Sunday, November 13, 2011

One Way to Help our Struggling Economy

Out of the mouths of every economist on TV and from the fingers of any financial columnist in town, it sure seems like our economy isn't doing so well these days.  I don't understand how our gross domestic product is calculated or the Modigliani–Miller theorem, but financial experts are telling me things are bad so I believe it to be so.

To improve our economy, I think we should look into how our food sources are managed and operated. And by food sources I don't mean the commodities traded in Chicago.  I mean the supermarket checkout experience.  If we improve our cashiers, we improve Wall Street.

At Safeway last night, I was trying to pay for just four items (humus, a cucumber, and two loaves of bread). I had a choice of six staffed checkout lanes and the self-checkout lanes. The self-checkout lanes averaged three people in line which took them out of the running because few consumers have ever been supermarket cashiers and I wasn't willing to watch someone learn the ropes as I did 15 years ago.

Avoid evil looks of incompetence from people behind you; use a real cashier who knows produce lookup (PLU) numbers.

Of the six staffed lanes, only one was an express lane for 15 items or less, but it had six people waiting. Often, the express cashier is one of the better cashiers, but with six people in line and only two waiting in normal checkout lanes, I went with line quantity over cashier quality. I chose a lane without a full conveyor belt and a full cart waiting to be loaded.  I added my items and a minute later, the customer at the front swiped his credit card while the cashier loaded his reusable bags.

At this point I would have been fourth in the express lane at this point.

My cashier began scanning the next family's items, handling them as delicately as you'd expect for a carton of eggs or loaf of bread, but not for the can of Cheez Whiz and box of brownie mix they were buying.  Then the mother thought it'd be okay for their two-year-old to hold the plastic container of cherry tomatoes.  One squeeze and they were on the floor and took away the cashier's attention.  I helped round them up of course; damnit if I'm going to lose to the express line.

After the cashier paused to make funny faces at the baby for a third time, the couple dumped a bunch of coupons on her to scan.  After a misunderstanding of the coupon's terms, the cashier bagged the groceries as though they were Faberge eggs.  Heaven forbid the brownie mix box has a dent.

At this point I would have been next in the express line.

Why are Safeway's cashiers slow when they're not even trusted to count coins?

Finally it was my turn in line.  The loaves of bread and humus scanned easily, but for some reason the cashier took her lazy-swing-in-a-hammock-time punching in PLU 4062 for the cucumber. I swiped my Safeway card, gave her cash, and waited much too long for her to return a 5-dollar bill and bag my four items.  Safeway cashiers don't even have to count coins from their drawers which is why this should be so much faster.  The express lane cashier was already onto her second person after me had I stayed in her lane.

I know that our country's cashiers can do better with just a little more training and desire. In 1996, I did my best to learn how to work the cash register, deal with personal checks, and remember PLU numbers.  I also took pride in packing paper bags with fragile items on top, sound foundations using boxy packages, and the proper weight per bag based on the customer's strength.  Perhaps I only took pride in the work because it paid for my Sour Patch Kids' habit.

To save the economy, I propose that Safeway improve its training to make cashiers more efficient.  More efficient cashiers encourage customers to shop for more items because of a better front end experience; which leads to more money going to the store; which leads to greater food sales; which increases demand for food industry jobs and production; which gives the food industry workforce disposable income to spend on items in other sectors; which increases jobs and product demand in those sectors and their supporting industries; which leads to a continual increase in spending across the economy.

Or maybe I just won't get those two minutes of my life back waiting to checkout at Safeway.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

NOTM: Man's Life Changed 10 Years After College Park Tornado

Rockville, MD - Ten years ago today, a tornado ravaged College Park and the University of Maryland family.  Morris Herlis (MH) was living in his fourth floor apartment at University Courtyard with his roommate when a typical rainstorm came rolling through.  They left their rooms to take in the sights of lightning and sounds of thunder from the safety of their balcony.

That's when the rain started flying sideways and the afternoon sky turned dark.

After Morris' roommate found the wind too strong to make it safely down the exterior stairs, they convened at the kitchen island, holding on while their entire building swayed and creaked.

"Oh yeah I was scared.  I'm glad I went to the bathroom before the storm or it would've been a mess," Morris said over a 32-ounce blueberry Slurpee.  He contacted News of the Minutiae (NOTM) to explain how his life was impacted by the tornado.

Give a man a Slurpee and he'll talk a long time after the brain freeze.

NOTM: What damage did you see after the tornado?

MH: One car was flipped over, another was leaning next to a building.  My car's windows were gone and my other roommate's ceiling had a hole in it.  Lots of other buildings were messed up.  I even had to throw away a gallon of milk.

NOTM: Were you in shock afterward?

MH: Oh yeah, how I viewed my time on this planet was forever altered.

NOTM: Can you tell our readers in what ways?

MH: Well, back then, I had no cell phone.  Without that tornado, I may never have bought one.

Imagine a world before you could play Angry Birds.

NOTM: Did the experience cause you to live life differently?

MH: Oh for sure. Nowadays I double-knot my shoes, sleep with two pillows, and clean the dryer lint trap more frequently.

NOTM: How has your life changed in larger, more meaningful ways?

MH: My life these days is full of inane Twitter updates, empty Google alerts, and inconsequential Facebook statuses.  It was rough back then, we had none of those. 

NOTM: How ever did you survive the change to 2011?

MH: That's what I mean. My life wouldn't have been the same without this tornado. In fact, I no longer use my finger to clean out ear wax; I use cotton swabs.

NOTM: Sounds rough and off-topic. Have you become thankful each day you're alive?

MH: Sure, but only when someone asks me that.

NOTM: Does your level of fear increase when a tornado watch is issued for the DC area?

MH: I take it more seriously, but nowadays I fear losing my iPad, forgetting a 9-iron on the golf course, and fitting into last season's bathing suit.

NOTM: Right. Ok then. Other people volunteer their time after learning how precious it is, but you don't seem to have had such a life affirming experience.

MH: I don't regret it when my day is spent playing PS3 in my boxers, eating Lucky Charms, and drinking root beer. It's a bit cliche when someone says they live every minute to the fullest just because of a life event.  Eventually we all regress to lazy Saturdays.

NOTM: So you're saying that bad stuff happens to everyone and it's often out of your control, but what matters is how you deal with it?

MH: Precisely.  Like when you run out of body wash and improvise with shampoo.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

How to Stay Cool on Metro

Now that we’re in a three-day cone of thermodynamical torture, here are tips on staying cool while riding Metro. None of these tips will work when you’re on a packed train, but then again, it’s your fault for not waiting all of three minutes for the much emptier train behind it.

1. Stuff your bladder. Guzzle the coldest water you can find before heading into the station to cool your core. If your platform is outside when temperatures are more than 100 degrees and humidity is off the charts, well then, it sucks to be you now doesn’t it?

2. Cannonball run. Find the nearest community pool and do a wicked cannonball splash entry. Now that you’re soaking wet, you’ll be nice and cool for the walk to the station.


3. Find your vents. As indoor stations allow, go as far to the end of the platform as possible and find vents in station sign columns and underneath escalators. The vents should be pumping out cool air. I don’t know if the air is all that clean for your lungs, but it sure feels good. Best of all, broken escalators don’t guarantee broken vents.

4. Gatorade shower. Have two friends follow you around with a Gatorade jug. After you achieve a high score in Angry Birds, have them douse you with it like a football coach. You’ll be sticky, cool, and all sorts of lemon-lime awesome.

Bill Parcells and the 1986 New York Giants knew the secret to sticky coolness.

5. Remain still. While standing next to a vent, it helps if you don’t move. Nothing raises your sweat rate faster than burning calories. Remember, fanning yourself actually makes you said “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”!

6. Find that fire hose. Open valves to the Metro station fire hose and douse yourself. Spray water on everyone else too. Trust me, they’ll appreciate it.  The hose should have enough pressure that you don't have to place your thumb on the end to make a stronger stream like your garden hose.

7. Enter the first car. This will be air conditioned because the operator’s in there.  The 2nd car may also be an option because Metro cars are air-conditioned in pairs, but that’s assuming a lot about Metro’s mechanical reliability.

8. Freon immunization. Unhook the Freon tubing from the train and start drinking. If Freon keeps cars, trains, and refrigerators cool, just think what it’ll do for your intestines!

When I want to cool down, I drink dichlorodifluoromethane.

9. Find a seat. Save energy and calories by sitting because it’s easier than standing.  Surely your feet hurt from sitting in a cubicle all day. If you'll be going above ground, pick seats on the side of the train away from the sun.  If there are no seats, then enjoy Metro’s summertime eau de toilette, “Those Without Deodorant”.

9a. Avoid hot thighs.  If two seats are open together, grab the aisle seat and remain there until someone else wants to sit. Then take the window seat whose cushion will be cooler because nobody’s thighs were heating it up in the meantime.  I might be overthinking this.

9b. Back off. Try sitting forward so that your back isn’t pressed to the cushion. This will give it just a little more space to breathe and sweat itself out. Though, if you’re like me, your back sweats in perpetuity no matter what you do. Anybody invented back antiperspirant yet?

10. Pray. Remember that hell will never be as bad as standing armpit-to-armpit in a Metro train that’s stopped above ground for a schedule adjustment in July and August.

This is hell...stuck in a booth with sweaty Dick Vitale at a duke game.

11. Grab some metal. When you’re in an air-conditioned car with metal handlebars, grab any free handlebar space. The bar should be cool to the touch. Better yet, place the bottom of your wrists or entire forearm along a bar to better cool your blood. It’s biology, trust me, I’m a doctor. Keep touching other bars that feel cool, but be sure to shower in Purell when you get home.

12. Drive. Why are you taking Metro when it’s so freakin’ hot outside?! Instead, drive around in a motorized air conditioned metal box. It won’t be cheaper, better for the environment, easier, or safer, but it’s cool.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

NOTM: Man Saves D.C. from Germ Attack

Smithsonian Metro Stop - There are many things that can kill us. Cancer, heart disease, Metro buses, that piece of gum you swallowed as a kid that's still in your stomach, a ninja pummeling you with nunchucks, and germs. Fortunately, Morris Herlis saved the entire DC metro area from one of these silent killers on Tuesday - during his lunch break.

When it's not a typical DC summer day full of high temperatures and humidity, Morris enjoys a gentle walk on the National Mall. On Tuesday, he was walking by a game of pickup ultimate frisbee that's too serious to be called "pickup", when a gust of pollen passed by.

Snot began to drip down the inside of his nose, but Morris' breathed in, his nostrils filling with air in a vain attempt to keep the snot inside. It was too late.  The pollen had opened a faucet of germs begging to get out. Another large intake of air only slowed fate.

Snot drips turn into a snot stream in no time.

"That snot kept on coming and coming. I didn't know my body could make that much stuff. Where was it coming from?" Morris wondered. As much as Morris loved trees for their shade, he despised them for their blossom fornication.

The snot continued to run. Wearing a polo shirt and lacking classy tactfulness to carry tissues, Morris pulled his left forearm, elbow to wrist, along his nose. His reward was a clear sheen coat of aligned hairs.

Morris walked by the Hirshorn Museum toward 12th Street and the Smithsonian Metro station. His snot volcano erupted again. Simple snot rockets would not suffice because there was no solid material to be found in this liquid waterfall. Morris used the only wiping surface he had left and decimated his right forearm hairs in a flood of snot.

Toilet paper, it's not just for wiping yourself anymore.

After another inhale to pull snot back inside, Morris was toast. His body wanted the snot out quickly. With many tourists wandering from one air conditioned museum to the other, the Mall was plenty full. Morris did not want to infect all of them, yet he could not keep up with the cubic centimeters of microbes that just had to rush out of his body.

"The dam in my sinus cavity broke. Nasty stuff and lots of it were on their way out." With a convulsion and jerk of the head, Morris unleashed back-to-back germ torrents destined to infect, annoy, and disgust hundreds of people.

But on this day, Morris did not act the fool. He acted in good conscious of his fellow citizen. He pulled his right arm to his face and sneezed into the space between his forearm and bicep.

Just don't put your arm around someone after.

Though his arm was now engrossed in gross fluids, he saved DC from his germ attack. Proud of his kindness, he entered the Metro station with a bounce in his step, ready to ride back to the office.

He boarded a near empty Metro train that became standing room only just two stops later at Metro Center. There he found himself rubbing shoulders with other passengers and exchanging germs on handrails. A woman's perfume tickled his olfactory system, but he did not have enough space to capture the sneeze carnage in his left arm. Milliseconds after it flew out of him, he felt the weight of other passengers' eyes, glaring at him and his germ containment failure. If only they knew his story.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

NOTM: One Man’s Quest for His Last Pair of Collar Stays

Rockville, MD – Morris Herlis leads a quiet, regimented, and controlled morning existence. His pre-work routine is as regular as he is when he eats bran cereal. He knows where things are, when they will happen, and how they will happen – most of the time.

On Wednesday morning at 5:53, after his one allotted snooze button press, Morris rolled out of bed and trudged to the bathroom. He multitasked by shaving his face while emptying his bladder. After showering, Morris brushed his teeth before dressing, lest he risk dripping toothpaste on clean clothes. He is ruthlessly efficient and cautious.

Morris is sly enough to avoid making his shirt match his toothpaste.

With temperatures in the 70s, Morris decided that he wouldn't sweat so much that his blue long-sleeved, button-down shirt would require a visit to the dry cleaners before the next wearing. Feeling confident in his unironed and only semi-wrinkled khakis, Morris had his outfit ready.

Morris demonstrated his wealth of clothing procedural knowledge by deftly placing one leg in his pants and then the other without falling over. Able to zip his fly without catching any of himself in its teeth, he buttoned his pants before directing his black (p)leather belt through the specially designed loops around his waist and buckled it snuggly.

This almost makes getting dressed to go to work seem like fun.

Thanks to many Sesame Street lessons on how to button buttons, Morris closed his shirt, thereby saving the world from viewing his gangly mess of chest hair. He went to lower his collar when he realized they didn't have collar stays. Morris went to his jewelry box with its cuff links and watches, but didn’t find any collar stays there.

“I don’t know how my collar will stay down without those plastic wonder pieces,” Morris lamented. Indeed without collar stays, the tip of his collar would find its way to point up. Morris’ line of work demands a proper collar fixture.

Morris looked in his nightstand with its reading glasses, ear plugs, and athlete’s foot spray, but it was to no avail. Sweat began to bead on his forehead. He frantically tore through a pile of shirts destined to the dry cleaner and checked their collars only to find them empty.

Anyone serious about collar stays keeps them in a secure case.

Morris’ calculated morning routine schedule does not allow for slippage. When all goes according to plan, he’s out the door by 6:40, but it was already 6:45. With desperation in his voice, Morris said, “five minutes late already! I don’t wanna be stuck with the bus people again!”

Morris checked the laundry room floor, the catch-all drawer in the kitchen, and his suitcase toiletry bag. It was 6:48 and Morris had searched everywhere and found nothing. He was now assured a Metro ride with the bus people which meant getting a seat would be more difficult. Also, Morris is pretty sure he is allergic to them.

To clear his mind, Morris went about getting his shoes, socks, and bag ready. Next, he went to the bathroom and put a glob of L.A. Looks styling gel in his hands. He looked at the mirror to style his hornet’s nest hair when he saw something – his shirt also had buttons near the tips for collar stays. His collar would be securely unpopped after all! Morris cracked a smile despite running an ungodly 12 minutes late.

He grabbed the edge of his left collar and began buttoning it except he hadn't washed his hands. The collar was no longer white, but electric blue from the L.A. Looks gel smooshed into the threads. Morris would have to start the process again. Collapsing to his knees, Morris’ shirt was done and so was he.

Friday, April 22, 2011

NOTM: Man Eats Mysterious Food Off Floor and Lives

Rockville, MD - Morris Herlis was hungry, parched, and nearing death last night. It was 11:30 and his last meal, some four hours earlier, consisted of two Hot Pockets and a bowl of Frosted Flakes. He needed energy if he wanted to win his online deathmatch in the videogame, Battlefield Bad Company 2, on his Playstation 3. Morris was an entire flight of stairs away from the kitchen, but he might as well have been miles away.

Morris knew that firing a Russian RPG-7 85mm anti-tank grenade launcher demanded high levels of Frosted Flakes.

Fueled by the unrecognizable ingredients that combine to make a Hot Pocket, mixed with the sugar rush of Frosted Flakes, Morris was transfixed to his TV for hours without interruption. A marathon performance to make whatever an ultra marathoner would envy. His reflects were quick that night. His pupils were fully dilated. He was unstoppable.

"Man, I was in the zone," Morris said. "I had maximum concentration. I only saw the TV and nothin' else." Morris' supreme tunnel vision and concentration allowed him to "shoot those online punks" for all of the glory that comes from playing a videogame late at night, alone, in your underwear.

According to various reports, consisting of Morris telling his story to NOTM multiple times, his sugar rush began crashing at 11:15. He maintained a moderate attention level for another ten minutes thanks to the water retention that comes from 1,620 mg of sodium in two "cheeseburger" Hot Pockets.

Giving you the power to play videogames for hours and the sodium to retain gallons of water.

"I was really starting to hit the wall by 11:25, but my squadmates needed me to capture the flag." Morris' game would last another ten minutes, but his sugar level was falling quickly from oversaturated early onset diabetes to merely normal. He was fading and legitimate resources seemed unattainable.

"Then I remembered survival skills I learned on 'Man vs. Wild' with Bear Grylls. Something about feeling around your surroundings for anything edible." Morris patted the floor below the sofa for nutrients. In a miracle that would make Moses proud, he found pretzel rods and an oatmeal raisin cookie from a Super Bowl party three months ago.

Bear Grylls eats real food in the wild like raw fish, not sofa crumbs.

Determined to finish his videoggame and not leave the sofa, Morris rammed the stale pretzels in his mouth, finding them "slightly chewy and soft". To counter the saltiness, Morris had no choice other than to eat the sweet oatmeal raisin cookie, noting that it was covered in unidentified "bits of something" with hints of belly lint.

"When you're in the wild, normalcy goes out the window," Morris said. Apparently, so does rational thought, self respect, and healthy eating habits.

Infused with a home-brewed mixture of under-the-sofa, salty and sweet calories, Morris finished playing his game for another few minutes before peeling himself off the cushions. From there he went to bed with little to relish in having lost tonight's deathmatch and all levels of decency.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

NOTM: Metro Rider Avoids Giving Seat to "Undeserving" Elderly Woman

Rockville, MD - Rush hour Metro rides can be hellacious. Long commutes without sitting are torturous. And not giving up a seat to an elderly woman is obnoxious.  Morris Herlis' was obnoxious to avoid the torture of a hellacious ride this morning and NOTM was there.

Morris rides the red line from Shady Grove to downtown D.C. every weekday morning. "I hate getting on a train after 7 [am] 'cause you have to deal with the 'bus people'." The Shady Grove station is an important bus terminal for Montgomery County. "They go to the turnstiles as one mass of humanity and I have no shot at a seat. Such arrogance." Morris' claim that they smell, get caught in doors, and are "lame" were unfounded by NOTM.

"If I'm really running late and catch a train around 8 [am], I not only deal with a greater concentration of bus people, but also the older folks who don't move quickly." Morris, not one to shy from ageism, is not a fan of any demographic other than the one he's in.

Morris doesn't discriminate.  Bus people of all kinds are obstacles to his Metro ride.

When NOTM caught up with Morris this morning, he was on the train at 8:17. Having ran through the tunnel to beat the latest wave of bus people up the escalators, he grabbed the last empty seat - a seat for the disabled and elderly when necessary. He sat next to a man in a full leg cast and across from a blind woman and a man with a walking cane.

Morris read his Washington Post Express without issue until the White Flint stop. It was there that 78-year-old Beth Steinkatz, one month removed from her second broken hip surgery in the last year, boarded the train. Unable to maneuver herself into one of the row seats many had offered her, she assumed the least disabled and elderly rider sitting in the four special seats would offer her a place to rest.

Never one to be kind, generous, and charitable, Morris buried his head in the newspaper. "The moment I saw granny weeble-wobbling her way aboard, I kept reading. I kept my eyes low enough because keeping my seat mattered."

This is a NOTM reenactment of Ms. Steinkatz and her cane if she was a he.

Ms. Steinkatz continued staring down Morris, but to no avail. Pleas from passengers to "standup and don't be a douche" and "stop being a jerk, we know you hear us" had no effect. Ms. Steinkatz had no choice, but to stand the rest of the way.

Finally, Morris neared his stop, well rested to be sure, and got into position for his station. "I'm at the door one station before mine so I can easily beat the bus people and everyone else out to my station's exit. Nobody wants to be behind the stench of those weirdos."

The door opening chime rang as Morris stood by the door. Ms. Steinkatz took her cane and jammed it into his back, not-ever-so politely pushing him out the door - one stop early. Amid clapping and cheers, she took Morris' seat and waved goodbye to him and his sullen face on the platform. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

How to be Romantic on D.C.'s Metro

Let's say you're a regular Metro commuter on your way home this Monday when you realize that it's Valentine's Day and you have nothing for your significant other (SO). Here are some tried-and-true options that are all around you.

Go retro with anti-E-readers. Anyone can buy a Kindle or iPad for a SO, but you're better than that; you're not a lemming. So go retro by bringing home a copy of the Washington Post Express and Washington Examiner. If your SO's a newshound and has a political lean, only bring one of them home lest you want another fight with your SO.

Soon an entire generation won't know which came first.

Create a tapas dinner. Though Metro's no food or drink policy has been around a long time, that shouldn't stop you from providing a grand tapas meal. Go on and grab the partially opened bag of Doritos on the window pane, the box of Sour Patch Kids from the floor, and the other half of that Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate chip cookie. If you're lucky, you might find some McDonald's chicken nuggets at the top of the escalator on your way out. Your SO would appreciate them even more if they're still in the box. Don't forget to wash things down with the almost empty bottle of Mountain Dew rolling down the aisle.

Grab a seat toward the back for optimal drink and food opportunities.

Provide chauffeur limousine service. If your SO is always asking for rides to and from the station, around town, or to the airport, grab some bus schedule pamphlets. They're great reading material after the retro E-readers and your SO won't have to bum rides off of you. When asked if you can give a ride to BWI, just say, "there's a bus route for that". If the SO is a world traveler, grab some MARC train schedules too. It's the gift that keeps on giving (you back your free time). SOs everywhere will be driven where they want, sort of when they want, and in vehicles that they may confuse for limousines if they're hallucinating.

Imply you want a future together. Near the bus pamphlets, grab a flyer warning you of future Metro repair delays and escalator outages. Earn bonus points by bringing home road construction public meeting notices too. These show that you're thinking about the future with your SO; at least how it'll impact your commutes. Nobody appreciates foresight and long-term relationship planning more than your SO.

Create a homemade romantic card. In this age of Twitter, you must be brief with your words. Pickup a Metro card from the ground and write something sweet on it using 15 characters or less depending on your handwriting size. "I love you" is only 10 characters, but "I don't care about our relationship enough to remember this day" is just too long and honest. Don't have a pen? Borrow one from the station manager or grab one from just below the third rail; I've heard there are some great Montblancs down there.

No SO can be upset when your card is covered with pandas.

Listen to live music - Plan A. Take your SO on a Metro ride around 9 am on a weekday, staying between Metro Center and Gallery Place. This ensures you'll overhear music playing on several incessantly loud iPods. If you don't like the genre, move to another car until you find one that sets the romantic mood. Keep changing trains to keep the musical jackpot surprises coming.

Listen to live music - Plan B. If your SO is picking you up from the station, have them park the car and walk back to the station entrance to take in the local and live music scene.  Undoubtedly, you won't find great musicians, but you might find the 5% that are bearable. If anything, you'll be hip to the area's up and coming guitarists, paint bucket drummers, and Peruvian flutists.

Buy a $5 bouquet of flowers. Flowers are a great sign that you care, even the wilted ones from the flowerseller outside the station. At $5 for a bouquet, you'll get credit for caring and being fiscally responsible by not buying from a local florist whose flowers are needlessly arranged well, tasteful, and better still - alive.

Bring home this Diego Rivera painting called "The Flower Seller" and you'll really make your SO happy.

Take the SO to an amusement park. If you follow Plan A to Listen to Live Music, remind your SO that a Metro ride doubles as a rollercoaster. Make sure you're both standing up and see who gets sick last from a herky-jerky manually automated ride. Maybe you want to impress by not grabbing a handle for balance - how athletic! It's a fun experience that's all included in the price of admission.

Just remember Valentine's day next year. If these don't match your SO's lofty expectations, then remind them that it's better than last year's gift - a jar of belly lint.

Monday, January 31, 2011

How to Install an Auxiliary Input (aPAC-NIS1) In a 2005 Nissan Altima

After installing my home speaker system last year, I decided that my 2005 Nissan Altima, called Silverman, needed an auxiliary input. I was tired of using my GPS' FM transmitter to listen to MP3s through my car's speakers and burning CDs is just sooooo passe. As a black belt master Googler, I scoured the web and bought an aPAC-NIS1 Aux Input.

There's just one problem...I've never stolen a car radio before. In this case, I'd just be modifying my radio, but how's it done? Turns out, all you need is a Phillips screwdriver, a willingness to bend dashboard molding, and the realization that the product's instruction writers should be fired. My chop shop resume is just beginning.

The aux input instructions in the package and online were awful. The writing (much like this blog!) was unintelligible so I got help from an engineer with advanced degrees. It's not that hard for Pacific Accessory Corporation (PAC) (or Pac-Audio) to hire a technical writer. Email me and I'll help.

One box, lots of wires, and the world's greatest fat-fingered hand model.

For one, please include a chart that tells me which DIP switches should be up instead of having me call your support line. Using a combination of Nissan forums searches, radio wiring diagrams, competitor instructions, and finally trial and error, Silverman now plays music, GPS directions, and cell phone chatter through its speakers, accepting any device with a headphone jack.

To help the greater good and fill a void in the Internet, allow me to help those in need of better instructions. Aux input inputters of the world, who are installing the same product in a 2005 Nissan Altima with a 6-CD Bose radio, let me guide you as we overcome aPAC-NIS1's disastrous instructions.

Sure, I could've paid $50 for someone to install it, but where's the fun in that when I got to be frustrated installing this device for several hours over two days. With some luck, it'll take you about an hour. Merchants selling the product offer instructions that contradict each other so while one method may be better, safer, and faster than mine, this one worked for me. In other words, it's completely your fault for following these and short-circuiting your car.

Step 1 - Disconnect the negative terminal from the car battery. As cool as it is to have your hair stick up from electricity, the rest of your nervous system won't like it much, along with your heart. My battery terminal was tough to remove so be ready for some elbow grease. We held the wire away from any metal with the wrench's rubber handle. Electricity likes metals so keep'em away like the two hormone-fueled teenagers they are.

Step 2 - look at your dash one last time and say a prayer. It's time to go in. Make sure your door is open in case you have to be hauled out of the car and let someone know what you're up to. Note that this device only works on an Altima radio with a satellite ("SAT") button.

Step 3 - pull the HVAC molding down and away from the dash. Do this gently. You'll need to bend the molding just enough to get your fingers behind it. Wow, this hand model actually has two beautiful hands!

Step 4 - remove the four screws holding the HVAC controls with a screwdriver. Unscrew the screws slowly and be sure you catch them as they come out. I kept them in my door pocket.

Step 5 - pull off HVAC controls by pulling the unit out from the bottom and then down. What glorious wiring to behold.

Step 6 - gently lift the molding for the vents from just below the radio controls. This is held in place by four clips so you will have to carefully pop it off of the clips. This can be very fickle so take your time. You may have to wiggle it and use a flat tool to pry it off.

Step 7 - remove the four screws that hold the radio in place. These are difficult to catch and not lose when they come out. I used my finger to keep the screw in place, but it didn't always work as I lost one of them into the abyss known as my car's innards.

Step 8 - Pull the radio out. You're almost halfway done. Well not really, just one-third.

Step 9 - look at the pretty wire colors one final time before adding even more complications.

Step 10 - disconnect the connection on the far left of the radio and the connection second from the right (when looking from above). These connections can be difficult to remove and may require a tool to push the little knob down and away to unlatch the plastic molding from the radio. As tempting as it is, do not pull the connections using their wires. A second set of hands is really handy here (ha!).

In addition to incomplete dashboard removal instructions, the instructions that came with the device and those on the web offered zero help in knowing which connections to remove from the radio. That's why I'm writing this very long blog entry that may not help anyone.

Step 11 - as part of the necessary trial and error, the radio eventually had all of its wires removed. So for your edification, here it is from the back, but don't actually remove all of the wires.

Step 12 - connect the audio cable (3.5 mm cable/RCA), used to input the headphone, to the aux input's blue box. For once, a picture isn't needed, right? Good, because I didn't take one.

Step 13 - connect the aux input's bound of wires to the radio using the only two connections that will fit and match the open radio ports. The connections will snap into place.

Step 14 - run the other end of the aux input's bound of wires down from the radio to behind the cubby that's below the HVAC controls. This is tricky and requires some maneuvering and small fingers. There's a small opening between where the HVAC controls are and the cubby that pops open below. The circled connection disappears behind the cubby in the second picture and may require pulling it down from the cubby too. Ultimately the wire will come out the cubby (see Step 24).

Again, nowhere is it discussed what you should do with the aux input wires so let this be that somewhere it is discussed.

Step 15 - set the aux input's blue box DIP switches to: 1 - down, 2 - up, 3 - up, and 4 - down. I had to call PAC Audio's support line for this. Heaven forbid a chart for all makes and models would be included.

Step 16 - connect the circled connection in picture 1 of step 14 to the aux input's blue box and pull a decent amount of wiring into the cubby. The cubby will store the blue box and your audio input device when used. So convenient!

Step 17 - place the radio back onto its holder in the dash (reverse step 8).

Step 18 - reconnect the battery's negative terminal (reverse step 1); you should hear the radio's CD changer cycle. Some instructions suggested waiting three minutes with the key turned to the "Acc" position before moving to Step 19, but I don't think it matters.

Step 19 - turn the ignition switch to "Acc", turn the radio on, and press the "SAT" button...what do you see on the display? If you see "NO SAT" then that's not good. If you see something like "AUX-01" or "XM CH-001", then it worked! Go ahead and plug an audio device to the aux input to hear something. You may have to turn up the device's volume and the radio's volume. Let's pretend these steps worked so we can move forward.

Step 20 - screw the radio back to the dash harness (reverse step 7). Try to keep all wires down and away from the HVAC system as possible.

Step 21 - place the HVAC vents back into place on the dash (reverse step 6). It should wedge its way back to the original position.

Step 22 - place and screw the HVAC controls back into place (reverse step 5 and then step 4). Good thing you haven't lost the screws, right?

Step 23 - replace the the HVAC molding (reverse step 3). It will snap back into place ever so gently.

Step 24 - take a deep breath, pat yourself on the back, and revel in the awesomeness of your Altima's auxiliary input.  Now I can run my MP3 player through the car's speakers or my MP3/bluetooth-enabled GPS.  Better yet, both can be connected at the same time, just switching input choices to hear one or the other.  Solid!

Monday, January 17, 2011

My Fingernail, I Hardly Knew Ye

"The biopsy came back negative."

Five days after my nail bed biopsy, the hand surgeon gave me the great news. I only had a bruise on my nail bed; a stubborn, stubborn bruise that thought it'd be fun to leave a streak in my fingernail and cause me to learn far too much about subungual melanoma. Thanks to a solid family history of cancer, I had to be vigilant and proactive. Ignoring health concerns do not heal them.

I learned quite a few things from this experience. For one, I don't know how to put on a woman's dress. The nurse told me my patient gown is "simply put on with the tie in the back as you would with a woman's dress". When she returned to tie the gown, I had it on backward. For the nurse's sake, I made sure the ties were double-knotted so I had no chance of giving the staff an IV-fueled burlesque show with a twirl.

I learned that the best nurses are from New Jersey, right mom? My surgical nurse and I bonded over tales of northern NJ diners, accents, and Turnpike traffic.

I learned that telling the anesthesiologist that redheads require a higher dose ensures that I'll be knocked out really well. A few seconds after I felt the anesthesia in the IV, the operating room ceiling faded to black. When I awoke 20 minutes later, I was in a different bed, with sheets wrapped around me, and I couldn't feel three of my fingers for at least another hour. I'd much rather have it that way.

I learned that hospital beds aren't long enough for me. Like every sleeping camp bunk bed, my feet dangled over the edge. If there are going to be wider wheelchairs for overweight patients, there should be longer beds for taller patients. Equal rights for above average height!

I learned that Holy Cross Hospital gives patients great socks for surgery.  They kept my feet warm and gave me great traction.

I learned one way to get a turkey sandwich at the hospital is to have staff use a blood pressure cuff that's too large for my arm resulting in a low reading. Hello lunch in a box! A quick resizing showed my numbers were plenty normal, but not before I got to stuff my face for the first time that day.

I learned that when a surgeon goes to tell your girlfriend his preliminary observation that I don't have melanoma, she shouldn't be left in "The Grief Room" for more than a nanosecond until he arrives. When other rooms are full, as was the case here, just wait a few minutes until the, "Nothing to Worry About Room" is available.

I learned that my body definitely gets nauseous from anesthesia. Hello lunch in a box, not so nice to see you again!  I was so nauseous that I wasn't able to eat the matzoh ball soup and homemade kugel waiting for me at home.  It pained me to wait one whole day before taking in those calories.

I learned that codeine is wonderful no matter its one-day side effects.

I learned that having a fingernail and part of your nail bed removed makes for a gnarly story.

I also learned that my fingernail will grow back to the fingertip in four months and will look healthy again in 9-12 months. That's a small aesthetic price to pay for peace of mind.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Slippery Slope of Fingernail Discoloration

Slopes can be slippery.  The more that's at stake, the steeper the decline, and the easier it is to get going.  I tend to not do well with hills like these.  When I was 12, I broke my wrist skateboarding by going up a street that was too high for my balance.  My mom encouraged me to "go just a little higher."  I wasn't comfortable and the speed caught me.

Today's skateboarding street is my fingernail to be biopsied for melanoma tomorrow.  A few months ago I noticed a brownish-reddish streak on my left ring fingernail and thought it was a bruise that would grow out as the nail did; however, the bruise didn't grow out. 

Being redhaired and fair skinned, the sun has never been my friend; I've always thought it held too much power over our lives.  I slather on sunscreen, wear a sunhat better suited for a trek in the Mojave, and find shade whenever possible.  Thanks to my skin type and my skateboard coach's early stage melanoma that was removed recently, the dermatologist suggested I see a hand surgeon for a biopsy.  The hand surgeon quickly reached the same conclusion...a nail bed biopsy was needed just to be safe.

A nail bed biopsy involves removing the fingernail as deep as the nail bed.  I think of myself as a reformed nailbiter so as much as I used to have a fondness for chomping down, neither me nor any nailbiter would ever want to go as far as this surgery calls for.  The nail should grow to the fingertip in four months, but it will take about a year for it to look healthy again.

The surgeon said it was difficult to place a percentage on a diagnosis, but if pressed he said there was a 10% or less chance that the streak is the result of cancerous cells.  He said it could simply be from trauma to the nail for example.  Let's hope I somehow forgot that I smashed my fingernail in a doorjamb some time ago.  I'm not concerned about the procedure or care afterward, I'm concerned about the diagnosis.

I don't know why I have this streak and I don't t like waiting to find out.  Can I just skip ahead like I'm watching something on TiVo?  Waiting gives me time to overthink the worst case scenario.  As such, waiting also gives me time to underthink the greater likelihood that this won't be a significant concern.

I'm always quick to remind friends and family to not research medical concerns online, but nobody was faster to Google "subungal melanoma" than me.  From medical sites to message forums, I read horror stories of people passing away from ignoring their nails that were far more hideously discolored than mine to uplifting stories of people getting checked out and being just fine.  I know the information is misleading and only populates my head with unnecessary fears, but I need some control; however unattainable it may be.

Nail bed melanoma is very rare in whites, making up less than 3% of all melanoma cases, and is commonly found on a big toe or thumb.  So I have that in my favor, but my skin type and family history make it an easy call to be safe than sorry.  The common treatment for a toe with this is amputation and for a finger is amputation at the nearest joint to the lesion.  Damn the information online!  My mind gets to race between an inconsequential, benign issue in my nail bed to not getting to see the tip of my finger again.

I know that thinking through any scenario does me little good.  It won't change what is occurring with my finger.  I try to stop myself from thinking the worst, but it's hard not to.  I think all of us naturally jump to the extreme result to feel prepared and feign having control, but really we don't know how we'll feel when we hear for sure.

Whatever the doctor tells me is the next step for treatment, I'll welcome it worth open arms (errrr, fingers) because as my mind races ahead, the alternative would be worse.  I see no reason why I shouldn't use the slippery slope's momentum to boost me up the ensuing uphill climb.

So I bid adieu to the fingernail on Thursday and wait for what's sure to be an agonizing five days to hear the diagnosis on Tuesday.  I hope that my hill levels off and coasts to a stop.


For the diagnosis, see the next entry here.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

My Eardrums Don't Like Movie Theaters

I'm not old.  I'm a sprite 30-year-old male afterall.  Just one who never attended rock concerts; pumped up the volume on speakers, headphones, or alarm clock radios; or enjoyed ringing ears from tone deaf bar and bat mitzvah/roller rink/wedding DJs.  After a visit to the movies on Saturday, I've learned that the rest of the industrialized world can't hear as well as me and I'm just going to suffer through it.

These sound effects are pleasing to my ears.

Last weekend, me and QP watched "Black Swan" at the Rio's AMC theater.  Among the multitude of previews was one for an action movie full of explosions and wooshes and empty of plot or sense.  Sitting in the theater's prime center seats, we were excited for perfect stereo audio.  That excitement vanished when ads for the concessions stopped and the previews started.

"In a world overrun by movie studios trying to compete with B and T Crowd's awesome 5.1 stereo surround sound-HD-TiVo-PS3-Blu-ray system, was a blogger named B and T Crowd and his girlfriend named QP.  They thought a rare visit to a public theater would be enjoyable for all of their senses, but no one could predict the auditory consequences of the blogger's endearing, romantic, and well-meaning dinner and movie date night."

Boom!  Rrrruuuuummmmmbbbblllle!  ZZZeeeerrrrrrummm!  Ting!  Berrrrrrrcchhhhhkkkk!  Oh my bleeding eardrums from 2:00 forward!

My eardrums didn't appreciate the decibels and bass used for the explosions, bullets, and music. I get it; it's an action movie, the CGI scenes are exciting, and fighting a war against creatures from another world would be loud, but it doesn't have to be that loud.  I covered my ears and still heard the sound effects fine, just without the pain and suffering.

QP asked why the previews were so loud.  I said it's like TV commercials that are louder to grab your attention (at least until the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act is signed), but it'll go down to a reasonable level when the movie starts.  How could it stay this loud for an entire movie?

QP thinks I have super sensitive ears and hear more than most, but then why don't I listen to her?  Ba-dum-bum!

The volume didn't decrease, but fortunately "Black Swan" didn't rely on the sounds of explosions, missiles, and car chases; instead using lots of classical music.  There were still a few sounds that my ears didn't appreciate, but a few moments of discomfort weren't long enough to make us walk out.

In 2011, I resolve to not view another loud movie in a public theater again.  Instead, I'll add it to my Netflix queue and watch it at home.  I'm old enough to enjoy to it just how I want without ear plugs.