In This Episode: Is it a contradiction to laugh at Oregon and New Jersey for not allowing self-serve gas stations, AND to urge businesses to offer better customer service to help them with online competitors? At least one reader thinks so, and here’s why he’s wrong.
- “The Real Reason Self-Service Gas Was Banned in NJ: Corruption” — a column from the Newark Star-Ledger newspaper.
- “The Hapless Oregonian’s 10-step Guide to Pumping Gas” from the Portland Oregonian.
- My essay, The Robot Will See You Now, which includes my photo of the robot blackjack dealer.
- Example coverage of increasing trend in grocery stores: “Between Walmart and Kroger, 500 Stores Are About to Ditch Cashiers” from CNBC.
- The latest on Amazon’s drone delivery efforts: “Amazon Envisions Delivery Drones that Self-Destruct in Emergencies” from Engadget.
- No Longer Weird: after a drunk driver is arrested, then released by police, they call someone to come pick them up — but that person is also arrested because they drove drunk to the police station. (Example from WITI Milwaukee)
- Example coverage of computers writing formulaic news stories, especially sports: try this one in Wired — from 2012!
- Coming soon, “Thinking Toolbox” episodes to make sure you think clearly — or can provide to others so they can think more and/or better. Because the world really does need more thinking! Let me know if you have a “tool” suggestion.
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Comments and Questions?
Randy: Welcome to Uncommon Sense, the Podcast companion to the ThisIsTrue.com newsletter with the mission to promote more thinking in the world. I’m Randy Cassingham.
Kit: And I’m Kit Cassingham.
Randy: This week we’re discussing a story from issue 1230 of the newsletter, which will be included on the Show Page at thisistrue.com/podcast26
There was a funny coincidence with this one. Let’s start with the story, which I’ll read verbatim. I gave it the title, “In Other News, Oregonians Never Drive in Other States”.
Oregonians are tired of being the butt of jokes now that a new state law allows them to pump their own gas. Sort of, anyway: self-serve gasoline was mostly illegal in the state until January 1, 2018. Now, it’s legal in counties with fewer than 40,000 residents, but only between 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. Stories in the news — and, of course, posts online — poke fun at Beaver State residents who don’t seem to be able to figure out how to do it. The Portland Oregonian newspaper published a story with “all the rude things people have said about Oregon since the new gas law went into effect” — and it quickly became the number-one article on the site. The same day, the newspaper published a 10-step illustrated tutorial for “hapless” Oregonians on how to pump gas, and lecturing, “your fear of self-service gas stations is embarrassing, so stop complaining.”
And my tagline: “Buck up, Oregon, it could be worse: you could be New Jersey.”
Kit: So the local newspaper pretty much confirmed that the stories were true: “hapless,” here’s how to do it, step by step with illustrations, and saying that they’re fearful and whining.
Randy: That’s the way I took it, at least.
Kit: OK, so why New Jersey?
Randy: Because New Jersey is the only other state where it’s illegal to pump your own gas.
Kit: I don’t get that. Still?
Randy: Still: an earlier effort to reverse the law there failed. When the New Jersey legislature originally put the law into effect in 1949, they said the problem was “safety.” But that’s not true, claims a columnist at the Newark Star-Ledger newspaper. Instead, it’s a result of corruption.
Kit: What, in New Jersey?!
Randy: Imagine that! Just one line from the columnist: “It’s amazing that New Jersey consumers could still be suffering in the Internet era from a crooked deal that went through in the pre-television era.” I’ll link to the column on the Show Page, it’s pretty interesting. The bottom line: Oregon may be backward, but they’re making strides to move forward well before the last state in the union to fix the problem.
Kit: So you said there was a coincidence with the story. I’m not sure what that is.
Randy: Well as you know, I write TRUE’s stories on Sundays. And on Monday, as I was putting the Premium edition of the newsletter together, something struck me while we were in Las Vegas, so I took a photo and whipped out an essay about that photo that argues that there are some things that just shouldn’t be automated. The picture was of that table we saw at Bally’s of the robot blackjack dealer.
Kit: That was the table that never had anyone using it, day or night?
Randy: That’s the one. In the essay, which I’ll link to from the Show Page, I said that “I’m all for automating processes, but there are some things that just shouldn’t be dehumanized.” That I view gambling as an aspect of entertainment, and sitting there gambling with a machine isn’t very entertaining, and if you’re going to do that, why the heck should you go to a casino to do it? Why not sit at home and gamble, where at least you can listen to the music you like, rather than whatever they choose for you. Or, like me, not gamble at all, because it’s just not entertaining anymore!
Kit: The last time I was at a casino gambling, which was a long time ago, I at least got free drinks, got to see scantily-clad women (which didn’t do me any good, but you know, the guys were enjoying it)—
Randy: They’re the ones bringing you the free drinks.
Kit: — they’re the ones serving me free drinks. And they want tips too, by the way. But it seems to me most casino gambling is automated. I mean, the one-armed bandits — except there aren’t arms now, they’re buttons.
Randy: Yeah, the slot machines are all— they don’t use coins, they use cards, so you’re not even having to scoop up the quarters or whatever.
Kit: That’s right! You know, I didn’t— I wish we had talked about that more while we were there, because it would have been interesting to go in search of a gambling opportunity with a human. Like, would the roulette wheel be automated, or with a person?
Randy: Roulette almost always has a person….
Randy: Good question: I don’t know, I’ve never played keno.
Kit: I haven’t either, but historically they were always with people. So: more research to be done!
Randy: Anyway, then the essay talked about checkouts at grocery stores. Kroger and Walmart are both working hard to eliminate checkers completely: they want everything to be automated. Yeah, it does cost money to hire people to do checkouts, but if a brick and mortar store isn’t going to provide any human interaction at all, then why go there?
So my conclusion was, “I’m far from a Luddite: I love tech. But I like people, too, and I’m wondering if we’re going too far. Customer service matters: it’s why I have an employee who takes care of your orders, and your questions. Sorry, but I’m not going to play blackjack with a machine. Or if I was inclined to, I would do it from home, not at a smoky casino that offers me $15 drinks and $16 burgers which are mediocre at that. And even though Walmart is the closest store to my house, why go there if the only employees are security guards watching me — or would those just be robotic cameras? I’ll take Amazon over that every time, and take my chances that Tanya, my UPS driver, will still be behind the wheel.”
Kit: Yeah, Tanya take really good care of us! I don’t want a drone!
Randy: Yeah, I don’t want one either, but it seems to me that big businesses are chasing the bottom: trying to eliminate costs, but what they’re also doing is making their businesses less hospitable to their customers. Which means they actually push their customers to the competition — to somewhere else where maybe they’ll get better service, better prices, or more convenience. And the other aspect is, if everyone is out of a job because robots take over, then who’s going to have any money to buy stuff in the first place? The so-called “one percent” — the people that are ending up with all the money — it seems they both don’t want to pay anyone a decent wage to do any jobs, but on the other hand they want someone else to do all the hard work for them.
So here’s where it starts getting amusing: some readers seem to think there’s a contradiction going on here. In the same issue, I chuckle at New Jersey for not letting people pump their own gas, but I also say there should be better customer service in businesses as diverse as casinos and grocery stores if they want to win against online competitors.
Kit: There are often gas stations around that will pump your gas for you — if you’re willing to pay enough.
Randy: Indeed. And here’s the thing: a reader says I’m hypocritical for criticizing the law requiring gas stations to pump gas for you, while also saying I prefer to have human interaction when I, say, go to a grocery store.
Kit: I see a difference.
Randy: So do I. And it should be up to businesses to offer customer service to attract customers, just like some gas stations provide full service to those who really want it — and, of course, show that desire by paying for it. If no one wants to pay to have that employee at the ready to do it for them? Then they’ll stop offering it: the law of supply and demand seems pretty obvious. But having the government mandate it takes the choice away, it interferes with the law of supply and demand: in that case, everyone has to pay for it whether they want it or not.
Kit: Seems obvious if you think about it. But you can’t very well spell all this out in every essay.
Randy: No, that would be a horrible bore, for me and for readers. And of course, that’s what TRUE is about: reminding readers to think about the issues raised for themselves, because the more practiced you are at thinking, the more obvious things like this become. I shouldn’t have to spell it out for everyone. And to be fair, the vast majority of readers got this without any explanation whatever.
Kit: Maybe some readers just need more tools in their “how-to-think” toolbox.
Randy: Funny you should say that — you know, after I asked you to bring that up before we came in to record.
Kit: And it seemed like such a natural segue!
Randy: You did it nicely. As Kit and I drove home from Las Vegas, it occurred to me that I should do some episodes about how to think — or, if you’re already a great thinker, how to help others think more, or do a better job at it. Little tools that you can add to your thinking toolbox so you can see the fallacies better so, like Kit, they’re obvious to you. For instance, if it’s so freaking dangerous to pump gas, as New Jersey lawmakers continue to insist, then why can gas stations in that state hire teenagers off the street to do it? Or, even more importantly, why is it that people in all 49 other states seem to be able to pump gas without 20 or 30 gas stations blowing up every day?
Kit: I’m getting to the point where I’m thinking that if some government agency says we have to do something because of “safety,” we should immediately wonder what the real reason is, because it’s probably something related to special interests, or corruption….
Randy: There you go: you just gave them a great thinking tool. That’s a useful rule of thumb!
Kit: Well thank you very much!
Randy: So look for those episodes every now and then. I already have a topic in mind for the first one, so that will probably be included in next week’s episode. Meanwhile, if you have a great tool or book that you’d like to suggest I cover that will help listeners think more or better, which again is TRUE’s mission, you can email me from thisistrue.com/contact.
Last: I’m still not done declaring certain kinds of stories as “No Longer Weird”. This week, it’s when the police are ready to release a drunk driver after his arrest, and the person who comes to bail them out or pick them up to take them home, can’t do that because they drove drunk to the police station, and they’re arrested themselves.
Kit: Well that’s no huge surprise I guess: alcoholism often runs in families, and that’s probably who’s picking the person up.
Randy: Very much so. In this case, it was in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, which is a ’burb of Milwaukee. The drunk driver, who had been arrested in a bar’s parking lot after he ran into a parked vehicle, was told after he was booked that he could call — as the police put it — someone “sober and responsible” to come pick him up. Sure enough, he called someone who was neither sober nor responsible. Now, that’s no shock at all because, as Kit says, very often birds of a feather do flock together. The part that amazes me is, these people are so out of touch that it doesn’t seem to scare them to be summoned to the police department, where they know they’ll be observed up close by the cops. And they don’t think those officers will notice they’re too drunk to drive? Really?
Kit: Well, alcohol clouds judgment, which is why they shouldn’t be driving in the first place.
Randy: The best part of this was, this particular case happened during a nationwide anti-drunk-driving campaign in late December with the astoundingly catchy program title of “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over”. They didn’t have to pull this guy over, he staggered in to the police department on his own, and security camera footage shows that yes, he did in fact drive to the police department and parked in their lot.
Kit: Well that doesn’t even sound like a good “catching” program. That’s like shooting fish in a barrel, just waiting for them to come to you!
Randy: This is True! So for one of these cases to make it into This is True in the future, they’ll have to do something a lot weirder than that.
Kit: Good luck!
Randy: That’s it for this week. I look forward to your thoughts about the robots coming to take your job. Yep, even writing is being automated: that started with sports stories, since those are so formulaic. So if you have a favorite sports writer, he may be out of a job real soon now. Anyway, the comments section on the Show Page is open at thisistrue.com/podcast26. But you have to be human to post there. After that, a human — me — will review and approve it if it adds to the discussion.
I’m Randy Cassingham…
Kit: And I’m Kit Cassingham. I really like human interactions, but: don’t drink and drive!
Randy: Good advice. …And we’ll talk at you later.