Sunday, June 02, 2013


Living and working in the city, I’m among the fortunate who find the Chicago EL a relatively convenient ride to and from work. The CTA brown line doesn’t reek of urine like the red line does. Nor is it covered in graffiti and littered with trash. It’s a relatively clean and comfortable place to spend 30 minutes every morning and evening, and a great place to study the behavior of people in public. Which is about all there is to do while daydreaming away those precious minutes in transit.

My ride to work is a little more comfortable than this one.
For me, the commuter train feels a lot like an elevator – one of those uncomfortable public places where strangers are forced to share close quarters for a short distance before parting ways. There’s very little eye contact, and virtually no conversation. Those who initiate either are likely creeps or criminals. That’s just the way it is and everybody knows it. So you mind your own business and try to respect the personal space of those around you.

Unlike strangers stranded on a tropical island together, who may otherwise have incentive to get to know one another, people on the train spend their rides in a state of quiet, personal reflection. Or, at least they did before smart phones came along.

Today's travelers in transit enjoy the deeply gratifying distraction of a held-held portal to the world outside their train car. Seated passengers who had once struggled to awkwardly unfold large-sheet newspapers now comfortably gaze into their palms at glowing, real-time newsrooms. And playrooms. And chat rooms.

The very notion of such unfettered access and control in the consumption of information is as taken for granted today as it would have been considered science fiction just a couple of decades ago. Behold the world of information now in your hands, swiftly manipulated by your fingertips. It’s truly a modern miracle.

And it also makes one wonder: where are all of these technological advances leading us?

I went to the theater the other night to take in a Broadway musical. It has become customary (and necessary) at such events for theater management to direct patrons to exercise courtesy in turning off, and tuning out, the outside world...if only for a short time, out of respect for the performers, the performing arts, and fellow show-goers who spent good money to enjoy a good show.


Most complied with this simple request to silence all cell phones. As soon as the intermission lights came up, however, bathing the audience in a bright yellow glow, a sea of flickering digital screens lit up the floor. From my seat in the dress circle I could see them all winking like the scales of a fish reflecting through the water. People essentially tuning out their immediate surroundings to attend to life elsewhere.

We give the technology such power, I thought. The act of so habitually giving our minds to the virtual world says, in essence, that what is happening outside of the room we are in is more important than what is happening inside of it. That life somewhere else is more interesting, more fulfilling, and more immediately rewarding than any sensory experience one could possibly have in the here and now.

And that promise is so frequently kept, we return to our devices day after day – time after time – on the train, in the theater, in the car, at our desks, in the bathroom, in bed, in line at the store, and at virtually every idle moment. Just look around you, wherever you go and wherever you are. People are staring at their hands, immersed in a virtual space and indifferent to their physical one. You may, in fact, be reading this post on a tablet or smartphone. Indeed, I am “penning” it on my handheld wireless device, connected to the Internet, as I ride to work.

We are always on. Always connected. And there's a new anxiety that we may be missing out on something if we're not constantly checking in on the world outside of our own. Our Facebook feeds. Our email accounts. Our hand-picked news sources. Instagram buddies and Pinterest boards. Reddit threads and YouTube clips. So much information, so little time. But we have to keep up or risk losing touch with the rest of humanity.

 And when you look up from your phone for a second to take notice of them, you realize they’re just as distracted as you were.

The only way to keep up with it all is to check in – constantly, and usually at the expense of experiencing the world that is immediately around us. Of enjoying the company of the people we'd once turned to in satisfying Maslow's well-documented human need to belong. The people we choose to make our lives with. Our REAL lives. Our friends. Our families.


Today, we need only tap an icon on a tiny screen to satisfy that innate desire to belong. With that tap we can be immediately transported to a virtual world that reflects the real world in so many ways – even as it dilutes it in so many others. We text instead of talk. We zone out instead of tune in. We explore the world through a sophisticated composite of plastics and glass instead of through our own eyes, ears, hands, and feet.

And it's not because we're inherently lazy that we give ourselves to these devices – that is the RESULT, not the cause, of our sedentary wandering. In many ways, our brains are actually more active and fit than ever; indeed, we're improving our ability to multi-task, consuming more and more varied forms of content than ever, and accessing and processing a wider variety of ideas.

No – the reason we give ourselves to these devices is because the technology has made it easy to form habits that perpetuate the behavior. The behavior-reward loop is so strong, we react without thinking about it. We hear a text alert or sense a vibration in our pocket and suddenly feel a powerful urge to know what we are missing. We’re trained to reward our curiosity with instant access to a global bank of answers via Google, Wikipedia, and thousands of custom applications the moment our mind begins to wonder. We reflexively inject the virtual world with our deepest (and shallowest) of thoughts, immediate and future whereabouts, and photographic evidence of our existence at every opportunity to validate ourselves before the altar of humanity.

I post, therefore I am!

This map of the Internet eerily resembles the synapse structure of a biological brain.

Despite the immense amount of information now at our disposal. Despite the opportunities to connect with people all over the world. Despite the robust capabilities now afforded us as individuals to do and achieve more independently than ever before. Despite the superhuman extensions of our thought processes and communicative powers…we are not machines. We are still very much living, sentient human beings, even as technology seeks to control and direct us as though we were machines, bending our behavior to its will: which appears to be, quite simply, the propagation of technology.

One reminder of our humanity is the fact that there is a limit to the amount of information we can absorb. A limit to how many pictures we can scan. How many messages we can digest. How many offers we can process. How many requests we can consider. How many opportunities we can evaluate. And, yes, despite what your Facebook and LinkedIn profile pages may lead you to believe, how many friends and acquaintances we can keep...and keep up with.

Sorry, all those smiling faces carefully cropped in tiny pixel-built boxes aren’t your friends. Some of them, sure. All of them? Not a chance.

As my EL stop approaches, the automated conductor announces it over the intercom. The system unfolds as it does day after day, people closing out their applications and shutting down their devices, stowing them in purses and pockets, and rising to disembark. Once everyone has safely left the train and begins their final walk to work or home at street level, the devices come out again. 

We pass people we might recognize. We ignore the threat of traffic. And we fail to take notice of the many miracles around us. Miracles our ancestors once worshipped, that generations past came to take for granted, and that we have seemingly now forsaken in our self-absorbed voyage into the World Wide Web’s black hole of global unconsciousness.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

40 Things I Learned in 40 Years (One Year at a Time)

1 Cookie! (the awesome power of words)

2 Little sisters are okay

3 Friends can be very comforting (even if they’re stuffed)


5 People come in all colors, shapes, and sizes

6 Asthma is scary

7 Dinosaurs rule!

8 Farts are hilarious

9 Girls are icky

10 Video games rock

11 Maybe girls aren’t so bad

12 Sometimes you just want to be alone (with the door locked)

13 Life isn’t fair

14 Listening isn’t enough – sometimes you have to take notes

15 It sure takes a lot of time to earn a little money

16 They’re really serious about this speed limit thing

17 Girls suck

18 Life can be more awesome than I ever imagined

19 They’re really serious about underage drinking

20 This guitar thing is pretty easy

21 You can’t really do much with a degree in Rhetoric

22 Grad school is a great (but expensive) way to buy time

23 Girls suck (but only if you’re nice to them)

24 It’s possible to live on very little

25 If you don’t water your relationship, it will die

26 Friends can be very comforting (especially if they’re not stuffed)

27 You can do great things if you put your mind to it

28 If you’re not billable, your days are numbered

29 Sometimes the worst thing that could have happened turns out to the be the best thing

30 Little sisters are more than okay

31 Commuting drains the soul

32 Girls can be pretty awesome

33 People sometimes see more in me than I see in myself

34 Being a father figure is a big responsibility (with big rewards)

35 Having no plan for your life is actually a plan (and not a very good one)

36 Home is the company of loved ones

37 Wanting something won’t help you get it

38 There’s still time to change the road you’re on

39 Some of life’s surprises are brutally painful

40 Don’t steal the steins at Oktoberfest in Munich

Looking forward to learning my next 40 lessons...

Sunday, July 17, 2011


July 16, 2011

Avis Budget Car Rental, LLC
6 Sylvan Way
Parsippany, NJ 07054 U.S.

RA Document# 598442XXX

To whom it may concern:

I am writing to detail a disappointing experience I recently had with Budget and to offer your company a chance to make things right.

My wife and I recently booked a trip to the Los Angeles area through and reserved an economy vehicle to be picked up and returned at your LAX airport facility, 9775 Airport Boulevard, Los Angeles, California, 90045.

Upon arrival at the airport, we were picked up by a shuttle bus and transported to the Budget rental office location. The shuttle service, while prompt, was also considerably damper than our clothing would have preferred. The air conditioning unit in the vehicle had apparently been sweating at regular intervals throughout the day, emitting large amounts of condensation on the bench seats every time the vehicle came to an abrupt stop. As a result, the cloth seats were saturated with water. Unfortunately, this would not become apparent to us, or anyone else boarding the shuttle for that matter, until about three minutes into the ride when the water from the cloth bench had managed to saturate the bottoms of our pants.

While an uncomfortable ride, to say the least, this was only the beginning of what would prove a disastrous rental experience.

Upon arrival at Budget’s LAX rental office, we were unpleasantly surprised to see a line of customers from the office, out the door and down the covered walkway to the parking lot. We could not believe this was actually the line to pick up a “reserved” vehicle, so we checked inside to find out where we could pick up our car and were told that this long line was, in fact, the waiting line for ALL people picking up cars from Budget that day – even those of us who had booked a car online in advance months before to expedite the process.

Grudgingly, my family and I were forced to stand in line outside your facility for over an hour on an unseasonably hot day, all of our luggage and personal belongings baking in the summer sun as we helplessly watched the precious minutes of our first vacation slowly melting away.

Once breaking the threshold of the office, I saw the line wrapped around even further, which meant more waiting. At this point the problem became evident – while there were around eight reservation terminals in total, only three were staffed by personnel. Given the long line, which only grew longer as shuttle after shuttle continued bringing new customers to the office, it was clear that the people on duty that afternoon were in no hurry to get customers on their way.

Upon finally reaching the service desk, I was greeted by a polite lady who appeared to have a management position. I asked her if the facility were always this busy, to which she responded with a laugh, “Always. The price must be right, right? Business is good.”

I explained to her that while business appeared good, things were actually not so good if you asked the dozens of people in line behind me, many of whom were on their cell phones canceling afternoon plans because Budget was inexplicably understaffed and woefully inefficient.

She laughed again and said, “Well, we must be doing something right. Look at all these people.”

Frustrated at her lack of empathy, and lack of understanding regarding sound business principles, I politely explained to her that ‘all these people,’ as she had put it, had been “Bad-mouthing Budget for the past hour and a half.”

“They may be customers today,” I continued, “But they’re not HAPPY customers…and they won’t likely be repeat customers given this experience. That’s actually BAD for business.”

Another laugh. Another smile. Another excuse. “That’s how we keep our prices so low. People like low prices. It must be worth it.”

“That’s my whole point,” I explained. “It’s NOT worth it. No one here expected to waste away their afternoon in line at the airport. I would never pay a few dollars less for a rental car to endure this. I don’t think anyone here would. If it’s ‘always’ like this, and ‘business is good,’ then you’d think Budget could afford to hire a couple more people to make use of all of these empty terminals.” I gestured at the row of unmanned computer screens that had been taunting impatient customers all afternoon.

Another ‘polite’ laugh. I had to admire her mock amusement as she deftly avoided offering me anything that would have made the situation better – such as an apology, or better yet – a token discount for my time and trouble. I was instead horrified to discover the opposite was about to happen.

After accessing her records to locate my reservation, she began the ritual hardsell of vehicle upgrades, supplemental insurance, and pre-paid gasoline purchases. I declined, but she insisted on explaining to me the benefits of all three anyhow – even as my family continued sweltering in the sun outside. “Perhaps,” she suggested, “You would like a vehicle with a little more room.”

“Like what?” I asked, foolishly taking the bait.

“I have one Impala left,” she said. “It is the only car we have ready. I only have it because someone else canceled and you can have it now if you want it.”

“Wait a second,” I said. “You don’t have any other cars ready?”

“No,” she confirmed. “There is a wait for all other cars right now. They are not ready.”

“Even the car I had reserved for today? After I’ve been waiting all this time? It’s not ready?”

“There is a wait. But this Impala is ready now. It has more room.”

I would have been pleased to agree to a car with more room at that moment, had it been offered at the same rate I had been extended for the vehicle I had reserved online – well in advance. But it was not. This car would run another $93, she explained. But had more room.

I looked outside at my family, camped out patiently on our luggage, their pants finally beginning to dry from the shuttle ride over, and wondering if we would ever get to start our vacation. How much longer could I possibly ask them to wait for our car to be ready, I wondered.

In the interest of leaving the facility as soon as humanly possible, I relented and grudgingly accepted the terms on a car we didn’t ask for, that would cost more to rent, and that would get us worse gas mileage over the course of a week (but had more room). But it wasn’t until we were driving away that we made the most bone-chilling discovery of all.


Just as we had been handed a key and were allowed to load our Impala and drive off to wherever we wanted, so too had other customers been handed keys to cars – economy cars – to be loaded and driven away. In fact, it was happening all around us. People walking out of the office with keys to cars that were *GASP* ready.

There had been no wait, after all, as we had been told. People who had been waiting in line with and around us were all driving away in cars that could easily have been assigned to us. We had, in fact, been lied to by the representative and told that our wait would have been longer had we opted to keep our economy car reservation.

Rather than spend another minute of our vacation battling your staff over this deceptive, unethical practice, we drove off and elected to take this issue to a higher authority. And that is, at long last, why I am writing today.

I believe we are owed an apology and an explanation for way we were treated, as well as a refund for the $93.31 we were coerced into paying by the unscrupulous Budget employee who exploited our frustration to up-sell us a vehicle we didn’t need or ask for.

I trust someone in your company has the authority to make this happen, and trust that whoever is screening this formal complaint and request now ensures it finds their hands. This is not a matter any company or business should leave unaddressed, and I do hope Budget will take action toward able remedying this to our satisfaction.


Terry Mertens


Rental Agreement Document # 598442XXX
Car # 10586XXX
Rented: 02JUL11/1146
Due-In: 09JUL11/1700






Thank you for contacting Budget Customer Service, Mr. Mertens.

Budget strives to provide exceptional customer service with every rental. We deeply regret that you have had a bad experience with us, and we thank you for bringing this to our attention. We try to provide you with the utmost customer service experience as possible and when this is not being done, we need to be aware of this. Also, the $93.31 USD charge for the upgrade has now been removed, and a credit has been issued to the charge card used for the rental, which you should see within a few business days. We can assure you that this case has been submitted to the District Manager of that location and action will be taken in order to prevent such an incident from occurring again in the future.

If you have any further questions please let us know.


Josh Pinson
Budget Customer Service

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


This is the second installment of my recommendation feature, offering consumer experiences I recommend based on businesses and companies holding up their end of the bargain and giving me something I felt was worth the money.

Again, you may have a different point of view based on your experience, but based on MY personal experience with these products, services, and companies, I would like to publicly recommend them...and commend them for a job well done.

Most fast food chains don’t even TRY offering healthier alternatives, so I give a big thumbs up to Taco Bell for making an effort. Their Fresco Menu gives border runners a collection of delicious dining options lower in fat and cholesterol than the standard fare we know and love long time - late night or date night! Or maybe both. Yeah, that's how I roll. My lucky wife.

Even though I usually break down and dial up the Meximelt for dessert, I do feel better about hammering a half-dozen tacos when they're not accompanied by the unappetizing aftertaste of a guilty conscience.

Something else I like about the Fresco menu is the taste. They have a great tomato-onion-cilantro pico they use instead of all that cheese and sour cream you’ll find on a standard deluxe – and I actually find myself preferring it to the fattier fare. Simply remarkable. Yo quiero Fresco!

One last request for the folks at Pepsico...CHORIZO, mi hermanos. Fresco chorizo with low-fat chihuahua. That's what I'm talking about, Willis Tower. I might just make you my regular Saturday night.

And bring back the little talking dog, too. I miss that perro pequeno.

Okay, so this isn't really a specific store or a product - but there are a lot of companies out there throwing money at us...and most consumers refuse to accept it. How INSANE is THAT?

Coupons add up, folks. My wife and I recently considered canceling our subscription to the weekly newspaper because, while we enjoy receiving it, saving money is the name of the game these days. Then I did a little math and realized that the paper pays for itself (and then some) in all of the Sunday circular coupons I clip and use. YES, I clip coupons. And I maximize my savings by using those coupons only when the items are on sale at the grocery store. Yeah...retail is for suckers.

I am a power shopper, which also means I can do difficult math like solving the per unit price of a "6 for $10!" sale. Don't you hate the way they price food these days? Everything is a complicated division problem - 4 for $11, 3 for $8, and 5 for $7. What the hell is THAT? Just tell me what ONE COSTS! But I digress...I've been trying to keep things positive by pointing out things I recommend...and I highly recommend clipping coupons.

Look - it takes about 5 minutes a week and I am able to reconcile it with my masculinity by doing it while watching football and drinking beer. The bottom line is this: Virtually everything at the store can be picked up for less if you just wait a week, shop around, do your homework, and/or clip coupons.

These days, I'll take the savings - and I'm not embarrassed at all to be toting around that old, crumpled envelope full of coupons. (Okay, maybe a little). Still, it's a huge thrill for me to get $1 OFF something that’s also buy-one-get-one-free. Score, baby! It’s like finding a washed-up Washington in my pocket. George, not Denzel. Denzel's not washed up. Yet.

And if I haven't got you yet, think about it this way. The less I spend on toothpaste, the more I have for beer. Hard to argue with coupons when they’re blanched in perspective like that. And when I add it all up at the end of the month, I’m saving about $20-$30 on the stuff our family was going to buy anyhow. Multiply that by 12 and you're looking at a lot of nice gifts under the tree come Christmas. Giddyup!

This not-so-hidden gem wasn’t on my radar for the longest time, but ever since I discovered it I can’t get enough. They carry the most interesting shit (and I mean that it the nicest way), from food to furniture to jewelry. If you’re looking to find someone a gift that’s a little outside the norm, I recommend a stroll through World Market. Many of their wares are unexpected, which makes the shopping experience a novelty in itself. They also have an email list you can join that will keep you informed of special deals on things like wines from around the world and seasonal arrivals.

If you’ve never been to Roy’s Hawaiian, you are missing out. They're located all over - Chicago, Texas, California, Florida. The service and the food were exceptional – particularly the service. Their attention to detail was amazing as well. When we enjoyed our first anniversary dinner there, they personalized our menu prior to our arrival with a special greeting. They also created a complimentary dessert and surprised us with it after our main course. Staff was attentive, not overbearing, prices were reasonable, food was delicious, and the dining environment could not have been more comfortable. I'm not Phil Vettel here, but I have been to a lot of NICE (read: way overpriced) restaurants, and if you appreciate a 5-letter world called "value," I definitely felt I got my money's worth at Roy's.

Until next time...that's Aloha you need to know!

Friday, September 11, 2009


When I started making a list of all of the companies and products I like and would recommend, I realized it was a lot longer than I thought. It turns out there are a LOT of businesses meeting and exceeding my expectations. We just don't notice them sometimes because we're too busy bitching about the ones that don't.

Here are a few that recently stood out:

I recently had to take my car into the shop for a stuck dash light. It was a little thing, but when you’re trying to sell your car the little things tend to signal bigger things to prospective buyers. I’d taken it to a local shop first, but all they did was fix the seal on a suspect wheel and hit me up for $30 before sending me on my way. “That ought to do it!” they said.

It did not “do it.”

Against my wallet’s better judgment, I elected to take the vehicle to a certified Infiniti dealership where I figured it just might get a little more love and attention. First off, the customer service at Fields Infiniti in suburban Glencoe was top-notch. I made an appointment online and was promptly confirmed via email. When I showed up the next morning, I noticed their reception facility was unlike any I’d ever seen. They had a low-lit coffee bar serving specialty beverages and grilled panini sandwiches to waiting customers – all free of charge. There were executive workstations with telephones and Ethernet cables…and free wireless throughout. A grouping of leather couches and chairs surrounded a large flat-screen TV. And everything was complimentary. Drinks. Snacks. Car wash.

In the end, they fixed the gauge, updated an outstanding recall I wasn’t even aware of, provided a courtesy diagnostic report on the condition of the vehicle, and shined it up nicely inside and out. Everyone I dealt with was prompt and professional – and the entire visit cost about $25. When I factored in the free lunch and car wash, I left a very satisfied customer. Big thumbs up to these folks who did everything right.

Our puppy had diarrhea when we switched her food, and some guy wandering the aisles at PetCo recommended this brand. I was skeptical at first because I noticed it was a little more expensive, and because guys who hang out at PetCo are not widely recognized as credible, objective consumer advocates. The guy told me that dogs actually eat less holistic/organic food because it has more nutrients and less filler, so you’re actually buying LESS food and saving money in the end.

I was VERY skeptical of this claim, but considering the glut of equally obscure off-brand options to choose from and an embarrassing lack of knowledge about my dog's dietary needs, I elected to take a risk. At the time I just wanted our little bugger to quit squirting crap all over the place, so I was happy to try anything new. Sure as shit, if you'll pardon the expression, our little Lucy Pooper adjusted in about a day and started producing perfectly firm, compact turds the size of Lincoln logs. And, as advertised, she was eating less!

To this day there’s always food left in her dish because she fills up fast and always has a ton of energy. I didn’t believe the hype at first, but now I’m sold. Nutro Ultra delivered and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.

When cutbacks at work meant I could no longer expense my wireless phone bill, I needed to make some cuts in my personal spending. I lowered my monthly minutes allotment and started shopping around for inexpensive landlines. That’s when I found Skype.

Skype is essentially an internet-based telephone connection (that also works with a webcam) that offers FREE calls to/from pretty much anyone in North America – whether they have Skype or not. So, unlike a fax machine, you don’t have to wait until everyone else gets Skype to use it. I couldn’t believe Skype was for real until I signed up for a free account and started using it. The sound quality has better than I thought it would be, and for a nominal fee of like $2.99 a month you can add voicemail and a host of additional services.

I like being able to dial in for conference calls through my laptop where I can quickly access my work files (and play games on Facebook when meetings run long). Skype also let me program my outgoing Skype line so that when I call people their caller ID recognizes my cell phone number.

And check this out – my uncle was recently traveling in Italy and was able to walk his laptop around outside to show off where he was standing and what he was seeing. Imagine getting a free video tour from friends and family from virtually anywhere you can get an internet connection. Sure beats a postcard!

Lots to love about Skype. They even have Skype handsets you can buy – cordless phones that function like landline phones, but are connected via your ISP. They ring and dial out just like an ordinary phone – but the calls are free. Yes – FREE. You may not use it right away, but I do recommend you check it out and sign up while they’re giving it away.

Saturday, September 05, 2009


Most of us come equipped with a pretty active complaint system. If we see, hear, try or otherwise experience something we don’t like, we complain about it almost reflexively. It’s as if humans are hard-wired to bitch.

Why is that? Why are we compelled to share every little inconvenience, disappointment, and episode of misery and misfortune? What's the purpose of reliving these moments out loud, oftentimes over and over again?

One reason may be that complaining serves an emotional purpose. Complaining vindicates us in some small, yet meaningful way. Negative word of mouth is our way of exacting revenge on someone or something when we feel we’ve been wronged. It’s how we stick up for ourselves when we’ve been screwed by “the man.”

Even if we can’t get our money, our time, or our dignity back, we can always fight back with harsh words in the hope those words will one day come to haunt or harm the party responsible for our discontent - and that can be pretty much anything these days.

The weather. The waitress. Rising taxes. Traffic. Our shitty job. No shitty job. The religious right. The liberal left. The neighbors. Obama. Rush. The cops. The media. Lawyers. Long lines. High prices. The privileged. Panhandlers. Aggressive drivers. Sunday drivers. Communists. The post office. Smokers. Technology. This damn head cold. Guns. Oil barons. Rap music. The Illuminati.

No, you can't always get what you want – but you can always complain! Talk is cheap, as they say.

Today, more than ever before, people actually LISTEN to complaints. We actively SEEK out consumer reviews on websites like Yelp because they help us make informed decisions. Leveraging the experiences of others helps us make better decisions for ourselves. Thanks to technology, in an instant we can tap into an online database of collective experiences and download mob wisdom.

Go here. Do this. Avoid that. Try this. Do NOT go there!

People freely contribute to these sites because while companies can afford to ignore us as individuals, they have learned to respect the power of communities. One squeaky wheel gets a little grease. Thousands of squeaky wheels gets a whole new machine. Big changes require speaking with a single voice. Case in point: President Obama. (Oh, yes we did.)

All of this, believe it or not, is prelude to a point...which I will get to. Eventually.

We all know the feeling of getting taken, or getting a great deal. We can relate to both because we’ve experienced both. When we spend our valuable wages and precious time somewhere, we expect certain things in return.

I expect my order to be correct in the drive-thru. Most of the time it is.

I expect the doctor to keep his appointment time, or at the very least call me to let me know he is running an HOUR late so I can use that time to do other things. (This never happens, by the way - why is the doctor's time more valuable than mine?)

I expect the guy at Jiffy Lube to be honest with me when he says I need a new air filter. Really? You just charged me $40 to change my oil and you're going to upsell me an air filter?

I expect the waiter/waitress to tell me if gratuity has already been added to the check. Not a small detail, or an easy one to spot at the end of a long tab...especially if you've been drinking.

I expect the store to match the low price I just found if you have a price-match guarantee. How can you advertise a guarantee if you can't guarantee it?

I expect the company to take me off of their calling list if I ask them to take me off of their calling list. Seriously, I am going to find out who you are, drive to where you are sitting, and take my name off your list the old fashioned way.

There sure are a lot of opportunities to complain, aren’t there? But after a while, don’t you get kind of tired of complaining? I do. And I get tired of listening to them.

Complaints, by their very nature, are negative. They’re hostile in spirit. They come from a sad, hurt, and often angry place. They don’t promote the emotional states we think of as pleasurable or otherwise positive, even if they seem to satisfy us on another level.

Complaining, and listening to people complain, are two surefire ways to depress your mood. Think of the people we enjoy being around. Fun-loving, positive, optimistic people with a lot of enthusiasm. They take bad news in stride. When shit happens they step over it.

And then there are the people who can't seem to avoid shit no matter where they step. They're surrounded by it. Drowning in it. Choking on it. Their entire existence is a world of shit and all they can do to make themselves feel better is tell you how shitty things are. Don't you LOVE these people?

Me neither. I recently thought about how much more I prefer hearing recommendations from people than complaints. Positive stories. Good ideas. Things I should try some day. Great experiences. Encouraging news.

So I decided to think positive - for a little while, anyhow.

Instead of investing my time listing all the products and experiences and companies and services to AVOID, I'm going to promote a few that exceeded my expectations.

For some reason I think it’s just easier for people to complain than to give praise. It seems more satisfying, somehow. Or less of a risk. Don't you LOVE when you recommend something you like and the person next to you rips into your recommendation with a story about how awful their experience was? Yeah, thanks for that. Sorry it RAINED the whole time you were in Maui. God obviously hates you. I had the time of my life.

I will confess that I do take a lot of pleasure in crafting written complaints. It's an opportunity for me to be creative. I imagine Roger Ebert takes some pleasure in completely trashing a movie – his negative reviews are always loaded with quality one-liners and painfully riotous insults. Yes, complaining can be fun…

Still, what’s the GOOD word?

In the short term, I'm going to try something a little different and share some POSITIVE experiences here. Recommendations. Product alternatives. New things to try. Experiences that made me smile and think, "This is something other people would enjoy, too."

So stay tuned, because in my next few posts I will be describing a handful of personal recommendations. You may not agree with them all, but they are my recommendations based on my experiences with companies that lived up to their end of the bargain…again, in my humble opinion.

In the mean time, if there’s a company, service, or product you would like to recommend here, please share. I'd love to hear the good word!

The Complaint Department, for the mean (spirited) time, is now closed.

Monday, August 10, 2009


It’s only a matter of time before people start asking the obvious question.

“Why in fuck’s garden am I paying $147 a MONTH to watch television?”

This is the question I asked myself a couple of weeks ago while adding up our household’s monthly expenses. Seems like just yesterday my cable bill was $35. How did we get here?

When did the cable bill feel more like a monthly shakedown? And why do we reflexively pay whatever they say it’s worth without questioning it? Because alternative would be anti-American!

Ours is a culture of connectedness. We love being in the know. Unplug that connection and we end up on the information fringe wondering what everyone else is talking about. The information fringe is not the most desirable place to be, unless you're moving to Idaho and swearing off human interaction altogether. In which case, your cable bill is likely the least of your problems.

The bottom line is, if you want to function socially in this society, you have to have access to some basic info-tainment. You have to have cable.

So we fork it over – month after coffer-draining month.

I don’t know about you, but my monthly cost mysteriously climbs a little higher with every statement. $114. $123. $142. $156. $177. Go back and look at yours over the past year. Upsy daisy!

When times are good and consumer confidence is soaring, we don’t really question highway robbery – we just stick our hands up in the air with a smile and say, “Take all you want, we’ll make more!”

But in tighter times, as our nation’s “hopeful” leader projects unemployment figures above 10% in the near term, more and more people are starting to think about what they’re getting for their money.

And for our cable money, I’d say we’re getting screwed.


It’s all there in black and white.

Your monthly statement outlines everything you “get” for price you are paying. But if you read between the line items you’ll see that the cable company is merely passing along someone else’s content…for a fee. And that fee – consistently my highest household bill – is established by two old, white businessmen making a $1 bet in the bathroom over how much they can charge us before we cancel. Thanks to our unhealthy obsession with information, Randolph and Mortimer Duke have us by the short and curlies.


Unlike every other utility bill you pay, cable costs are not based on how much TV you consume. You pay full price for it every month whether you use it or not. It doesn’t matter how many hours or channels you watch in a month, you will pay the same amount.

In essence, the cable fee is all about ACCESS. It’s the $20 cover charge you eagerly hand the doorman at the hot new nightclub. It’s a platter full of all-u-can-eat TV. It’s a front row seat on the couch.

And if you don’t like the price, don’t buy it. Right?

That’s certainly true in a competitive environment where other companies can step in and provide the same or similar service for less. Competition tends to be good for consumers because it forces companies to provide more for less.

But if you closely evaluate your options, you’ll see there’s very little competition in the cable market.

The cable industry is a classic example of an oligopoly, in which a few companies enjoy complete, unchecked control over an entire market.

If you want to stay connected via phone, television, or Internet, and depending on where you live, you have limited options.

Here I am in the nation’s third most populated metropolitan area and I have exactly TWO cable television options, and the most significant difference between them is the logo on their statement.

What about satellite?

The dish companies have taken considerable market share away from the cable companies in recent years, billing themselves as lower-cost alternatives to cable, but they live and die by the same, lucrative business model that charges a monthly access fee. You don’t buy the dish and call it a day…you have to SUBSCRIBE to a monthly SERVICE.

Make no mistake about it – satellite communications companies are part of the oligopoly.

But the news isn’t all bad. Here’s a look at the future:

Companies like this one are probably why the cable companies are hell bent on raking it in hand over fist while they can. The captains of cable are no dummies. They see the writing on the wall, like oil barons panicking and price gouging before the green revolution takes hold.


If you were in charge of marketing for one of these cable companies, you’d have a pretty big job. You’d have to convince people, somehow, that they’re getting a great value for all that money. And that’s not an easy task when folks like me are out here with a megaphone screaming, “Why in fuck’s garden are we paying all this money for cable??!?!?”

I mean, how would you talk otherwise rational people into making monthly payments of $150 for access to anything?

I’m in marketing, so I’ll tell you how.

BIG numbers in colorful fonts!

We’re trained to assume that prices MUST be good when they’re blown up huge on a postcard or in a newspaper ad. We’re bombarded by so many offers, we don’t have the time or attention span to focus on them all. We just trust that the offer MUST be good or why else would they be showing it off like it's the best deal since the Louisiana Purchase.

Out of curiosity, I recently went to and looked up their normal, non-promotional price for basic cable. BASIC cable. Not the expanded basic – just access to what they consider your “basic” channels. I found it in the small print.

$59.98 a month.

I was speechless. $60 a month for BASIC cable? How is that even remotely reasonable? Am I so out of touch with the cost of things that I don’t recognize real value anymore? This is their starting cost, remember – everything else is an add-on. The next tier. Premium channels. Converter box rental. DVR. HDTV. All extra.

Reality is obscured, of course, by the really big number in the colorful font:


Now THAT sounds reasonable. If only it were true.


You do have choices when it comes to ordering cable service. You don’t have to order 450 channels, all the top tier pay channels, and the kitchen sink. You can scale it down to something a little more reasonable, like 250 channels and HBO.

What you CAN’T do is the one thing that you would like to do: pick your own line up. And it’s not because they can’t manage this from a technology standpoint – it’s because it would hammer their bottom line. This is how they make their money.

They disguise their packages as choices – but you really don’t have much of a choice.

We are forced to select an all-or-nothing “package” and pay a set cost, regardless of how much we watch. They call it a “service” fee. I don’t know what your experience has been with your cable company, but “service” is probably not the best word to describe that fee.

Even the most caffeinated and ADD-riddled among us have little use for the overwhelming number of channel options that come with these packages.

Sane people simply don’t have the need for 300 channels. Or 200. Or even 100 for that matter. In fact, if you took an audit of the programs you watch over the course of a week, you’d likely find that you watch around a dozen or so channels – give or take a few.

The Consumers Union recently reported, “The average household watches no more than a dozen to 17 channels.”

The rest of those channels are just noise, and nuisances you must flip past to get to the channels and programming you do want to watch.

If this is the case, why can’t we just pick the channels we actually watch and pay for those? How much are we paying for the OPTION to watch the other 288 channels?


Let’s say you get a promotional package that offers 300+ channels for $59.99. That comes to about .20 cents per channel per month. If you only watch 12 of them, that’s just $2.40 out of the $59.99 you’re paying. So you’re essentially paying $57.59 every month for the option to watch something else.

Deal or no deal? I don’t need to be a banker to know the answer to that one.


To be fair, it’s important to acknowledge the relationship between cable channel producers (Disney, Fox, Viacomm, etc.) and the cable companies. The channel producers sell the rights to rebroadcast their content to the cable company, which then passes along that cost to us.

Guess what happens when a channel like, say, ESPN, starts enjoying a larger audience share? They assume their content is worth more and charge the cable company more money to offer it as part of their “basic” package.

And guess who ends up paying for that? YOU do. This is how basic cable gets jacked up to $60 month. I don’t know about you, but I think the cable channel producers are double-dipping. They take in ad revenue, airing commercials we are forced to endure…and then also charge cable companies for permission to carry their content. I declare shenanigans!

The cable companies contend bundling is the best way to provide maximum viewing options while keeping costs down. But as channels become more popular, the producers start bumping up their prices knowing the cable companies will pay because the demand is there. And the cable companies get blamed for the costs. They ought to use some of their oligopoly influence and stand up for consumers for a change. Tell those double-dipping producers to fly a kite.


Think about this for a second. Broadcast television has been free for decades.

FREE. No charge. Turn on your set and watch.

How is that possible?

Yes – ADVERTISING. Advertising dollars finance the development, production and broadcast of content, which is in turn leveraged to collect more advertising dollars, and so on and so forth. It’s a nice little system that makes complete sense because we can all see exactly how it works.

Content is free to us because advertisers pay for it. Maybe we watch their ads, maybe we don’t. But that’s the drawback to advertising: you can’t MAKE people watch or read your shit. You can only put it out there and hope.

As a creative advertising professional, it’s often been my challenge to develop compelling, relevant ads that resonate with people. This is how we support and sustain the cycle of free content.

Good ads work, and keep companies investing in the medium. But as ad dollars shift, the medium starts to fade. Look at what happened to the print news industry. Companies moved their marketing dollars online, primarily at the expense of newsprint. Without ad support, the medium stands on the verge of collapse, and desperately needs to change its communications ideology to reestablish consumer relevance if it is to remain a viable channel.

How does this relate to cable television? Well, there’s the free-content-supported by-advertising model…and then there’s another model.

HBO, believe it or not, surfaced in 1972. They had a different approach. Instead of offering free content supported by advertisers, they went straight to consumers and said: If you pay us directly, we’ll provide uninterrupted programming.

37 years later, they’re still alive and kicking – for two simple reasons:

1.) The content is good
2.) People are willing, when they’re able, to pay for it

And this just begs the question: Why should we pay to watch channels that are supported by advertising? Why aren’t advertising-supported cable channels free anymore, like they’ve always been?

TNT. Bravo. HGTV. VH1. The History Channel. They all sell commercial time to support the production and distribution of the content they broadcast. They’re on the “free” TV model, yet we pay for them like we do for channels that don’t have advertising. Why? Somewhere along the way the cable companies changed the rules on us and we didn’t notice.

Consider this. Cable is not a finite resource like the rest of the utilities you pay for. If you use more heat in the winter, you’re going to have a bigger bill because you’re consuming finite resources that someone else can’t use. Not so with cable.

The more television you watch does not leave less television for someone else.

If you use more gas, electricity, or water, you’re consuming resources that someone else can’t use – so individual usage is an important determining factor in establishing the cost.

With cable television, this is not the case. There’s a signal pumping 24/7 to your TV whether it’s on or not – and it’s not in danger of running out. There aren’t going to be rolling cable blackouts if too many people tune into American Idol at the same time. Your hometown isn’t going to announce “no cable” hours to conserve television. And you’re certainly not “wasting” cable if you let it run it overnight. Electricity, maybe...but not cable.

Cable isn’t a traditionally distributed commodity with a market value based on the amount we use versus the finite amount that is available. And that means the price of cable is almost completely arbitrary!

We’re paying for unlimited access to a virtually unlimited resource – and that cost can be whatever the market will bear. Right now, the market is bearing a lot more than it needs to, in my humble opinion.

Why do we do it? Why do we let the cable companies fleece us repeatedly month after month? I understand there are hard costs associated with maintaining the infrastructure of the network. But what exactly are those costs?

Except in the case of a handful of local cable access channels, cable companies aren’t responsible for creating any of the programming content we watch on television. They just provide the connectivity – that magical switch they can flip without warning from a desk in Mumbai and shut you down instantly if you miss a payment. (Don’t ask me how I know that)

Many cable companies use independent contractors to fulfill their installation and service technician needs, while outsourcing their customer service and technical support needs to the Asian subcontinent because it’s marginally cheaper than employing your out-of-work cousin Glen. Maybe if Glen would quit smoking he wouldn’t be so damn expensive to insure. But now I digress…

The point is, what kind of operational and infrastructure maintenance costs are really required here?

It’s not hard to imagine a company like Comcast employing about 6 people here in the U.S. and running the entire operation out of the back of a pimped out van. What are they are physically providing in exchange for unlimited access to a virtually limitless resource? My home still has the same cables running to it we had last month. And the month before. And the month before that.

Why can’t cable companies bill us for what we use like the rest of the utility companies? Bill me per channel if you want. Or by the hour. At least then I can decide which channels, or which shows, to watch and pay for instead of paying for hundreds of channels that I never asked for, don’t want, and will never watch.

Then at least I would have some control over my monthly costs instead of the control I have now: $0 for no service, $60 for basic TV, $100 for expanded TV, $150 for God’s control room.

Let me build my own channel line-up. Or give me cable minutes like a cell phone plan. Give me some kind of a billing system that doesn’t make me feel like I’m getting mugged every month.

Reviewing my bill I also noticed that my cable company makes me pay to rent THEIR video converter boxes, which I need in order to receive their service. That’s like selling someone a car and making them pay extra for the keys...every time they drive it!


Rest assured, the model will be changing again...thanks to the Internet, of course. There are already a handful of sites boasting free television through your computer – one of which I offered earlier.

In the same way that companies like Skype are offering FREE phone calls via the Internet (which really works, by the way), it’s only a matter of time before someone figures out a way to deliver the content we crave without the arbitrary and excessive costs meted out by the middle man and his double-dipping accomplices.

Until then, however, if we want inside Club Cable, we need to hand that cash to the man at the door...because the government is letting these clowns play unregulated in the oligopoly gardens.