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Jewish World Review May 28, 2002 / 17 Sivan, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

Trash cans, ice cream
and common sense | Bob Sigsworth believes very much in technology.

For the last 25 years, he has made his living by believing in it. Sigsworth, 44, lives in Elyria, Ohio, and works as a business-to-business analyst in computer communications. He knows that new technology has eliminated much of the drudgery and repetitiveness from daily office routines.

Last week, though, two things happened to him on two different days. . . .

Well, let him tell it.

He was passing through an airport on a business trip, and decided that he'd like an ice cream cone. You don't get much food on flights these days, and a cone in the airport terminal seemed like a good idea.

He went up to a counter where there were no other customers. Three employees were working behind the counter.

He ordered a medium vanilla-chocolate swirl cone. The price was $2.99; he handed the young woman at the register a $5 bill.

The computer-display screen in front of her told her how much change to give him. She handed him the change.

"I stood there," he said, "and nothing happened. She looked at me like, why am I standing there?

"I said to her, 'Could I have my ice cream cone?'

"And she said to me, 'You didn't get it yet?'

"Only seconds -- literally -- had passed. I said that, no, I hadn't gotten it yet.

"She motioned toward the computer screen that was facing her -- I couldn't see the front of it -- and she said to me, 'It shows that you got it.'

"I didn't know what she was talking about -- this was a new one on me. Maybe there was some software in there that told her when a cone was delivered, or maybe she had pushed a wrong button. But I was the only customer standing there, and only a few seconds had gone by, and I obviously had no ice cream cone in my hand. But the technology was telling her that I had one. She said it was on the screen."

So what did he do?

"As I say, there were three employees back there. I was able to convince them that I had not hidden an ice cream cone in my pocket, or put it in my carry-on bag. I got my ice cream cone, eventually. But this was a first -- the computer telling the woman who had not given me an ice cream cone that I had been given an ice cream cone."

The lesson?

"We are replacing common sense with technology," Sigsworth said. He then told me about the second incident last week.

In a fast-food restaurant that he sometimes patronizes in Elyria, Ill., he heard another customer -- an older woman -- say out loud:

"How can a trash can be out of order?"

He looked in the same direction she was looking. There was, in fact, a hand-lettered "Out of Order" sign taped to a trash can in the restaurant.

"It was one of these electronic trash cans," Sigsworth said. "I think they've had them at this restaurant for about a year. Apparently they have trash compactors inside them -- every once in a while a machine inside the trash can compacts the trash.

"The trash cans even talk to you. When you put your trash in, they say -- in a computerized male voice - 'Thank you.' And when they're ready to compact the trash, lights start flashing and the voice says 'Please stand clear.' You can't put any trash in when the compactor is running."

On this day, evidently something had broken.

"Is this an improvement?" Sigsworth said. "You would think that it would be impossible for a trash can to be out of order. A trash can, can be full, and someone has to empty it. Or it can wear out. But a trash can has never been capable of being out of order. Until now.

"We've managed to do it -- we've managed to take something that is unbreakable, and to come up with a way to break it."

In telling me these stories, Sigsworth did not comment on one facet of them that may be the most remarkable of all:

An ice cream cone now routinely costs $2.99.

Plus tax.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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