Monday, March 08, 2004

The Unabroaster Manifesto
Isn't it adorable how children will blurt out things that all the adults are thinking but are too polite to say? For example, my kids want to know why we can't find Osama bin Laden for crying out fucking loud. (I'm paraphrasing.) The man's missing half his toes, is on dialysis, walks with a cane, is taller than LeBron James, and looks like a holy-card saint who came back from 'Nam hooked on smack. Can it be that tricky getting the cuffs on this guy?

I tried to explain to the kids that it's harder than it might seem, given the technical challenges. In the vast mountain-and-desert expanse of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, with nary a Starbucks in sight, it's hard to get a good signal on Uncle Sam's wireless BlackBerry inside the USA Hummer, let alone get to draw a decent map. Plus, every time the Hummer hits a bump, the DVD screens drop down out of the ceiling, smacking our operatives on their heads. And don't even get Uncle Sam started on all that refinance-your-mortgage and grow-new-hair spam clogging the Pentagon's inboxes.

If the threat of terrorism is anything like the onslaught of our own serial-annoying technology, the war against it is going to be longer than a Louis Rukeyser marathon during PBS pledge-drive week and John Kerry's face combined. I don’t mean to denigrate the valiant efforts to eradicate terrorism (you know, like the recent inspection I witnessed of the Dora the Explorer sneakers on the toddler ahead of me at the airport), but I spend far more time being tortured by technology than by the threat of suicide bombers or North Korea's long-range nukes. (Although nuclear missiles that can reach our west coast ARE troublesome. Oh, wait. Reality TV… Arnold... Neverland Ranch… the Oakland Raiders. Maybe we should wait until they can reach Nevada. No, wait. Utah. Look, just call me when they can reach Owensboro.)

Maybe before we can make headway in the war on terror, we should first declare war on our own techno-evildoers here at home: the miscreants who foist annoying everyday products on us. How can we expect to stop al-Qaeda when we can't even stop browser popup ads? In fact, if the terrorists are patient, we'll probably just irritate ourselves to death.

Can we divert some resources toward reining in the mind-boggling annoyances of Windows, cell phones, ATMs, gas pumps, home appliances, voicemail, auto-flush toilets, spam, Spam, and, perhaps most insidious of all, the "check engine" light? "YOU check the engine," I always want to scream. "You're the computer! All I know to check is my bank balance because every time YOU come on it costs me $500! But I can't check my balance because the ATM is 'temporarily out of service!'" Ahem. Where were we? Oh, yes, we must root out the techno-offenders, wherever they rear their nasty little heads. So, GeeDubs – are you listening? – here are some suggestions for where to start:

Pay-at-the-pump. OK, I salute any invention that keeps me from having to actually interact with another human being. And yet, the keypad interface on those gas pumps at the Bets 'n' Butts can be more annoying and less congenial than an actual gas-station clerk. Meanwhile, some of these keypads have enough buttons on them to run the Mars Rover, DisneyWorld, and portions of Dick Cheney's facial muscles, yet only two of the buttons seem to be of any use whatsoever: Yes and No. What do all of these keys do? (I'm convinced they're somehow connected to crop circles, but I haven't worked out the details yet.) Also, when I am shivering at the gas pump waiting for the tank to fill, why do I have to wait until 30 seconds AFTER the pump is finished to press Yes to request a receipt? During the fill-up, is the keypad paralyzed by the daunting task of accepting a Yes or No while the gas pump tries to sell me a 12-piece box of broasted chicken, a five-gallon tub of Coke, a carton of Lungsludge Lights and an $8 carwash? And what is broasting, anyway?

And how about personal computers? PCs can show live video from the other side of the world, manage billion-dollar businesses, and search for extraterrestrial life, but click in the wrong spot twice and they suddenly collapse like Elvis after a double-decker fried L-Tryptophan and Quaalude hoagie. If computers are so smart, how come they don't know when they're on the brink of crashing? Even more perplexing: why does restarting help? They're like the coyote that falls off a cliff with an anvil and then magically reappears in the next scene, good as new.

How about cell phones? Could they possibly be any harder to use? I have to navigate through seven menus to turn my phone's ringer off. How can we get pissed at people whose phones ring during dinner or a moving theatrical performance -- say the exquisite moment during La Boheme when Rodolfo rushes to the dying Mimi or during Kid Rock's Early Mornin' Stoned Pimp encore when the caged strippers get doused in oil -- when it's next to impossible to turn off the phone's ringer? That poor fool whose cell phone is ringing isn't rude. He just can't figure out how to turn the damn thing off. (Tip: Here's a quicker way to make your phone silent: smash it with your Tivo.)

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. How about the ATM that tells me I'm overdrawn 20 bucks AFTER it spits out $100? This genius technology can recognize my PIN in Kuala Lumpur, but it can't warn me I'm about to take out more money than I have in the account? Why does my Maytag dryer make an eardrum-piercing alarm when the clothes are dry? Are the manufacturers worried that their customers need another clue besides the fact that the dryer is NO LONGER RUNNING? And if it must sound an alarm, why doesn't it play a recording of, say, Ashley Judd declaring, "You've Got Clothes!" How about those remote car locks that honk the horn each time the driver presses them, frightening an already terrified populace nearly out of its collective skin? Is that really necessary? And Regis! For the love of God, can't somebody stop this creature?!

OK. So I had to explain to the kids that catching the bad guys isn't as easy as it might seem. But somehow, some way, we must restore America to its former greatness: an America mercifully free of terrorism. And extended warranties. And phones with cameras. And inkjet cartridges. And Kroger Plus Cards. And …