Phone pranking technology wasted on me

A couple of weeks ago we were targeted at work with prank calls. They were pretty well done and someone got some good laughs at our expense. It was harmless. And funny.

When I was a kid my friend Bruce and my brother’s friend Jeff were especially skilled at prank calls. Jeff was not only good at keeping a straight face, he had some of his victims convinced the call was legit. There was an old show called “Dialing for Dollars” in which the host would call someone randomly and if they answered the phone, and I think a couple of quiz questions, they would win prizes. Jeff did that to a family in the same Little League and the woman told mutual friends about her jackpot.

I, on the other hand, was terrible. When I tried doing something as simple as asking the Whitehead family if it was the Blackhead family I couldn’t get a word out with splitting my guts and doubling over. It was very painful for me. I had great ideas, too, but I couldn’t handle the delivery.

Now a kid like I was can use PrankDial.com to handle the joke telling. It’s a little tricky, because you only get two free calls a day, but if you call someone you know will answer then it works out just fine.

While we were targeted I took one of the calls. A woman asked if I was bringing her toilet paper. I knew we were getting played so I hung up. I didn’t realize that the call was prerecorded. Genius.

So I’ve been trying to prank my brothers, using the phone number we grew up with as the spoof caller ID number. To date neither brother has picked up the phone on time. This morning I tried again and thought I had finally found success. Someone picked up.

When the call ended I heard the recording and it was clear I hadn’t dialed my brother. I just pranked some confused woman in Utah wondering why someone was calling her telling her that her daughter had kicked his dog. He even told her to “Shut up.”

My eyesight isn’t what it used to be, and without my glasses it’s hard to read the numbers on my phone.

So the awesome technology of prerecorded phone pranks, something that can help me finally pull off a successful phone prank and heal a four-decade-old wound is wasted because I need glass to read my phone.

To those who never made it home

I’ve been struggling today to come up with or find a single phrase or sentiment that would adequately express my thoughts about Memorial Day this year. Many of my friends did quite well with that. It has worked for me in the past. This year nothing was singing for me. So at the risk of being labeled an ingrate, I remained silent.

Then a friend, someone who served in the military, wrote about how this day is to honor not all veterans, but those who never made it home.

And then I saw a clip from an HBO drama in which a (fake) news guy tells a college assembly this isn’t the greatest country on Earth. My thought was, “Shame on me if he’s right.” The show seems unrealistic to me, because after dropping an F-bomb to that college audience and asserting we’re not No. 1, he keeps his job. In the real America he’d be handed his exit papers moments after he was coerced into making an apology.

That clip, coupled with my friend’s take, took me to my real thoughts about Memorial Day, and the best ways I can express thanks to those who never made it home.

For one, I can be grateful I never had to join the military to be in public service. This country hasn’t drafted people in 40 years. I live in a military community and I’ve met many people who seem wired for that kind of work, but there are others who are in there because one day they looked around and saw no better option to get them out of the lives they to which they felt otherwise destined. I had other options and I took them. I bought things on credit when it probably wasn’t wise and I took jobs I knew I wasn’t suited for. I learned from those mistakes and major part I owe some of that learning to those who never came home.

Second, I will resist jingoistic nationalism that declares, “We’re No. 1!” as if that declaration alone makes it so. I wave a flag today in gratitude, not to shove it in the face of people who can see my yard from Canada. Other nations have taken up the same cause of liberty, probably through our nation’s example, and have created free nations as well. Some, perish the thought, may be doing freedom better than we are. But they should remind us that our status as a great country takes work, and sacrifice, a concern for the rights of the individual and for the rights of the whole.

Third, as a citizen I will not assume that everyone who works for the government is some shiftless, lazy bureaucrat with little or no job skills. At the same time, I will demand that those government workers take care with the tax money I and other Americans provide to do what we ask. That includes the military.

Fourth, I can stop resenting those who want the same things I have. Whether they live in foreign nations or emigrate to mine, their commitment to this ideal makes the world better. Freedom isn’t really freedom if it’s limited to those who are born with it.

Fifth, I will vote in November. And during the process I will set aside the lies and the labels and pick someone for president who I believe is best able to handle that responsibility. The same goes for Congress, my state and my county. I will dismiss all commercial sound bites and shouting points and instead study for myself the resumes and the records of the candidates. People can outspend me in an effort to sway my vote, but my vote is my responsibility.

Sixth, I will take days like today and grill burgers on the barbecue and picnic with my family. I’ll watch baseball and dispute the umpire. I’ll complain about what’s not on Netflix. You died to give me that right, too.

Finally, just because I probably won’t end up dying for my country does not mean I cannot still lay down my life for it. I can work every day to make this country worthy of that ultimate sacrifice so many gave. I can be skeptical without being cynical. I can question my own ideas of what’s right for this country and make different choices if I need to do. I have the freedom to be wrong about things and to change my mind.

To those who didn’t make it home, I’m working hard to be worthy of your sacrifice. I’m trying to raise children who will one day make huge mistakes and have big successes, and to through it all be grateful for that chance. I know I can probably never repay you for what you did, but thanks to you I have that freedom, too.

Resolved to start my new year whenever I want

(Click on the photo to see where it came from.)

The demotivational poster on the right was something I found on a blog I had never heard of before I went looking for an image by typing in Google image search the words “resolution” and “fail.” I wanted an image that was A. Relevant to my topic, and B. Funny. Nailed it!

Then I went ahead and read a New Year’s Resolution post Mick Morris wrote and found that it wasn’t your standard self-righteous rant about how stupid resolutions were. Indeed it was about how resolutions fail, but more importantly it was an explanation of how those resolutions that are successful are not really New Year’s resolutions at all.

In essence he is making the point I tried to illustrate in a story I wrote and have referred to probably 372 times since I wrote it, “What Makes Us Make Lasting Life Changes?” When I wrote it I thought it was groundbreaking stuff. It won an award within the company, but didn’t get a sniff from the Society of Professional Journalists, either locally or nationally. For the record, the stories that beat it were really, really well done. I was disappointed, but the story has had far greater impact on me personally than it would have had it just won some awards. (Those would have been nice. I won’t lie.)

The piece ran in February. I had planned on doing it closer to the end of the previous year, but it wasn’t ready. That was perfect. It came out at a time when almost everyone who had made resolutions had already blown them. Change takes longer than what we associate with the work it takes to craft a resolution.

Still, this new year I plan to continue to work on some resolutions. One of them, to lose 205 pounds and run a marathon by sometime in 2013, I’m in the process of now and have been public with for the past 13 weeks on this blog. You may have read about it. That has its literal ups and downs. All success probably does.

If you already did set resolutions for 2012, I wish you success. If you arrive at a point one day and think you have failed, consider whether you actually did fail or hit some stumbling blocks. If your goal is something you have complete control over, it’s not failure until you decide it is. If your goal involves forces outside your control, then perhaps you will fail at the specifics. In that case, look at the larger question of what you are trying to accomplish. In the process of trying and failing, perhaps you became a better person anyway. That’s not nothing.

‘Are we brave enough to learn from a baboon?’

A tragic event led to a moment that could serve as a lesson for humans. It was astounding how a society changed when the a-holes were gone.

Last night I watched the National Geographic film Stress: Portrait of a Killer and came away stunned at how similar a society of baboons was to a collection of people.

Stanford neurobiologist Dr. Robert Sapolsky has demonstrated in physical terms how stress affects our bodies by studying the hierarchies of baboon societies in Africa. Baboons have created a social structure much like our own, where there is a verifiable pecking order. Those on the lower rungs of baboon society experience more stress than those at the top levels. The film goes on to show how the same symptoms show up among British government employees.

What was stunning was what happened when disaster struck. One tribe of baboons ate tainted meat, and it ended up killing most of those at the higher levels. From then on the tribe became one of social support all around, because the domineering ones had died. The documentary doesn’t say why they died and the others didn’t. Maybe they didn’t leave any of the tainted stuff behind. The most interesting part was that young male baboons from other tribes would come over to the more social tribe and try to be the a-holes they had been trained to be in their first homes. After six months, though, they assimilated.

The film provides a few ways humans can minimize stress, but ends with the question in the headline here.

The documentary is on Netflix.

I scratch in sensitive places. Now you know

TMI, dude.

A few days ago Diana listed a toy car on Craigslist Seattle and got a buyer interested in the $10 price. She also got several earfuls, which is why Diana prefers to do most of her logistical work on Craigslist by e-mail.

The woman, who did end up buying the car, told Diana about her abusive ex-husband, about the two times she drove off a cliff, one of her court appearances about those drives and her lingering depression. All this in a conversation about directions to our house. At one point Diana needed to call her back, but made sure she had all of her other important jobs done first.

The woman was sharing too much. This was a kind of business deal, but Diana did not want to be all in her business. Sharing too much is also known as “oversharing.” There’s a whole website, oversharers.com, dedicated to the times people overshare online. Each moment of oversharing is accompanied by an editorial comment. This one was one of my faves:

MSNBC did a story in 2007 about oversharers and talked to some academics and psychologists about it. One said the oversharing we see is a reflection of this age’s narcissism. Another said it’s healthy, a sign of self-confidence and that our foibles don’t really make us weak.

What really struck me, though, were the examples the story cited that I didn’t think were all that bad. A guy said he doesn’t like to wear white because he sweats too much and another woman said she is old enough to get hot flashes. Those don’t seem that sensitive to me, which means I am probably an oversharer. Huh. The narcissism I knew about.

Hell Yes – Come on up for the rising.

I prepared this post to get out there as the clock struck 9/11/11. At this point I don’t know if there has been another attempt to bring us to our knees. I don’t care if there has. Terrorists can try to shed our blood if they like. If America went down, it would never be because of them. It would be because of us.

“Let me tell you about my people. We are a vast and quarrelsome family, a family rent by racial, social, political and class division, but a family nonetheless. We’re frivolous, yes, capable of expending tremendous emotional energy on pop cultural minutiae – a singer’s revealing dress, a ball team’s misfortune, a cartoon mouse. We’re wealthy, too, spoiled by the ready availability of trinkets and material goods, and maybe because of that, we walk through life with a certain sense of blithe entitlement. We are fundamentally decent, though – peace-loving and compassionate. We struggle to know the right thing and to do it. And we are, the overwhelming majority of us, people of faith, believers in a just and loving God.”

“What was it you hoped to teach us? It occurs to me that maybe you just wanted us to know the depths of your hatred. If that’s the case, consider the message received. And take this message in exchange: You don’t know my people. You don’t know what we’re capable of. You don’t know what you just started.

“But you’re about to learn.” — Leonard Pitts Jr., Sept. 12, 2001.

“May their precious blood forever bind me
Lord as I stand before your fiery light” — Bruce Springsteen, The Rising.

The Car Would Not Start, so I Bought a Book About Decisions

This subject matter felt more inspiring to me when I was in the middle of it. So much influences how and when we make decisions. My car was locked, the key wouldn’t work and Diana was going to take a while to come get me, so I walked to Barnes & Noble, the opening setting for the story I wrote on change.

On that walk I thought, or better said I felt, this might be a good time to buy Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide. I referred to the book in the previously mentioned story, but had read a library copy. One of the first stories in the book is about a guy in the Navy who decides to order missiles fired at what appear as blips on a radar screen. He doesn’t know why he makes that call, and for a while assumes he was wrong to do so. When he finds out his call was correct he assumes he got lucky. A few years later a scientist figures out how it wasn’t luck at all, that information his brain was receiving triggered different chemicals in his body that gave him the sense that something was wrong. Amazing stuff.

There is a down side to that, too. Feelings influence many of our buying decisions, and advertisers know that full well, so that’s why attempts to appeal to our logic are not as powerful as ones that get us emotionally.

All of these thoughts on the walk to the bookstore happened because of other reasons that had me primed to make the decision to buy the book. I had wanted it. I went to Utah. While there I really enjoyed it but had no interest in staying there permanently. I came back and fell in love with this place again, despite the fact that the weather was not perfect today. The situation with Dad is such that we are sure we need to begin preparing for changes so that we can create a sustainable environment in this home. So many things triggered decisions to make changes, but most noticeably a determination to buy a book.

After writing about it I’m still not sure why I felt like I wanted to share that here. It seemed like a good idea while I was walking. Of course the bigger issue tomorrow will be getting that car started.

Larry King Revives the Column Here

In honor of Larry King’s upcoming retirement, I join the gaggle of writers who attempt to write a parody column of the one he used to write in USA Today. I seldom read it, because it seemed like a waste of time. I’m sure it wasn’t as big a waste of time as this was, but writing this filled a hole tonight.

Snoop Dog told me that he’s given up pot now that he’s discovered meth … My favorite key on the typewriter is the “caps lock” key … I don’t care what the Catholics say; hemorrhoids are no fun … Does anyone put on a better show than Ringo Starr? … A recent survey said public speaking has been replaced as everyone‘s greatest fear. Americans now are most afraid our next president will be a horse … Bob Hope once told me he had never actually been to Morocco … I just read Glenn Beck’s latest book a fictional piece called “The Overton Window,“ and I can’t believe I’m the one who has to retire … I still love 7-Up, thought it’s been years since I’ve had it straight … Do these glasses make me look younger?… When Kelsey Grammar first got the part as Frasier Crane on “Cheers” it was originally planned that he would compete with Sam Malone for Diane’s attention, but then would eventually be written out of the show. The producers first thought he should get cancer and die, but then thought maybe people wouldn’t get the joke … After all these years I still haven’t figured out why we have toe nails … I went clothes shopping the other day with my wife in a mall in Utah. We bought seven pair on sale, but when I got home I decided to return them, because now that I’m retiring I better be frugal with my money and furthermore I will seldom wear pants … When David Crosby was on the show once and during one of the commercial breaks he threatened to kill me … The Lakers are the best basketball team this year … Michelle Obama was on the show recently and I had trouble concentrating because I kept wondering what she would order at Olive Garden … I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to enjoy Snickers with almonds … The third movie in the “Twilight” series opened to record crowds the other night. I went with my kids to the midnight showing and was awake long enough that when I did fall asleep during the movie I had a nightmare that I would live long enough to see the fourth movie … My kids say iCarly is the best show on television. … I once dated Barbara Hershey but I broke up with her before we got married because I discovered she didn’t have toe nails …

Einstein Was a Jealous God

While writing for and reading the newspaper that employs me, it isn’t often that I think about the trees being felled or programmers at work that help me do what I do. There have been times in my life when I have pondered the fact that pictures get slashed into millions of pieces only to reassemble themselves in perfect order on my television. I probably don’t do that enough for the tastes of Albert Einstein, though. Too fast, he thought, do we forget about the groundbreaking work that allows us to sit at home and complain about the programming we devote hours of our life to.

In the Aug. 31, 1930 edition of the New York Times is a piece by Orrin E. Dunlap explaining how Einstein believed people had forgotten about the miracle of technology and invention radio was and were too soon content to focus on the programming.

“Radio listeners should be ashamed to make use of the wonders of science embodied in a radio set while they appreciate them ‘as little as a cow appreciates the botanic marvels in the plants she munches.’ So spoke Professor Albert Einstein in expressing his regrets of public apathy toward scientists, at the opening of the Berlin Radio Exposition.”

The writer quotes Einstein very little in the rest of the piece, preferring to refer to the difference in attitudes from about a decade earlier. Then people were fascinated figuring out how to make their own radios in their homes. When they would tune into some faraway broadcast they would call out to family and neighbors so all could huddle around what it was that was drawing the signal. Anymore a clear broadcast coming out of something that rivaled nice furniture was expected, the author wrote.

Well, it is true that the day of marveling at much if any innovation is pretty well gone. I remember jogging with a Walkman knowing that one day I would probably be able to travel with something much smaller that would play the music better.

Still, we have our moments. I remember joining a friend on an AOL chat room in 1995 purposely trying to make others in the chat room angry. We were trolls before the term was invented. But when I tried it several months later the thrill had already worn off. Watch someone who is new to Facebook take part in all the farms and gang wars and buttons until they inevitably grow tired of them and become fans of clubs that don’t care about those same things. Technology marvels us for a while. Days, not years.

Sometimes never. I didn’t like “Billy Don’t be a Hero” any better just because I could hear it on compact disc.

‘It Is Not All They Are’

At some point in my life I came to see criminals as something other than the crimes they committed. Maybe it was the years between college and when I met Diana, where I proved that a man without a plan isn’t to be trusted. Somehow I think it was sooner than that.

In fifth grade there was a boy whose name I can’t remember (And it’s really bugging me that I can’t.) who startled me one day when he suddenly erupted and called the girl next to him something completely random, like “a communist.” The boy told of riding his bike and finding a dead cat by the side of the road. The kid put a firecracker in the cat’s mouth, lit it and watched it explode. “That will teach you not to smoke,” he said he told that former cat. I was horrified, but I laughed like crazy.

Another kid whose name I do remember was a constant source of trouble, but was genuinely nice. Because of his inability to catch on to schoolwork and his penchant for displaying attitude, he was doomed to continuation school by the time we reached high school. There was something amiss in his family, though I never got close enough to figure out what it was. Years later I saw him yelling at a girl I knew from church, a girl who had fallen away because she never really found a friend there. She was his boyfriend. He got her pregnant. I wasn’t surprised.

These two boys I remember, even if not by name, have yet to show up on Facebook, so I’m left to wonder what became of them. So much can give a kid a tough start to begin with that it’s no wonder years later when you read in the newspaper that they’ve been busted for meth, got arrested for doing something that to most of us seems incredibly stupid, or maybe died an accidental death. Or maybe they found a way to make life work.

I have my doubts. I heard Michael Hanlon, who wrote the book “Ten Questions Science Can’t Answer (Yet!): A Guide to Science’s Greatest Mysteries.” He told the host society doesn’t really deal well with people who aren’t very smart. We accept that we can’t all be elite athletes. Most of us just aren’t built for it. Yet we expect everyone to go to college. These boys I knew didn’t cope well early on, and didn’t get a lot of help.

Then there is my nephew, who is in prison, again, for reasons none of us seem to know. That boy wasn’t wired like the rest of us. You see those movies where some country type says, “That boy just ain’t right.” That’s my nephew. It could be alcohol his birth mother drank while pregnant with him, or so we’ve heard. Whatever it was, he wasn’t wired the same as you and I. So it’s hard for me to be too certain that he is, shall we say, a dirtbag. No matter what those two boys from school ended up doing, they aren’t either.

In Rick Bragg’s book “The Prince of Frogtown,” he comes to accept that there was more to his father than all the bad things he saw.

“But over a lifetime I have known a lot of men in prisons, men who will spend their eternity paying for their worst moment on earth. It came when they caught their wife cheating on them and thumbed back the hammer on a gun they bought to shoot rats and snakes, or got cross-eyed drunk in some fish camp bar and pulled a dime-store knife, just because they imagined a funny look or a suspicious smile. You do not have to forgive such men, ever, that minute. You can lock them away for it, put them to death for it, and spend your eternity cursing their name. It is not all they are.”

This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t pay for their crimes. It wouldn’t hurt, though, to consider that we aren’t the sum of all the bad things we’ve done.