JOHN SHIELDS

Writer, Humorist,
Stunt Double
215-264-1223

thatjohnshields@gmail.com
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BETTER PRODUCTS FOR BETTER LIVING

And We Wonder Where the Time Goes? by John Shields | September 13, 2006

 6:15 pm: It starts out simply enough.
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Remote Impossibilities by John Shields | January 24, 2005

re-mote  adj. far away, distant; n. a remote control device. - from Latin remotus ‘removed’
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Open for Business by John Shields | February 11, 2005

My television stopped televising this week, three days before the Super Bowl. 
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The Seventh Seal (Attempt) by John Shields | December 11, 2005

In the beginning there was Saran Wrap. Then came HandiWrap, made, not begotten, of its own substance, separate from Saran Wrap.
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The Pennsylvania Turnpike's Mental Toll by John Shields | September 30, 2005

It was on my third trip to Pittsburgh to visit our son Nick at college that I noticed that the turnpike exit numbers were different and that they made no sense.
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And We Wonder Where the Time Goes?

 6:15 pm: It starts out simply enough. Some online business to conduct with my health insurer. I’ve been slow getting around to it, but now I’m ready for action.

The Aetna phone rep tells me, “I’m going to email you the link to the website where you’ll enter your information.”

“Can you read me the link over the phone?”

“I’m going to email you the link.”

“You can’t just read it to me?”

“I’m going to email you the link...”

An hour later, the link arrives.

“Whoa,” I have to admit, “that’s a pretty long link” (if you consider https://ips.aetna.com/Retail/Home_Login_Consumer.aspx?bid=5InVOC2cW54%
3dwithaHeyNonnyNonnyandaHot-cha-cha a pretty long link).

 I click on it and go to the Aetna website.

 7:30 pm: Since I’m a first-time user, I enter my name in the “user name” field, create a password and confirm the password. The screen displays a message:

Your user name and password are incorrect.

Relative to what?

I enter my email address for user name and get the same message.

I try a different password.

I make my name the password and the password my name.

I put e before i in my last name in complete violation of the spelling rule.

Nothing works.

The phone rep’s supposed to be working till 9 pm. I email him for help with my identity crisis. A multitasker like me can’t sit idly waiting, so I go and do something productive: I turn on the Phillies game.

9:00 pm: no phone rep. I call it quits for the night.

6:00 pm the next evening: I’m back, but, before I can get going, a popup tells me the antivirus program installed on the computer has expired. “Why wait until trouble strikes?” I figure. I click “Renew.”

Whadya know? The company is inducing me to upgrade to the 2006 version by charging me less than if I keep my old 2003 version.

I sign up, not thinking to ask, “Why would they do that?”

The 2006 program downloads, but, before letting me proceed, it tells me I have to uninstall the 2003 version first.

Simple enough. I’m a seasoned uninstaller.

I watch as the screen measures my progress: Twenty-five percent complete. Fifty percent. Seventy-five percent.

It stalls at 75%.

7:30 pm: Several minutes have gone by and still no movement.

I turn on the Phillies game.

A half-hour later, I check back. The screen hasn’t changed. I minimize the uninstall window only to find that another, smaller window has been hiding behind it. This is like having the FedEx driver say to you, “I delivered your package three days ago and put it in the basement with your Christmas decorations.”

There are items in Quarantine. Would you like to delete them?

You’re @#&!!ing right I would.

As soon as I click the “@#&!!ing right” button, things get moving again faster than an unclogged toilet.

With 2003 now uninstalled, I successfully install the 2006 version.

In the time it takes for me to use the bathroom, the new antivirus program has taken it upon itself to begin a scan of the 120,000 or so files on the hard drive.

King Lear has a shorter running time.

In the interim, I knock off the Sunday NewYork Times crossword puzzle and watch a few episodes of Law and Order. When the scan is complete, I close the program, but, first, it has a message for me:

Refreshing. Please wait.

For some, “refreshing” is a water ice on a hot summer night. For others, a professional ballplayer who’s not on steroids.

For me, “refreshing” means, “All this to save five bucks? You are such a dummy.”

I wait while the program finishes refreshing. It never does. It is “not responding.”

10:15 pm: My response to the “not responding” message is to go back to watching the Phillies.

They’re not responding either.

Shouldn’t there be messages on the TV screen for people like me?

“The Phillies are not responding.”

Or, “Pat Burrell is in Quarantine. Would you like to delete him?”

Back at the computer, I close the insidious “refreshing” window and return to the Aetna website.

You may remember the Aetna website from Chapter One.

“J. Shields?” I type, thinking, “Maybe if I add a question mark...”

 

©2006 John Shields

 

 

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Remote Impossibilities

re-mote  adj. far away, distant; n. a remote control device.
- from Latin remotus ‘removed’

I have a remote that controls the television in the family room.

I have another remote that controls the DVD player in the family room.

The remote that controls the television also controls the DVD player, but the converse is not true.

I have another remote that controls the stereo receiver and CD player in the family room. 

Best case, the three of them sit side by side on the end table, within easy reach.  But mostly they are solitary creatures, preferring the security and invisibility afforded by the deep recesses of the sofa.  For entertainment, they like to play hide-and-seek. 

I used to have another remote that promised to unify the functions of these first three remotes into one, so-called “universal” remote – the entertainment-center version of science’s unified field theory.  But it was a false promise.  It wouldn’t let me switch to the DVD channel on the TV, meaning I had to use the television remote as a workaround before deriving any benefit from the universal remote.  In my book, this negated the entire premise of a universal remote.  Since the store where I bought it wasn’t selling my partially universal remote for a partial price, I returned it.

In the basement, I have a remote that controls the television there.

I have another basement remote that controls the DVD player and a third that controls the home theater speakers.

The television remote has the ability to control the DVD player, but the DVD player is a few years younger than the television, so there’s no code in the television’s remote manual for it.  It’s a three-digit code, and I’m determined to find it.  Every day, I punch in a three-digit combination, like the manual says, hoping to see that DVD player turn on.  So far, no luck, but I’m only up to number 479, so there’s a good chance the right code is out there among the 520 remaining.

The family room remotes cannot control the basement’s video and audio components.  The basement remotes cannot control the family room’s audio and video components.  Like middle managers with little control and an inflated sense of self-importance, the remotes in both areas of the house fancy themselves more powerful than they really are.  Sure, they have their little fiefdoms, but what do they know, really, of the bigger world?  Do they know about my other remotes – the ones that travel, opening and closing my garage and car doors?  Or the remote that’s controlling the Huygens probe on Titan?  Now that’s a remote. 

I suspect they know about the remote that controls my AM/FM stereo cassette player.  That one’s a bit long of tooth.  It’s the oldest of my remotes, and I think there’s a little jealousy going on about its privileged position all by itself in the kitchen.  I’m beginning to suspect the other remotes of plotting to undermine it, because now and again, for no apparent reason, it stops working, and I have to wrack my brain remembering how to reprogram the stations.  Maybe it’s just old age setting in – on the remote, that is.

I’ve taken in my share of these cuddly little gadgets over the years, or maybe they’ve taken me in, I’m not sure which.  It’s hard to leave a Best Buy or a Circuit City without one tagging along.  I’ve given back one or two of them – like the partially universal remote – to their original owners; others – like the room air conditioner remotes – I just toss.  But mostly I keep them.  Short of giving each of them names or having the board of health on my case, I’m like the proverbial old lady with her houseful of cats.

It’s pathetic.

 

©2005 John Shields

 

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Open for Business

My television stopped televising this week, three days before the Super Bowl.  It’s only seven months old, so it’s still under parts warranty.  Nevertheless, carrying a TV in for repair is like carrying a dead mastiff to the vet.

I asked the repair-shop owner, “What gives? I’m used to reliability in my home electronics.” 

He told me it’s not like that anymore. “It’s all about who can make the stuff cheaper.” 

The result being a decline in quality, and there’s nothing we here in America can do about it because we don’t manufacture anything anymore.

Driving home from the TV repair shop while probing the bulge in my groin that wasn’t there that morning, I got to thinking about the manufacturing issue.  It occurred to me that, though I may not have a factory to show for it, I am a manufacturer.  I make a product – this column.  Each week, my product ships to the stores – rather small stores – where it’s in stock for you, the consumer, to buy. 

It’s how I, personally, stem the erosion of America’s manufacturing base. 

But because my costs (breakfast, for example) usually exceed the going rate for columnists (a term derived from the old expression “I promise, we’re going to pay you.”) I, like most Americans these days, have to jump into the “service economy” pool to make a living. 

From my MBA days, I know how critical it is to find a niche that will provide a unique service.  That’s why I recently opened “@!!&%#! No More.”

If you’re like me, you know the frustration of trying to tear open consumer products these days.  And it’s not just the really tricky stuff, like the packaging designed to deter theft or tampering.  Those fall under the category, “What God has joined together not even the Eagles’ offensive line can pull asunder.” No, I’m talking about cereal, CDs, brake fluid … anything you have to pull from the middle in opposite directions.

After you’ve already sent your first few hundred Cocoa Puffs flying across the kitchen is a little too late to remember the First Commandment of packaging: “The more aerodynamic the contents, the harder it shall be to open.”

At “@!!&%#! No More,” we provide a full range of product-opening services for seniors, Baby Boomers, and the generally inept. 

Of all the sealing methods we see in our line of work, the worst by far is the clamshell method.  Why do they call it “clamshell”?  Well, have you ever tried opening a clam by hand?  Those plastic thermoformed packages are sealed so tight only an X-Men mutant could penetrate them.  Which gives me an idea for another opening technique: Put them in a big pot and steam them open.

Yes, friends, no more dislodging your caps and fillings trying to bite the package open.  No more picking at corners, hoping for a fingerhold.  No more second-degree lacerations.  Just bring it all to us here at “@!!&%#! No More.”  The Advil, the prepackaged baloney, the sesame.  We’ll open it for you while you wait in the comfort of “For Openers,” our open-air lounge.

While our patented, electro-magnetic, ultrasonic, Guantanamo-grade MegaPryer® is getting your product to unseal quicker than a pair of gossipy lips, the only things you’ll have to worry about opening are magazines and your wallet.

And, as a bonus, we conduct free seminars for those of you who can’t locate where packaging tape or a new roll of toilet paper starts.

Entrepreneurs, consider franchise opportunities with “@!!&%#! No More.”  Call anytime.  Our business office is open on Friday evenings from 11:04 to 11:06 p.m., Pacific Standard Time.

So, you see, it’s possible to be a manufacturer and a service provider at the same time.  There’s a lesson for America there.

©2005 John Shields    

 

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The Seventh Seal (Attempt)

In the beginning there was Saran Wrap. Then came HandiWrap, made, not begotten, of its own substance, separate from Saran Wrap. HandiWrap begat Saran Cling Plus, and the original Saran Wrap begat Saran Original, which begat Saran Premium Wrap, which begat Saran Premium Wrap’s Slide ‘n Cut Bar®.

Whatever the genealogy, it’s all plastic wrap, which means it’s guaranteed to frustrate from the minute you take it out of the storage drawer.

You have a plate of supper leftovers to refrigerate. You reach for the wrap....

Like its cousin, packaging tape, plastic wrap camouflages its most recent tear-off point quite effectively. Sometimes you can find it the same way you view the Pleiades in the night sky – by not looking directly at it. Whichever way you choose, the correct way is the one you did not choose.

The serrated metal cutting edge is sometimes attached to the lip of the lid, sometimes to the body of the box. It doesn’t matter what part it’s attached to; you will pull the plastic toward the part it’s not attached to. This will cause the box to bend and make it even harder to get a clean tear. A clean tear is every wrap user’s Holy Grail – and something they have about as much hope of finding.

It’s a stretch, but let’s assume that you get the plastic unrolling uniformly from one end of the roll to the other and actually achieve a clean tear. With a false sense of security, you think you‘re now holding enough plastic to seal the plate of leftovers.

Naturally, the first thing it does is cling to itself.

This is plastic wrap’s signature shortcoming. Blame it on static electricity if you will, but I think there’s a conscious, malevolent presence at work. No, not poltergeist. More like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.

You manage to uncling it.

You cover the plate, only to find that its diameter is larger than the width of the wrap.

Because of that, the wrap doesn’t cling to a degree that would justify the use of “cling” as an action verb. Certainly not as tenaciously as it always seems to want to cling to itself. At this point, you’re tempted to buy Saran Cling Plus on the mistaken assumption that it will give you the cling you need.

Don’t. “Cling Plus” is an alias.

The ideal is a seal airtight enough you can bounce a dime off the plastic, but on a normal-sized dinner plate, as you’ve proven, this is geometrically impossible. The next best remedy is to tear off a second length of wrap and place it over the dish perpendicular to the first. That piece clings even less tightly than the first, because it is being asked to cling to its own kind, and there is a biblical injunction against that sort of thing.

The sad consequence is that your plate of leftovers enters the refrigerator disheveled. Hope that your mother-in-law is not around to witness this.

Perhaps you’ve noticed on the supermarket shelves the latest in plastic wrap dispensing, Saran Premium Wrap’s Slide ‘n Cut Bar®.

“Maybe I should give it a try,” you say to yourself. “Maybe replacing the serrated metal edge with a couple of pieces of plastic really is the answer.”

Don’t be hard on yourself for thinking that way. That’s what I thought, too, and, initially, things were going as the box promised me they would: no more dispensing hassles.

Then one day, the slide piece of the Slide ‘n Cut Bar disappeared, leaving me with a No Slide ‘n No Cut Bar.

I was forced to use kitchen shears.

And how did that go? Picture the coastline of Norway.

A few days and a new box of plastic wrap later, the missing slide reappeared from under a utility table when I was sweeping the kitchen floor. My son told me the Slide ‘n Cut technology had so frustrated his sister that she’d sent the piece flying across the room.

And so the torch – or at least the urge to torch – has been passed to a new generation of plastic wrap users. Long may they suffer, as their forebears have suffered, even back unto four generations.

 

©2005 John Shields

 

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The Pennsylvania Turnpike’s Mental Toll  

It was on my third trip to Pittsburgh to visit our son Nick at college that I noticed that the turnpike exit numbers were different and that they made no sense.

Because I’m a man of supreme intelligence and perspicacity, it took me only 300 miles to deduce that the new numbers were somehow related to mile locations and were not as random as they first appeared to be. That’s when I realized the old exit-numbering system had been eliminated.

For the uninitiated, which would include the unlicensed, the uninterested, and the un-Pennsylvanian, our fair (and expensive) interstate toll road for decades identified its exits in numerical sequence, a no-nonsense approach that seemed to work well. It went like this: The first exit upon entering Pennsylvania from the west was called, not coincidentally, “exit 1.”  Then, with a certain undeniable mathematical logic, came “exit 2,” and so forth all the way to “exit 30,” the last before leaving Pennsylvania for New Jersey. The Northeast Extension of the turnpike, being of later construction, was assigned exits 31 through 39.

This method worked because, from home addresses to office numbers, deli counters to 50-50 tickets, it’s an effective way to impose reasonable order on our daily environments while minimizing the intellectual demands.

Unless we’re being paid for it, we always want to minimize the intellectual demands.

Remember that.

The simple one- and two-digit exit numbers were easy to remember and facilitated direction giving. It’s natural to anticipate exit 20 when you’ve just passed exit 19, but looking for exit 180 after you’ve just gone by exit 161 demands a counter-intuitive way of thinking.

Considering the demonstrable benefits of the old method, why in Henry Ford’s name did the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission opt to change to a system based on milepost markers?

According to their website, which can be accessed at www.pabewilderment.com, the change makes it easier for drivers to calculate travel times and distances. Sure, if you know that the Carlisle exit, where you plan to get off twelve exits from now, is exit 226. But who wants to subtract 226 from 343 in their heads anyway when they’re trying to drive and listen to their illegally downloaded iPod tracks? For that matter, how many drivers can even handle the mental math without having to resort to pencil and paper? I mean, this is Pennsylvania we’re talking about.

The Commission also claims that emergency services prefer the new method because it makes it easier for them to locate and respond to a crisis scene. (I’m guessing the exit numbers for New Orleans, then, were not based on milepost locations.) 

Look, emergency services and police operate within a limited highway range. It’s not as though the State Police barracks near Harrisburg is going to respond to a flat tire in the Poconos. Give me a break. There’s not that much to learn.

Not only that, but how many drivers are going to remember the last mile marker they passed? What they will remember is the name of the last exit they passed. Consider: If the driver of a disabled vehicle calls the police on his cell phone and says he’s about ten minutes east of the Morgantown exit, will the cop’s first reaction be “Let’s see, Morgantown ... that used to be exit 22 and now it’s 298 ... so ten minutes east at 60 mph puts the vehicle about ten miles from the exit, that’d be milepost 308 ... but what if he was doing 75? ... Distance equals rate times time, so ...”

Meanwhile, the car explodes in a ball of flame.

So, with the Turnpike Commission’s arguments debunked, there’s but one other possibility that explains this unneeded upheaval: Someone got a fat kickback in exchange for a sweetheart sign-making contract.

All I know is, life was simpler when Willow Grove was exit 27 and Fort Washington was exit 26. I could handle that subtraction. But even if it means winding up in Cleveland, I’m not about to start memorizing mile markers to get where I need to go. That’s where I draw my line in the sand—which must mean I’m in New Jersey.

 

©2005 John Shields

 

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Bucks County, PA
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