Saturday, November 24, 2007


I've come to the realization that the 800 number is dead. Of course, this extends to its offspring as well-888 and 866, which I never really warmed up to anyway. The 800 number won't literally be going anywhere anytime soon, and will always exist in some form as a customer service outlet, but the days when the 800 number was the cultural equivalent of the free grocery store sample are no more. In the days before the information superhighway was in more or less every home, in the days when cell phone calling plans made the savings of such a number moot, the 800 prefix meant something. It was a way to get information when information was not otherwise ripe for the plucking. It was a way to connect to a network of unpredictable randomness before networks of unpredictable randomness became passe. It was a way to be empowered--to feel like one could take without having to give. In honor of its passing, here are some of my 800-number related memories, along with what happens when I call the number now, if I happen to remember it:

1: 1-800-ESCAPES, followed by 1-800-432-TRIP: The former may have been the first toll-free number I called, at about age 10. I listened to a lot of Milwaukee Brewer games on the radio, and I was exposed to numerous ads from the Wisconsin Tourism industry, imploring me to call this number to get a "Free Wisconsin Guide Book," with travel options. I was thrilled when my full color brochure came in the mail, though I was rather limited economically and logistically in how much I could contribute to the Wisconsin tourism industry. The reason for the name change is that Wisconsin changed their tourism slogan from "Escape to Wisconsin" to "Wisconsin--You're Among Friends." Don't ask me why the latter number didn't incorporate the name change.

Contemporary Results: Unbelievably, 1-800-ESCAPES still directs to the Wisconsin tourism industry, even though they changed the slogan about 20 years ago. I called after hours, so I didn't get much direction, but they gave the 432-TRIP number, as well as their web address. They didn't say anything about a free guidebook.

2. 1-800-BOBSLED: This number was publicized at the 1992 Winter Olympics opening ceremony for the Jamaican bobsled team. Apparently, you could call and leave a message for the Jamaican bobsledders. I called, but when I got a live person, I got a bit tongue tied, and I refused the offer of leaving a recording message. The dispatcher said to me "Thank you ma'am," reminding me that I hadn't hit puberty yet. Still, I made sure to tell everyone in school that I called the number for the Jamaican bobsled team. Years later, I would finally talk to one of the original Jamaican bobsledders when I worked in sports radio. He was a super nice guy.

Contemporary Results: It actually goes through to the U.S. Bobsled team! Again, I called after hours, and got their main menu. When I didn't enter an option, I was routed to an intern's voicemail. I was too scared to leave a message.

3. 1-800-??????? I wish I could remember this one, but I only remember that it was in the classified section of Baseball Weekly magazine in the early 90s. It advertised "free sports analysis and information." I called and asked who was going to be the closer for the Toronto Blue Jays, since I had Tom Henke on my fantasy team and I saw some boxscores that Duane Ward was getting saves (I was way ahead of the fantasy curve). The guy on the other end told me that both guys were closing games, but that I should keep Henke on my team. Later, I had a friend call that number to find out who won the Kentucky Derby a few hours after it was run. The guy who answered didn't know, but yelled out to another guy in their mysterious office, who told the first guy that it was Lil E. Tee. The next time I tried the number it was disconnected. I have no idea what their original business plan was.

4. 1-800-?????? Another one I don't recall the number, but I called to get free sports scores, rather than wait until the news. I had to sit through a bunch of gambling lines before I got the scores, and for the next several years my dad received random sports gambling solicitations in the mail.

5. 1-800-MUSIC-NO: It was actually "Music Now," but the "w" was superfluous. When I was in high school, my brothers and I called this one so much that my mom was worried that we would get a huge bill. I assured her that it was all toll free. It played 20-second song clips, and you would buy the ones you like (or at least the CD that contained the song, as this was way before itunes). I never bought a single CD, but spent a lot of time listening to the 20-second clips, as well as learning my favorite artist's discographies. Obviously, this was pre-Internet. One day when I called, I was told that I had to register an account before listening to any clips. This was the last time I called.

Contemporary Result: A voice tells me that I have reached "Mass Market's Reserve 800 Hotline," before hanging up on me. Sidenote: There is actually a Wiki page about this number.

6. 1-800...: I'm sure at some point most young people have attempted to call random 800 numbers. On my college radio show, my co-host and I, not getting anyone to call us, started to dial randomly. We landed on a few, but didn't really know what to say when we got someone. My co-host told one, "I got in trouble with my mom, and she is punishing me by making me call 800 numbers." The poor woman had no idea how to respond to that one.

7. 1-800-555-TELL: I still call this occasionally this number for scores when I'm not near a computer, but it is not as great as it once was. In the late 90s and early 2000s, you could use this service to do a number of things, including getting wake-up calls, getting news, sports, and weather, playing blackjack (though not for real money), getting directions to businesses, and shopping for various items (which is probably how they make their revenue, since they didn't even have ads otherwise). However, their best feature was that it would connect you for free to almost any bar and restaurant in America, as well as almost any taxi company, and let you talk on their dime for 20 to 30 minutes before disconnecting you. This was a source of tremendous amusement on my aforementioned college radio show. The last time I used this service was in 2003, when I felt like calling a cab company in Wyoming to see what life was like there. I chatted with a nice lady for about five minutes. I suppose one could use free weekend minutes to do the same today, but it's just not the same as making an 800 number pay for it.

Footnote: I decided to call 1-800-ARCHAIC to see what would happen. I got the voicemail of a guy named Chris at a trucking company. I wonder if he knows that 800 numbers are obsolete.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

To Buy or Rent? (And I'm Not Talking About Housing)

It's difficult to fathom how bad off the music industry would be today if not for Steve Jobs. The business is in bad enough shape as it is, but the itunes music store has become enough of a finger in the dyke to allow the moguls of music to refrain from jumping off ledges quite yet.

Jobs is credited with realizing something that few others did a few years back, when he insisted that itunes customers be able to pay a per-song fee for downloads. The prevailing notion at the time was that the future of the music industry was a subscription based model. For a monthly fee, customers could access almost every song ever recorded- but they wouldn't be allowed to download them. Jobs told Rolling Stone:

People don't want to buy their music as a subscription. They bought 45's; then they bought LP's; then they bought cassettes; then they bought 8-tracks; then they bought CD's. They're going to want to buy downloads. People want to own their music. You don't want to rent your music .

This week, Marvel Comics announced that they were putting over 3,000 comic books on-line, and adding 20 per week. For a subscription of $10 a month, or $5 per month if they commit for a year, fans can access the complete library. For perspective, a single issue of a new comic book these days goes for about $3. However, readers can not download any of the comic books. If their subscription lapses, they no longer have access to any of them.

This last point was met with consternation and lamentation on comic fan message boards. One poster, calling himself "Dr. Shallot" after an obscure 1970s Spider-Man villain, had this to say:
"When it comes to comics I like to own the material, either hard copy of digital, not rent." I posed him this question: "What's the difference between renting comics and renting movies? Who can afford to buy everything they want?" His response:
I suppose it comes down to personality quirks. I have no problem renting movies, taking books out of the library, etc. I realize that it's probably just me but at least in regards to comics I like to own what I read.

When I was younger I benefited from having a group of friends who were all into different comics. One loved Avengers, another X-Men, my brother loved Iron Man, etc. As a result we often would read each other's books. However, it got to a point where I was buying everything, and when asked why I simply stated that I wanted to have my own copy.
I can understand this "personality quirk." I get a kick out of having my 2,000+ comic books in 10 "drawer boxes." I take pride in my 12 shelves of books. It sometimes gives me a warm glow inside just to glance at my bookshelf and consider all the associations that these books have for me.

But what if I could trade in my book collection for a digital library? The technology will one day exist to allow reading on-screen to be just as convenient (and portable) as reading bound paper. What if, for the price of one book per month, I had access to every book ever published? I'd toss all my books in a second. Actually, I'd probably donate them to libraries, assuming they were still wanted. And if the experience of reading a digital comic could equal the old-fashioned "analog" comic? I'd give my comic books to trick-or-treaters.

Looking at the situation rationally, if the fidelity of the experience is equal and the cost of renting is low enough, there is no reason to not embrace the subscription based service. As for the argument that you lose everything if you let your subscription lapse--yes, but you gain everything back when you re-subscribe. To re-visit Steve Jobs's argument, people want to own their music not for any logical reason, but simply because they have simply owned music in the past. But how many unloved records, tapes, CDs, and now mp3s have existed in the history of the world? Have people really got their moneys worth by buying music?

Because my primary means of consuming music is in the car, I subscribe to XM Satellite Radio. Someday, when wireless networks blanket the country and we can get the Internet in our cars, I will subscribe to a music service that gives me access to the vast history of recorded music for the price of one CD a month. Of course, this is assuming Steve Jobs hasn't destroyed the music industry with his antiquated itunes music store.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Why Are We Not Guarding the Shores?

A few years ago, a principal in New York wondered why his school had a disproportionate level of special education students. His conclusion: it was because a disproportionate amount of them had been exposed to high levels of lead--41% in fact (including 100% of the special education students).

His quote, from a USA Today article: "If we had 41% of our children wading into Lake Ontario, and they came out with permanent brain damage, we'd be guarding the shores with state police."

I've heard about lead poisoning here and there, and I've heard jokes about people eating paint chips, but I never realized the extent of the problem until reading the above article. Some absolutely stunning statistics: since the amount of lead in our nation's homes has been phased out over the last 20 to 25 years, IQs have risen nationally by about 4-5 points. Meanwhile, studies have also shown that there is a correlation between areas with fluctuating lead concentration and fluctuating crime rates.

A quote from an economist in a Washington Post article: "It is stunning how strong the association is...Sixty-five to ninety percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in [studied] countries was explained by lead."

There are multiple studies cited in the Post article above. Here's just one of them:

Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes...were built over the Dan Ryan Expressway, with 150,000 cars going by each day. Eighteen years after the project opened in 1962, one study found that its residents were 22 times more likely to be murderers than people living elsewhere in Chicago.

Why why is nobody guarding the shores?

As the Post article points out, there was quite a bit of attention given to another economist's assertion that decreases in American crime rates could be correlated with legalized abortion (despite crime going up in Britain with the legalization of abortion), while attention has also been given to the "broken windows theory," popularized by Malcolm Gladwell and seized upon by Rudy Giuliani as the reason for a "miraculous" downtown in crime in New York. (But how ironic that the USA Today article posits windowsills as the primary cause of lead poisoning. Could it be that all the resources put towards broken windows would have been better spent on the actual windowsills?)

That these ideas exist and that they are topics of scrutiny and discussion prove two things. First, we want explanations for societal phenomena. Second, we are willing to entertain counter intuitive theories.

So why is nobody guarding the shores? The first and obvious answer relates to economics. It would cost money to make the changes necessary to ensure that all the lead contaminants of previous years are dealt with. However, I wonder, as I so often do, if there isn't something deeper at work.

The abortion theory and the broken windows theory both have troublesome aspects. The first has an almost eugenicist component to it. The second implies that societal behavior can be rather easily manipulated. However, as horrifying as these theories can be when taken to their farthest implications, neither completely removes the idea of individual free will. Taken to it's extreme, the "lead theory" is the stuff of science fiction. The trope is a common one: an innocent person is made to be a killer by some physical factor outside of his control. The possibility that this scenario has been commonplace in American history might be too much for us to face.

In Superman mythos, lead is the one device that the Man of Tomorrow can not penetrate with his X-Ray Vision. It just might have similar blinding effects on our collective vision.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Truth, Justice, and All That Stuff: Why I Hate TV News and Sports Broadcasts

I don't usually watch TV news, and when I ventured to catch a few minutes tonight, I remembered why. At the completion of the weather forecast, the weatherman's voice rose in pitch, and he remarked that there was a possibility that next week could see some snow. "Dunt-duh-DA" remarked the male news anchor in an overly melodramatic voice. "We don't want to hear that," squeaked the female news anchor.

"Shut up," I said out loud, "We live in Wisconsin; we know that it is going to snow sooner or later. This happens every year. There is no need to make a production about it. It's like every year when you hear people say 'The summer went by so fast.' No it didn't. The summer went by at the same rate of speed that it does ever year." I felt a letter better after venting. Nobody likes cliches, and cliched reactions to changing weather patterns are especially irksome to me.

"You get annoyed so easily," my wife teased me upon completion of my monologue.

The truth of the matter is that in real life, I don't. I pride myself on my unflappable patience. Yet I'll admit that this patience goes out the window when I'm watching TV. The majority of my television consumption is sporting events, and it's true that I get annoyed easily watching sports. I'm not talking about getting frustrated when my teams do poorly. Third down defensive penalties notwithstanding, I'm not one of those guys who yells and screams at interceptions and missed tackles. I reserve my wrath for the announcers.

My biggest problem is the sheer repetitiveness of the commentary. The same stock phrases are trotted out every broadcast--players talk about the necessity of "execution" and "staying focused," while announcers tend to emphasize "consistency." Announcers discuss how one team "wanted it more" by "digging down deeper" during "clutch situations" and exhibiting "the heart of a champion." Players aren't as aggressive as the need to be, since they are playing not to lose. Sometimes, the cliches may even be true, but that doesn't make it any less excruciating. I get it that pitchers sometimes "nibble" and "give the hitters too much credit," but I'm sick of being told that. I'm also to the point where I don't need to be told anymore that Brett Favre is a gambler who will "make something out of nothing," but that he will make one or two throws a game where he will give the defense a chance to create a turnover.

Yet on some levels, I'm forced to acknowledge that my impatience is rooted in selfishness. I have been watching sports, and to a lesser extent television news, for about 20 years now. I have an irrational expectation that the announcers that I watch know this, and I demand that they provide a level of sophistication commiserate with my experience. What was profound to me at age 10 is now inane.

And herein lies a problem that is actually mind blowing in its ramifications, and it's importance transcends televised sports. Cliches tend to get to be cliches because they are true. And they tend to get repeated because they especially poignant truths. And they work their way into our worldviews and they form the foundation for how we construct our reality.

And then what happens? To borrow a cliche, familiarity breeds contempt. They wear out their welcome. We may develop more nuanced and sophisticated ways to approach situations, but what is lost is that the cliche was necessary as a first step in order to advance to the more advanced perspective.

In 2006's Superman Returns, there was a mild controversy containing one of the lines of the film. Perry White asks "Does he still stand for truth, justice, all that stuff?" Some were infuriated that the phrase "American Way" was taken out. I can see why they did it, though. The phrase once meant something, but now it's pretty much empty of signification, much like sports cliches once meant something to me, and are now empty of meaning.

So what's the problem? Let's say I get my way and sports announcers begin taking a novel approach to every game. They never state the obvious and look only for nuanced detail. They assume an air of sophistication, eschewing light humor and embracing ironic commentary. My needs as a viewer are satisfied. And somewhere there is a little 10-year-old boy sitting down to watch his first game...