Archive for October, 2006

I Shop the List (and Nothing but the List)

This weekend, I went to the grocery store. As usual, my wife supplied me with a list of items to be purchased, but I was dismayed to find that it contained entries such as “frozen dinners (2-3)” and “cantaloupe.” The selection of such items requires the exercise of independent judgment, and in the context of a grocery store, this is simply beyond my powers.

It is easy to buy “15 oz bag of Herr’s Ripples potato chips (red bag).” One need only navigate to the aisle implied by the product description (in our supermarket, this would be the enticingly named “Snack Time” aisle), locate the shelves housing the appropriate family of products (i.e., potato chips), and then compare the characteristics of the products on the shelf with the characteristics of the target product until a suitable match has been found.

It is somewhat more challenging but still manageable to purchase “Pepsi.” When you aim to purchase “Pepsi,” the only thing up for grabs is the packaging. Whether you select a 2 liter, a 12-pack of cans, or a 6-pack of bottles, it’s all the same stuff inside. This is not to pooh-pooh the significant consequences that attend different packaging configurations (e.g., economics, portability, convenience, and prestige), but it is usually within my abilities to sort such matters out and make an appropriate selection.

What am I supposed to do when confronted with “cantaloupe”? The naive consumer might try to draw an analogy to the earlier packaging example, but there is much more at play here. While the size / shape of the cantaloupe corresponds roughly to its “packaging,” the internals of different cantaloupes matter greatly and gravely. There are issues of ripeness, firmness, fragrance, juiciness, and bruising to be considered here. Moreover, the opacity of the cantaloupe’s skin makes it decidedly difficult to discern the nature of what lies beneath. It is widely reported that some people possess the ability to shake, sniff and fondle cantaloupes in order to assess their merits. This is mysterious augury, and perhaps fodder for witch trials, but it exceeds my meager talents. In the past, I have tried to play at similar behaviors by gouging the fruits of the earth with my thumbs and nodding knowingly as their innards squirted into the air, but I was merely a pretender – a serial melon mangler in shopper’s clothing. Even if I knew what was underneath the skin, I would still be at a loss to say whether a given cantaloupe was suitably ripe, unsuitably stinky, appropriately juicy, or actually a grapefruit that had fallen errantly into the cantaloupe bin.

These difficulties are only compounded with the entrance of “frozen dinners (2-3)” onto the scene. You can imagine my chagrin. A dizzying array of products gathers beneath this heading, and yet the boundaries of the class remain ill-defined. Does a loaf of frozen garlic bread count as a frozen dinner? What about a bag of frozen peas? I would say yes on both counts, but my wife subscribes to different taxonomies, and hers constitute the bounds of reality for the purposes of this exercise. Even if we were to assume agreement on the class membership issue, I would still be at a loss as to which set of frozen dinners to select. Are these for me? If so, no problem — grab the first three Hungry Man boxes off the top of the pile and head for the checkout counter. If these are for my wife, however, I must take into account such issues as quality, taste, variety, and the present contents of our freezer. As someone who prefers the TV dinner versions of most entrees to their restaurant counterparts, eats the same soup for lunch every day, and scorns the refrigerator for the convenience of whatever happens to be sitting on the counter already (mmmmm . . . onion salt), I am ill-prepared to make such determinations.

I spend the better part of my days working in a software development organization, and I can tell you that computers are excellent, highly productive workers, assuming that they have been given maddeningly detailed instructions. They will execute such instructions with great speed and fidelity, but they get into a lot of trouble when they are asked to act in the absence of precise, unambiguous specifications. So it is with husbands in the grocery store, or at least this husband. I shop the list — the unadorned, unadulterated, unmitigated, and unambiguous list. When I pass through those automatic sliding doors, I lose all capacity for inspiration and interpretation. Do not ask me to buy “frozen dinners (2-3)” – neither of us will be satisfied with my selections. When I am in hunter-gatherer mode, “something tasty for when the Andersons come over” is no more instructive to me than “a tall building with lots of windows” is to a construction company. To get anything done, I need blueprints that leave nothing to the imagination. When I shop, I shop the list, the whole list, and nothing but the list. So help me God. All items on the list must be described down to their finest details. I recognize that some products, such as the dreaded cantaloupe, do not admit of such descriptions, and submit that a cantaloupe (or any equivalent piece of produce) will never be so direly needed that it can’t wait until someone else goes shopping.

Hey Meteorologists – Nobody Cares!

When I want to know the weather, just the basics will suffice. I usually want to hear about temperature and precipitation, and, depending on my plans, sometimes it’s nice to be aware of humidity and wind as well. My ideal weather report sounds something like “High of 82,” with the terseness implying no rain, no freaky gales, and no toads falling from the sky.

Over the past several years, I have noticed an irksome shift in the way weather is reported on my local news. Weather broadcasters in my area are recently apt to provide way too much information. A thunderstorm is no longer just a thunderstorm – it comes with a lengthy “Behind the Music” back-story about cold air masses from Canada running into warm air masses heated by the Gulf Stream. My binary “bring a jacket?” decisions are prolonged by discussions of negative advection, squall lines, and geostrophic winds. When I am trying to head out the door, I have to wait longer than necessary so that a man in an overcoat can soliloquize about the various influences of El Nino. Simple, relevant information about my environment is continually wrapped in baggage that is not useful to me.

When I go to the dry cleaner, he doesn’t regale me with tales of how he chose to get the spots out of my tie with DF-2000 instead of perchloroethylene. He just gives me what I want – clean clothes. In fact, one of the main reasons we go to service providers is so that we don’t have to know about or think about how they do their work. All we really want is the end product, and rarely do we care to receive an education in how the product is achieved, except insofar as we can make process choices that result in meaningful consequences to us (e.g., if I microwave your fries, you’ll get them fast and soggy, whereas if I put them in the oven, they’ll be deliciously crispy in about twenty minutes).

I generally don’t care why it rained, got cold, got warm, got whatever on a particular occasion. The etiology of a certain snowstorm is of little interest to me. I appreciate it when weather people explain patterns and principles in a way that allows me to make educated guesses about the likelihood of interesting phenomena (e.g., I like to know that a warm front coming into a snow-covered area has a decent chance of producing fog), but I don’t need to hear about the specific pressure differential that stalled some front and thereby prolonged a heat wave. I just want to know how hot things will get and how long they’ll be that way.

I suspect that these pedantic on-air discussions of the rites of weathercraft are a symptom of the meteorologist vs weatherman (ahem, weatherperson) distinction. At some point, one broadcast team in my area decided that it would be a real coup to point out that their folks were all bona fide meteorologists (cue heavenly anthem) instead of just a bunch of screen readers with good hair. Other stations quickly followed suit, and people who had been doing a fine job for fifteen years suddenly discovered that they were mere weatherpeople who had to go back to school for a meteorology degree toot sweet. Yet, since academic meteorological expertise is barely relevant to what is required by a weather segment on the news (i.e., stand there smiling and tell people what the weather is going to be like), stations felt compelled to justify the benefits of their “Improved! Now with Meteorology!” marketing campaigns by having their broadcasters stand in front of a map and explain the weather like college professors. You might as well have the anchors explain how the newsroom crew identified and produced the stories being covered that evening.

Average people tune in to the weather because it affects them, but only certain facts about the weather are really relevant to their lives. They want to know how to dress their kids and how to plan their week. They care about general claims with predictive value (e.g., this will probably be a busy hurricane season), but don’t care about explanations and descriptions of weather phenomena that don’t increase their ability to cope with the world. Weather people have confused their content with the rest of the broadcast, since the situation is very different with other news segments. People care about the who / what / where / when / why of news stories because people are innately interested in the dramas experienced by others. Beyond the bare fact of a sporting victory, people want to hear about the blood, sweat, tears, laughs, luck, and struggle that went into the victory, because every sporting contest is ultimately a human drama. People want to know why a crime was committed because it helps them to gauge their environment and understand the people with whom they share the world, but people don’t care why a particular thunderstorm came about, because thunderstorms are long on flash and spectacle and short on charisma.

So, I humbly ask meteorologists the world over, or at least those in my media market, to skip the details of how Hurricane Such-and-such was abused in the Carribean, and just give me what I need from the news – temperature, precipitation, and whatever else might significantly affect my day. Other details can be interesting, but I’ll seek those out when I am good and ready. Usually, I’m just trying to get out the door.