are new.

The Safety Valentine – February 10, 1989

The Poem

   ODE TO A PRETTY MUCH OKAY GIRL                
Can I compare you to a slimy slug?
No way—compared to you, a slug is gross!               2
In fact, you put to shame ‘most any bug;       
The caterpillar isn’t even close.              
On you I think I’d rather fix my gaze          
Than on a snake that’s flattened on the road.          6
I’d rather hold your hand, it’s safe to say,   
Than stroke the skin of any horny toad.        
And lady, I would deign to dine with you,       
If going hungry were my other choice.                      10
I wouldn’t mind conversing with you, too,      
If forced to otherwise give up my voice.       
    So just relax and feel real glad,            
    That I don’t think you’re really all that bad.        14

Footnotes & Commentary

Line 1:  Can I compare

Needless to say, this sonnet is a takeoff on Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18, which begins, “Can I compare thee to a summer’s day?”  This copycat strategy is really for the reader’s benefit, to make the whole sonnet thing seem a bit more familiar and less daunting.  I hope you’re happy.

Line 6:  snake that’s flattened

Putting vivid imagery into poems is hard for me.  In that regard this is one of my better sonnets, I suppose.

Line 7:  hold your hand

It’s kind of silly how my speaker assumes his reader will be the more enthusiastic party.  Who is this guy?  Back when I wrote this, I was not very bold about busting a move.  I was far more concerned about being rejected than about leading somebody on.  (I’m a little better now, but that’s only because I’m happily married and thus fairly unlikely to be rejected, except by my cat.)

Line 8:  any horny toad

That “any” is slightly silly.  It’s not like one toad is grodier than another.  This is a simple case of subjugating content to the requirements of the meter.  “Horny,” on the other hand, is a fine word choice, with the innuendo obviously intentional.

Line 9:  lady

The word “lady” here would fit just fine within the milieu of an actual Elizabethan-era sonnet, but it clearly clashes with the modern, offhand expression “no way” in the second line.  Actually, “lady” is actually a very recent revision—i.e., just now.  The original line back in 1989 was “In fact, on you I’d rather spend my dough,” which was just so lame I revised it in February of 1991 when I actually gave this sonnet to a female friend, pasted into an actual safety Valentine.  My revised version was, “And ——, I’d choose to dine with you,” where obviously instead of the dashes I had the girl’s actual name.  I’ve withheld it here to respect her privacy.

Here’s the full story:  I found myself flying solo for yet another Valentine’s Day, which wasn’t like a big deal or anything to me, but for some reason I decided to do something about it.  So I called my aforementioned friend.  (Can a college-aged guy have a female friend whom he’s not trying to turn into a girlfriend?  Yes, in fact.  I’d started out friends with this girl, then randomly escalated things one night, and that didn’t work out so well—call it lack of chemistry, I guess—so we went back to being friends.)  I asked if she wanted to have a non-date and get some dinner.  She said, “Well, I already ate.”  I asked what.  “A cheese sandwich,” she said.  I argued that that wasn’t very much food, and anyway if she really wasn’t hungry, that was okay too—she could just watch me eat.  So then she admitted her actual misgiving, which was that she and her roommates were  having “girls’ night in,” which consisted of staying home and bagging on all men.  I said that was pretty ridiculous and that surely the first rule of Man-Hating Girls’ Valentine Night must be that if anybody gets a date, she’s automatically off the hook. 

At this my friend relented, and I quickly put together the Safety Valentine, with the poem and everything.  Her roommates shot daggers at me when I picked her up, and in fact I had the sense they always hated me after that.  (In fairness, they probably already hated me before that.)  She liked the poem pretty well, I think, being a fellow English major.

One final detail about this Valentine’s non-date:  after a nice dinner at the Rockridge Café my friend randomly decided to go into the convenience store across the street and buy a lottery ticket.  She had never done this before.  To our amazement, she won!  I don’t remember the amount—probably around $20—but every bit helps when you’re a starving student.  Besides, it set me up for the perfect punch line to the tale:  “Well, at least one of us got lucky that night!”

Line 12:  give up my voice

This was also a revision from 1991.  (I won’t even tell you the original line—that’s how bad it was.)  This bit about giving up my voice may have been a reference (conscious or not) to something that had happened the previous fall.  A girl I knew, for whom I really did have romantic intentions but who lived in Arizona, came to visit me.  It ended up being a terrible visit, primarily because I was hit with this terrible virus just before she arrived, and completely lost my voice!  That made things extremely awkward, to say the least.  Looking back, the whole thing was probably doomed anyway.  She was supposed to stay all week, through the Thanksgiving weekend, but by Tuesday we were pretty much done with each other.  I decided, on a lark, to drive to Boulder for Thanksgiving, theorizing that if I did this, the girl would be gone from my apartment by the time I returned on Sunday night.  In this I was not mistaken.

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