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Frank J. Yacenda, a life-long writer, has been a journalist, editor, publisher, a science writer, a diplomat, and a public relations practitioner. See more about him here.

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Author: Frank Yacenda

Read My Novel and Vote for It!

Read My Novel and Vote for It!

Time for a little cross-fertilization. As you probably know, I have a fiction blog called Stoned Cherry. I’m not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse, but I just can’t do one thing, so my writing crosses both non-fiction lines (here) and fiction ones (there).

Well, here’s your big chance to read my novel, Don’t Try Any of This, and comment and vote for it. Just click on the image immediately above, and it will take you to Inkitt where you can be among the first to read the full novel. Your vote actually counts and helps let other readers know that you think the book is worth reading.

Inkitt is a new kind of publisher. It lets writers post their stories and books and lets readers decide which ones have enough merit to be considered for publication. It also periodically runs contests and the best received books and stories rise to the top in the contest ratings.

Why would you want to read the book? Well, if human drama, wry humor, enticing dialogue, the colorful journey and off-beat challenges a teenage girl faces as she moves through such exotic places as Paris. Thailand, Amsterdam, South Africa, and Lake Como, and (if I can say so) some damned good writing and storytelling appeals to you, go read the book now.

So even if you’re already a big fan of the novel, be sure to go to Inkitt, read the book (or as many chapters as you can or want), post a comment, and vote for it. Reading it on Stoned Cherry won’t have any effect. You need to do it on Inkitt (and did I mention to comment and vote for it? I did? Good. Do it!)

And thank you!

‘Tis the Season

‘Tis the Season

Indeed, ’tis the season to find a deal on a new car. Even I’m sniffing around to see what I might find to sate my very limited preferences to replace, or at least supplement, my current ride, the Ford Windstar I’ve had for 14 years (and which is actually 21 years young), is pushing 250,000 miles/400,000 kms, and stubbornly refuses to die.

In these parts, the commercials run on local TV are mostly for car dealers, tort lawyers, back surgeons, furniture vendors, and, of course, drogas. There is hardly a station break (of which there are lots and lots) without at least one car ad.

It’s interesting observing the different kinds of buyers each marque is aiming for through its TV advertising. For instance, Chrysler-Fiat and Nissan appear pitted in a competition to see which can appeal more to the remaining muscle-car drivers out there. You know, the kind of drivers who get their thrills driving through walls and burning rubber on the open road in a quest to see who can be first to the finish line somewhere out on the salt flats, or accumulate the maximum number of speeding tickets. Meanwhile, Chevy mostly makes use of supposed buyers in its ads, revealing in those chosen to appear the low opinion in which GM must hold its customers. Lately, though, in the spirit of the season, Chevrolet has been running its employee-discount commercials, and based on those apparently Chevy employees are vastly more intelligent and appealing than Chevy buyers. For its part, Ford also makes use of prospective buyers in its commercials but, based on the ads, Ford buyers are a great deal smarter and more likable than Chevy buyers.

Kids, you may have noticed, figure in a disproportionate number of car ads. Car manufacturers and their advertising proxies have calculated that kids help sell cars to families, and a little child exploitation is worth the bump in sales. This trend is all the more apparent in this festive holiday car-selling season.

I’m not sure to what kind of people Honda is appealing with its advertising, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to meet them. Hyundai, on the other hand, mixes music and humor to appeal to buyers’ lighter side. Upscale Lexus, though, both in its advertising and design philosophy, seems intent on appealing to buyers who like cars so aggressively ugly it would not be unfair to characterize them as the Darth Vaders of the automotive world. Meanwhile, Kia takes on Lexus directly in its Sorento commercials, belittling the Lexus driver for not realizing he was being out-flanked by the supposedly off-road competent Kia Sorento.

Taking a different tack, Lexus competitor Infiniti focuses on the kind of nice people having fun with its cars that it’s hoping to attract, while Acura, word in the industry has it, is focusing more on mobile advertising, with a barrage of vertical images and music by Kid Ink, aimed at a younger yet upscale audience.

Among European manufacturers, Volkswagen is out there slugging, its commercials aimed at mostly younger buyers, maybe folks out buying their first new car, and looking it. At the other end of the spectrum is Mercedes-Benz, which futilely attempts to convince us that kids (speaking of unbridled child exploitation) fantasize about owning a Daimler when they grow up. I recall my childhood car cravings, and Mercedes never once figured into them, the marque more associated in my mind with stodgy old people, crooked lawyers, and wearers of mink coats. Not the kind of car most kids would aspire to driving. But at least the current breed of Mercedes commercials, unlike an earlier iteration, don’t feature cars sliding sideways and crashing through plate glass windows, apparently careering into young children dreaming of Mercedeses inside those windows.

In fact, for awhile it seemed that the only direction most cars in automotive advertising went was sideways. That unfortunate trend seems, happily, to be reaching an end, or at least tapering down. But now the latest thing is to show how a car stops by itself, or comes veering back into its lane after nearly sideswiping a passing vehicle. Or, clever trick, parallel-parks itself, positively impressing lovers and prospective relatives. Drivers, passengers, and passers-by all seem incredulous at these amazing feats of the semi-self-driving cars. Of course, one would not be faulted for wondering what drivers would have done had the car not stopped itself or corrected course. Would they have just allowed the car to plow ahead into whatever caused it to stop itself, or maybe paid a bit more attention before drifting out of a lane? Or, gasp, perhaps going to the trouble to learn how to parallel-park? Increasingly, possession of those skills seems to be too much to hope for in late 2017 on the cusp of 2018. My guess is that all these car tricks can only encourage more distracted driving, leading careless drivers to believe they can get away with texting or yakking away on the phone while behind the wheel.

Indicative of how things are going, Volvo, the Swedish car maker now owned by the Chinese after its sale by Ford, previously always focused on the safety features of its cars in its advertising. Now it looks, based on recent Volvo advertising, that the car’s self-driving features can compensate for brainless drivers who find it bothersome to pay even modest attention to their driving. And then there are the other Volvo commercials showing cars just driving in ordinary ways on ordinary roads, with the warning in small type at the bottom of the screen admonishing, “Professional driver on closed course. Do not attempt.”

And I guess that’s where we’re headed out on the road. If you don’t have a car that does everything for you, don’t attempt to drive. Or if you’re one of those drivers who actually are in control of their vehicle, maybe you shouldn’t attempt to drive, either, given all those other idiots out there whose cars have taken over for them.

Come to think of it, judging by some of the driving I see regularly, maybe it’s better to just stay home and watch car commercials, and let the admen and adwomen do the driving for you.

Happy New Year, everyone!

The View From the Shoulder

The View From the Shoulder

To point out the obvious, I survived the surgery that was the subject of my last posting, and have been in a process of slow recovery over the past three and a half weeks. The surgery – a quintuple cardiac bypass, which I didn’t even know was a thing – went well, and I’m told my recovery has been as good as could be expected. I’m grateful to my surgeon and all the others who were involved in getting me through this, as insane as it all seems to me.

Where I’m at now is a world of difference from where I was in the first few days after the surgery. There are still lots of inconveniences and things that are not yet back to normal, but at least I’m past the excruciating pain and weakness that characterized those initial days. At that time I had to wonder why I ever put myself through such mutilation and torture, and still I can’t imagine ever going through anything like that again. I had a pretty clear sense throughout the whole ordeal that I could return to normal functioning and an active life, but I realized that if all I had to look forward to was permanent disability and struggle, as others I saw around me, I’d have a pretty hard time justifying it. Even today, as far as I’ve come, I had to wonder how the mechanisms that are my heart and body could sustain all this and keep on functioning. This is a mystery I may never unravel.

In case you’re wondering about the title for this posting, as much as I’m now ambulatory and functioning at a relative level of normalcy, I still feel I’m sitting on the shoulder of the road. Other than emails and shopping lists and questions for my doctors and a couple of business-related items, this is the first piece of any sort of coherency and even marginal creativity I’ve been able to write in 26 days. And it’s admittedly pretty thin. I’m hoping in the next several days I’ll be able to write more, and then more, and I can resume more regular posting to these blogs, but I’ve found that gathering mental energy is virtually as hard as gathering physical energy. And having anything worth saying is yet a step beyond that.

Four days past the surgery I attempted to get online, and was met with the shocking reality that I had forgotten all my passwords. I still couldn’t muster the strength to have someone fetch my laptop from its bag or to hold it on me, and trying to do things on my phone reinforced the feeling of insanity of doing anything serious on a phone, even when in normal health. I had that sense before the surgery, and that disconcerting experience only confirmed it. Two days later, when I finally did get onto my laptop, I was astounded at the number of typing mistakes I made. It was like my fingers were not in direct contact with my brain and they took on twitches and strokes that defied my best attempts to control them. Not quite as disjointed as the time I tried to work on a Turkish keyboard, but close. I’m told that anesthesia can really scramble both brain and body cells, and so I’m chalking these aberrations up to that. I’m doing a lot better now with typing and other fine motor skills, and the files on my laptop helped me recover my passwords, but the process has been a continuum.

Other bodily functions – notably an astoundingly annoying throat irritation and coughing, and problems with peeing – have slowly been recovering, and while not back to what I’d characterize as normal, are hugely better than they were in the early days.

I had five and part of a sixth day in the hospital following the surgery, and then four and part of a fifth day in a rehab center, located on the same complex as the hospital, after that. At that point I got the boot, and two wonderful friends and fellow boat people came to fetch me, assist with getting food and medications, and establish me back aboard my boat, which is my home. I don’t know what I would have done without them, and I’ll be forever grateful to them. It’s two weeks today that I’ve been back aboard, and I think returning here was the best alternative. This past Tuesday my surgeon, with some persuasion, gave me back my driving privileges, and that made a huge difference in my life. And two days ago my primary physician told me I’m very impatient. I told her I know I’m a pain in the ass, but I wasn’t challenging her expertise. That’s just me. And she laughed.

I’m going to have lots more to say about the medical and healthcare situation in this country in coming weeks and months here on FJY.US and I may have some fictional things to say about it on Stoned Cherry. I’m fortunate in that I have access to Medicare and private insurance, and that made a huge difference. It shocks some people, but I really have nothing negative to say about my insurance company. And I have lots of praise for the doctors, nurses, aides (known, it appears, as Patient Care Technicians in some circles these days), therapists, and all the others who assisted and supported me through all this. That said, when there were rare failures they were pretty notable, and one thing I came to discover is that it usually is the little things, the small details, that can have the biggest impact on a patient and the patient’s experience. I’ll have more to say on this, too.

I really feel bad for writing all this self-centered drivel, but I felt some explanation of where I’ve been for the past weeks was in order, a kind of transition from the breakdown on the shoulder I went through to getting back into the traffic pattern. I’ve seen the moon and the sun since my last posting, and so day-by-day it’s time to get on with life. I promise, barring any unforeseen circumstances, this will be the last posting focusing on this whole thing, and I now can say, enough of these adventures.

I’ll be pulling off the shoulder pretty soon, so watch this space for what’s to come.

Watching the Moon Rise

Watching the Moon Rise

“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”

— Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

That quote always stood out to me because, when you think about it, it’s so true in its own terrible precision.

I don’t mean to be depressive or to read more into Bowles’s words than what is there. It’s just that tomorrow, Wednesday in this part of the world, I’m scheduled for major surgery. As unenthusiastic as I am about it, I’m doing my best to remain positive about it, especially considering how unattractive the alternative is. And helping me move forward toward what seems inescapable at this point, I’ve lost count of the sets of encouraging words I’ve received from friends, family, clients, and acquaintances, which I do appreciate.

It is, nonetheless, the kind of thing that makes you feel your own mortality.

If I fall a bit behind on posting to this blog, now you know why that might be. Please catch up on reading back posts and the things I’ve posted up top until I am able to post something fresh. Let me and everyone know how you feel about whatever it is you feel about. And as uncomfortable as it might be, consider the finiteness of your own life. It helps put things in perspective.

Stop the Madness

Stop the Madness

I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon, since I’m not, really, but there are some things that just need to be said about how things clearly are headed in this technological world we inhabit.

News of interactive appliances, self-driving cars, bots and algorithms that determine what gets fed to us over the Internet has gotten to be pretty much old hat. Those things would be enough to give us pause, but no, nothing is about to stop there, it seems.

It’s bad enough that we have to fear our washing machine or refrigerator turning us in for some transgression, or feeding our habits to an advertising program that will just try to sell us more stuff we probably don’t need. And if I can’t open the door of the fridge to see how much milk or eggs or cream cheese is left, someone really needs to put me out of my misery, and soon. But things have already reached that stage.

There is a way of looking at things that seems to have gotten lost in the quest to come up with the next technological advance. It’s pretty simple, really: Just because it’s possible to do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do it. That’s where we’re at, maybe already well past it, and the lesson seems to be lost on those who are planning our “brave” new world of technological wonders. It’s time to stop the madness, though I’m not encouraged by what I see and hear about almost on a daily basis now.

Take cars, for example. Now there’s a subject. Some of us actually don’t want our car making decisions for us. Cars that stop on their own, keep us from wandering into the next lane, open and close their own doors, and which park themselves already go further than some of us, those who were taught to drive properly and enjoy being in charge of the process of guiding a machine down the road, want. Now we’re looking at cars, and even trucks, that drive themselves. They’re already out there, sharing the roads with us. But apparently that is not enough for those who think up these things. The next step – I am not making this up – are cars that will carry on a conversation with us while they drive us around.

Am I some sort of raving radical when I say I don’t really want to have a conversation with my car? I don’t even like riding in taxis since I’d rather not converse with the driver. How much less will I want to speak with a machine? Just guessing here, but I’d say a lot. A really lot. A lot a lot. What could my car even have to say that would interest me? At least with cab drivers I can learn about other cultures and the kinds of things that brought them here. I really don’t need to hear from my car how things were in Korea or Mexico or Canada or wherever before they came here, or how they’re running hot and they just don’t feel up to par these days. And suppose their hearing or grasp of the language isn’t so good? One can only imagine the misunderstandings that might ensue.

Now we’re hearing about pills that send out little signals so that our doctors can spy on us and see whether we’re taking the bloody things as they’ve instructed. I can’t get my doctors on the phone or even send them an email, but now they’re going to be listening in on what’s going on inside my stomach? Sorry, I don’t think so. The manufacturers of these spybot pills say they’re perfectly safe. Well, I’m less concerned about that then I am about what other purposes they might be put to, like programming our refrigerators not to let us touch the bacon or the ice cream that dwells within them. Or someone hacking into those interactive pills to find out more about us, things our insurance company or Russian scammers might want to know.

We’ve become so hungry to consume that having packages delivered to our doorstep isn’t enough anymore. Now Amazon is offering “in home” delivery – literally, their delivery people will come inside our home to drop off our latest gizmo. But do I want strangers coming into my home? Hell, no. It’s bad enough they know where I live. I certainly don’t want them crossing the threshold and coming inside. And I don’t care if some hidden camera or Alexa, Amazon’s other way of getting into our house and life – and two more things I don’t want in my home — is there to observe them.

Increasingly bots and algorithms determine what we read, what ads are fed us, what vids pop up on our computer screens. Google thinks its algorithms are so smart they can tell where we are and feed us local ads. Ha, Google. FYI, I don’t live in Chicago, nowhere within a thousand miles of it, even if my ISP is located there, so you can stop sending me all those ads for vendors in the Windy City. We’re still a long way from when these things will be fool-proof, if ever, but meanwhile they’ve been unleashed on us. For instance, now we read that with the YouTube Kids application – Google owns YouTube, too, if you didn’t know – the algorithms are feeding the little darlings cartoons in which the characters drink bleach, appear as gore-covered zombies, or get it on with other characters. With parents increasingly substituting screens for actual parenting, who couldn’t see this coming? Nothing like a bot to handle the babysitting, right?

When I was a kid, my dad would take me outside on cold nights to look through a telescope at the moon and the planets. I wonder how many parents and kids do that today, and I’d be willing to wager that the only way most kids today see celestial bodies, if at all, is on a screen.

More and more we’re seeing machines and electronics and robots taking over ever-more things that used to be the province of people, of actual human beings, to do. We’re told that many manufacturing jobs will never come back because technology and robots have replaced the workers that used to be in them. And while the machines, for all their faults, get smarter and smarter, it seems people are getting dumber and dumber, with no end in sight for either trend.

There has been a question on my mind for a very long time, long before the popular future vision began to become a reality. And that is, if machines and technology can do all this stuff, what will people do? Or more precisely, what will people do to earn a living to pay for all these luxuries, all these gadgets, all these robots and technological advances? The vision of the future was a place where people could live lives of total leisure, never having to lift a finger. It seems that’s what the people developing these technologies have in mind, but is anyone thinking about the economics and the politics of it all?

I can just imagine sitting at home drinking mint juleps, prepared by Alexa, and watching on a screen as my self-driving car heads out on a scenic road that I get to enjoy vicariously from my living room. Drones are dropping off packages I’ve ordered online and bots carry them inside, while my robot vacuum cleaner does the den and my refrigerator orders up restocks of the bananas and hot dogs. My imaginary kids are playing video games and learning about life from cartoons, and all the while ads and click-bait stories about celebrities pop up on screens all over the house.

If that’s my life, who is paying for it? I can easily see a society – we’re almost there now — where a permanent underclass is forced to support the more privileged among us. Proles who support members of the Inner and Outer Party (thank you, George Orwell, for painting such a vivid picture of this notional future in the perhaps prophetic Nineteen Eighty-Four, the year in the title maybe just four decades early).

At one time we used to worry about big corporations taking on too much power and controlling our lives too much. Yet, these new corporations of technology have become bigger, more powerful, and with more influence on our lives than any ITT, GM, IBM, or AT&T of the past. Somehow we’ve come to see the Googles and Apples and Microsofts of the world as benign, looking after our well being and making our lives better and easier, and not as the profit-making, market-share-grabbing machines that they are. Maybe a comparison could be drawn with the Omni Consumer Products (OCP) corporation of 1987’s RoboCop film.

I also have to wonder what politics all this will lead to, with the political order mirroring and supporting the economic one. Already we’ve become polarized and divided almost as never before, and I can only see this trend growing as our societal dialogue becomes increasingly fractured, splintered, and Balkanized, with each individual picking and choosing what version of reality he or she prefers. And with the decline of the national dialogue and the dumbing-down of the population, it will become easier and easier for Big Brother (who also comes to us from Nineteen Eighty-Four) to simply manipulate and control a society whose creature comforts and diet of electronic pap fed them will take precedence over more traditional political values, like dissent and the freedoms of speech and association.

Already otherwise intelligent people appear to have a hard time writing anything that exceeds 140 (or 280, for the truly verbose) characters, and what at one time would be intelligent correspondence and debate has been reduced to gibberish, repetition, and name-slinging. A large proportion of the population sees the world through the medium of a phone, and the quality of their communication reflects this.

I’m not going to claim that technology is inherently bad – after all, I’m writing this on a laptop computer, and the thought of doing so on a typewriter is a chilling one – but we need to think about how far things can be carried before the beneficial becomes detrimental. Like I said near the outset, just because it’s possible to do something doesn’t mean it should be done.

It’s time to stop the madness.