Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Scary Big

There is a disturbing new trend happening with Halloween the last few years. And, no, not my Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup-induced weight gain. That has been a disturbing trend for many years now.

I’m talking about the size of the yard decorations. Specifically, the newly popular twelve-foot-tall skeletons. Twelve feet tall! For you math folks out there, that’s a full six feet taller than a standard six-foot-tall skeleton!

Home Depot also sells a fifteen-foot “Towering Animatronic Phantom” and a twelve-foot hovering witch. If you’re looking for something in a reasonable size, they also carry a nine-and-a-half-foot-tall werewolf.

This trend toward larger front yard decorations is disturbing on two separate levels. The first is cost. Have you priced these damn things? The ridiculously tall skeletons are three hundred bucks! It’s a skeleton. By definition, that’s the most stripped-down version of a body you can buy, and it’s still three bills. That’s insane.

The only thing you should be spending that kind of money on at Halloween is Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. And I’ll need your address, please.

The second disturbing aspect of this new trend is storage. I realize you decorated your yard for Halloween in late August, but that still leaves roughly ten months of the year you have to store these things. And no, leaving the huge skeleton up after October 31st and putting a Santa hat on it, trying to pass it off as a Christmas decoration, is not socially acceptable behavior. (This actually happened across the street from our friends’ house. I am not making that up.)

I’m sure the twelve-foot skeleton breaks down a little bit, but that’s still a good-sized bag of bones you have to stash somewhere. And let’s be serious – no one owns just the big skeleton. If you shelled out three hundred bucks for one of those bad boys, you also have seven normal size skeletons worshiping it at its feet, the werewolf, and a full graveyard.

Where do you store it all?? Since you spent so much on the decorations, do you just go all-the-way-crazy and rent a year-round storage space for it all? Or have you figured out some insane garage storage hack that I don’t know about?

We don’t even really have Halloween stuff to speak of, but between our multiple freezers that hold all the burger patties and chicken nuggets for the three teenage boys, a few tools, and my wife’s Christmas decorations, I’ve got a three-car garage that just barely fits one of our cars.

Please, tell me your secrets!

Happy Halloween, y’all. Stay safe, give freely with the peanut butter cups to support hard-working dads, and most importantly, take the giant skeletons down on November 1st.

See you soon,



Copyright © 2022 Marc Schmatjen


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Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Financial Fitness?

People like Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman talk about the obvious benefits of “financial fitness” all the time. I’ve noticed, however, that no one ever talks about the literal, physical aspect of that term. The detrimental finances of fitness.

We have three teenage boys, and they are all athletic, so naturally they eat a lot. This didn’t come as a shock to us. We even had a cautionary tale from my mom about my senior year in high school. My two older sisters had left home for college, but my mom reported that year was her highest food bill year ever, with just one of us left in the house.

How can you tell if a teenage boy is sleeping? He’s not eating.

Son Number Two, however, has taken this teenage boy eating thing to another level. To heavily paraphrase a Garfield T-shirt I saw once: He’s into fitness. Fitness whole side of the fridge into his mouth.

Number Two bought himself a gym membership last year, and he pre-paid for an entire year because that was the best deal. It’s a relatively inexpensive gym, but it was still a sizeable chunk of money for a teenager to put down. We talked it over with him, then let him make the decision. I figured at worst it would be a good financial lesson to learn.

It has been a good financial lesson – for the gym. They are learning that if they offer my son a one-year, prepaid membership, he can go to the gym often enough to make it only cost about two cents per visit. Sorry, Crunch Fitness, you blew that one.

It doesn’t seem to matter what his day consisted of, he will end it at the gym. He goes to a two-hour lacrosse conditioning workout, and then heads straight to the gym for at least an hour afterwards. He’s a crazy person.

As you can imagine, he requires quite a bit of food. I did too, at his age, but here’s the difference - I never cared what I ate. I just wanted a lot of it. He’s following weightlifters and fitness instructors on social media and so now I have at least one teenager who wants specific food. Mostly protein.

I’m still lobbying congress for the inclusion of nachos on the healthy eating pyramid, so I tend to kinda zone out when he starts taking about macronutrients and grams of something or other per scoop of protein powder.

Here’s what I do know, though. Protein is expensive!

It was expensive before gas was ten dollars per ounce. Now it’s just insane. Combine that with the sheer amount he’s eating, and not even a 9-1-1 call to Warren Buffett could help us now.

The Costco bag of chocolate protein powder costs more than the set of tires I bought in high school for my Jeep. Add to that the two Costco rotisserie chickens he wanted for “this week,” that will only last him three or four days. And you’ve seen the Costco chickens. They’re the size of adolescent turkeys. They make grocery store rotisserie chickens look like someone oven-roasted a parakeet.

The other night I was cooking dinner on the stove – literally fifteen minutes before dinnertime – and he was standing beside me, frying up six eggs in a pan on the next burner.

“Just a quick pre-dinner snack, Dad.”

Fifteen minutes later, he ate a full dinner, went to the gym, and had a six more eggs and a thirty-seven-dollar protein shake when he got home.

I love my boys and everything, but I’m kinda looking forward to when all three of them are in college at the same time. Even with the skyrocketing cost of tuition, it still has to be cheaper than this.

See you soon,



Copyright © 2022 Marc Schmatjen


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Wednesday, October 12, 2022

reCAPTCHA a Rabbit

Have you ever wondered how the CAPTCHA tests got started, or why they are so ridiculous, or even what CAPTCHA means?

Yeah, me neither, until the other day.

Turns out, CAPTCHA tests were invented to aid in the digitization of books. When the scanning picked up a word that the computer didn’t recognize, the software would send out two words to be verified – a control word, like “word” or “control,” along with the word in question.

Who did these words get sent to? You and me. Every time we had to type in those two words that had some random wavy line running through them when we were trying to buy something on the interwebs, we were unwittingly helping a computer accurately convert books to digital form.

If enough of us typed in the second word the same way, the computer would assume it was valid and use it in the book. Fun, huh?

So, what does CAPTCHA mean? Glad you asked. Apparently, it’s a contrived acronym for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart."

What is a Turing test, you are probably asking now, like I was when I looked up what CAPTCHA meant. The Turing test, originally called the imitation game by Alan Turing in 1950, is a test of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.

(Alan Turing, of course, eventually went on to found Cyberdyne Systems, which as you know, used CAPTCHA to perfect the artificial intelligence in Skynet, eventually leading to the machines becoming self-aware and total thermonuclear destruction of the planet, followed by the terminators. Not a great legacy, Alan.)

As you also know, the original CAPTCHA system was flawed because none of us could ever read either of the words through the wavy lines, and we had to ask for new words at least six times until we got “and” and “cat.”

To improve the system, they made everything wavier and added numbers, so the words were no longer words. When that didn’t work, they got rid of the wavy lines and just melted the two number-words, making it impossible to decipher them no matter how many tries you asked for. This led to a very brief uptick in consumers shopping at actual stores again. The CAPTCHA folks were forced to re-improve the system quickly, however, when it was discovered that all the actual stores had gone out of business.

In September of 2009, Google acquired the CAPTCHA system in a multi-faceted business deal that also included the purchase of Cyberdyne Systems, the entire state of California, and the rights to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body after he, as they put it, “powers down for the final time.”

At some point, probably due to all the bad Skynet publicity, Google renamed the system to reCAPTCHA. The “re” stands for “really excellent.” Google explains the reCAPTCHA system as using an advanced risk analysis engine and adaptive challenges to keep malicious software from engaging in abusive activities on your website. Meanwhile, legitimate users will be able to login, make purchases, view pages, or create accounts and fake users will be blocked.

Google’s anti-bot detection has become so advanced that it now works in the background without the need for melted letters and numbers. There was a brief period of time when we were required to click on all the pictures in a grid that had a stoplight in them, or a crosswalk, or a car. This was cumbersome, though, because the guy outside of Google headquarters with the camera taking pictures of the street could not keep up with demand.

Google finally distilled it down to a single checkbox that simply asks you to confirm, “I'm not a robot.” This seemingly simple system works on the wickedly intelligent conundrum a computer would find itself in when posed with the choice of lying or telling the truth. Computers are forced to think in terms of ones and zeros, so they are unable to lie because they would have to divide by zero to do so, which would render them useless. Genius!

The “I'm not a robot” checkbox brings us to the other day. I clicked it, naturally, but Google didn’t quite believe that I was human. For the first time in my history with the checkbox, I was given a secondary quiz. I was presented with the six-picture grid again, only this time, there were no cars, stoplights, or traffic cones.

Click on each picture that shows a rabbit swimming.

How sophisticated are these bots becoming!? I mean, that is really specific! We used to just have to distinguish between cats and dogs, or something like that. Now we have swimming rabbits?

For the first time in all my years with CAPTCHA, I got a little nervous about what might happen if I got the answer wrong. If we’re all the way to swimming rabbits in order to detect malicious bots, then these things are obviously a bigger problem than I thought. Does my door get kicked in by the FBI if I click on a patch of water with no rabbit?

And I honestly can’t tell if that’s a beaver, and otter, or a rabbit. It’s just a blurry photo of something swimming and we can only see the head. Is that a rabbit with its ears back, or some other mammal?

Or is this some super-advanced trickery, and as a human, I’m supposed to know that rabbits can’t swim? Because honestly, I’m not sure if they can or not. I mean, that one picture sure looks like a rabbit swimming, but we all know what a bot can do with photoshop these days.

I would Google whether rabbits can swim or not, but I’m not falling into that trap. That’s just what the bot would do.

I miss the melted number-words.

See you soon,



Copyright © 2022 Marc Schmatjen


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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

An Open Letter to Uber

Dear Uber,

As you obviously know, I used your service twice this weekend. I have a few issues I’d like to let you know about.

On my Friday morning ride, Dustin picked me up in a Tesla. I thought that was pretty cool. I wondered about the economics behind that, and during our conversation he shed some light on it. Turns out Dustin is renting the Tesla from you guys.

That led to a lot more economic questions, but I kept them to myself because I was pretty sure I already knew the answers. Dustin was a nice guy, a good driver, and his (your) Tesla was nice and comfy. I thanked him for the ride, wished him the best of luck, and gave him five stars..

But then I looked at my bill when you emailed it to me. Along with the Uber Booking Fee of $5.97, the Airport Surcharge of $3.00, and the City Surcharge of $0.50, which were all totally worth it and appreciated, by the way, you hit me with a $0.55 Temporary Fuel Surcharge.

Umm, what?

You know damn well Dustin is driving a Tesla. You wouldn’t be able to pretend you didn’t even if he was the one who owned the thing, because a central part of your service is telling me the make and model of the car to look for. But it’s even worse in this case, because it’s your Tesla. C’mon, fellas! That’s just cheap, and I might actually try to do something about it other than this letter if it weren’t only fifty-five cents, which is exactly why you’ll keep getting away with it, which makes me even crazier.

You are basically looters. Do better.

Now, let’s discuss my Sunday ride. My main man Thanh picked me up in a black Toyota Highlander, that I am assuming he owned. Thanh spoke basically no English at all, so our ride to the airport was quiet, and his Google maps was throwing some crazy-looking words up on the screen, none of which made any sense to me, but apparently Thanh could read it, because we got there.

Thanh’s Highlander was impeccable, but his driving style was obviously imported from his country of origin. He was not a dangerous driver, he just wasn’t a smooth driver. In any way. At all.

I believe he considered gas and brake pedals to function as on/off switches, and his goal with any lane change was to get into the new lane as fast as possible. I think he would have jumped the lane lines if he could have. His goal on any curve was to wait until the last possible second and then do all the steering at once at the end, presumably for efficiency?

The car itself was very comfortable when we were parked. Just not so much whenever we were moving. I would have loved to give him some constructive feedback on his driving, but our communication barrier was simply too tall.

Now, up until Sunday, I really hadn’t paid too much attention to you star rating system. I always just gave the driver, like Dustin for example, five stars. Thanh got me thinking about the rating system for the first time as we jerked to a stop at the airport. As he unloaded my bag from the back, he spoke his first of two memorized English sentences. I am assuming it was something to the effect of “thanks for riding with me,” or “have a good flight,” but he hadn’t memorized it quite right, so I didn’t understand.

English sentence two of two was clear as a bell, however. “You give me five stars.” I don’t know if it was a question, a command, a demand, or a polite request, because Thanh didn’t have English inflection down yet. It just ended flat, but he said it twice, just to make sure I heard him. I just smiled and thanked him for the ride.

Now, like I said, he wasn’t a dangerous driver, just a bad one. As I sat in the airport, I fired up your Uber app and attempted to give him helpful feedback. You have no section for notes, so stars were the only thing available to me. Here’s where I’d like to see some improvement on your end.

Thanh’s driving did not deserve five stars, and I really wanted to give him three, but I was feeling charitable because my neck made it through the ride without hurting so I decided to go with four. I clicked on the fourth star and was immediately presented with a list of secondary choices as to why or how my driver attempted to murder and/or humiliate me.

I had a Dangerous Driving option, a Driver was Rude option, Offensive Language, Offensive Odor, Reckless Endangerment of Children and the Elderly, Threats on my Life or the Lives of my Family and Pets, Offensive Clothing, Excessive or Disturbingly Audible Chewing, Jazz Music, Hit Someone in a Crosswalk and Kept Going, Robbed Me at Knifepoint/Gunpoint, and Participated in a Drive-By Shooting Enroute, just to name a few.

I might be remembering some of those wrong.

The thing was, none of them were anywhere close to what I wanted to convey and there was no way for me to just let the dude know he needs to drive smoother. I certainly didn’t want him to lose his job, so I reluctantly clicked on the fifth star. Amazingly, with the five-star rating, there are no secondary feedback choices.

Basically, you have taken our tried and true, perfectly good five-star system and somehow turned it into a binary driver rating. My driver was either absolutely amazing, or a homicidal maniac.

Please fix that, and for the love of Pete, stop charging people for gas in electric cars.

With three actual stars for Thanh and one star for your star rating system,



Copyright © 2022 Marc Schmatjen


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