Friday, May 29, 2009

Amateur Product Reviews

I’ve had some bad luck with cameras. I got a nice, compact new camera last spring, and when it was still new it suffered a little accident. I was riding on a gravelly road, of seriously steep grade, on a snowy day in Boulder, and decided to take a little “Self Portrait With Brother” while still pedaling. Max and I, crowding in to get into the photo, bumped into each other and the next thing I knew my front wheel had come off the ground and I was doing what amounted to a backward somersault on (and off) my bike. (I told you, it was a really steep grade.) In the process, my finger happened to press the camera shutter button, and I ended up with one of the most remarkable photos I’ve ever snapped:

With the hand not holding the camera, I maintained my grip on the bars, evidently never giving up hope that I’d somehow get the bike upright again. Alas, I could not, and in the fall I broke my camera. I sent it back to the manufacturer with a repair request form, writing in the “Description of Problem” area, “I fell with this camera and it broke.” I made no claim that it was defective. Remarkably, the manufacturer repaired it for free.

A Repeat Customer

When I got tired of loaning this camera to my daughter Alexa, I decided to get her a camera of her own for her seventh birthday. I started to research cheaper cameras (she’s only seven, after all), but my heart wasn’t in it. There’s just too much information out there to sift through, much of it contradictory and most of it highly complicated. I’d chosen my camera because a friend had one and it looked cool, and it was, and I ultimately decided to get Alexa the same camera, but in blue. I questioned the wisdom of buying such a fragile and (relatively) expensive camera for a young person, but Alexa never lost, broke, or misused her camera. Instead, I broke it.

I sent it in, and on the repair request form I wrote, “This broke. I don’t know how.” This time, they sent me a whole new camera. The new one looked a bit fancier—it sports more megapixels, anyway—but suddenly I needed to research it online. That may seem silly, and it is—after all, it makes no sense to research something you already own, and I wouldn’t have much recourse to return it to the manufacturer if I did decide it was lame. (I was starting to feel like the Fisherman’s Wife, to tell you the truth.) But feeling like this replacement was too good to be true, I had to know if this replacement camera was a loss leader, a terrible misstep by the manufacturer resulting in a glut of an unpopular model.

A Puzzling Review

I went to and started reading the one-star reviews. It always surprises me how easy it is to find one-star reviews on consumer websites. It’s especially surprising with hi-tech products like digital cameras that are improving in leaps and bounds while their prices plummet. Consumers can really be fickle. One guy blasted my camera model based its requiring you to remove the battery to charge it. “Of course I got my money back!” he boasted. And to think I’ve been cheerfully taking my battery out to charge it, for over a year, blithely unaware at how irritated I should be about it.

Here is the first one-star review I found of my new camera:

“Too bad I couldn't give 1 star. I had an older Lumix that lasted two years. When that camera was stolen, I purchased this model from my local B & M. The first time I took it out, I used it 8 times. I put it back in the case and when I checked the camera the next morning, the LCD display was cracked in the back of it. This happened when it was in the padded camera bag I had in my pocket. I emailed panasonic, they emailed me back 5 days later and told me to send the camera with a check for $52.50 and they will tell me whether the warranty will be honored. 1/3 the cost of the camera, just to tell me if they will fix it. Unbelievable.”

This review is kind of a classic of the genre. First of all, it gets your attention with a blatant error: “Too bad I couldn’t give 1 star.” Um, actually, dude, you can give one star. In fact, you did. Then, he proceeds to give information that is completely unnecessary. If I’m trying to decide if a camera is good, what do I care his older camera was stolen? Does it reflect well on the product that a thief would want it? And was it really stolen? Throughout my childhood, “stolen” was a euphemism for “lost.” And does it matter where he bought the replacement?

Then, the guy’s description of how he broke the camera is laid out like a court case, like he’s been deposed. Make no mistake: he used the camera not, say, a handful of times, but exactly eight. (Who counts their camera usages? Or did he go back and reconstruct his precise usage based on JPG metadata?) And what does he mean, he “checked the camera the next morning?” The morning after what? And what did he check it for? Did he have a sneaking feeling it had spontaneously broken? And would a camera in its case really fit in his pocket? Just how big was this pocket? Could it be that putting a camera in a case in his pocket wasn’t such a good idea?

I suppose I wouldn’t nitpick so much were it not for the punch line of the review: the arrogant manufacturer wouldn’t stand behind its product. I have to agree with one thing the reviewer says: his story is unbelievable. In fact, I don’t believe it. If I’d had a great warranty experience only one time with this manufacturer, I could attribute my good fortune to a mistake. But twice these guys took care of me, even though I never claimed either camera was defective. How did this other guy have such a bad experience? Did his e-mail just tick them off? Or are we not getting the whole story?

Why Trust Amateurs?

You might ask why, with so many professional reviewers out there, I would seek out the amateur reviews to begin with. It’s a fair question. I think there are several good reasons.

First of all, I’m tired of professional reviewers who aren’t impartial. Pick up any buying guide magazine—Gear, Stuff, Complex—and (once you’ve gotten past all the babes) you may notice that the products “reviewed” are really just described, invariably in glowing terms. There’s never any bad news. Consider this: when’s the last time Bicycling magazine gave a bike a bad review in a road test? Believe it or not, in the magazine’s early history there actually were negative reviews: two, to be precise. The first was in 1981, and the bike was the San Tropez 710. It is a testament to the rarity of the bad review that I remember this so many years later. I can’t remember the specific complaints, only that the magazine completely trashed it. I don’t think anybody cared, though, because nobody had ever heard of this bike, nor has anyone since.

The next bad review in Bicycling was in 1982, and it was a review of the Motobecane Prolite. It was a glorious review, citing readings from Bicycling’s frame flex testing machine (which they called the Tarantula) describing massive frame flex. There were also subjective impressions; one staffer came back from a road test “laughing at the rubber bike.” I was thrilled at the magazine’s candor, and thus crestfallen a month or two later when they retracted the review, saying the Prolite was actually a very good bike. The magazine mysteriously carried its first full-page Motobecane ad in that same issue. I was young but not stupid, and recognized how this whole thing works. To this day, I’ve never seen another negative review of any bike in any bike magazine. And yet, I’ve spent enough time working in bike shops to know how many truly crappy bikes there are out there.

Another reason I’m not fond of professional reviews is that they’re just too complicated. Especially in the case of electronic items, the language is way too technical for me. Looking at camera reviews, I find pages and pages of stuff about ISO, lens faults, sensitivity, noise and noise reduction, recycling time, and so forth. I’m not a professional and I don’t know much about cameras and I really just want to know if a camera is easy for the average joe to use. Granted, I often come across amateur reviews that fail the “sanity test,” but if lots of reviewers have the same complaint, I can start to put some stock in it. For example, when I looked at amateur reviews of a laptop computer, tons of people had complained about the labels on the keyboard being too hard to read. I bought that very laptop, figuring it’d be a bargain based on all the bad reviews. (I have no use for key labels, as I use the totally nonstandard Dvorak keyboard layout, about which I’ll likely blog one day.)

But really one of the best reasons to read amateur reviews is simply because they’re amusing. For me they’re a guilty pleasure, like Parade magazine. For once, I don’t have to suffer a sense of inferiority while reading something. It’s bad enough that professional product reviewers far outpace my ability to understand them, but when I’m reading for pleasure it’s usually either a classic work of literature or an article in the New Yorker, either of which can be a humbling read. (I often commiserate with an M.D. friend of mine about the doctor/writer Atul Gawande’s obvious superiority to us. Not only is he a bestselling writer, but he’s an esteemed surgeon and an Associate Professor at Harvard, has degrees from Stanford, Oxford, and Harvard, and is more handsome than either of us. We like to joke that his kids probably love him more than ours love us, and that either of our wives would leave us for him at the first opportunity.) So yes, I’ll admit it, I enjoy the occasional foray into off-the-cuff—yet often impassioned—product reviews from mere mortals, especially the frustrated ones.

A Couple of Gems

Here’s a fun one-star camera review:

“I don't know. But I have a problem with the colors and noise sometimes when taking shots with this camera. The colors are not that shinny. When taking the photos without flash - even in day light - the photos still seems dark when displayed on my computer screen. It looks fine in the camera screen but not on the computer.”

I just love the opening: “I don’t know.” So humble, so honest. I could learn something from this approach, I know. About those non-shiny colors, though … I suspect this problem isn’t related to the camera, if the pictures look fine on the camera screen. This person probably has a bad computer monitor. I wish I could help him.

Don’t misunderstand me—finding fault with people’s reviews isn’t the point. Really, the best part is the little glimpse into people’s lives and worlds that the extraneous information can provide. Check out this one:

“My husband bought this camera in order to replace my 2 year-old Sony Cybershot that I have been using with a broken LCD screen for the past 8 months. However, I was so dissapointed because it has no video shooting option, as my old cybershot had..... I have an hyperactive crazy little dog that I love to catch on photos and videos and I cant do it with my new camera...”

This review has it all: the thoughtful husband, the stoic camera owner gamely making do with a broken camera for eight months, and best of all that hyperactive crazy little dog that she not only wants to make movies of, but wants to tell the camera-buying public about. (Never mind that this model of camera does have a video shooting mode that she must not have discovered yet. I actually get some added pleasure from the knowledge that one day she’ll figure out the video mode, and will delightedly run right over to her little dog to make her first movie.)

My Amateur Review Challenge

For no good reason other than to alert my readership, if any, to the e-mail feedback feature of this blog, and to train to you all in the use of said feature, I hereby issue my Amateur Review Challenge. What follows is a collection of reviews of a variety of products. For each product, there are three reviews: two real ones plus a fake one I made up. I challenge you to identify the fictitious review for each product. Send your submissions to The first person to guess correctly on every review will get a prize. I don’t know what it will be, but it will be similar in value to the brand-new Bike Tires Direct patch kit that was won by the first person to sign up as a Follower of this blog.

Review #1: PC printer

a) The thing I didnt know about this printer or I would have not bought it was that it takes special photo paper that has this tear-off tab on it that you have to tear off and it doesnt always evenv work. HP is not the company it used to be, how can they make you do that. Bogus. I had a Canon Bubblejet before and it had no tab and the ink didn’t smear either. I took this one back and its a good thing I had my reciept.

b) I have purchased 3 of these for family members and all 3 came without the usb cable to plug them into the computer. which makes the printer useless. I contacted your company and they sent me another printer,and that one didnt have one either. I had to buy the cables myself. I dont understand how you can sell this printer without the means to use it.

c) Realmente no puedo dar ninguna opinion de sastifaccion por que el producto no llego a su destino. [Babelfish translation: "I really cannot give any opinion of satisfaction so that the product I do not arrive at its destiny."]

Review #2: The Alchemist (a novel)

a) The most mysterious part of this book is its popularity. I understand that it’s a simple fable and I'll even grant the “follow your heart” message may be a virtuous pursuit. But the manner in which this message is delivered is tortuous…. Instead of having to resolve significant conflicts himself, Santiago floats through the story guided by a sequence of serendipitously fortuitous events. Coelho attributes this to the “universe conspiring” to help him attain his Personal Legend. I attribute this to weak writing.

b) This incredibly over-rated book is a mixture of pure fantasy and mushy sentimentalism. It is more suited to children or to an American audience.

c) I read this book alongside What Is the What by Dave Eggers, about the “Lost Boys” in Sudan. The characters in Eggers’ book were realistic, and had real problems, and it was hard, in reading The Alchemist, to get excited about some schmuck searching for buried treasure. The Alchemist is a shallow, contrived, fourth-grade-reading level novel. Its millions of devoted fans should feel embarrassed.

Review #3: Anna Karenina (a novel)

a) The book is a great book even though it has fallen apart piece by piece during my read.

b) I can’t see how a book that was made into such a tight, well-paced movie that only lasted less than two hours. I thought I’d never get through it and was so boring, get to the point already.

c) Nabokov, you are a jerk

Review #4: Food Processor

a) OK, I really like this little mini-prep processor at the very beginning. The motor is strong, very easy to clean. However, this little guy only last for 10 time of use within 5 months. I handwash the bowl and found out there were cracks between the blade and the joint plastic. I emailed their customer service thru their website. It's been 10 days, no one even reply with a sorry!

b) I have had this thing for eight months and I never use it. I don’t see much use except greating cheese and then it’s a hassle to clean anyway. But the thing I can’t get is it was supposed to come with an instructive video and it but it’s VHS! Wake up people it’s 2009. I don’t even have a VHS anymore.

c) great chopper until you try to clean it. to screw the blade on tight, you are safe, to take the blade out of it's compartment to clean it, you must twist in the same direction as the sharp blades. this is the reason i am typing with one hand without the time to use caps b/c i am bleeding!

Review #5: Men’s Jacket

a) Shabby packing, was delivered rolled as a ball! The quality is poor, almost light as a fleece, and is a dirt magnet. I ordered thinking this brand is typically good, but not in this case.

b) Won't buy again! The lining got mold all over, the buttons were together, very hard to get apart and when I pulled them, the lining almost came off and so did the rusty buttons, is made in china that's why, if I knew it was made there will never buy it.

c) Loved the jacket at first, has that “lived-in” look I wanted, which my old jacket had but I think it was broken in by a real person wearing it around, it smelled like boiled cabbage and I couldn’t get rid of the smell. So this jacket I’m like “yes, it’s all worn in and doesn’t stink!” But then I read this little disclaimer tag that comes with and here’s what it says, I’m not making this up: “THIS GARMENT IS PREWASHED. We've put this J. Crew product through a washing process to create a softer, “lived-in” feel and look. This prewashing replicates natural aging without repeated wearings and washings. So this garment is a bit faded, a bit shrunk, and its seams are looser and less uniform (as shrinking is never completely even in all dimensions). There will also be some variations of shading and texture. In fact, some garments will have large bleached patches. Invariably, one sleeve will be longer than the other, and the collar may choke you, or else gape wide open and let cold air in. You may find that there are more buttonholes than buttons, and that the fabric may have large runs or tears in it. Some garments will give you years of service, but you shouldn't be surprised if your garment completely falls apart after just a few short weeks. These factors combine to give this garment its individual look and comfort. Please keep this in mind as you examine your new J. Crew garment: because we don't want to hear any complaints. Such variations are assets that contribute to the uniqueness and personality of all our prewashed apparel.” I was like, WHOAH! So I’ll probably return it, my god, but right now I’m actually enjoying it.

Okay, get those contest entries in! Remember, Tell your friends! Tell your family! Good luck!


If you would like to see the results of the fake amateur review quiz, click here: We Have a Winner!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

From the Archives: My First Cell Phone


I was very late in getting a cell phone; by the time I got my first one, in February of 2006, virtually everyone I knew had been using them for years.  This monumental purchase brought about a flurry of mini-epiphanies that I wrote about in an e-mail to my brothers.  It seems fitting to post this now, after having blogged about my first smartphone last week.

My First Cell Phone - February 7, 2006

After holding out for years against the incredulous entreaties of my friends and colleagues, I’ve finally gotten my first cell phone. It's funny: once I made up my mind to buy a phone, and started looking at the different models, I got the strangest feeling. I can only describe it as consumer lust. No, that's not quite it—maybe more like consumer romance. It's a warm, familiar, almost relieved feeling … the visceral sense that once I have this new piece of equipment, everything's going to be okay. Once I have a phone, that I picked out, that is mine, that I’ve set up my way, sitting in my pocket like a talisman, ready to spring into action at a moment's notice, then maybe I can get through this difficult life a little more easily.

I think all consumer goods are a bit like that. We humans live in fear. Fear not just of death, but of the other, of the big wide world we’re in and all the strangers we share it with. We take great comfort, I think, in the familiar. This comfort derives from taming our environments—not just decorating our homes the way we like, but cutting our world down to size by sticking to a few familiar establishments, carving nice ruts between our offices, our shops, and our homes. (Perhaps this is why travel, while exciting, is also ultimately draining.) We even dress according to some corollary of the Golden Rule: thou shalt dress the way your friends and family would have you dress (that is, basically how they do). Most of us even apply to our bodies our own signature scent—deodorant, perfume, or even cologne—which is a bit like a dog or cat marking its territory.

So after careful deliberation, I chose this hot little Pantech number. I believe it is a fitting representation of my no-nonsense yet elegant sensibility. It’s a flip-phone, with a little caller-ID display on the lid so I can screen calls. I like to flip open the top, because it has a nice spring-loaded action that somehow seems, well, sprightly. Occasionally I toy with the little antenna, which only pulls out a few inches and so far hasn't been necessary. But the antenna seems frail, so I get nervous and poke it back in.

I've customized the wallpaper and the screen-saver with photos I took with the phone itself. I chose a ring-tone that I have to say qualifies as ironic: it's a very simple electronic ringing sound, but just enough like an old-fashioned, non-electronic, bell-based ring that you suddenly realize the ring-tone is quadraphonic, or polyphonic, or whatever that term is that means “really cool advanced ring-tone that could even recreate the human voice if it wanted to, as opposed to those embarrassing, tinny, Atari-like ring-tones of those primitive early phones.” It's high-tech pretending it's low-tech, and you're in on the joke.

I, Me, Mine

I was on a business trip back in the era of corporate boondoggles, and had to share a hotel room with a colleague I didn't know. I saw his toiletries laid out next to the sink and was overcome with revulsion. He had a different brand of everything—not one consumer item matched mine. It is a testament to the power of brand loyalty that this array seemed almost an act of open hostility. Prell shampoo, Aim toothpaste, some brand of shaving cream I'd never seen in my life, a funny-looking razor … only when I pondered my reaction did I come to realize how much comfort I get from the familiarity of the products I use.

Beyond merely choosing our consumer products, we get to increase their cozy me-ness by customizing them. Even the simplest product can give that pleasure. I'm not a coffee drinker, but I can well imagine the pleasurable routine coffee entails. A minute ago that cup of coffee belonged to Starbucks, but when I paid for it and took possession, it became mine, and when I put in just the right amount of sweetener (white sugar? Sugar-in-the-Raw? Equal? my choice!) and just the right amount of creamer (skim? whole? half-&-half? fat-free "half-&-half"? powder? my choice!), and stirred it with the stirrer of my choice (red & white plastic swizzle stick? wooden Popsicle stick? plastic spoon?), that simple cup of coffee became totally, uniquely, personally mine, as individual as my fingerprint. Thus armed, I can brave even the most crowded elevator with my identity not only intact but bolstered. Every sip reinforces my sense that amid the tumult of the vast universe, I still exert control—several times a day—over my own little patch of it.

A cell phone gives even more such opportunities: ring tone, wallpaper, screen saver—and that’s just the electronic part. Cell phone accessories comprise a whole other industry. Sure, lots of people have this Motorola phone, but who else has paired it with the cream teal pastel face plate and earth tone plaid holster?

Safety in Numbers

Consumer products become an extension of ourselves, and the cell phone does even more: it ties us to our friends and family. However far we stray from our normal environment, at least we’re not so alone anymore. Struck down by an existential crisis? At least you’ve got a vast contact list embedded in the phone. The simple act of scrolling down the list might give some comfort, and if that’s not enough, just press Send.

Even the phone number of my cell gives me subtle sense of distinction. It was blind luck that I got a number with no ones or zeroes in it, because it resolves to a really cool alphabet mnemonic (which I’m not going to provide here lest it get scrawled on a bathroom wall by a malevolent reader). And because cell phones now offer number portability, that number is mine forever. No matter what phone company contracts I sign or break or accidentally re-enroll in, no matter what happens to my physical phone, whatever happens to me myself for that matter, no matter how badly somebody insults me, no matter how out of place I feel at a cocktail party where everybody but me knows everybody else, nobody can ever take that phone number away from me.

Even the area code gives me pleasure. I'll never forget my pride in finally getting a nationally renowned area code, 415, when I moved from Santa Barbara to Oakland, and then how crestfallen I felt when my area code was suddenly changed to 510. Ha! I should have been grateful they didn't give me something even worse. Until relatively recently, phone switching technology made it impossible for area codes to have anything but a zero or one as the middle digit; consequently, area codes with anything else strike me as so Johnny-come-lately.

As it stands now, my home phone service provider could change my area code anytime they want, but with the cell phone I'm safe. The towns and cities of America can continue subdividing at their cancerous rate, spawning all kinds of new area codes with any damn middle digit at all, so that new numbers in Albany got an area code like 572 or something, and I'd still have that classic 510. I could even move to a different city and keep it—heck, I could move out of state and still take that little bit of California with me.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


I got a BlackBerry. I have to say, it’s a pretty spiffy device. Are you annoyed with me for saying so? If not, I will proceed to enumerate its qualities. I can peek real quick at my e-mail, and calendar, without going to my PC and logging on. I can look at an online map when I’m lost, or check the Giro d’Italia results when I’m at my kid’s soccer game. It has a camera, and I can send the photos right to my e-mail instead of paying a cell phone company to transmit them to somebody. And I can “tether” my PC to it and enjoy wireless Internet access virtually anywhere.

Okay, now you’re annoyed. Good. I needed to get you to this place to prime you for my forthcoming examination of why such a seemingly innocent device can make normal people seem annoying, or at least bring out the latent annoyingness in all of us. (I also wanted to acknowledge the worth of this device, lest I seem hypocritical. Having become accustomed to its convenience, I wouldn’t want to give it up.) Finally, though this post isn’t a review of the BlackBerry or iPhone or any other smartphone, I’m hoping the proximity, in this sentence, of “review” to “BlackBerry” and “iPhone” will cause Google searches to direct people to my blog.

So, what is it about smartphones that gets people's heckles up? Let’s take an inventory.

Aesthetic issues

A phone doesn’t have to be very smart to be annoying. Obviously, simple musical ringtones can pollute any public transit or marketplace atmosphere. The common hands-free cell phone functionality makes it impossible to tell the real crazies from ordinary people having a heated argument with an unseen party. And I often see some joe walking down the sidewalk engrossed in conversation and—without realizing it—holding the clip-on microphone right near his mouth, without any idea what a total idiot he looks like. The devices themselves don’t look bad, but just add humans and you get some pretty unpleasant spectacles.

The fancier the technology, the worse this gets, as illustrated by the Bluetooth receiver that clips onto your ear. Are people really so lazy, or so often on the phone, that this thing could possibly make sense? The first time I saw a Bluetooth ear thingy, my unspoken reaction was “Aw, poor guy, I guess he’s mostly deaf, and needs the most powerful, clunky hearing aid on the market.” I was shocked to learn it was a non-essential accessory worn by choice.

Outside of the devices themselves, the hype their creators have generated becomes tedious. My seven-year-old asked me recently, out of the blue, “Daddy, which type of Blackberry do you prefer: yours, or the touch-screen kind?” Aghast, I asked where she’d heard of the touch-screen model. “You know, those bulletins along the highway,” she replied. Aren’t these devices popular enough without ubiquitous billboards advertising them?

Behavioral issues

Invariably, these modern electronic devices are equipped with useless little electronic games. Often I see people—upscale, well-dressed, presumably gainfully employed people—on the train playing Tetris or Solitaire on their PC, smartphone, or whatever. On the one hand, how they spend their time is really their own business. But on the other hand, I find this behavior offensive. I truly believe I could find totally useful ways to fill a 36-hour day, and I’d still go to bed every night lamenting the things I couldn’t find the time to do—and yet here these guys are, killing time as ruthlessly and pointlessly as Buffalo Bill and his ilk when they slaughtered all those buffalo, shooting at the innocent beasts from their train windows as they passed, out of sheer boredom.

At a trade show recently, a guy in one of the expo booths saw the corporate logo on my shirt and thought maybe I could help him with his BlackBerry. (I work in telecommunications.) He joked that if I could solve his problem, he would guarantee that I’d win the bike they were raffling off. I said I’d do my best. His complaint was that when he played Brickbreaker, a little game on the BlackBerry resembling the first Pong video game ever invented, he couldn’t get past a certain advanced level because the software would lock up. How could he get past this?

This was a real dilemma. On the one hand, I had no idea how to help (having only briefly examined Brickbreaker before dismissing it from my life forever). On the other hand, I didn’t want to seem unhelpful. Fortunately, in a college rhetoric class I had learned some useful tricks, such as “slipping between the horns of the dilemma.” In other words, I could offer this fellow an alternative solution: “Get a life!” Of course, being a nice guy who is representing his employer, I didn’t put it this way. I suggested instead that instead of Brickbreaker, he take advantage of another BlackBerry feature wherein you can rearrange the icons on your device’s desktop to your liking. It’s like a game—whenever you move one icon to where you want it, you disturb the ideal location of another icon, just like a sliding-number fifteen puzzle—except that when you’ve finished “playing” you’ve actually accomplished something. Plus, this application never crashes. (As you may have guessed, the guy didn’t like this suggestion.)

I think the strongest reaction against smartphone-using behavior comes from those who don’t appreciate the trajectory that these technological advances tend to take. In the beginning, the hi-tech device confers a rare advantage on the user—a lucky thing for him, without any effect on anybody else. (For example, the smartphone user can read his e-mail even when he’s not at his desk.) Then the new capability becomes something others can count on, which creates a new burden for the user. (Having a smartphone means being available to others on e-mail all the time.) Eventually, the technology becomes sufficiently widespread that everybody counts on everybody else having it, and those who refuse to adopt it cause actual resentment. If you don’t believe this, think about your reaction last time you tried to phone somebody and he didn’t have voice-mail or an answering machine. Or, imagine how annoyed you’d be if a friend or relative decided to renounce the telephone entirely.

Arrogance , showiness

Of course the main complaint people have with the early adopters of a slick and expensive new technology is the smugness these adopters tend to have. There’s a propensity among these people to go out of their way to use the new technology right in front of you, ignoring the fact that unless the technology is Botox or a padded bra, it isn’t doing the onlooker any good at all. It’s just an obnoxious display of one-upmanship—bad enough when the technology truly is impressive, and even worse when it’s not.

Somehow, the silent features of the smartphones make the user think he’s not only inaudible but invisible. Many cell phone users have, by now, figured out that they should step away from a public space to make (or field) a phone call, but the texters and e-mailers have evidently not. For example, a colleague from another branch, who invited me to lunch, spent most of the meal trying to buy something at an online auction. (I was not impressed.) Or consider our babysitter, who tuned out from our (albeit inconsequential) conversation to exchange some (doubtless utterly worthless) text messages. I’ve seen people in meetings go from letting their eyes flit momentarily to their smartphones to sharing their attention equally between the smartphone and me, to eventually forgetting they were in a meeting at all and peering with utter absorption into their smartphone screens. Miss Manners would see fit to have these people electrocuted.

Sometimes it’s not the use of the device but the mere display of it that is showy. I refer you again to the clip-on Bluetooth receiver. The second time I ever saw one of these was (coincidentally) at a Vegas trade show. A really cheesy guy, in a suit and tie and looking like Dilbert’s boss, was taking a parade lap of the convention hall with a hired bimbo on each arm, looking exceedingly proud of himself (as though anybody in attendance thought for a second he hadn’t just hired the bimbos like people used to hire a team of horses to pull their carriage). His glittering Bluetooth receiver was of a piece with his suit, his grin, and the spectacle of his bimbo parade. My colleague Brendan, as disgusted as I was, couldn’t take it and ran up to the guy. “Sir, sir!” Brendan cried out. “There’s something in your ear!”

Eye of the beholder?

The problem with diving right into this righteous indignation is that we’re prone to finding fault that isn’t really deserved. For example, what if I’m organizing the icons on my BlackBerry’s desktop—a perfectly reasonable thing to do—and you incorrectly assume I’m wasting my time on a dumb game? Or, consider my brother Geoff’s observation that people like to show off their fancy phones by setting them on the table when having a meal or coffee. For years I, too, thought of this as a needless display. But when I got my Blackberry I came to realize why people do this. It isn’t to show off the phone; it’s because cell phone buttons (especially on older, non-flip-top phones and modern smartphones) have a tendency to get pushed when you sit down with the device in your pocket. Once, as I sat down to lunch with a colleague, my Blackberry dialed the last number in memory, which turned out to be his. Imagine his surprise when the caller was—me!

Which brings me to an e-mail exchange I had with my brother Bryan. The first time I tried out the Blackberry camera feature, I discovered that I could e-mail photos directly from the phone. Of course I had to test this (and, yes, show off), so I sent a couple of photos of my daughters to my brother. I should have known I’d be in for it.

The Footer

Of course I knew about the footer, “Sent using Blackberry,” that would be attached to the e-mail to my brother, and I had a pretty good feeling that a) for good reason, and b) because he’s my older brother, Bryan would be commenting on that footer. I was not mistaken: click on the e-mail snapshot below to read his message.

(For the record, I don’t have cocktails before lunch, nor do I own or drive a luxury sedan.)

Bryan doesn’t explain exactly how my “Sent using BlackBerry” puts him at relative ease. I'm guessing it’s that he figures my use of this header is unintentional, that the footer is factory-configured, and all the footers from BlackBerry users are also unintentional, and thus people aren't as pompous as he’d feared. And I think he’s partially right. I propose that there are four main categories of smartphone user, which I will describe in descending order of annoyingness.

The first category comprises those who really are that proud of their smartphones, their connectedness, their with-it-ness, and their high-flying wi-fi ways. These people would go out of their way to put a “Sent using BlackBerry” footer on their messages even if it weren't pre-configured.

The second category covers the people who might be on the fence about whether or not to boast openly about their BlackBerryness, and would have to think hard about whether to set up the footer, but who don't have to decide because the footer is sent by default and they're perhaps glad the decision was made for them.

The third category consists of those who don't like the footer and wish it wasn't on there, but can't figure out how to remove it. (This process is not actually very straightforward, which is possibly by design.) These are the ones who, whenever e-mailing from their Blackberries, feel the “wince of remorse” my brother imagines.

The fourth category consists of those who don't like the footer and remove it. Of course, we have no way of knowing how many BlackBerry users fall into this category, because they're invisible. Their messages might as well have come from an Ethernet-connected PC.

Which brings me to my own case. As it happens, I don't fall into any of the four categories I set forth above. (Makes you wonder at their validity, eh?) To begin with, I was inclined to delete the footer. Before being issued a Blackberry of my own, when I got e-mails from Blackberries (or iPhones, which carry their own footer), I had always found the footer slightly boastful too, though thankfully I never said anything to anybody. (“You all without sin can cast the first stone....”) But on the verge of deleting my footer, I paused, reconsidered, and backed off. Why?

Well, for complicated reasons you surely wouldn’t care to hear about, I’m pretty sure my employer wants to promote Blackberry. That may be part of why they pay for my phone.  And so, as a good corporate citizen, who gets to enjoy the capabilities of this actually rather groovy device, I would feel pretty shabby removing the footer, or changing it to something like “Sent while driving.”


I think the growing success of smartphones will eventually eliminate the ostentation of their users. We’ve seen this evolution before. Remember when phone answering machines were new? People would go out of their way to record funny, often elaborate outgoing messages. Many corporate types recorded a fresh outgoing message every day, announcing their general availability and such. But I don’t come across such custom messages anymore. (Do you?)

It also seems to me the cell phone culture has become more subdued. When cell phones were only in the hands of the elite, it seemed like those who had them talked a lot louder, and more often, in public. Whether through natural evolution or the efforts of businesses like restaurants prohibiting them, this activity has died down, even while the number of cell phone users has skyrocketed. I have read that the ringtone industry peaked in 2003 and has since died down quite a bit; apparently cell phone users eventually realized that custom ringtones just aren’t that cool after all.

Other technologies, too, have mellowed out or disappeared. Car alarms, once a must-have for anybody who thought his car (and/or car stereo) valuable, have gone from an epidemic to a blessed rarity. When e-mail first took hold, the number of forwarded jokes threatened to paralyze us all until people evidently tired of participating in the e-mail-tainment (though spam has stepped in to perpetuate our annoyance). Maybe in time the smartphone will evolve from a gee-whiz cutting-edge product into a basic, uncelebrated tool, and smartphone-originated e-mails won’t carry the “Sent from…” footers anymore. Indeed, I can foresee a world where the standard reaction to such a footer would be, “Well, duh!”

Monday, May 4, 2009

Book Review: Cowboy Sam


One great reason to have kids is that it gives you an excuse to read the children’s books you enjoyed in your youth. You can find just about any book now through the online resellers, even books long out of print. The first book I ever read was Cowboy Sam by Edna Walker Chandler. I just couldn’t get enough of it, and begged my mom to read it to me again and again until I had it all but memorized. (To this day, if you mention the title she’ll groan retroactively at the remembered tedium of this.) No other children’s book had the same effect on me back then.

Remembering Cowboy Sam’s impact reminds me of the odd compulsion my childhood friend John and I had to listen to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” over and over. One day we even heard, on a radio talk show, about a child welfare group that was trying to censor the song based on both its addictiveness to teens and its alleged Satanic backmasking. Intrigued, we messed around with John’s parents’ turntable until, to our astonishment, we discovered that the song really does have Satanic backmasking: “My sweet Satan,” clear as a bell. (I probably shouldn’t admit this, but Alexa has taken to the song and now begs us to play it for her. I’m assuming this is based on the quality of the song, not the clever gimmick she doesn’t know anything about.)

Cowboy Sam isn’t quite so compelling to my kids, though Lindsay has taken a shine to it lately and will make me start from the beginning if we’re interrupted during a reading. Yesterday she stared intently for some time one of its pictures, of a herd of cows. “That one looks angry,” she says. And it does—look.

Lindsay goes on to say, “The others are all sad and worried and he’s saying, ‘It’s all my fault!’”

I decided not to psychoanalyze my daughter about this utterance, but I did take a moment to correct her pronoun: “You mean she looks angry.” After all, it says right in the book that these are all cows. And then it hit me: why all cows? Not a single bull in the book, and not a single steer. And meanwhile, not a single female human. What’s up with this oddly compelling book with no women and this very angry, guilt-ridden cow? I decided that, as had “Stairway to Heaven,” this book warranted closer inspection and analysis.

The Truth About Sam

Sure enough, Cowboy Sam starts off like a lads’ mag (e.g., Gear, Stuff), showcasing Cowboy Sam’s possessions. Okay, I’m kidding—that’s a perfectly straightforward beginning to an early readers’ book. But very quickly it becomes clear that Cowboy Sam himself is the sole focus, the other characters serving as mere bit players.

“Look ... SAM’S RANCH,” Lindsay says, pointing at the sign above the corral. “It’s only his, not theirs,” she declares emphatically.
Granted, this book is entitled (literally) to have a central character, but it’s odd how the other characters are described only in terms of their relationship to him. “Here is Big Bill. He makes good things for Sam to eat.” No mention of Bill’s intrinsic value. “Here is Shorty. He is a cowboy, too. He helps Sam.” Nota bene: these two are not united in a common cause—it’s Sam’s world and Shorty just helps. We never even get Shorty’s real name. (You think it says “Shorty” on his birth certificate? What, were his parents clairvoyant?)

Sam, we quickly learn, is the quintessential alpha male. It’s as though he won’t tolerate any other strong male figure in his world. Remember, while cows feature prominently in the book, we never get a single bull. The only other male mentioned is Black Wolf, a clear adversary who must be vanquished. Sam will not acknowledge that wolves naturally eat other animals, including cattle, as part of nature’s plan. He declares his feelings very bluntly: “Black Wolf is bad.” On first reading, or perhaps the first hundred readings, it may seem as though Black Wolf is the instigator in this conflict, sneaking up on Sam and the cows as they sleep. But what is Sam doing sleeping on the ground, in the middle of nowhere, with his cows? Simply this: he has set a trap—using his own cows as bait! When Black Wolf falls for this, out comes the rifle. (Obviously the phallic representation of the gun needs no exegesis, but I will say that I vividly remember being inexplicably thrilled, as a boy, by the fact of, and sight of, that rifle.)

Does the narrator use the Black Wolf episode to take Sam down a notch? Maybe hand him a minor defeat, or at least some unexpected remorse after he takes the life of one of God’s creatures? Of course not. This being a children’s book, the wolf doesn’t take a bullet, but the outcome is even more perfect for Sam: the humiliated creature literally runs away with its tale between its legs! Black Wolf is totally shamed by Sam, run right out of the book. The cowboy’s triumph is complete.

Conclusive Evidence

The astute reader may wonder if I’m reading too much into this—could it not be that Sam is just a cowboy, after all, with a less than totally sophisticated view of the natural world? And isn’t it natural to defend your cattle against predators? Well, in the sarcastic words of another macho man, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” Indeed, closer inspection shows that Cowboy Sam systematically undermines the self esteem of everybody around him, to ensure his dominance within his little realm.

First, we see his contrary reaction to every one of Shorty’s suggestions. When Sam sets out to look for Black Wolf, Shorty asks, “Do you want me to ride with you?” The most logical answer, in my book, is yes—after all, wouldn’t two cowboys have a better chance against Black Wolf? But no, not in Cowboy Sam’s view. He must do this ... ALONE. But if he’s going to deny Shorty, he could at least be polite about it. A simple “No thanks,” perhaps? Instead, you wince at the brittle reproach, worthy of Mr. Ramsay in To The Lighthouse, when Sam says icily, “I want you to work on the ranch.” (In today’s vernacular he’d be saying, “I want you to work on the ranch, bitch.”) Later in the book, Shorty—obsequious as ever and perhaps chastened by his earlier rebuke—asks, “Do you want me to work on the ranch?” Sam, far too imperious and contrarian to accept the suggestion, once again counters it: “I want you to ride with me.”

You may still think I’m quibbling. A coincidence, you might say. Or, perhaps it’s Shorty’s fault—maybe he’s just a pest, maybe he can’t read the situation. Well then, what defense would you give when Sam outwardly disses Big Bill? This happens when Sam is leaving to hunt down Black Wolf. He doesn’t state his true intentions; he says, “I am going to take the cows to water. I will look for Black Wolf.” The implication is that he’s just going to keep an eye out for the wolf during a daily errand. He makes this more explicit when he says, “I will come back soon. I will want a good dinner.” Bill, as accommodating as Shorty, replies, “Good-by. I will make a good dinner.” But one hundred readings later we realize that Sam has no intention of being back by dinnertime. Not only has he brought his dinner along, he’s brought his bedroll! Even after getting rid of Black Wolf, Sam spends the rest of the night under the stars. His petty ego must get some satisfaction in imagining Bill eventually realizing he isn’t coming home, and throwing out his dinner.

A Shocking Revelation

Sam’s snub of Big Bill notwithstanding, the central relationship in the book is between Sam and Shorty. Not only is Shorty eager to please Sam, but he’s openly solicitous—protective, even. Shorty offers him the snake bite box, and Sam replies, “I will take it.” But he doesn’t. Later, when Sam takes leave of Shorty out on the range, Shorty patiently offers him the snake bite box again. This gentle but persistent reminder ... what did it make me think of? Ah, yes ... Walter Mitty’s wife. Shorty and Sam are like an old married couple! No, I’m not going to suggest they’re gay. (Cowboy Sam came out almost fifty years before “Brokeback Mountain.”) But I had a sudden epiphany when I examined this picture carefully:

Shorty looks uncannily small, doesn’t he? The first hundred or so times I saw this, I figured Shorty was somewhat in the background, but then I noticed that the snake bite box is in front of Sam’s arm. Something just looks wrong: men that short tend to be much stockier than that. Something about Shorty’s physique suddenly struck me in a new light, and I quickly flipped through the book looking for other clues. Confirmation came with this one:

There can be no doubt—Shorty is a woman! No wonder she’s content being so submissive—she’s faking it as a man, just to be included in this rancher’s world, and doesn’t want to make waves and have her secret discovered. (In fact, she looks a fair bit like Teena Brandon, aka Brandon Teena, in the movie “Boys Don’t Cry.”) In this context, an odd comment she offers toward the end of the book makes a bit more sense: “I like a cowboy’s work.” And she clearly does.

Whether or not Shorty is in love with Cowboy Sam, she obviously feels a certain tenderness for his fragile male ego; consider her litany of praise at the end of the book: “You did good work. You shot Black Wolf. You looked for water. You shot two snakes. You helped Dandy.” Never mind that Sam didn’t shoot Black Wolf (he missed); that on the occasion in question he never did find water (though Shorty herself did, twice!); that he shot one snake only after it already bit Dandy and shot the other for no good reason; and that he was able to help Dandy only because she, Shorty, had finally managed to get him to take the snake bite box. As far as we can tell, Shorty is by far more competent as a cowboy; unsurprisingly, Cowboy Sam’s response is far from generous: “You helped, too.”

So what, exactly, is the author, Edna Walker Chandler, up to? In 1951, when this book was first published, a book with an outwardly feminist theme could only have served a niche market. To inject a message into mainstream children’s literature, she would have been compelled by necessity to be very subtle, and I think that’s what she has done. The key that unlocks the hidden message is the angry cow that Lindsay noticed. It’s as if the cow is saying, “Look, we’re all getting screwed here by the arbitrary authority of this unenlightened [male-dominated rancher] society, and so long as we allow ourselves to be herded along like this, things will never change.” Only Shorty herself, by infiltrating this society and this book, seems to have taken the first cautious step in turning things around.


Does Shorty’s scheme get us anywhere? Yes, eventually. Eleven years later, in 1962, Shorty finally gets equal billing in the series with Cowboy Sam and Shorty, in which she even has an acknowledged triumph when Cowboy Sam forgets to put gas in his car and Shorty gets to tow him home, with a bunch of other cowboys as witness. Finally, in 1971, came not just one but two books in the series that openly admitted female humans (Cowboy Sam and Sally and Cowboy Sam and Miss Lilly). (I’ll confess that I haven’t sprung for these two titles.)

And what of the author’s undertaking? Was Edna Walker Chandler successful in infusing her children’s books with subversive proto-feminist messages? Hard to say. Who can tell what incremental attitude shifts she may have achieved in the malleable minds of our youth? It’s a much more solid bet, however, that the male-dominated publishing establishment eventually caught on to her little project, for the entire Cowboy Sam series, along with Chandler’s adult title Women In Prison, have long been out of print.