Your Tax Dollars at Work

Not exactly a newsflash; just restating how the IRS wastes time and money.

I just got off the phone with the IRS. I’d called them because I needed a confirmation letter with my company name and EIN. I’d had a document like that, but it was likely among those destroyed when my wasband stored cardboard boxes of my personal and business documents, books, and software on the floor of my hangar and the hangar flooded, thus destroying everything in those boxes. If he still wonders why I threw so many of his personal items into random cardboard boxes in the garage during the 10 months I lived in our Wickenburg home last autumn/winter/spring, that should give him a clue. He should consider himself lucky that I didn’t leave those boxes outside or turn the hose on them.

Confirmation of Sin?
Searching for “confirmation of ein” results in this interesting suggestion — on the IRS website?

Anyway, I tried to get the document I needed online. I got some comic relief from the search system on the IRS website before zeroing in on a document with instructions that I thought would help.

Instructions

You can read as well as I can. The third bullet point tells me to call the Business & Specialty Tax Line at a toll-free number. So I dialed it up on my cell phone, pressed 1 when prompted to get English (really?), and then pressed 3 to tell them I needed an EIN certification letter. The machine then warned me I’d have a 30 minute wait time.

I got out my bluetooth earpiece, plugged it into my ear, and turned it on. And then I went about my business while on hold.

I waited more than 30 minutes. It didn’t really bother me because my cell phone has unlimited minutes and the music they were playing was tolerable. I did some banking and wrote a few email messages. I washed the dishes. I updated my to-do list.

58 minutes after dialing, a series of beeps and clicks told me something was happening. After a moment, a woman got on the line.

I told her what I needed. She asked me questions to confirm my identity. Then she said she’d “generate a letter” and that I’d get it “in the mail in 5 to 7 business days.”

I asked if it were possible to have the letter generated as a PDF and emailed to me. She said they didn’t have the ability to do that. That didn’t surprise me in the least. An organization that takes nearly an hour to answer a phone call isn’t one that’s likely to be too technologically savvy.

We talked briefly about my hour-long wait on a toll-free number. It didn’t cost me a dime — directly. But as a taxpayer, it cost me money. If you pay taxes in the U.S., it cost you money, too. After all, toll-free numbers might be free to people who dial them, but they’re not free to the people who answer them. I don’t know what the going rate is, but even if it’s only 5¢/minute, the IRS spent $3 to make me wait on hold. Assuming I wasn’t the only one with an hour-long wait today, that’s $3 for every call they take.

We also talked about the cost of generating that letter, stuffing it into an envelope, putting a stamp on it, and sending it to me. That’s another buck or two in materials cost and labor, no?

Of course, she doesn’t care. She’s got a job and she’d doing it. I understand that and told her I didn’t blame her in the least. I just told her I wished our government could step up into the 21st century with the rest of us.

They could do that, of course, by giving business owners access to the database. Have a front end that asks me the same questions she asked to give me the ability to generate the document onscreen or as a PDF for immediate access. The phone call wouldn’t be necessary, the wait wouldn’t be necessary. I’d have my document now instead of having to wait a week to get it.

Why do I need this particular document? Ironically, so I can upload it to a website as documentation for opening a new account. At least someone is using technology right.

Mind Boggling

One definition.

Today, while sitting at my desk in an RV parked in the middle of Central Washington State farmland, I watched a live, full-color feed from outer space on my phone of the historic docking of a privately developed commercial spacecraft to the multi-government built International Space Station. Here’s a screen capture from my phone:

Dragon Docks with ISS

I am old enough to remember when the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon. It was 1969 and I was almost 8 years old. (Aw, come on, don’t do the math.) My mother made us stay up to watch it on the family TV — a big TV console that stood on the floor and required you to get up to change the channels because there was no remote control. The picture we saw of that historic moment looked like this:

Apollo 11 First Step

Do I even need to point out that my phone has more computing power than NASA had when it launched Apollo 11?

We’ve come a long, long way.

I call that mind-boggling.

Why I Can’t Just Enjoy My New 13″ MacBook Pro

It really is a business expense.

13Last week, I finally broke down and ordered a new MacBook Pro. I’d been wanting a computer like the 13″ MacBook for a while, but what I really wanted was a Mac netbook. When Apple unveiled the 13″ MacBook Pro at the Apple Worldwide Developer’s Conference earlier this month, I finally stopped denying the truth: that there would be no Mac netbook in my immediate future. Instead, I saw the new 13″ MacBook Pro as a reward for my patience. Not only did it have more features than the MacBook I’d been looking at, but it would cost less money.

Apple also announced some new features in Snow Leopard. While I’m not prepared (because of NDA stuff) to write publicly about Snow Leopard, I am in the middle of a revision to my Mac OS Visual QuickStart Guide for Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. One of the hurdles I was facing was not being able to show and discuss features of Mac OS X that work on the new MacBooks. About two years ago, I bought a 15-inch MacBook Pro to use as my “test mule” for writing about Leopard. That computer simply doesn’t have the bells and whistles of the newer models I need to write about.

It looked as if I’d have to buy a new MacBook Pro so I could write about it for my book.

This is both good and bad:

  • Good because having to buy a new computer for work means I can deduct the cost of it from my taxes. (I use my computers for all of my various business endeavors — I don’t play games on my computers. If I’m not working, I’m out having fun somewhere or sleeping.) And let’s face it: it’s always nice to have a computer with the latest technology.
  • Bad because having to buy a new computer means having to come up with the money to pay for it. Just because I can deduct it as a business expense doesn’t mean it’s free. (So many people don’t understand this simple fact: you still have to pay for business expenses; it’s just like being able to buy them at a discount equal to your tax bracket percentage.) In this case, the final price tag came to just under $2K. Ouch.

It’s also bad because I never seem able to buy a new computer and just enjoy it like a normal person.

Believe it or not, this is my first “unboxing” video. Let’s just say it doesn’t completely suck. The weird noises you hear in the background are coming from Alex the Bird.

Most folks buy a computer, open the box, fire it up, and start exploring. I, on the other hand, buy a computer, open the box, fire it up, erase the hard disk, and install beta operating system software on it. I then get to spend several weeks exploring the minutiae of the operating system’s elements, including every single window and dialog that might appear to the average user. I take screen shots of everything I see and write about it in an unbelievable level of detail.

So right now, as I type this, I’m waiting for the Developer Preview of Snow Leopard to install on my brand new, just-out-of-the-box 13″ MacBook Pro’s freshly erased hard disk. I’ll put some sample files on it, set it down on my workspace table beside my 24-inch iMac, get them talking to each other via AirPort network, and start exploring the current topic I’m writing about, which is the Dashboard and Widgets. I’ll put my old 15-inch MacBook Pro away in its case and set it atop the Dell laptop I’ve also brought along with me this summer to revise another book for another publisher.

When I get back to Arizona, if I’m not too busy doing other things, I’ll use the discs that came with the 13″ MacBook Pro to restore it to its factory hard drive configuration. Then maybe — just maybe — I’ll put it back in the box and have a reopening, trying my best to pretend it’s brand new again.

I’m Not as Dumb as Most Cars Think

And I don’t like cars bossing me around.

This week, I had the dubious pleasure of driving a Dodge. In all honesty, I don’t know what kind of Dodge it was. It seemed to be a kind of cross between a station wagon and an SUV. The car was a rental and I didn’t rent it so I can’t complain. I do feel bad for the company that rented it for me. They got ripped off. The 6-day rental cost them nearly $400.

I will make some comments about this vehicle:

  • It is designed for short people. I’m 5 feet 8 inches tall and my eyes looked almost directly into the top frame of the windshield. Slouching while driving was required.
  • The car was a dog. That means it didn’t want to go. I spend a lot of time with my heavy foot pressing down hard, just to enter or pass on the freeway.
  • It seemed like a perfectly workable family car. Four doors, storage in back. I could imagine kids sitting in there with dirty soccer uniforms on.

Check Tire Pressure?

Check Tire Pressure

After leaving Burbank and starting my long drive to Ventura on the 101 freeway, I noticed that one of the idiot lights was on. We used to call them idiot lights because they used to warn drivers about the obvious problems with a car: overheating, low oil pressure, out of gas. But these lights have apparently graduated to the next level of reporting. Now they report about more advanced problems — or potential problems. I thought the symbol was referring to the oil, but I didn’t pull over to check. After all, I’d just picked it up at Enterprise and they should have checked the oil. Instead, I ignored it.

On the third day, I got tired of looking at it. I pulled out the manual, which was in the glove box, and looked it up. It was a tire pressure indicator. The light on meant one of two things:

  • The tire pressure in one or more tires was low
  • The tire pressure monitoring system was broken.

I walked around the car. The tires looked fine.

I spent the rest of the week ignoring the light.

Stop Nagging Me about My Seat Belt!

I wear my seat belt — at least most of the time. I don’t wear it in parking lots, especially when backing up. I also don’t wear it on the extremely rough roads I sometimes drive in my Jeep. And no, I don’t wear it while driving around town, since my speed seldom tops 45 MPH. My 2003 Honda S2000 and 1999 Jeep Wrangler both have airbags. In the unlikely event of a collision at 30 MPH, I’ll let the airbag protect me from the steering wheel. I don’t think a collision at that speed is going to throw me out of the vehicle, either. I’m more likely to get trapped in my seat when some senior T-bones me at an intersection.

I’m fortunate. Neither of my primary vehicles (or the two secondary vehicles — a 1987 Toyota MR2 and 2994 Ford F-150 Pickup) has one of those annoying seatbelt reminders. Sure, an idiot light goes on on the panel. It might even flash — I’m so good at ignoring it that I just don’t know. But it doesn’t repeatedly beep until I fasten the damn seatbelt. It gently reminds me and then allows me to make my own decision.

The Dodge this past week was a nag. It got so annoying that I fastened the seatbelt behind my back on Tuesday and left it there until I departed Ventura today.

It could be worse. It could be one of those automatic seatbelt things. My sister had a car with one of those. What a pain in the butt.

I’ll Shift When I’m Ready to Shift!

My Jeep thinks it needs to tell me when to shift gears. An idiot light comes on when I accelerate, apparently to signal me when it’s time to upshift. As if I can’t hear the engine or feel the power of the engine. As if I’d prefer watching the instrument panel for the cue than the road in front of me.

I don’t shift when it tells me to. I like to wind things out a bit. My Honda redlines at 9000 RPM — and yes, I’ve been there.

And that’s another thing: engine cutoffs. Both my Honda and my Toyota cut power if I enter redline territory. Okay, so maybe that’s not such a bad idea. It certainly keeps me on my toes when Mike and I race home from Scottsdale or Phoenix. I have better reaction time at traffic lights, but if I don’t shift before redline, the car gives him an advantage. (The fact that he’s driving an AMG doesn’t help me much, either.)

I’m Not Quite Out of Gas Yet

My Jeep also likes to beep when the fuel level gets low. That’s a good thing, since I have become an expert at ignoring idiot lights. The audible warning is a real help. Unfortunately, the Jeep’s idea of low fuel and mine are very different. The Jeep tells me I’m low when the 19 gallon tank gets down to 5 gallons. That’s not low, even for a Jeep.

My Honda uses a series of lighted bars on the digital dash to indicate fuel level. When it gets down to two bars (out of about a dozen), the low fuel light goes on. But I’ve taken it down to zero bars and have only put 11 gallons in the 13 gallon tank. At 25 miles per gallon, I still had 50 miles left.

Of course, I have completely run out of gas in my Toyota. I was on my way to work, wearing a suit and heels, and had to walk about a half mile to the nearest gas station. Then I had to beg them to loan me a container for the fuel. Sheesh. So I’m more careful now. And I use the odometer on that car to judge remaining fuel.

I almost ran out of gas in my redneck truck. (That’s the 94 Ford.) You can read about it here, if you’re curious. That vehicle doesn’t have low fuel lights. It has two fuel tanks, though, and only one fuel gauge.

And Another Thing…

What is it with driver controls these days?

My Honda has buttons near the steering wheel to control the stereo and climate control. But the main control buttons for both devices are less than 10 inches away from the steering wheel. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find it a hardship to reach 10 inches, even when I’m driving.

The car’s cockpit — and yes, it is a cockpit, with less room for the driver than my helicopter has for the pilot — has everything clustered around the driver’s side of the dashboard. And some things are clustered there twice.

At least that car doesn’t tell me when to shift gears.

SPOT Messenger: A First Look

Initial thoughts about my new flight following solution.

My friend, Jim, is an Idaho-based R44 pilot with a company very similar to mine. He’s a single pilot Part 135 tour and charter operator who sometimes operates over very remote terrain.

Of Flight Plans and Flight Following

One of the challenges we face as charter operators is last-minute route changes requested by paying passengers. For example, suppose the passenger books a flight from Scottsdale to Sedona. I’m required by the FAA to file a flight plan that indicates my route so that if we don’t turn up in Sedona, they’ll know which way we went and can [hopefully] find us. But at times — sometimes after the flight is already under way — the passenger might say something like, “Can you follow the course of the Verde River to Camp Verde?” This is not the most direct route and it’s not likely to be the one I planned. But what do I do? Say no?

[The right answer is yes, say no. That’s the answer the FAA wants to hear. But the FAA is not paying by the hour to conduct the flight. The FAA is not going to refer its friends to a friendly, accommodating pilot.]

The problem is, if I deviate from a route and something goes wrong, the search teams may not be looking for us anywhere near where we are. So they might not find us. And sure, I have an ELT (emergency locator transmitter) in my aircraft — even though it is not required by the FAA. But how well do those really work? It certainly didn’t help them find a pilot and his co-worker when they literally disappeared on a flight between Deer Valley in North Phoenix and Sedona nearly two years ago. They’re still missing.

And then there’s Steve Fossett. Or maybe I should have said, where’s Steve Fossett. They must have spent millions by now to find him and he’s still among the missing.

Airplane pilots and pilots flying in the flatlands of the midwest can request something called flight following from the flight service station (FSS). Flight following keeps you on radar so they pretty much always know where you are. The problem with helicopters is that we fly so darn low. Even if I flew up in nose bleed territory at, say, 1500 feet above ground level (AGL), the terrain in the area I fly is too mountainous to keep me on radar. I’d have to fly much higher to stay on radar. And if I’m going to be that high, I may as well fly a plane. So flight following is not a practical solution.

The True Geek’s Solution

Jim also flies in remote and often mountainous areas. And, like me, he’s a true gadget lover — someone who likes to fiddle with electronic toys. (I think he’s lusting for a POV.1 after seeing mine.) He was based in Chelan for cherry drying season and happened to see the SPOT Messenger displayed at the local Radio Shack. He went in and checked it out. Then he did more homework. Then he bought one and told me about it.

SPOT MessengerThe SPOT Satellite Messenger is a personal location device. It’s about the size of my Palm Treo and, as you can see here, bright orange so it’s easy to…well, spot.

My understanding of the unit is that it combines GPS receiver technology with satellite transmitter technology. So you turn it on and it acquires its position via GPS. You can then use one of four different features, depending on the subscription plan you choose:

  • The SPOT standard service plan, which costs $99/year, includes the following three features:
    • OK sends a text message or e-mail message to the phone numbers or e-mail addresses you specify. The message, which is customizable, tells the people on the list that you’re checking in OK and provides the GPS coordinates for your position. Those coordinates include a link that, when clicked, displays your position on Google Maps.
    • Help, is similar, but it sends a customizable help message to the people you specify. The idea here is that you need help and have no other way to contact someone who can help you.
    • 911 sends your GPS coordinates to the folks at the GEOS International Emergency Response Center, who, in turn, notify the appropriate emergency authorities. This is for real, life-threatening emergencies. The Response Center folks also contact, by phone, the two people you specify to notify them of the signal.
  • The tracking upgrade option, which costs another $49/year, includes live tracking, which, when activated, sends you GPS position every 10 minutes or so to the SPOT folks. This information is visible to anyone who has been given access to a Share page you configure with or without a password.

Jim went with both plans. When I bought mine on Monday, I did the same.

First Thoughts

I’ve been playing with SPOT on and off since Tuesday morning. In general, I like it and I think it’ll do the job I intend to use it for — flight following on those long cross-country flights.

After configuring message recipients, I started out by sending a few OK messages. Although the marketing material makes it seem as if those messages are instantaneous, they’re not. After pushing the OK button, the unit will try for up to 20 minutes to send your OK location via satellite uplink. It’ll send the message 3 times, but only one message is forwarded to the people on your list. For experimental purposes, I made myself one of those people. I had to wait longer than 20 minutes to receive one or two of the messages. To be fair, part of the reason for that could be my location at the time — flying between Wenatchee and Seattle in mountainous terrain. (I don’t think my cell phone was receiving very well.) The delay is satisfactory, once you realize that it’s not an instant communication.

For obvious reasons, I have not used Help or 911 yet. Let’s hope I never have to.

I did set up tracking. It took several tries to turn it on properly. The unit does not have a screen, so you have to rely on understanding the blinking lights to know what it’s doing — if anything. Twice I thought I was enabling tracking, but discovered that all I did was send OK messages. Once, tracking was on and in trying to turn it on, I really turned it off. In all cases, it was operator error. Evidently, you cannot turn on tracking during the 20-minute period in which an OK message is being sent. Since both features use the same button, it’s pretty easy to do one thing instead of the other if you don’t pay attention to how long you hold down the darn button.

My husband complained that the messages he received did not include the date and time. We later realized that it was because he was not viewing the message on his phone; he was viewing its summary. (My husband is text message challenged.)

Snowqualmie PassPad 6The e-mail version of the OK message is handy because of the link it includes. Click it and go right to Google Maps with the position clearly marked. Here are two examples. In the first one, we’re flying just to the east of Snowqualmie Pass over I-90. In the second one, we’re sitting on Pad 6 at Boeing Field in Seattle. These images are at two different magnifications. All GoogleMaps features work — it’s just the location put into GoogleMaps. My personal Messages page on the FindMeSpot.com Web site displays all points with the option of displaying any combination of them on Google Maps. It also enables me to download these points to a GPX or KML format file for use with a GPS receiver or GoogleEarth.

The Share page feature, which is still in beta, was not working when I first tried it. But it’s working now — and quite well! I set up a page that does not require a password so anyone could check in and see where I was when I was traveling with SPOT tracking turned on. Apparently, it only shows the past 24 hours of activity, so it you’re checking it now and there’s nothing going on, it’s because I’m not traveling with SPOT. But here’s what it looks like right now; as you can see, I spent a lot of time exploring Walla Walla, WA today:

SPOT Shared Page

A few things about this feature:

  • The lines between the points (which, for some reason, are not showing up in the screenshot) do not represent tracks. I was in a truck today and did stay on roads.
  • If the unit did not have a clear shot of the sky, the point that should have been recorded wasn’t. This wasn’t a problem today, since I had the unit sitting on the dashboard in the broiling sun — partially to see if heat would affect it. (It didn’t.)
  • Clicking a point in the list on the left side “flashes” that point in the display. You can also click other controls to get more information.
  • If you leave this page open, it will automatically update. So you can watch new points appear if you’re tracking someone. Way cool.

The URL for this feature is long and impossible to remember, so I created a custom URL using TinyURL: http://www.tinyurl.com/FindMaria. I invite you to try it for yourself.

Overall

My overall opinion is very positive. It will certainly give me peace of mind while flying in some of the remote desert locations I fly in. I think it’s worth the $150 unit cost plus annual subscriptions.

Even if something goes terribly wrong out there, I want to be found.

My next challenge: getting it to send OK messages to my Twitter account. Anyone have any ideas?

You Can’t Fix Stupid

Quote of the day.

If you follow this blog, you may have read about my Quincy Golf Course RV Park Internet woes. I thought I had them licked before I went away to Pateros on June 26, but when I returned on July 7, it was down again.

Recap

Let me review the situation:

  • The Internet people put an antenna on the roof of the Golf Course Pro Shop building.
  • The antenna points to another antenna about a half mile away to pick up an Internet signal.
  • The Internet people put a WiFi router in the Pro Shop and connected it to the antenna.
  • The WiFi setup operates at normal WiFi frequencies.
  • The Pro Shop has a Toro irrigation system which uses an antenna on the building to turn various sprinklers on or off based on a computer schedule and manual inputs on a radio.
  • The Toro system operates on a completely different frequency in a different range.
  • The irrigation guy is convinced that the Internet system conflicts with the irrigation system.
  • The Internet people moved the antenna and ran extensive tests with the irrigation guy to assure that his system continued to work. There was no conflict at that time or any other time that the Internet people were here.

That’s where things were on June 26 when I left town for 10 days. When I got back, the Internet was disconnected and the router was missing — although all the other equipment was in place and even powered up.

Evidently, while I was gone, the irrigation system failed again. Coincidentally, there was also a power failure here — I know this because my microwave’s clock was reset. But the irrigation guy — who I think I’m going to rechristen the irritation guy — is certain that the failure is due to the Internet setup. And now he’s convinced management.

So they won’t let me reconnect the system.

So I don’t have full-time Internet anymore. Again.

And I’m out the $70 I paid for two months of Internet service.

And I’m working on a book for a software product that attempts to connect to the Internet every third time I click a button or choose a menu command.

Stupid is as Stupid Does

I’ve spoken to numerous people about this situation. People who know more about the technical aspects of wireless operations than I ever will. All have agreed that there should not be a conflict.

I talked directly to Toro technical support. They told me there should not be a conflict.

During the troubleshooting process, I disconnected the entire Internet system and asked the irritation guy to test it. He claimed it wouldn’t work. When I pointed out that nothing was connected, he admitted that his radio transmitter battery was low and that could have caused the problem.

Every single time the Internet people were here to test the system with the irritation guy, the irrigation system worked flawlessly.

Yet the first time it doesn’t work properly, the irritation guy blames the Internet and disconnects part of the system. He gets it to work and assumes that the problem is the Internet — not whatever else he did to get it to work.

When I recited these details to my editor, Megg, she gave me a quote from her husband: “You can’t fix stupid.” I had to write it down. It fits this situation perfectly.

Stupid is not a word I use lightly. I prefer the word ignorant, which has a very different meaning. Ignorant means uninformed. Or, more specifically, from the New Oxford American Dictionary in the Dictionary application in Mac OS X:

lacking knowledge or awareness in general; uneducated or unsophisticated

I wanted to think that the irritation guy was just ignorant. He’s not technically savvy. Heck, he had to have his daughter come out and help him disconnect an Ethernet cable from a computer! All he knows about the irrigation computer is what the setup guy told him. He doesn’t touch it without assistance from the local support person. So, obviously he’s not informed about how computers work.

But when several people go through the exercise of testing the system with him to prove that it works and multiple people explain that the two systems are on different frequency ranges so there shouldn’t be any conflict and he still refuses to believe, I have to start applying the stupid label to him.

And you can’t fix stupid.

TV-B-Gone

A practical joke that may do more good than harm.

I should start out by saying that I’m not a big fan of television. It is the pacifier of the masses. Got a bunch of people liable to complain about a long wait? Put on a TV with something mildly entertaining on it and they’ll sit quietly, hypnotized by the images on the screen. Even if the sound is off! That’s why we see televisions in so many places we’re required to wait, from airport gate areas to doctors’ waiting rooms to restaurants.

My Relationship with the Boob Tube

Keep in mind that I grew up with television. We had one in each bedroom and in the kitchen. We weren’t wealthy people — most of those televisions were black and white — but we were thoroughly hooked into TV. We watched the Today show every morning at breakfast before school and game shows at dinner. I clearly remember seeing first-run episodes of I Dream of Jeannie and Gilligan’s Island. (We weren’t allowed to watch Laugh In — that was for adults.) Every Saturday morning, we were glued to the family TV watching cartoons like Scooby Doo. I remember the birth of Sesame Street and other kids shows like Electric Company. I was introduced to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood at a neighbor’s house.

I was fifteen when we moved from New Jersey to Long Island, NY, and I got my own room for the first time in my life. Although my sister got a TV almost right away, I didn’t. I got a stereo instead. I got tuned into rock — the real stuff that’s probably considered “classic” now. I clearly remember sitting in my bean bag chair — this was the 70s, you know — near my stereo reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy while a Connecticut-based rock station introduced me to Yes with a 45-minute commercial free segment of Yes music.

I didn’t need a television. With books and good music, I could cook up my own fantasy world right in my head.

I got my own television — a 12″ black and white — right after graduating from college and moving into my first apartment. I was 20.

I got my first color television — a 20-inch Sony — as a Christmas gift when I was in my 30s.

My husband and I now have a 36-inch JVC we bought about five years ago, just before flat screens caught on. At the time, it was the largest television you could buy that wasn’t a projection TV. We bought it to better see the letterbox movies we occasionally rented or watched on various movie channels.

To this day, I’d rather sit in a comfortable chair with a good book than watch the crap that’s on TV. Better yet, I’d rather go out and do something — fly, work in the garden, take a hike, ride a bike, go for a drive, or hang out with friends — than watch TV.

There are exceptions, of course. I really love Jon Stewart on The Daily Show: a dose of reality wrapped in a package of laughter. The Colbert Report is a bit over the top sometimes, but usually worth sitting through. Boston Legal is my favorite fictional show — outrageously funny while clearly making social statements about current events. Other than that, I like informative shows on the Discovery, Science, and History channels, as well as PBS. Shows that can teach me something interesting or make me think.

I watch all television via DVR. For those of you not familiar with the concept — my mom wasn’t — DVR stands for digital video recorder. (TiVo is a DVR device.) It’s build into our satellite TV box and makes it very easy to record the television shows you want to watch. Once recorded, the shows sit on a hard disk and can be easily accessed and watched any time you like — even if the DVR is recording something else. But best of all is the 30-second fast forward button, which makes it easy to skip the commercials.

My TV Problem

I do have a problem, however. If you put me in a room that has a television on and it’s within view, I will get sucked into it. It with grab and hold my attention, turning me into just another one of the TV watching zombies around me.

You know what I mean. You’ve been to restaurants or waiting areas where there’s a TV on. If you’re facing it, you’re watching it. It’s as simple as that.

How can you help it? All those pretty colors flashing about. News channel screen titles and scrolling news tickers grab your attention even with the sound off. You see the pictures, you read the text. Why are the police following that white Blazer? What’s with the yellow tape around that wooded area? Why are they taking that man away in handcuffs? Who’s the guy with [fill-in-the-blank famous celebrity]?

In my case, even if I don’t care about what’s on the screen, I’m still sucked into it. The only solution is to sit with my back to it. But then the person I’m with might be facing it and I can clearly see him or her being sucked in. This makes normal social interaction — like conversation — difficult. It’s as if your party of two or three has just been joined by an invited guest who is demanding the attention of the people in your party.

Think I’m kidding? Exaggerating? The next time you’re in a restaurant or airport gate lounge or other place with a TV on, watch the people around it. How many of them are staring at the image like zombies? How many of them are preferring the onscreen image to conversation with their companion(s)? I’m willing to bet it’s more than 50%.

The universal pacifier.

Enter TV-B-Gone®

I read about TV-B-Gone in Make magazine. It was presented there as a project, but for those of us not comfortable with a soldering iron and circuit board, it was also available for sale.

TV-B-Gone is a universal remote control with just one button: an On/Off button. With it, you can turn virtually any television off (or on).

According to Mitch Altman, inventor of TV-B-Gone:

You can use TV-B-Gone® to control access to television for philosophical or practical reasons, or simply to have fun!

Mr. Altman echos my sentiments about television on the Responsible TV Watching page of his Web site:

How much of the TV that you watch do you really like a lot? If you could choose whatever it is that you’d like to be doing right now, anything at all, what would it be? Was your answer, “Watch TV!”? Whatever your answer was, my wish for you is that you have time in your life to do it. Please make time in your life for what you really like. Better yet, please make time to do what you love. Wouldn’t that be great? Don’t know what you love? Try out a few things, see what happens.

Me, my life got so much better from watching TV less. As a result, I had enough time to invent TV-B-Gone®! My idea was to give others a similar chance – so I created a fun way to get the message out there that turning a TV on or off really is a choice. Anywhere, anytime. Please, go out there and choose.

If you do visit the Responsible TV Watching page, please be sure to check out the links at the bottom of the page. If you’re an avid TV watcher, they may open your eyes to many alternatives.

Anyway, when I read about TV-B-Gone, I had to have one. So I coughed up the $20 plus shipping and bought one.

TV-B-GoneIt looks like the keychain you might have with your car. You know, the kind with buttons to lock and unlock the door and open the trunk. There’s just one button on it and, when you press it once, a flashing red light inside that lets you know its working. Pressing the button twice activates it in stealth mode so the red light doesn’t flash.

You use it by pointing it at the TV and pressing the button. The TV-B-Gone then takes up to 69 seconds to run through all the codes commonly used by television manufacturers to toggle the power. When it gets to the code that activates the TV you’re pointing to, the power goes off (if it was on) or on (if it was off). Pretty simple, no?

Of course, there are some limitations. It won’t work with every television. You have to be line-of-sight with the TV’s remote control receptor thingie. There’s a distance limitation; closer is better. But overall, it’s an effective device for playing practical jokes.

TV-B-Gone in Action!

I took my TV-B-Gone with me on my recent trip to Florida. I wanted to test it out in a variety of settings.

I had no success with the televisions in the gate waiting areas at Houston Airport (IAH). I think it’s because I was too far away. In today’s paranoid world, I didn’t want to be obvious because I didn’t want TSA to come down on me for using a suspicious device. (Perhaps I’m more paranoid than they are?)

I did manage to turn off the TV in the waiting area just before I boarded the plane. It was interesting to see the faces of the people who had been watching it. They went from blank stares to confused stares. Nobody said a word.

A few days later, while having lunch with my parents at a St. Augustine restaurant, I got real satisfaction. We were seated at the counter of the rather small restaurant. There were four — count ’em! — televisions within sight of my seat. One was tuned to some sport channel that appeared to have some kind of log-cutting competition. Another was tuned to CNN. A third was tuned to something else — I couldn’t see it clearly because of the way my seat was angled. And the fourth, a small TV close to the first, was turned off.

I should mention here that no one was watching the two TVs closest to me (log-cutting and CNN). Well, no one other than us, trying to figure out why anyone would compete in a competition that used chainsaws to cut through logs.

I whipped out my TV-B-Gone. A moment later, CNN was turned off. I aimed it at the log-cutting competition. The TV next to it went on. It was apparently some kind of security monitor because it showed images from various locations around the restaurant. In trying again to turn off the log-cutting TV, I turned the security TV back off. That’s when I realized that I probably didn’t have a straight shot to the log-cutting TV.

We continued waiting for our lunch. They were taking their blessed time about it. In all fairness, they were kind of busy.

One of the guys who worked there noticed that the CNN TV was off. He picked up a remote and tried to turn it on. Wrong remote. He tried with another. The TV came back on.

I waited a few minutes and turned it off again.

We’d just gotten our food when the same guy came back and noticed the TV was off again. I clearly heard him say to himself, “What is it with this TV?” He went through the same sequence of trying to turn it on with the wrong remote and then turning it on with the right one. It was tough to keep a straight face. I was seated at the end of the counter and the guy was less than 4 feet from me.

I turned it off again just before we left.

Later, the same day, at Houston Airport, I happened to walk though an area of terminal E that used about 50 televisions to create a display of moving colored lights 15-20 feet over the walkway. How unbelievably wasteful! I activated my TV-B-Gone as I was walking and managed to shut off four of them at once. Later, when I had to walk though the same area because of a gate change, I killed another four on the other side.

Is This a Cruel Joke?

When I bragged in Twitter about turning off the 8 televisions at IAH, @Miraz sent me an @reply message:

Doesn’t turning off TVs annoy the folks watching them? I’d be pretty peeved.

Well, in the case of the 8 TVs with moving colors, I don’t think anyone missed them. They might still be off for all I know.

And my observation of the people in the gate area a few days before didn’t reveal any anger. I think it’s because they weren’t really watching what was on. They were looking at it. Sucked in because there was nothing more interesting (to them) to look at. Or because they have the same TV problem I have.

It’s actually interesting to watch the reactions. It proves, in a way, that they don’t need the television on in front of them. Maybe when the TV goes off, they’ll actually engage in conversation with the people they’re with. Wouldn’t that be special.

But I wouldn’t try my TV-B-Gone in a sports bar. You know the kind of place. They have a bunch of TVs showing whatever real sporting events are on. (I’m not talking about log-cutting here.) Guys are drinking beer and watching the game. They’re shouting at the TV about the plays and the calls. They’re absorbed in what’s going on in front of them.

Get caught turning off one of those TVs, and you’re likely to get a black eye.

And I wouldn’t turn off a TV displaying breaking news about something that really mattered. Or the TV in a doctor’s office if it were displaying content that was keeping kids quiet.

You have to be responsible with your practical jokes.

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