Breach of Contract

November 24, 2013 by cynick | Posted in humans , marketing-scumbags

Successful navigation of life requires one to execute as a participating party in various well-defined social contracts.

Unfortunately, as a person who can be rather scatterbrained at times – more than one person has asked me, “What color is the sky in your world?” – I sometimes inadvertantly find myself in breach of one of these contracts.

Imagine, for example, the contract of the grocery store checkout line.

You put your things on the conveyor. In response, the clerk pushes a button which causes the conveyor to move forward. Depending on the caliber of the store, the clerk may ask you if you’ve found everything you were looking for. The correct answer is “yes”.

One by one, he or she picks up an item, and either a) runs it through the path of the laser beam of a scanner, and upon hearing a positive, happy-sounding beep, puts the item down on a conveyor on the other side of the scanner, or b) if it has no UPC code, visually determines what the item is, punches in a code for the item, and then sets it down on the conveyor.

(For simplicity, assume that the scanner always finds the UPC code on the item, the clerk can distinguish a rutabaga from a turnip, none of the items are dropped into the conveyor rollers, jamming it up, and under no circumstances do you try to use expired coupons from competing stores that are for products that are completely different from the ones you are trying to buy)

During this activity on the part of the clerk, you shuffle forward a few feet to a small check-writing platform, which, if you were born after 1945, is really only useful as a place for the marketing scumbags to show ads to a captive audience.

After all of your items have been checked out, the clerk pushes another button, which this time produces a sum of all of the items’ prices. The clerk will speak this number out loud, and that’s your cue to hand over an appropriate amount of cash, or, possibly, swipe a credit card.

Depending again on the quality of the store, you now either bag the items, or, stand around while someone else bags the items.

In the latter case, you might be asked to make a spot judgement call on the kind of bag you prefer be used, but that’s usually not a very tough decision, since there are only two kinds of bags available. You could try to invent a comedic third option, but nobody likes a smartass.

Once the bagging is complete, you go on your merry way, crumpling the receipt that the clerk handed you into a tiny ball – because it, too, is covered in advertising – making for easy tossing into a strategically placed garbage can.

On the whole, this is a simple contract that doesn’t require very much thought from any of the involved parties.

It gets slightly more complicated when there are multiple people in line at the same time. How do we handle cases where items belonging to more than one person are on the conveyor at the same time? What if two orders were to get mixed together? There would be chaos!

This was a problem in urgent need of a fix, since “Americans on the Go” frequently exhibit the curious belief that if they are in a line, whether it be at the grocery or in car traffic, smaller gaps between people always shorten the total length of time required to get through the line.

In response, some clever person invented the checkout divider, which is nothing more than a plastic cuboid, either hollow or solid, whose long edge is roughly as wide as the conveyor belt, the idea being that each customer would grab one and place it between their items and the items ahead, giving a much clearer visual indication of the boundary between two sets of items than an ever-shrinking amount of empty space ever could.

Never again would we suffer the indignity of someone’s pile of Lean Cuisine intermingling with someone else’s pile of Hot Pockets.

Over the years, other clever people have evolved these dividers into yet another vector of assault for the marketing scumbags, and so, as someone who is allergic to marketing, I never use them.

And that’s what got me into trouble the other night.

I had gone into a smallish natural foods store to get a couple of things. Items found, I selected a lane in which there was a single cart, that, although containing a large number of items, seemed to be well along in its transaction. The owners of the cart were two men, one older, one younger. I stepped into the lane, and put my items on the end of the conveyor, at least two feet behind the nearest items belonging to the people ahead.

While waiting, as I scanned the covers of various tabloids – sadly, my only source of the kind of crass and schadenfreudic information they provide – (and by “sadly”, I mean that I’m sad that I have any source at all!) a young woman burst past me and put a few more things on the conveyor, between my things and the things of the people ahead of me.

The shock of this seeming violation of protocol quickly wore off when it became clear that she was somehow connected to the two men; I wasn’t sure how they were all related, but there was some vibe that the older man was a parent of one or both of the younger people. They were busily bagging things up, since, in this establishment, the clerk and the bagger are the same person, and the clerk was still ringing up their items.

I then turned to glance at a middle-aged woman who had entered the lane behind me with a cart filled to the brim with items. When I glanced back, I found that the conveyor had moved forward and my items had been scanned!

Believing that the clerk had performed the totalling phase of the transaction ahead of me while my attention was elsewhere, and had decided to scan my items while the other people finished bagging, I did nothing, choosing instead to bide my time until the people ahead cleared out, making room for me to move forward and pay for my own items.

Then the clerk said, “$345.57”, and not a nanosecond later, the older man swiped a credit card and scrawled a signature on the pad, thus immediately concluding his transaction, _ including my items, which were now being scooped up into one of his bags!_

I had completely missed the window of time where I could have indignantly, but without causing consternation, said to the clerk, “I say, my dear fellow! Those items belong to me!” The transaction had been concluded; a large sum of money had changed hands. As the seconds thundered on, I became acutely aware that I was operating without a contract. I was standing in the middle of a checkout lane with no items to check out.

To make it even more interesting, none of the other five people had even gestured or made an utterance of any kind to show that they had seen or understood what had happened, or, for that matter, to acknowledge that I was even there at all, or indeed, had ever been there.

I had become completely invisible. How exciting! It’s not every day that one becomes completely invisible.

What was my next action? Did I use this newfound power for good, or for evil? You decide.

I turned and walked, quietly and slowly, backward out of the lane, past the middle-aged woman, and then over to the end of the checkout aisles, where I then made my way outside and back to my car.

I chuckled and pictured those people getting home and being deeply puzzled by the half gallon of Original Rice Dream and bag of Mi-Del Lemon Snaps that had been magically inserted into their groceries.

Alas, this small amusement soon gave way to the thought, given the enormity of their purchase, that it was probable that each of the three people got plenty of items that the other two did not know they were getting, and that the odds were quite small that those extra items would ever be noticed by anyone.

The whole episode spurs the question, “If a tree falls in a forest, does anyone laugh?”

Sour Grapes

January 31, 2011 by cynick | Posted in humans , saint-paul

An annual pleasure of mine is armchair-observation of the St. Paul Winter Carnival Medallion Hunt that is put on by the Pioneer Press.

To the uninitiated: the newspaper, under circumstances nobody to date has witnessed (that I know of, anyway), conceals a small plastic puck somewhere on public property, almost always a park in St. Paul, and then clues are printed daily in the newspaper over the course of the Carnival.

It doesn’t matter how much snow piles up, or how cold it gets: Somebody always finds the thing – after all, there’s up to ten grand in it for the finder – but also, and perhaps more importantly, the finder enters the very exclusive club of the people who have found it.

It saddens me to declare that the hunt has become rather dumbed down as the years have gone on; I seem to recall that when I was a kid, the clues were much more about St. Paul history, geography, streets, and historic “characters”, rather than today’s sets of clues that are full of very fresh pop references, lyrics from music that Baby Boomers listen to, veiled shout-outs to people that work at the newspaper, and even self-references to clues from previous years.

I never truly have the time to sit down and try to decipher the clues; and in fact, even when I were a young lad, I couldn’t have looked for it because I had a job slinging the newspaper. Conflict of interest, you know.

I’m interested in the human story of the outcome, always being gratified when it is found by some person or group that has put in much effort over the years, but always came up short. More often than not, there is a sense that the finders truly deserve their prize.

It’s enough of an interesting and unique story that a documentary film crew from New York filmed several of the hunts in the early 2000s, and profiled some of the most interesting characters that go out with their shovels, year after year. The resulting film, No Time For Cold Feet, is packed with wonderful lore and stories of the hunt over its nearly sixty year history, as well as lots of footage of people digging for gold – including a classic melee in the Como Park woods on the night of a last clue.

I was privileged to see the premiere screening of the film in Minnesota, and, as it turned out, the audience was stacked with people that are in the movie – they were easy to spot by their markedly louder hootin’ and hollering at seeing themselves on the big screen.

For some people, the hunt is a way of life. They schedule vacations around it, study old clues year ’round, and many fly in from different places around the world.

Subsequently, there is an enjoyable sub-aspect to the hunt: Complaints from people who weren’t lucky enough to hit the jackpot. I expected there would be a good whine selection when I heard this year’s outcome: it was found after only seven clues! Thousands of people, robbed of five days of bliss.

And, believe it or not, when the story of the discovery was published on the Internet, the comments did not leave me disappointed. (Comments full of sour grapes, you say? What a novel concept!) (Quick aside: the article – and ha, now I see the print version as well! – contains one of my favorite gaffes: “..pouring over a map of the St. Paul parks”. Pouring.. what? Coffee? Milk? That’s the problem with using only a spellchecker: it couldn’t possibly know that the author meant to use “poring” instead.)

A common complaint was that “there is no way the thing could have been found after seven clues”, but someone replied that they had sent their daughter to about fifty feet from where it was. Some satisfaction must have been attained just by getting her that close.

In the article about the discovery, a member of the victorious team states that they saw a lone man digging by one of the trees mentioned by the clues, but she “didn’t have the heart to tell him”. A commenter wrote his outrage in caps: “SEEMS TO ME SHE HAD NO HEART!!”

I disagree. I think anyone who is that gung-ho to be out there at 3am, digging away, deserves to live the dream as long as possible. With luck, he hadn’t paid attention to the women, and went home not long after, and will never know.

A less whimsical statement is that it would probably be unwarranted for a couple of women to announce to a strange man in a lonely gully at 3am that they had just found something that’s worth ten thousand dollars.

Another whine was that, since the park was closed, the finders should be cited for being in the park after dark. This fellow said it wasn’t fair, because the police had chased him away, but not the people who found it. Note to this sad victim of the self-esteem movement: You didn’t want it enough! If you really want it, what you do is, you say, “Yes, Officer. Sorry, Officer”, and then double back once the cops are gone, and resume digging.

I suppose he would like to see the winners stripped of their prize.

_ Your Honor, my client demands an Instant Remedy whereby the medallion is returned to its Original Placement in the park so that he can Search for it during Legal Park Hours._

He forgets this one fact: The paper always releases the next day’s clue at 12am. It used to be the case that teams would have someone wait down at the newspaper headquarters, get the clue, and then phone it in to the rest of the team who were waiting at whatever park for the information, where they would immediately apply it and start digging. (That is another in a long line of traditions that the Internet has wrecked: the “phone relay” is no longer needed as a hunter’s device) By the last day, there can be thousands of people out digging in the middle of the night. Try telling them to leave!

Then there were several complaints about safety. Apparently, to get to the hiding place, one had to go down an ancient staircase that had been completely snowed in and iced over. Of the many revelations that have come out over the years, as far as I know there have never been specific statements about how and when the treasure is buried, but one assumes it was buried long before last December’s blizzard. Should they have moved it somewhere else? Would that have been “fair”?

Yes, let’s make it completely safe, so that everyone has an equal chance of finding the medallion. In fact, let’s put out many medallions – like an Easter Egg hunt! – all worth about $5. Then everyone can be a winner!

That sounds like an awful lot of fun, doesn’t it, kids?