Revolution #8

We have boxes at work to put personal belongings in. They each have a key with a number on them. You select a box, put your stuff in, and take the key. When you leave, you insert the key, open the door, get your stuff, and go home. Simple.

Over time, I – just like many others – have developed a box preference. My personal, no-one-else-better-take-it box. It took awhile to get to this point. I started out with box #4. But box #4 was on the bottom left and I guess was pretty popular because I couldn’t reliably get it. I moved to #16 but its locking mechanism tended to catch. Sometimes I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get the door open.

Eventually, I settled on #8. Yes, I greatly prefer the multiples of 4 because they are on the bottom, just below my eye level. I can see in easily. So for the last several weeks, maybe a couple of months, I’ve used box #8. It didn’t seem to matter what time I got to work, it was always waiting for me. Even if there were only 1 or 2 boxes with keys still in them.

It’s like the universe and all my co-workers understood it was my box.

And then one morning… the key was missing. I was irritated, to say the least. I resigned myself to using #16, forgetting that the locking mechanism catches. I grumbled any time I got into the box that day.

When I left fairly late that evening, the key was still missing. I began to suspect that not only had my box been co-opted by someone else, it had been taken over by someone who takes the key home with them. They aren’t supposed to do this, but some people feel so strongly about their box selection that they do anyway. Had someone been waiting for the opportunity to steal my key all these weeks?

I got to work early the next morning – no key. Went home that evening – no key. Next morning – no key. All week long, I never saw box #8’s key. I started using #28 but being that far to the right disturbed me. I wanted my #8 back. I contemplated putting a sign on it begging for its return.

Then, that Saturday, as I pulled the clothes out of the washing machine to transfer to the dryer, I saw the tell-tale bright yellow plastic tag of a box key. Surely not, I thought to myself. Is it really?

Sure enough, I had apparently slipped the key in my pocket that last day I had it instead of putting it back in the lock before I left. In short, I had stolen the key from myself. Friday, I had begun to complain to co-workers about the stolen box. And then Saturday, I looked the thief in the mirror.

That week the key was missing, someone else had put signs on some nearby boxes reminding people that the boxes and keys were company property and you were not to take the keys home. I had cheered the signs. On Monday, I slunk past them and quickly used the #8 key to open the box before anyone could see me.

The next day, the key was gone again. And then I entered a twilight zone. Had someone coincidentally taken #8 the day after I returned the key? Had someone that knew the story deliberately taken #8 just to mess with me? Had I accidentally taken it home again? How would I ever know?

I returned to #28. The next day, #8 was missing again. I began to think #28 would have to be my new box. I suspected the new guy had taken a shining to #8. Especially as his supervisor, I couldn’t exactly say, “Hey! Are you using box #8?! That’s mine! Hands off!”

But at the end of the second day, I saw the key hanging from the open box door. And I smiled. It was waiting for me the next day and I grabbed it. Get there before him enough and he’ll probably get the hint. I hope.


Obsessive Fandom

I think Jane’s 1D experience deserves a bit more attention than I gave it in my nutshell post last week. {For you less experienced and less knowledgeable types, 1D is short for One Direction.}

There are two reasons for this. The first is that there’s a level of humor in what happened that was glossed over in last week’s post. The second is that there’s a lesson for all of us in it, I think. So let’s get to it.

I learned the earth-shattering-if-you-are-of-a-certain-age-and-female news via a quick glance at Google News around 1:00 last Wednesday afternoon. Having recently been the person to break the news to her  of his departure from their tour, I wanted a similar position of honor this time around.

I took out my phone and shot her a quick text.


And then I immediately put my phone away. So I missed her desperate attempts to interact with me on the subject:


As you can see, I wasn’t the first person. No, that honor goes to some girl at school. From what I’ve been able to tell, Jane’s practically the only One Directioner in her school so there wasn’t a loud wailing and gnashing of teeth as has been reported from other locations.

Jane confidently corrected the girl that he was only taking a break from the tour. The friend insisted he had quit the band. Jane checked Twitter. Jane excused herself to the bathroom. Jane cried. Jane texted her Daddy:


He responded (to her surprise) that he was on his way, no questions asked. It was sometime in here that I sent my text. My husband, not prone to just pick the kids up willy-nilly from school did so without question this time for two reasons. First, she hadn’t been feeling well that morning. Second, he trusted her good judgment to not request removal from school unless it was important.

She waited in silence as he signed her out. He could tell she was very upset about something. And then they left the building. As they walked down the steps toward the road, he asked, “So. What’s going on?”

She took a deep breath and then croaked, “Zain* left. He left One Direction.”

He stopped walking. He stepped away from her to get a clearer look. “Are you being serious right now?”

And, no, he wasn’t expressing shock that Zain had made that decision. All parents everywhere should be laughing at this scene. Of this father so blindsided by his irrational teenaged daughter. She burst into tears and just nodded.

“Please, Daddy, please… can we just go? Please don’t make me go back in there. Can we please just go home?”

“I hope you know this is never gonna happen again.”

“I know, Daddy.”

And with that, they left. She didn’t get the previously promised after-school treat though.

Before you judge, do me a favor and go to YouTube. Pull up a video of some teenaged girls getting to see The Beatles for the first time. For One Directioners, it’s that. You may not think 1D measures up to The Beatles, but I can assure you that their fan base is every bit as intense.

Which brings me to the lesson. Jane took comfort in Tweets about not judging other people’s emotional reactions to events that affect the things they love. And one of them had a good comparison.

Think about the reaction from adult men when a favorite player leaves a favorite team. Think about how the entire city of Cleveland reacted when Lebron James went to the Miami Heat.

Do they go running to the bathroom and cry? Do they beg their bosses to let them go home from work early? No, of course not. They are men, not teenaged girls.

But they sure do whine like little babies on Facebook. They angrily declare their disgust at the disloyalty of the player. They rid themselves of that treasured jersey with that now-despised number. They boo when that player returns on an opposing team.

In short, they react the same. Maybe even worse, since the One Directioners are sad but not particularly angry at the deserter.

Nerds have long complained about how people ridicule their obsessions with Pokemon, comic books, video games, and similar pursuits that non-nerds seem to think we should all grow out of by adulthood. But no one bats an eye at adult obsession with sports. (Ironically, I know some adults nerds who would ridicule Jane’s obsession with 1D).

I think it’s perhaps time that we all step back and give each other some room to breathe. And grieve. We’ve all got our obsessions. And if we are rational, we can admit that those obsessions are irrational. And if we aren’t, our spouses or close friends can whisper it in our ears during a calm moment.

And sometimes, something or someone upsets our obsessed-over apple cart. And we momentarily feel like we can’t go on because of it. People who don’t get it should take a minute to realize they have their own apple carts. And then just wait. We’ll get over it.

I’ll worry if she’s still wound up a week from now. She’s already doing better. She’s righted her cart and she’s picking up her apples. And she’s a bit stronger and a bit more aware of her feelings now than she was before. And that’s an important part of growing up.


*A note on spelling. When I asked Jane to read this to make sure she was ok with me telling the story, she commented that I misspelled his name (Zayne – as can be seen in the text I sent her). Since I got that spelling from news sources, the problem is apparently widespread. I asked her how to spell it and her response made me sad. She said, “It’s Z-A-Y-N. Unless you want to spell it the way he really spells it and then it’s Z-A-I-N. But their publicists decided that was too ethnic so they changed the ‘I’ to a ‘Y’.” Too ethnic? She had to clarify that he is of Arabic descent. This is probably another post entirely but I think it’s sad that we can’t let people be who they really are. Afraid they wouldn’t be a success if we aren’t all fooled into thinking they are “white”? Shame.

The Great Cherry Coke Hunt

I wanted a Cherry Coke.  Really badly.

Most of my adult life I have eschewed soft drinks of any kind.  Either that, or I’ve consumed Code Red.  Or… when concerned about calories, Diet Mountain Dew with cherry drink flavoring added.  I have vacillated between total abstinence and Diet Mountain Dew off and on over the last couple of decades.

Until my doctor expressed her dismay that I was adding chemicals to chemicals and drinking it.  She even started holding me up as an (anonymous) example to her other patients of someone “who ought to know better” doing something profoundly stupid.  And other friends started telling me just how bad the Dew was.

So I kicked Mountain Dew to the curb.

But every once in awhile, during “Happy Hour” at Sonic, I’d get a Coke Zero with cherry and vanilla flavoring added.  I grew to like it.  And then I started worrying about artificial sweeteners.

So a few weeks ago, when I was so very tired at work, I bought a regular, non-diet Cherry Coke.  And loved it.  I knew I was starting a new indulgent phase but justified it (just as I always have) by telling myself that I only drink one 20 oz. bottle a week.  I’ve had one just about every week since.  If I could find it.  A couple of times I’ve had to settle for the inferior Wild Cherry Pepsi.

Because, you see, the Coca-Cola vending machines at work are not overfond of stocking Cherry Coke.  There’s one in the building across from mine, but it’s persnickety about taking my money.  Meaning it often won’t.

And on this particular day last week, when I really didn’t want to settle for Pepsi, it wouldn’t let me feed my dollars in.  Wouldn’t even try to take them.  I knew that the nearby machines didn’t carry Cherry Coke so I widened my search radius.  I checked six additional Coke and Dasani machines, hoping to find Cherry.  I searched upstairs and downstairs.  No Cherry Coke.

I popped my head into an honor-system snack bar and exchanged my bills for quarters.  And tried them in the special golden Cherry Coke possessing machine.  And heard my quarter fall all the way down to the coin return.

Dejected, I left the building and ran into an acquaintance.  I told him my tale of woe.  He asked if I had tried training.  When I asked if they had Cherry Coke in that machine, he said, “I don’t know, but it can’t hurt to check.”

This was an absurd statement since that particular machine was at the far end of the facility.  I pointed out that I was, quite contrary to my norm, wearing heals.  I had already walked enough and couldn’t walk all the way down there on a chance that I’d find Cherry Coke.

“Take my scooter,” he said.  “Seriously, I’m going to be in this building for a little while.  Just go ahead and take it.”

He’s crazy, I thought to myself.  And I am too if I actually take him up on his offer.

And then I climbed into the scooter.  It took me awhile to figure out how to put it in reverse.  I thought I’d thoroughly embarrass myself by climbing back out without going anywhere.  But finally, I was on the go.

I drove to the other end and parked in front of the training department.  I walked past the front desk like I knew exactly what I was doing and entered the break area.  I turned to face the Coca-Cola machine.  The first thing I noticed was the row of Cherry Cokes!  The second thing I noticed was the sign taped to the front that said “Does not work!”

You’ve got to be kidding me.

I said something to the woman at the front desk.  And in her, I found a kindred spirit.  A fellow lover of Cherry Coke.  We shared our similar, yet opposite sorrowful tales.  How mine wouldn’t take my money and how hers would take the money but not give her a drink.  She affirmed my crazy scooter borrowing action by stating she would have done the same in a heartbeat.

I stopped at another building and checked some more machines.  I finally resigned myself to Wild Cherry Pepsi.  And felt more than just a tad ridiculous that I had expended the level of time and energy I had to hunt down a Cherry Coke.

Every Day Design, Part II

Yesterday I talked about the brilliance of the Trident Layers gum packaging. Today I want to talk about…

Toilet paper dispensers.

Particularly, toilet paper dispensers in public restrooms. These are perhaps some of the coolest and simplest designs ever and also the most horribly misused.


So, as I said yesterday, the first step is to identify the problem that needs solving. Here it is. Public restrooms are used by a lot of people and are maintained, not by the people who use them – like in your house, but by people who are hired to do so. It is of the utmost importance to guarantee that there is always toilet paper available to the user. And it is of extreme value to minimize how often the janitor has to visit the room to restock that toilet paper.

Back before the awesome double large-roll dispensers were invented, this was typically solved by stacking more rolls on the back of the toilet. This created other problems, like risking the rolls falling off, thus getting wet and dirty and making a mess of the bathroom. It also forced users to use toilet paper that someone else’s hands had likely been all over.

No, the modern person not only wants guaranteed toiled paper in their stall, they want it untouched by others.

Enter the double large-roll dispensers. The idea is simple. Two very large rolls, side-by-side. People use the front one until it is emptied and then they use the back one. The janitor just has to come by with enough frequency that they get there before the back one is emptied. They move the back one to the front, put a new one in the back, and voila!

Perfect system, right?

Well, almost. It’d be a perfect system if it was only used by engineers and other hopelessly analytical people. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of us in the world to form critical mass.

The first problem is that people don’t always take from the front roll. This wouldn’t be so bad if we could all at least agree to take from whichever one was smaller. Then the system could still work. But, no. Many people don’t pay attention. So sad.

At work, whenever I notice that the paper is hanging down from the big one, I carefully tuck it away and pull down the end from the small one. Later that day, they’ve switched again. I am forced to conclude that someone is actively sabotaging me. Someone is so clueless as to actually believe it is better to take from the fuller roll! People! Sheesh.

There is a design out there that does away with this problem. It’s the kind they had in the bathrooms where I used to work. These have a clever lever that blocks access to the back roll (see the red arrow below). Once the first roll is empty, users can slide it forward until it latches. They can’t move the lever early because of a divider (see the yellow arrow) that prevents movement until the front roll is empty. Once moved, however, users can access the back roll.


Now, this does depend on people being smart enough to figure out how to work the sliding lever. But at least if they can’t figure it out, they only deny themselves toilet paper. They don’t muck up the entire toilet paper distribution system.

Regardless of the specific design of the dispenser, my main beef is with the janitors. Their wanton disregard of the design is particularly alarming. Especially since they arguably went through some sort of training for this job and either they are very inept at retaining important information or their supervisors fail to see the value in properly training their employees in the finer aspects of the job.

In both my previous work area and my current, when one of those jumbo rolls gets close to empty, the janitor pulls it out and sets it on top of the dispenser. Or the hand rail. Or the sanitary napkin disposal unit sticking slightly out from the wall. Whatever surface he or she can find. Why? WHY??!!

No one uses the roll. It just sits there and people use the ones in the dispenser. And eventually one of them gets smallish and… gets placed on top of the previous one. At one point, I walked into a stall and found seven – SEVEN! rolls stacked on top of each other in 2 or 3 piles. Some of the rolls didn’t even qualify as smallish; they were about an inch thick. Remember the problems inherent with rolls not contained within the dispenser?

I had had enough. I had slowly been stewing about the stacked rolls but the seven roll pile pushed me over the top. I asked my admin who was in charge of the janitors and sent that person an email. I detailed how the dispensers were supposed to work and what their crazy, untrained employees were doing instead.

I got no response.

But! All the extra rolls vanished. I couldn’t help but suspect that they went straight to the trash, as did all future prematurely extracted smallish rolls. This really bothered me. Not because it was costing my company money but because it wasn’t necessary. If they would just stock the rolls like they are supposed to, the waste could be eliminated!

And that, really, is the true problem facing designers. The problem is making your elegant design obvious enough that even the average dimwit will benefit and use it correctly. Fail in that regard and, no matter how elegant and perfect your design is, you fail overall.

I am hopeful that after years (literally) of wringing my hands about the mishandling of the dual roll toilet paper dispensers in public restrooms, this rant will be the panacea I need. I hope that having gotten this off my chest, I can again enter the bathroom without my usual angst about the ignorance of the general population with regard to one of the most beautiful day-to-day design marvels of our times.

P.S. When I went looking for pictures, I found the following. I’m pretty sure I’d drool just a bit, or at least feel my heart rate increase, if I came across one of these.


Every Day Design

I am fascinated by the design of things. Not big things like skyscrapers or complicated things like airplanes. I am intrigued by the simple, mundane, every day objects. The objects that are so simple, mundane, every day that the average person doesn’t even notice that there is a design. In fact, they often misuse the object and miss out on the beauty that went into it.

Take the Trident Layers gum package, for example.


Every design starts with a problem to solve. The problem to solve with gum packaging is how to keep the package from collapsing and messing up the tidy arrangement of gum as pieces are removed from the package.


I like how this package solves that problem. There are two rows of gum. We’ll call them the top row (near the flap) and the bottom row. There is a slot in the backside of the bottom row so you can fold that row into the top row and then secure it closed with the flap. But the whole result could start to get crushable once there’s only a few pieces of gum left.

So notice the slot on the top row. See it? Let me show you:


There’s also a perforation between the top and bottom rows. Once you’ve consumed all the gum on the bottom row, you can tear that part of the packaging off and secure the flap in the top row slot, leaving you with a tightly secure, non-collapsing gum package. Beautiful!

So what’s the problem? Here it is:


The design, elegant as it is, depends on consumers using it properly when they, by and large, don’t notice or care about its elegance. I noticed and as a result, I use the package as designed. My boys, on the other hand, just want a piece of gum.

The design is rendered useless unless the consumer is willing to use it as designed.

And that’s what fascinates me about the design of such things. The gum package isn’t too bad. I can – and will – train my children on the proper extraction method of gum from packages in my purse. Other people selecting their gum improperly does not impact me.

That’s not true for all daily use designs. Some have public impact. One in particular has become a ridiculous obsession of mine for an embarrassingly long time. At great risk to your continued belief in my sanity, I will share my tale of woe tomorrow.