Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Blue Screen Of Death On A Wal-Mart Self Checkout Kiosk

I was running through Wal-Mart yesterday morning to pick up some Chobani yogurt for breakfast and an apple for snack. I wanted to run through the self-checkout aisle because I was pressed for time. When doing so, I noticed that one of the counters was sporting a Windows blue screen of death. Now, I don't know all that much about self-checkout kiosks other than the fact that their implementation is increasing and that they are useful for when I can't handle interacting with another human being in the morning. As for speed? Well, if you've got maybe 5 items or less, you'll probably come out ahead. But, as you approach 10 items, it becomes readily apparent that a customer is nowhere near as fast at scanning items as a seasoned checkout person is.

In any given Wal-Mart, there's almost always at least one automated checkout machine that is experiencing an issue of some sort: Either the cash threader is broken or the card reader is inoperative or the change till isn't working correctly. However, I can't say that I've ever seen a blue screen of death on an automated check out machine before. I would guess that the Wal-Mart automated check out machines are probably running Windows XP embedded. Sure, XP is old, and not officially supported anymore, but it's a very stable operating system with a fairly light fingerprint.

This particular point of sale machine appears to have an issue with one of its hardware devices. Note the error message: IRQL_NOT_LESS_OR_EQUAL_TO. Okay, so what is an IRQL (pronounced "Urkel" like the annoying kid froM Family Matters) and why does Windows care whether is is less than or equal to something? IRQL stands for Interrupt Request Level and those levels define the priority at which requests from certain components can be processed. What basically happens is that the CPU on the computer is running, doing various tasks and a piece of hardware connected to it, like the barcode scanner or the chip reader will send a request to the CPU for processing. Those requests have priority levels. The CPU then looks at the tasks it has to do, executes the ones with the higher priority first and, while doing so, sets all other tasks in the queue to "pending" until it can get to them. If a low priority task is being processed by the CPU and a task of higher priority comes in, then the CPU will interrupt (see where we're going here?) the lower priority task in order to process the higher priority task that just came in. If we look at the STOP line in the blue screen of death, we see that the IRQ level (represented by the second number in the parentheses in the STOP error) is 2

Instructions for how hardware components interface with Windows and the computer's physical memory are written into little programs called device drivers. What's probably going on here is that a device driver is attempting to access a block of memory at an IRQL that is too high. This is usually caused by faulty hardware or an incompatible device driver. My guess would be that someone tried to update a driver belonging to one of the hardware components on the checkout machine and that newest version of the driver has some instructions in it that are incompatible with the system. The solution would be to downgrade the device driver. Just see what version of the drivers the other machines are running and make sure the one with the error is at the same version for each.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Pre-Need Cremation Services Call Me

An automated attendant called me trying to sell me pre-need cremation/burial services. Once a live operator came on, she asked me "May I have your last name?" and I replied "You can have it if you get married to me!" and was promptly hung up on.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Toys R Us Is Closing Its Doors

National toy retailer, Toys R Us, sought court approval yesterday to liquidate its remaining 735 stores, thus signaling the end for a chain known to generations of children and parents for its sprawling stores, Geoffrey the giraffe mascot, and its catchy "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" jingle. As Toys R Us implodes over the next few weeks, you'll hear a lot of talk about how Amazon and Wal-Mart caused the death of yet another brick-and-mortar retail operation. And, while Amazon and Wal-Mart certainly contributed to the downfall of Toys R Us, they weren't what struck the fatal blow.

In 1978, Toys R Us went from a privately held company to a publicly traded one. This, of course, meant that anyone could buy shares of Toys R Us on the stock market. In 2005, shares of Toys R Us were purchased by three companies, Bain Capital (connected to Mitt Romney. Get your "Mormans Destroyed Toys R Us" headlines out now), KKR and Vornado in a leveraged buyout. These companies joined together to get a $6.6 billion loan to buy Toys R Us and $5.8 billion in debt from the purchase went right onto the balance sheet of Toys R Us. This was right before Wal-Mart and Amazon started to eat Toys R Us' lunch. Plus, the trend of tablets and game consoles overshadowing toy sales didn't help either. This meant that Toys R Us had less profit with which to service its massive debt and less money to invest into improving its stores. And, for me, that's where Toys R Us massively failed. Going into a Toys R Us over the last several years was like walking into a Mad Max movie. Whenever I went in there, I expected to find post-apocalyptic gangs setting up rival camps in various different sections of the store. You'd find The Vuvalini in the Lego section and The Buzzards in the clearance aisle.

That's not to say that there isn't still a glimmer of hope that Toys R Us can survive this. The stores will remain open for the next 60 days and a buyer could still possibly be found. If that happens, and there's enough money involved to act on some initiatives to improve the stores and make them more inviting to customers, then Toys R Us may just come out of this alive. It's possible, but I don't think it's probable. It's much more likely that we'll have to relegate Toys R Us to the shelf of childhood memories like we've had to do with many other formally popular retail stores over the last few years.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

About Those Amelia Earhart Bones...

There has been quite the stir in the scientific community lately, thanks to a group of scientists boldly claiming that the mystery of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart has been solved. But, has it, really? It certainly sounds intriguing, and it makes for great headlines. We get the same stories about Jack the Ripper's identity finally being revealed or the Zodiac Killer's, or DB Cooper's every few months. I'd swear that the press just keeps these sort of stories around as filler material to use on slow news days.

In case you're not familiar with the latest wrinkle in this Amelia Earhart case, here's what's going on: Skeletal human remains were found on the remote island of Nikumaroro (aka Gardner) in the South Pacific around 1940. At the time, measurements of the bones were made by D. W. Hoodless who concluded that the bones belonged to a man with a height of about six feet. Recently, Richard Jantz, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Director Emeritus of UT’s Forensic Anthropology Center, took another look at those measurements. Using several modern quantitative techniques, including Fordisc, a computer program for estimating sex, ancestry, and stature from skeletal measurements Jantz concluded that Hoodless had incorrectly determined the sex of the remains. Jantz also compared the bone lengths with Earhart’s presumed lengths using data from old photographs of her. Jantz concluded that the bones have more similarity to Earhart than to 99 percent of individuals in a large reference sample. Based on this, Jantz declared "until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers".

Sounds pretty conclusive, right? Wrong. There are a lot of other things to consider here:

  • Jantz was working from an analysis made by Hoodless rather than doing his own analysis of the bones, which wasn't possible because the bones have been missing for quite some time. Even if we assume that Hoodless' measurements were accurate, context is still important. How old are the bones? What does a DNA analysis say? What condition are the bones in? Under what circumstances were they found? How do any objects found near the bones compare to them? These are important questions that cannot be answered because the bones have gone missing. 

  • The island had been of interest to the British since the 1800s and had been inhabited for quite some time prior to the discovery of the bones. Also, the SS Norwich City was shipwrecked on the island in 1929. Given these facts, it's hard to say exactly who those bones might belong to. 

  • If Earhart crash landed on the island and lived long enough to die there, then where is the wreckage of the plane? And why didn't any of the inhabitants of the island notice her? 

  • Nikumaroro was searched a day after Earhart's disappearance and a week afterward. No signs of her were found there. 

  • Nikumaroro is 1200km off of Earhart's route and in the opposite direction of her last known location. It stretches the bounds of credibility to think that she would have ended up there somehow. 

  • The statement "until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers" is troubling. It's bad science to believe that your conclusion should be considered true until it is proven false.

  • Jantz's study was funded by TIGHAR, a search group who have been vocal proponents of the Earhart on Nikumaroro theory. This implies bias. In other words, the study was not conducted with an open mind to any conclusion. Rather, it was looking to prove a theory on behalf of the expounder of said theory.

So, given the list above, I'd say that the study, while compelling, is far from conclusive. And, unless the bones are somehow found, I don't think that this mystery will ever be solved.

Monday, March 12, 2018

State Farm Eliminates 900 IT Positions

   When I was a Computer Information Systems student in college back in the mid-90s, my COBOL professor used to tell my class that, if we were good little programmers, worked hard, and documented our code well, then we could hope to get a job at State Farm doing Y2K conversions on their mainframe system. The prospect of expanding a 2 digit year field into a 4 digit year field didn't appeal to me, so I went into web programming. Well, that, and the State Farm recruiter took issue with my attitude. Something about me saying "If you judge my programming ability based upon how I shook your hand, then you're not someone I'd care to work for".

   Anyway, now comes news that State Farm is cutting nearly 900 IT positions in their Bloomington headquarters. About 300 of those positions will be moving out of Illinois and into other hubs around the country. Some of the affected employees, depending on their skill set, will have the opportunity to transfer to one of the other hubs. The announcement comes on the heels of a reported pre-tax operating loss of $1.7 Billion for 2017, largely due to significant catastrophe losses from hurricanes, wildfires and storms.

   I still have a few friends from college who work at State Farm, so I made a few calls over the last few days in order to get a feel for what's going on over there. The general consensus seems to be that this mess is the result of an over-staffed, under-worked IT department that has been subjected to the unnecessary duplication of processes and a refusal to listen to ideas for efficiency. Hundreds of contract workers were hired over the years to help keep up with the bloated processes, and now, the chickens have come to roost. There is optimism, though. I'm told that the claims department went through similar circumstances a few years back and now they seem to have their act together.

   Let's just hope that the IT department finally got all their Y2K conversions done.

Friday, December 29, 2017

John Schnatter Out As CEO Of Papa Johns

"Papa" John Schnatter will be stepping down as CEO of Papa John's next month. This comes in the wake of his criticisms of the NFL's handling of national anthem protests by football players. Chief Operating Officer, Steve Ritchie, will replace Schnatter on Januaray 1. Schnatter will remain Chairman, but it has not yet been determined whether or not he will remain the company's spokesman.

This makes me think that DC Comics should take inspiration from this and create a Batman villain based on John Schnatter and his circumstances. They could call him Pizza John and make him a comical yet dangerous foe akin to The Condiment King. I initial confrontation practically writes itself. Pizza John, seeking to disrupt a Gotham City Wildcats game, humiliates the team by dousing them in garlic butter. Batman intervenes:

Pizza John: I don't mean to sound CHEESY, Batman, but these players have no right to be so SAUCY. They're the UPPER CRUST of society and I'm going to SLICE them up for what they've done!

Batman: SHUT UP! [Punches Pizza John and knocks him out]

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

My Thoughts On The Last Jedi

I caught "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" on a whim the other night. I had heard pretty much everything about the film before actually sitting down to see it, so I knew what to expect. There are a lot of passionate reviews both in favor and against this film and, knowing the plot going in, I still wasn't sure which side I'd come out on.

I'm not a die-hard Star Wars fan. I've seen all of the movies, but never read any of the books. I've tried to sit through the Clone Wars and Rebels tv series only to get bored before getting halfway through them. I liked playing with Star Wars toys as a kid, but found GI Joe to be superior (Kung-Fu grip for the win!). I am somewhat emotionally invested in the characters from the original trilogy, but I realize that there's a need for new blood in order for the franchise to move forward.

Without getting too spoiler-y, I'll say that I like that "The Last Jedi" takes some risks and isn't a total rehash like "The Force Awakens" was. Still, I wish that the plot threads that were left dangling in The Last Jedi were resolved in a more satisfying manner. Who is Snoke and where does he come from? Well, it doesn't matter now, because he's dead. How was Kylo Ren seduced to the Dark Side? Doesn't matter now because he's all in. What's the deal with the Knights of Ren? Doesn't matter now because Kylo Ren doesn't need them. It seems as if JJ Abrams gave us a ton of mysteries in "The Force Awakens" and wasn't sure how to resolve them, so Rian Johnson just dropped them when he took up "The Last Jedi". It results in some interesting and somewhat bold choices, which is new for a Star Wars film. I walked away from "The Last Jedi" liking it as a film on its own, but not necessarily liking it as a Star Wars film. And, after a few days of thought, I think I finally understand why.

When we see Luke Skywalker, instead of the triumphant hero from "Return of the Jedi", we get a hermit with a broken spirit who has turned his back on the Force. There are reasons behind his behavior, of course. He tells us that he sensed Snoke's evil influence growing within Kylo Ren, went to confront him, thought about murdering him for a brief second and was immediately ashamed. Kylo Ren retaliated, burned down the temple and killed any student who didn't follow him. It's a story that we're told in flashback, but THAT is the story I want. I want to see the Rebel Alliance trying to form a government and our heroes going from rebels to government officials while the Empire remains an diminished yet very real threat.  I want to see Han Solo trying to adapt to being a law abiding citizen. I want to see Princess Leia trying to live a life outside of public service (until she's called back in a la George Washington). I want to see Luke Skywalker passing on what he had learned to the next generation of Jedi while trying to correct where the order went wrong in Ep 1 - 3. I want to see the emergence of Snoke and his seduction of Ben Solo. Most of all, I want to see that gut wrenching choice Luke makes to kill his own nephew in order to prevent another Darth Vader. Right after that debacle would be a perfect time for Yoda's lecture on learning from our failures.

Unfortunately, we could never get that story because we went 30 years without telling it and time moved on for all of the actors involved. What we got instead was interesting, entertaining and very unexpected. But, where can the trilogy go from here? "The Last Jedi" feels like an ending, yet we still have one more episode to go.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Gingerbread Houses

Normally, when the Christmas season starts falling upon us, I'll whip up a batch of Grandma Mac's bathtub egg nog until that holly jolly feeling is washed away with a good drunken buzz. This year, however, in addition to the egg nog, we bought a gingerbread house village kit. Each one of us, myself, my wife, and our three kids picked a house, put it together and decorated it. The result, unfortunately, ended up a bit below our expectations. Looks like a block of houses in the gingerbread version of Detroit.

Friday, December 15, 2017

We Crash A Hanukkah Ceremony

"Hanukkah is what they call Christmas in Israel", my oldest son said to me a few days before we got on the ship. I explained to him that, although they happen at about the same time, they aren't the same thing. I didn't delve too deep into the differences, but I went on to explain that there are millions of people all around the world who celebrate Hanukkah instead of Christmas. Here on the Carnival Dream, the staff has has been doing quite a lot to make the Christmas season felt throughout the ship, and, during the Christmas tree lighting ceremony earlier this week, my son spied a menorah and asked again about Hanukkah. I noticed in this morning's Porthole Magazine that there was a Hanukkah ceremony scheduled. I thought that taking my son to attend it might help answer some of his questions. So, we told him to shower ("consider it a mikvah", I joked) and put on a nice shirt. We both went to the Deck 3 lobby at the appointed time.

There were only about a dozen other people there waiting for the ceremony. A Carnival Dream staff member was walking around with a tray of wine and offered me one. Free wine? On a Carnival Cruise? Considering the usual cost for a glass of red wine on a Carnival Cruise, I jumped at the chance to get a free one, even if it was for a religious ceremony. I had been expecting a dry red which was the norm for the Catholic church that I grew up in. Instead, I got something super sweet that tasted like mustum. I tried to mask my surprise as the ceremony started.

After the Hebrew prayer, the Carnival staff member who was running the ceremony asked if anyone would like to light the candle on the menorah. A young lad raised his hand, but his father quickly stopped him, indicating that he'd done so the past few times and he should let someone else volunteer. What a mensch! The Carnival staff member asked for another volunteer. My son quickly put his hand up and a subtle "Oy vey!" almost escaped my lips. There was no shamash to use to light the other candles, as the menorah was electric. My son simply pressed a button under the candle which garnered him some fanfare from the other participants and a Carnival medal from the staff member.

He was proud of himself, and I was happy he had a great experienced and learned a few things along the way. Yet, I couldn't help but think to myself "That's it! We're going to hell".

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Pirates, Monkeys and Exotic Birds at Gumbalimba Park

For our stop in Mahogany Bay, Roatan Island, Honduras, we had originally booked a Carnival sponsored beach day excursion on Maya Key. Some of the bad reviews made us a little bit leery, but we figured that it would be the best excursion for everyone involved. Unfortunately, we got notified a few days ago that the excursion had been cancelled. We ended up booking the Pirates, Monkeys and Exotic Birds excursion. The bus ride from Mahogany Bay to Gumbalimba Park took about 30 minutes and ran through a number of little town along the twisty road. Once we got to the park, we were warned to put our large bags into a locker (rentable for the low low price of $3), as the monkeys had a tendency to unzip large bags in order to search them for food.

After a brief sales pitch about the animal photographers needed funds to help keep them in school, we started off on our walking tour. We were first treated to some history about the pirate, John Coxon. Coxon rose to fame with his attack on Santa Marta in 1677 where he kidnapped the local Governor and Bishop and plundered the town. He later captured a Spanish fleet at Panama which included many man-o-wars. His most legendary achievement, however, was capturing a pair of sloops using nothing more than an Indian canoe with a crew of about seventy. The town of Coxen Hole (tee hee) supposedly gets its name from Captain John Coxon and the time he spent operating out of the island of Roatan.

It's Like They're Having Their Own Little Meeting
Learning about Captain John Coxon was just the first part of the tour. We did a little hiking up to a point where a slaughter of iguanas were hanging out. Obviously, that's where the park staff choose to feed them, so the iguanas stick close in order to get fed. They've got a lot of green iguanas which are "actual" iguanas in that they're of the genus Iguana. Gumbalimba Park is also home to a number of black iguana, which are in the same family as green iguanas, but are different genus and species. Unlike green iguanas, black iguanas can and will eat meat. I don't believe that Gumbalimba Park is home to the other member of the Iguana genus, the Lesser Antillean iguana. Once you're past the feeding ground, you'll notice random iguanas throughout the rest of the park.  

Just past the iguana feeding ground is a long suspension bridge that looks incredibly scary. For people who aren't up for the challenge, there's a much more stable "chicken" bridge. My family and I faced our fears and went over the suspension bridge. I kept thinking of that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where Indy cuts the rope bridge in half. I was tempted to say "Shorty! Chau chi lan tsu tsa tsa!" to my daughter, but I knew she shouldn't get the reference.

After a little more hiking, we came to the bird sanctuary where we got to hold macaws and parrots. Trainers are there to balance the birds on your head, shoulders, and/or arms so that you and your friends can take as many pictures as you like. There's also a photographer on staff standing by to take pictures in case you didn't bring a camera yourself. The birds are pretty docile, so no worries about one going all Alfred Hitchcock on you. Although, one of the birds on my shoulder nibbled on my sunglasses, and one squawked loud enough to scare my youngest boy to tears, but no harm done. We got as much time as we wanted with the birds and then we hiked on to the monkey area.
"Take Your Daughter To Work Day"

The white faced capuchin monkeys that live in Gumbalimba Park are cute but ornery. They apparently don't really "live" in the park, they just come there to get fed by the trainers for sitting on the shoulders of tourists. They essentially "work" at the park. Kinda makes them seem even more human. They are trained to sit on the shoulders of the tourists who come into the area and usually receive a treat from their trainer for doing so. The monkeys also gently dig through the hair of tourists looking for bugs to eat. They certainly find them on occasion.

There are trainers at various points in the area who will coax a monkey into jumping onto your shoulder so that you can have your picture taken with one, but, if you just wait around long enough, one will eventually just jump onto your shoulder. As cool as interacting with a monkey is, it's not near as awwww-inspiring as seeing the female monkey walking around with her baby on her back. I had figured that  getting close to a momma monkey carrying her baby would be a huge no-no as it would cause the mother to become defensive. However, I soon saw the momma monkey on the shoulders of a tourist compete with her baby on her back. Those are some well trained monkeys.

The insect museum is probably the lamest area of the tour. They probably shouldn't end with it. I had been hoping that it would be something more like an insect preserve with actual live insect colonies. Once the tour is over, you're free to walk around the park, head back to the monkey and/or bird area, or head over to the beach, pool or mini-restaurant. I had heard that the beach was practically infested by locals hawking souvenirs, and, as we sat in the restaurant area eating, I could see a group of them waiting for the next tour group to hit the beach. We had considered going to the beach, but, by the time we were done with our tour, it was time to head back to the ship.

All in all, we had a great time at Gumbalimba park. The price was more than reasonable for the good time that we all had.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Swimming With Sharks And Rays In Belize

We ventured ashore to beautiful Belize today. In order to keep from disturbing the Belize Barrier Reef, cruise ships anchor out in the ocean rather than pulling in to port. This made the disembarking procedure a bit more involved than usual. We had to head to one of the lounges to wait to be dismissed for a ferry to take us to shore. We hadn't counted on having to wait for a ferry, so we were late for the excursion we had booked with Thankfully, our guide, Natalie, was still waiting for us when we arrived  30 minutes after our arranged time. She walked us over to a pier where we got on another boat and jetted off to Caye Caulker, one of the small islands off of mainland Belize that make up the country. We pre-ordered lunch at Fantasy Dining and then hopped back onto the boat to do some snorkeling among the coral.

This wasn't an "official" Carnival excursion. Carnival does offer a similar Shark and Ray snorkeling tour, but we had read that they pack people in shoulder to shoulder and hurry them along. For just a little bit less than the Carnival price, we booked a private tour with We figured that our young children would handle things better if they didn't have to compete with the rabble for attention.

Even though we had bought full face snorkel masks for our youngsters, we weren't sure how they would handle the experience. Thankfully, Natalie took charge and handled them. They loved every minute of it. We saw quite a few different species of fish, including some barracuda. After a quick swim around the reef, we got back on the boat and headed out to Shark Ray Alley. The youngsters, having heard the word "shark" didn't want to get into the water. The rest of us jumped right in, though. Thanks to my Samsung Galaxy S8+, I was able to take some underwater pictures of the nurse sharks and the rays that wait around for the various tour boats to chum the waters. I did have to breathe a sigh of relief whenever I saw a boat overpacked with other tourists pull up. I have to say it again: For less than the price of the Carnival endorsed excursion, we got a private tour.

 After having tons of fun among the sharks and the rays, we got back on the boat and went out to feed sardines to a group of tarpon. Tarpon are sport fish common to the area that grow to be about 6 feet long. They look a lot like herring. Each of us took a turn holding a sardine just above the surface of the water until a tarpon jumped out and took it from our hands. My daughter and her friend were suitably horrified at the prospect of holding a slimy fish while another, larger fish jumped out of the water to pluck it out of their hands. Myself, I didn't want to lose a finger, but I braved the encounter and wound up with all of my digits still intact. My boys thought the whole thing was hilarious.

Our lunch at Fantasy Dining, just off the pier was much better than I had expected. Pressed for an answer to what I wanted, I ordered chicken nachos under duress. They were really good, but my son's order of fish and chips was so much better. My wife got the snapper which she said was really good and my daughter got her usual go-to dish of chicken fajitas which she seemed to enjoy. My oldest son got a hamburger as did my daughter's friend. As good as the food was, the view is what really made lunch a fantastic experience. Eating good food, looking out at the ocean behind the palm trees. This is the life. After lunch, we spent a little time on the beach where the boys collected sea shells and coral.

To borrow a local expression, the whole day was un-BELIZE-able and we'd love to be able to do it all again.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

What To Do In Cozumel...

Margaritaville. Jimmy Buffet sang about being wasted away and searching for his salt shaker in it. I always figured it was a state of mind rather than an actual place. But, no, it's apparently an actual place. Upwards of thirty places, as it turns out (the one featured in "Jurassic World" doesn't count). Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville restaurants, owned by Buffett's Margaritaville Holdings LLC (a subsidiary of Cheeseburger Holding Company, LLC) has become a popular restaurant chain in tourist destinations all over the globe. And we had lunch at one today in Puerto Maya, Cozumel. Why eat a a chain when there are cheaper, less tacky, tastier local options? Because we have kids and kids want familiar food no matter what country they're in.

If You See Fidel, You're In The Right Place
For a tourist trap, the cruise terminals at Puerto Maya are really quite beautiful with a lot of photo ops. There are a lot of shops for you to buy cheap souvenirs and there are also restaurants that serve something closer to "authentic" local cuisine. Aside from the odd pushy kiosk vendor here and there, it's a nice place to spend some time. But, if you're a little more daring, you can find cheaper souvenirs, better booze, more authentic food and a little adventure if you simply wander outside of the terminal a little. Just across the street from the Carnival terminal is a place called Tequila Flavours. The beer is cheap, the margaritas aren't watered down, the food is good and the ambiance is nice. I sat down and shared some cips and guac with the girls. I had a few beers and they had Mexican Coca-Cola. They noticed a difference in taste from the American version right away and I explained how Coca-Cola is sweetened with cane sugar in most of the world, but sweetened with high fructose corn syrup in the United States. I don't care what John Pemberton says, I can taste the difference.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Setting Sail Again

Happy Holidays, everyone!

We're on the Carnival Dream tonight ready to head on out to a beautiful seven-day Caribbean cruise. We had so much fun last year, that we thought we should do it again. We will be visiting Cozumel, Belize and Honduras. This time, armed with the knowledge we gained from last year's experience, we're sure to have a great vacation.

New food options on the Carnival Dream this year include Guy Fieri's Burger Joint and Guy Fieri's smokehouse, the Pig and Anchor. I've promised not to do any impressions of Mr. Fieri while eating.

We've chosen to forgo the Cheers and Bottomless Bubbles packages this year. In order to come out ahead on the Cheers package, one would have to drink 10 beers or 6 mixed drinks. That's certainly possible on any day that you spend all day on the ship. However, if you get off the ship in order to check out a port, you're likely gone for at least 5 hours. That dramatically cuts down on drinking time and you'd have to be really dedicated or majorly stressed out in order to hit your target. The kids didn't make much use of the Bottomless Bubbles last year, as they were happy with the free lemonade and iced tea.

We booked two excursions in advance, one with Carnival and one with a private company.  We'll have to see which excursion provides the better bang for our bucks.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Pain Relief Scammers Call Me

A lady from some fly-by night pain relief insurance fraud scam called me. She told me that I was "eligible" for some kind of medical device. I asked her how she knew I was illegitimate. Did she know my mother? When she tried to explain, saying once again that I was "eligible"I asked her what my being unable to read had to do with my pain situation. She then switched to the word "entitled" which I took even further offence to.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

United Breast Cancer Foundation Calls Me. Again.

What sort of organization employs a call center that spoofs their CallerID and uses not one, but TWO layers pre-recorded operators in order to solicit people? The answer should be obvious, but, I'll spell it out just in case: Any organization that employs these tactics is much more interested in separating you from your hard earned money than they are in actually helping you or anyone else out. This brings me to the United Breast Cancer Foundation. I've dealt with them before, earlier this year, and they had been calling me about three times a day for the last two weeks. Usually, when I would answer, they'd just hang up. Today, however, they connected and I was met with Alice, that familiar robo-voice.

There must have been some kind of lag Alice's programming, because when I picked up the call, she didn't identify who she was calling for. She was already mid-way through her pitch when she started telling me how she hoped that the ladies could count on my support. She never mentioned the United Breast Cancer foundation. And when I asked for a representative, she put me down for a $30 donation! She forwarded me to "Jen from verification" which was another pre-programmed robo-voice! After saying "representative" over and over again, I finally got kicked over to a "manager" who was an actual living, breathing person working at a call center.

Andrea picked up the phone, and I wasn't sure that she was actually human. Through her intermittent gum-smacking, I asked her to prove to me that she was human. Andrea actually works for a call center service named "Associated Community Services" and, when I asked her how she felt to be soliciting donations on behalf of an organization that spends only 6% of the money they raise on actually helping people, etc, Andrea tried to beg off. She eventually tried to say "They are helping out as many people as they can". I couldn't abide by that bullshit. In the midst of my berating her, Andrea said that she had indeed looked up the United Breast Cancer foundation, which, if true, shows me that she's content to make money off of working for charities that are questionable at best.

And why is that? Well, one doesn't really have to wonder why Andrea feels that way, considering that she works for Associated Community Services, an organization that ran afoul of the Michigan Attorney General and had to pay a settlement after a cease-and-desist order. In 2015, three Michigan based cancer fundraising organizations erroneously portrayed themselves as charities with financial programs for cancer patients that provide pain medications, transportation and hospice care. Guess which call center they used? Associated Community Services. You might be seeing a correlation here.