Posted in Life, AI

Would you rather talk to a person or a machine?

Photo by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash

That’s a really interesting question. Some days I would rather hear the voice of a living, breathing person. Other times, I would rather log on to a website to take care of business. Why one rather than the other? Ironically, when I want to speak to a human, it’s hard to get someone on the line. But in those moments when I just want to get in and out digitally, I have to go through a human.

The phone tree begins with a choice of English or Spanish. Once that is settled, I can choose the extension of the person to whom I wish to speak, which I never know. Then I must listen to all the recently changed menu options, often eight or nine items long. Only after none of those choices suits me can I stay on the line to talk to a real, living, breathing man or woman. How long will that wait be? That is the question. And I am already several minutes into the call. Thank goodness for the speaker on my phone so I can do something else while I wait.

Too often, the reason I am waiting to speak to someone is that I can’t find a way to cancel something on the website of a product trial I signed up for. It’s easy to try out a new product, subscribe to a publication, or install a new app on your phone for free. But after a week or two, you start paying for it, unless you have the presence of mind to cancel before the trial runs out. Lol, like that ever happens.

But many vendors conveniently fail to include a “cancel my subscription” to their menus. To cancel, you have to talk to a person. That means you have to negotiate the phone tree to finally talk to a person whose sole job is to get you to stay longer and pay more.

How much time have I wasted texting back and forth, when all I needed to do was make a simple phone call? Plenty. How many times have I been thankful I could send a text message or an email when I can’t get someone on the phone? Lots. Human or machine? It depends.

I’ve had to call people I really didn’t want to talk to. As the phone rang, I mentally hoped a machine would pick up. Then I could leave a message and get out.

And then there are those who I really need to talk to who never answer. Phone wasn’t on? Dead battery? Didn’t want to talk to me? Who knows? I’ve actually written a note and mailed it to someone I was trying to get in touch with. Maybe they will give me a call.

If I ask Siri to take me to a certain address, she never asks, “Why do you want to go there?” If I order my pizza through an app, no one questions me when I add extra cheese. It’s just so much easier.

Soon I won’t be able to tell if I am talking with a real person or a machine. That’s scary.

Posted in Life

Do you hear what I hear?

Photo by Dex Ezekiel on Unsplash

Rob Walker (The Art of Noticing) recently suggested spending time noticing what you hear around you. There are words that describe and classify the sounds I hear.

Biophony refers to the sounds of living organisms. Geophony are non-animal sounds like those made by the wind or ocean waves. Anthrophony is about the sounds that people or their creations make. This would include the sounds made by technology, which I noticed this morning.

It’s dark. The sun has not yet risen. No one has arrived work on the house being built across the street. No cars or trucks are driving through the neighborhood. My wife and dog are still asleep. I am sitting still.

But it’s not quiet.

Freshly frozen ice cubes drop in the freezer. The thermostat gently clicks and I hear cool air blow from a vent. I hear the gentle rush of water heating up in the coffee maker. A ceiling fan creates a gentle audible rhythm. The refrigerator hums. A partially dimmed lightbulb buzzes. The world may not be awake, but my technology is.

Unless I stop and listen, I don’t pay much attention to these sounds. I’m used to them. But when a hurricane blows through and the power is out, I miss them. That’s when the quiet is the loudest. I’m aware of all the sounds I don’t hear. I wonder when the power will come back on. When it does and I hear everything again, I relax and fall back to sleep.

What do I notice more: the sounds I hear or the sounds I don’t hear? I always hear water running or dripping somewhere in the house. (I think that’s a dad thing.) The heating element in the oven has a distinctive sound I notice when we have accidentally left it on. When I hear the garbage truck around the block, I’ll remember to get my trash can out to the street.

But when I wake up feeling too warm, I’ll wake and immediately notice I don’t hear cool air blowing from a vent. I know something’s wrong when my maps app isn’t telling me my exit is coming up soon. Parents notice if the kids are too quiet in another room. It’s not good when someone takes a bite and you ask, “What do you think?” and they say nothing. When laryngitis hits, I’m aware of my absent voice. It’s not unusual for one of us to say, “I didn’t hear you get up this morning.”

Pause for a moment. What do you hear?

Posted in Life

“Would you like to leave a tip?”

Photo by Blake Wisz on Unsplash

Those are the words of a touch screen, not a person. Pretty much every touch screen now. For a long time, the only places I tipped were sit down restaurants and bars, barber or hair stylist, pizza delivery, and a cab ride. But now, just about everyone expects a tip.

  • The coffee shop where you place an order and pick it up right there at the counter.
  • Restaurants where you order your food at a kiosk and pick it up from the counter when your pager vibrates.
  • Anyone who delivers anything to your house, from groceries to packages to furniture.
  • Shuttle drivers for airport parking and rental cars.
  • Picking up clothes at the dry cleaner.
  • Uber and Lyft drivers.

I never read the free shopping newspaper someone throws in my driveway each Friday morning, yet they give me an envelope for an annual Christmas tip.

If that’s not enough, I get suggestions of how much I should tip the mail carrier, lawn guy, bathroom attendant, exterminator, poker table dealer, garbage collector, tour guide, tree trimmer, housekeeper, valet parking, and tattoo artist.

There are places where a tip is not expected and is sometimes not allowed. But in place of a tip, I’m asked to donate to the charitable cause of the week. “Would you like to round up your total to support the local…” humane society, homeless shelter, comfort dog charity, disease research, canned food drive, or veteran’s center? All worthy causes. All so easy to give to. All hard to say no to.

I’ve started saying no. Not everyone gets a tip. And I started asking, “Where is this money going?” Unless I hand cash to a server, I have no idea how many workers divvy up the tip. I don’t know if a store is simply pocketing the money donated to a local charity. I don’t know how much employers are paying their workers. Probably not enough. I don’t know how long it takes for the tip added to my credit card to get to a server’s paycheck.

But when I do say yes, I will be generous to those who are working hard, aren’t being paid much, and do a good job.

Posted in Life

Too many choices?

All I wanted was one jar of peanut butter. But the peanut butter section was all the way at the other end of the bread aisle in Walmart. In between me and that one jar were people pondering the hundred foot selection of bread. Everything was in stock that day: white bread, wheat bread, raisin bread, double fiber bread, butter top, sour dough, marble rye, high protein, low carb, and gluten free.

Blocking my way down the aisle were two types of people. The first couldn’t find what they wanted. The second couldn’t decide what they wanted. As I circled around an adjacent aisle to get to the peanut butter, I wondered, “Is it good or bad to have so many choices?”

On the one hand, it’s great. No matter what  flavor, texture, shape or nutrients you prefer, there is something for you. Want to try something different? No problem. There is always something new. On a tight budget? There are lower priced items on the bottom shelf. Counting calories? Some loaves have thinner slices.

On the other hand, it can be paralyzing. You only wrote the word bread on your shopping list. Will the store brand taste the same as name brand? Will the kids eat it if they see the word wheat on the wrapper? High fiber is good for you, right? Cracked wheat sounds good, but isn’t all bread made from wheat? I didn’t know they made oatmeal bread! Oh, wow, I haven’t had pumpernickel in ages. Look, there’s a buy one get one free. Before you know it, you’ve spent ten minutes pondering your bread purchase.

I am not one of those people. I know what I want, I’ve got a list, and I get in and out of the store as quickly as I can. I squeeze my way past many just wandering through the store overwhelmed by the selection.

Posted in Life

Seeing with our eyes

“When did we stop seeing with our eyes?”

This is a quote from Lisa Unger’s murder mystery Under My Skin. “It’s been a year since Poppy’s husband Jack was brutally murdered during his morning run.” The story takes us through her journey to find out what really happened to her husband and to her. She’s a photographer who prefers to view the world through the lens of a camera.

In a number of places she explains why that is. She has forgotten some of the things that happened to her. To remember she sifts through photos. If she can capture it on film or in a camera memory, then it’s real. “If I can capture the image on my phone, then it’s real.”

With a camera in front of her face, she can blend into a scene and not be noticed. She can watch people, observe their faces and feelings, and actually see more than if she were looking at them face to face. “People are more knowable when they think they’re unobserved.” Rather than being what others expect, they are more like themselves.

With a camera, you can also freeze a moment. With each second, the light changes, expressions change, people come and go, things move in the breeze. Those moments come and go. A camera captures an instant.

While pondering this preference, she wonders, “When did we stop seeing with our eyes?” That’s a profound question for our time. We attempt to capture every moment of our lives with the camera on our phones. If you are watching through a lens of a camera, are you really watching the person, the place, or the thing? What about the lens of your eye?

With our eyes, we see a bigger picture. We see the rest of the team, not just our grandchild taking a shot. We see other people watching, reacting, crying, laughing, and cheering. We see what’s on the periphery, on the edges, not just in the center. We see the raw, untouched, naturally lighted sight in front of us, rather than a perfect and flawless image. With our eyes, we see what is real, not a fictional photoshopped image of a person who doesn’t even exist.

With our eyes, we miss a lot, too. We don’t notice that person over on the side that we later see in a photograph. We blink and a moment is gone. An illusionist distracts us so that we don’t see what he is really doing with the cards.

How many photos have we taken in which we no longer know who the people are, no longer remember when or where we took the picture, or remember why we took that picture?

When we see with our eyes, we can then share our description of what we saw, which will include what captured our attention, sparked an emotion, and made us linger to watch for more than just a moment.

Posted in Life

Barbershop irony

“I’m going to get my haircut.”

“What time is your appointment?”

Someone who doesn’t frequent barber shops might ask that question. But that’s not how it works. You walk in, have a seat, take note of the guys already sitting there, and head for an empty chair when it’s your turn. You might wait four minutes or forty minutes. It just depends on how many barbers are working that day and how many are waiting ahead of you. You watch a little ESPN  on the TV, maybe page through an old magazine, check email on your phone or read whatever you brought with you. It’s all part of the experience.

One of the ironies of the barbershop is that no matter how little or how much hair you have a haircut costs the same for every one. From my dark brown-haired youth to my present silver gray, I’ve always had a full head of hair. But my haircut is $15 just like the guy ahead of me who’s only got a little bit of hair above his neckline stretching from ear to ear. I believe seniors get a $1 discount and a flattop costs a few bucks more, but those are the only variations.

All three chairs were filled up when I arrived yesterday and there were two guys waiting ahead of me. It looked to me like two of the barbers were almost done, so I was pretty sure I would get the third. I’ve been coming here for a while and have gotten haircuts from all three in the past. Plus, the guy in the third chair didn’t have a whole lot of hair.

For some reason, that third chair never opened up. Barber number three was experienced, but taking his time, and it looked like they were having  an involved conversation. The other two guys finished before him so I got the “next” from one of them. The last I glanced over, the third barber was precisely trimming individual isolated hairs sticking up from the top of that customer’s head.

Maybe it’s actually easier to cut a full head of hair like mine, because you don’t have to be precise. There’s plenty of margin for error. Not so when you’re down to your last few follicles.

Posted in Life


As I sat enjoying my coffee, I noticed a man just a few feet away busily tapping on a phone screen. He was seated at a larger table, one with four chairs. In each of the chairs was a bulging backpack. A pile of books was stacked on the table in front of him, along with a tote bag overflowing with plastic bags.

At first, I thought the backpacks belonged to friends of his who had stepped away from the table to use the restroom or pick up coffee. But no one ever came to the table. When the gentleman stepped away, once to buy a coffee, and again to buy a bag of chips, he took the tote bag with him.

Suddenly, he stood up and methodically moved each backpack, his books and his tote bag to a smaller table, one with room for just too chairs.

I never got a chance to see what the books were or what he was looking at on his phone. I didn’t want him to think I was being nosy, although that’s exactly what I was.

Homeless? Perhaps, but I’m not certain. Nowhere to go that afternoon? I guess.

So now I’m wondering, why didn’t I just get up and get a look at what he was working on? Why didn’t I ask him about one of his books? Why did I hesitate to engage him in conversation? He clearly wasn’t a threat. The worst that could happen? He could give me a dirty look. Or tell me to mind my own business.

So maybe that will be my resolution for this year. Engage the people I notice or walk by.

Like the gentleman with a prosthetic leg sitting in the parking lot in a lawn chair with a sign “Had hard times, living in a truck.” He was just sitting there (not near a truck) with his wife. I look with curiosity. I wonder what the story is. But I didn’t engage that day.

But next time I will.

Posted in Life

Real conversation, real relationships

In Lisa Unger’s mystery novel Under My Skin, the protagonist Poppy glances at her phone and reflects on what has happened to her relationships because of texting. “Relationships scrolling out in bubbles, text disembodied from voice and body, language pared down to barest meaning” is “far less meaningful than actual conversation.”

Even though these words are fictional, they ring true. They resonate. We have replaced real conversation and real relationships with a poor digital imitation. They are like products with artificial flavoring or colorized movies or cheap laminated furniture materials.

In the Star Trek series and movies, the replicator made it possible to enjoy any food or drink you wanted from any planet or culture or era. But space travelers treasured real ale from some alien race or a real apple from planet earth. There was nothing like the real thing.

No one says, “I wanted to see your words.” We say, “I just wanted to hear your voice.” We save and replay voice messages again and again.

Bubble relationships are convenient, but two-dimensional. The words have no actual feelings though we try to extract emotion from them. Text messages may be adorned with emoji, but they lack the hint of a smile, shifting of an eye, the furrow of a brow, or a subtle chuckle. Most texting is quick and efficient, with little thought to grammar, vocabulary, or spelling. (Unless it is a lengthy text, and who reads all the way through those?)

In an actual conversation, eyes tear up. Legs nervously bounce. Fingernails have been chewed. Breath smells like alcohol. Some words come quickly. Other sentences are punctuated with long pauses. Lips purse. Fingers drum on the table. Hands fold.

What has happened to our relationships?

Posted in Life

Three and counting

“So, are you down to one vehicle now?”


Okay, that caught me completely off guard. My wife and I had been talking about when we might downsize from two cars in the driveway to one. How often did we go two different places at the same time? Not as often as we did when we were both working. Wouldn’t it be sweet to only have to fuel up, insure, and maintain a single car?

He had retired a few years before and his wife was newly retired. Now they traveled together to visit family, run errands, and meet friends (like us) for lunch. They told inspiring stories of how they frugally learned to live simply yet richly in this new chapter of their life.

The fall colors were peaking on a warmish fall day as we walked around a lake. I should have remembered I was venturing onto dangerously thin ice when I assumed, “You must be down to one vehicle.”

“Three. And I think I’m going to buy a tractor.”

We’ve owned three cars in the past. We live in a town with no public transportation, so we had no choice but to drive everywhere. My wife and I would both head out in our cars for work, after saying, “Goodbye” to our children as one of them drove off to high school.

Three cars? One was a small pickup truck he had owned for nearly twenty years. That wasn’t going anywhere. Another smaller sedan was fine for running around town, but certainly wasn’t reliable enough for longer trips. So they needed a newer car as well.

A tractor? They lived on an acreage in western North Carolina. They had to maintain their own half-mile gravel driveway. They were also tearing down some old dog kennels, moving firewood closer to the house as winter approached, and dragging a gazebo to a different spot in the yard. Besides, he might have to dig a hole one day. Of course he needed a tractor.

My next-door neighbor and his wife have two Corvettes in their garage and two smaller cars parked in the driveway. Another neighbor has two vans and an SUV for the two of them. Two houses up from us, four SUVs are parked in the driveway.

I’m pretty sure my family only owned one car for years. My dad traveled to work in Philadelphia on the train, so we only needed one station wagon to haul everyone around. When my dad got a new job, he bought a second car for his commute. It was a yellow Ford Maverick with distinctive rusty trim. Once we three kids were grown and gone, they downsized to one Ford (my dad was a Ford fan) Tempo station wagon. They drove so few miles they changed the oil based on the calendar rather than the odometer.

One day we’ll decide one car or SUV or truck is enough. We’ll just have to decide what to own. Maybe we need something big enough to cart a lot of grandkids around in. Or maybe a sporty-two seater to zip around in. An electric vehicle? Something autonomous? We’ll see.