Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Evolution of Convolution

The following story is fiction.  But it is not bullshit.

My neighbor, Dick, is in the pharmaceutical business.  His hero is Dr. Henri Breault, who, in 1967, invented the child-proof cap.  Dick was four years old at the time, and still recalls his first encounter with such a cap, when he swallowed nine of his father's pills for back pain and had to have his stomach pumped.  He was only four, but had outsmarted Dr. Breault.  Dick has dedicated his adult life to making something as simple as taking a pill a major hassle by designing packaging that is not only child-proof, but a major challenge to adults as well.

Dick was participating in a trade show called "The Evolution of Convolution", and I was given a free pass.  I didn't feel like going, but after last month's blizzard,  my snow plow guy had dumped my driveway snow into his driveway, and I felt I owed him one.

I had no idea what to expect, but never imagined it would be as big as it was.  Apparently, convolution is a big business.   As I entered the convention hall, I was handed a map with a schematic of the booths.  The room was laid out like a maze, presumably in keeping with the theme.  There was a numbered list of vendors, though the booths on the map were lettered.

I tossed the map and went with the old point-and-go method of wandering.  There was a good sized crowd also wandering aimlessly, creating an awkward flow that led me to my first booth: a remote control design company called Fuggit, LLC.  A buxom blonde in a very tight T-shirt with "Fuggit" stretched across her breasts handed me a remote control.

"Solid buttons."  I said.

"Thank you."  she laughed.  She thought I was talking about her tits.

"Your remote control.  It's solid buttons."  I said, holding up the remote.  It had buttons on the front, back, and sides.

A bearded, overweight guy with "Fuggit" stretched across his boobs jumped in with the pitch.  "What you're holding is the next generation of all-in-one remote controls.  This remote promises to work every electronic device in your house.  That's it's promise.   However, it is so sophisticated that, in test marketing,  only adult males between 20 and 30 years old could successfully work it.  65% of children aged 5 to 11 used it as a toy spaceship,  98% of teenagers couldn't care less, 87% of people between age 35 and 60 either smashed it, pounded it on their coffee tales, or tossed it through their TV screens, and 99% of people over age 65 could not even find the 'power' button."

Fuggit."  I said, handing him beck his remote.

At the next booth,  several people were already getting the pitch from a toy packaging company rep.  "Who doesn't have childhood memories of Christmas Day, going crazy getting your toys out of their packages?  In my day, it was as simple as Dad whipping out the ol' pocket knife and zip, zip, done. With our patented Plasrete injection molds, Dad's going to need a sawzall to free Barbie from her box.  We'll have Mr. Potato Head sealed up like Han Solo in carbonite."

I heard Dick calling me.  He was waving his arms over a sea of conventioneers. His booth was about ten yard away, but the layout being overly planned, I had to walk 150 yards to get there.  Dick kept waving as I turned left, then left, then right , then left, then right, right, right.  I didn't seem to be getting any closer.  At last, I realized he was gesturing for me to get down.  I got on the floor and crawled under booth tables.  I saw Dick, now waving from a squatting position.

"Steve!  You made it!"  He said, helping me up.

"I don't know how you're supposed to get to your booth." I said.

"Just the way you did it."  He laughed.  "We planned it that way."

He introduced me to his booth babes, who were challenging two senior citizens to get pills out of a bubble pack, and handed me a sample.  "This is the latest generation of bubble-packed medicine.  We have worked closely with pharmaceutical companies to ensure that the tightest bubble packs available contain the smallest pills possible.  Just look at these seniors trying to get their numb, arthritic fingers between the bubble casing and the foil backing.  Then watch them try to get that tiny pill out."

We watched as the old men fondled, bent, bit, and cursed the bubble packing.  "That's one of my designs." He boasted to the booth babes.

"So, why make it so difficult?  No offense, but it seems kind of overkill to me."

"Overkill!"  Dick laughed, and called over to the guy in the next booth, hawking smoke detectors that beep for new batteries in middle of the night.  "Hey Barney!  He said it's overkill!"

Barney laughed and said, over the din of beeping smoke detectors. "Congratulations!"

"Is that the idea, to fuck with old people? "  I said. "I mean, they need their pills, can't see well, have limited dexterity...."

"If they need their pills bad enough, they'll get it open."  Dick said out the side of his mouth.  He was showing off for the booth babes. He showed me a couple of his company's 'classic' line: a safety cap that required you to push down, squeeze, turn, and pull up simultaneously, and a pill ergonomically designed to slip through your fingers.  "These are Golden Convolution Award winners. Major breakthroughs in complex packaging."

"Wow."  I said.  "Hey Dick, I'm kind getting thirsty.  Is there a soda machine around here?"

Dick's face lit up.  "Oh, you've got to see this."  He said, leading me through the crowd, under a few booths, down a stairwell, through a very dark corridor, to a spotlit booth  for a vending machine company called "Survender Machines".  An overly caffeinated woman in a suit greeted us.

"My friend is thirsty."  Dick said excitedly.

The woman jumped into her pitch.  "The Survender 5000 is the answer to your thirst needs and the ultimate thirst experience!  Using state of the art technology developed by NASA and Disney Imagineering, the Survender 5000 will satisfy your thirst by deciding for you just what you want to drink.."

"I want a Sprite."  I said.

She laughed with a hint of condescension.  "The Survender 5000 will be the judge of that.  First, step onto the mat with the footprints.  The 5000 will calculate your height and weight and blood sugar as you type your name and phone number in the keypad."

"What for?" I said.

"Here, I'll do mine."  the pitch woman said impatiently, typing madly.  Now, the screen will ask you a series of questions.  Age? Marital status?  Income?  Zip code?  Religion?  Political affiliation?"

"Can't I just put in my money and get a drink?"  I said.

"The Survender 5000 is a beverage experience."  She said.  "People will pay good money for that, and the Survender 5000 is there to fill that need."

"What's a Sprite cost in a Survender 5000?"

"Six dollars."  She said. "Now see, the 5000 has determined that I want a Dr.Pepper.   Now I have the choice to accept or decline."

"What if you decline?"

"Then you  answer a few more questions.  Thing like sexual orientation, types of pets..."

I never did get that Sprite.  Dick sent me around to a few more vendor friends, designers of mall parking lots, designers of health care systems, designers of cel phones, lawn movers, dishwashers, microwaves, and even toasters all driven to make their products overly complicated, redundant, and largely useless.   Do I really need a sofa-bed with cup holders, a cooler, and warming tray?   No, but thanks to great Americans like my neighbor Dick, I could!

Thanks, Dick!


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