“Welcome to Cityline!”

Before we really had the internet and podcasts as a limitless fount of information, the residents of my hometown had Cityline. I loved Cityline. It was a phone system done by the local newspaper where you used a directory to call and listen to information. It was updated regularly and had some great regional info and some fun syndicated content.

The earliest mention of it I could find was from this USA Today newsgroup post archived on MIT’s website from 1992:

SPOKANE BUYS CITYLINE SYSTEM:
   The Brite Voice Systems Inc. says it has sold a Cityline system 
to the Spokane (Wash.) Chronicle & Spokesman-Review. The system 
provides a variety of telephone information services to the 
Spokane market. Spokane Chronicle & Spokesman-Review serves 
Western Washington and Northern Idaho. It is owned by Cowles 
Publishing Co.

That’s pretty dry, but from my research was kind of a unique move on the part of the Spokesman-Review. And the Spokesman-Review used the heck out of it. Searching around in their archives you can find many articles that reference it. “Call Cityline to hear a song!” “What do you think? Call Cityline and leave us a message!” It’s all over the place.

Thanks to Google News and the Spokesman-Review, I can show you a clipping of what the Cityline Guide looked like. I think this eventually doubled in size.

A phone tree for a city information line. A variety of topics are listed with phone numbers.

As a kid, I know I called up and listened to the comedy recordings, which were usually a person doing a bit with a funny voice or a lame joke. Mr. Science’s World of the Really Amazing I remember checking out every week. The trivia games were good, too – you would answer by pressing a number on your phone. It was interactive in a basic way. There was choose your own adventure style stories later on, listed under the heading, “Adventure Stories”. I had forgotten that, but reading this reddit thread jogged my memory. There were also mini-soap operas, if my memory serves me. It updated the entertainment pieces weekly, so I can remember looking forward to dialing in and listening to the latest installment of my Cityline numbers.

Sometimes you’d end up stuck in one section of the phone tree and you’d have to hang up and try again. Sometimes you’d find a neglected number that hadn’t been updated in some time. There was also entering a random number, too, and seeing where it led you. I’m sure I tried to listen to all the extensions at one point.

And the voice of the main announcer… I can still remember it. I tried valiantly to find any recording of Cityline but they just don’t exist. The latest mention I can find of Cityline is from a Spokesman-Review article in 1998. Googling the number shows it was acquired by a local cinema, which is kind of a smart move when people are used to dialing it up for movie times.

I just told my husband I was blogging about this. “It was the thing I would call up on the phone when I was bored with no friends around.” He made a face. “It’s really dumb and dorky.” He agreed. But you know what? It kept me company. It was a formative part of my pre-teen years. I was informed and probably slightly obsessed with it.

RIP, Cityline. Thanks for the memories.

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I quit subscription boxes.

A pile of cardboard shipping boxes with the text 'it's not you it's me'.

My first subscription box was at Quarterly. Quarterly gets really neat people and businesses to curate boxes of cool stuff every quarter. You buy in at a set rate (like $50 per box) and select your curator. Their box gets shipped to you and the items within are totally secret to you until they arrive.

It’s a great concept. I jumped in when one of my favorite blogs, Unclutterer, was getting in on the action. It was exciting! Like Christmas! A box with secret items on my door step. And I liked the idea that these were selected by someone whose opinion I valued. The objects within would be worth my money.

But soon the novelty wore off. I had $50 of items to help me organize my home, but they weren’t all things that I would be able to use. Or return. I canceled before my next box came.

This is the problem with these subscription services. If you’re not familiar, they’re showing up hot and heavy on the internet lately. It’s a model very similar to Quarterly (described above), but with different products. There’s clothing, makeup, accessories, toys, pet treats, meals… all kinds of things. Selected for you by the experts at these companies and shipped to your home.

The companies are nice enough. My experience with Stitch Fix and Dia & Co., two services that evaluate your style and send you five clothing items to try, were great from a customer service standpoint. (And each of them shipped me items made in America when I asked if they could!) The folks at Blue Apron were kind, too, when I canceled after my first week. The food wasn’t too shabby, either.

But the clothes are never quite right. One or two items will be okay… or I’d have to settle on one article of clothing so not to lose my styling fee. (The fee is $20 you pay initially, which gets credited to the price of an item you keep.) Blue Apron had meals that weren’t really my style (or had nuts in them, but those are easy enough to omit or avoid) but I tried them anyway.

Here’s my core issue. It’s something that can’t be erased by the fuzzy happy feeling that is “I’m getting a special package in the mail with a surprise inside!” Nor free shipping. Or coupon codes.

These companies employ experts to handpick a package for me. But… they’re not experts on me. How could they be? I am one lady out of thousands. The allure of asking an expert to pick something especially for me is tempting but it’s a hard fantasy to deliver on.

I’m sure there are people out there who are like, “Yes! Nailed it!” and end up with five new clothing items in their closet. I’m sure there are people who thrive in the structure a food delivery service gives them. Who are excited about new makeup. New toys. New stuff. But I can’t seem to find a groove. Usually it’s a hit and miss.

I think I’ll keep to being my own personal shopper. I know what I like to wear and what I can eat. If I see something in a store, I can make a decision about it without having it shipped to my house first. There are a lot of wonderful things on the internet that I’ve enjoyed doing  and buying – this just isn’t one of them.

As for all the subscription services I’ve listed above, just remember – It’s not you. It’s me. Thanks for trying.

Alt Text

Okay, this is a little PSA on alt text. What is alt text? If you use WordPress or design websites, you might have seen it as a field on your pictures. If you do web design, you might recall hearing about it. Alt text is “alternative text” and it has it’s roots in the earlier days of the web.

This goes back to the days where we had dial up internet. Remember that? WEEEEE TRRRRK ACK ACK ACK. The modem dialed up and you waited for those sweet, sweet internets to come to you. Well, back in those days, images were slow loading. Alt text would explain what a photo was before it loaded. Or if it didn’t load… which was a common issue back then!

Well, there’s a case to be made for why it’s still relevant on the web today and it has everything to do with accessibility.

I found out about this issue from a good buddy of mine named Miller. Miller’s my age and completely blind. A childhood friend of my husband’s, they grew up together. Miller was sighted back then but lost his sight in his 20s. But Miller, god bless, is a nerd like us. So not being able to see the internet won’t keep him from using it.

He uses a screen reader. JAWS is the most common. And it reads the internet to him. The reader goes SO FAST. Everythingseemsstrungtogetherwithnobreakjustthislongalmostbuzzingsoundthatisthetextbeingread. He says he can keep up. Sometimes I wonder if normally paced conversations are agony for him.

For Miller and people like him, alt text is how they can know what a picture is supposed to be. It is read to them along with the text in the article/site/page/etc. In my gig as Online Editor at my school newspaper, we incorporated alt text day one. And while it is kind of a long process, I’m glad we do it.

Take a look at the last photo you took on your phone. How would you describe it to someone who couldn’t see? How would you describe it to someone who might not know what colors are?

See? Kinda hard, right?

It’s not only the right thing to do, there’s been laws and legislation passed that require compliance and reasonable accommodations be made in regards to those who need an accessible internet. Alt text is just the beginning. Some websites are designed in such a way that it is incredibly hard for screen readers to navigate.

I will say, I can be better. I’m going to go back and make sure all my photos on this blog have alt text. It’s just a little thing that makes a huge difference for folks. It’s something maybe you can do, too, if you have control over your content.

I’ll end this post by linking to a video of Tommy Edison, noted film critic who was blind since birth,  describing colors, which is just as interesting as it sounds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59YN8_lg6-U

My “Must Listen” Podcasts

I love podcasts. I used to bike to and from work for years, listening to podcasts with one earbud in. I started with NPR – a ton of NPR – but then comedy podcasting started taking off. Comedians I loved were putting out content for free. What they lost in time they gained in notoriety and new fans. Then there were shows diving into weird, niche topics that only I really cared about and I couldn’t imagine why they existed… except to entertain me. The bike has been replaced with a car, but I still fill my commute with podcasts. They fall into two categories: serious, interesting stuff and dumb, silly comedy stuff. Folks are always asking me what I’m listening to, so here’s a list of my go to podcasts.

Oh, and if you have a show to recommend, let me know! I am always looking for new stuff to listen to.

Here’s the interesting ones!

 

Oh No Ross and Carrie: Ross and Carrie investigate different religions and spiritual/pseudo-science experiences… and they do it from as neutral a place as they can. I was introduced to them when episode one of their series on Scientology dropped. They’re nice people and not looking to expose – just experience and report. Which is why I think this show is so good. Episode to try: Going Preclear (Part 1)

Criminal: This show profiles different crimes and the criminals that commit them. While the topic seems like it would be very narrow, just a rehash of those true crime TV shows you see on all the time, the podcast is fresh and intriguing. Episode to try: Episode 40 – Pappy

Reply All: This show is still all about the internet and still one of my favorites! I’ve talked about them before, but this is a reminder that you should be listening to them. Episode to try: #47 – Quit Already!

 

If you’re a big dumb comedy nerd like I am, try these out!

 

Comedy Bang Bang: CBB is my must listen to podcast every week. Comedians come on and become silly characters and have an improvised conversation. It is often weird and raunchy and is sort of the quintessential improv comedy experience through your ears. It has introduced me to characters I love. It has a TV show now. It is not 100% Grade A every time, but it makes me laugh. If you’re a serious comedy nerd, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly. Everyone else will probably just find this weird and judge me a lot. Episode to try: #338 – Be My Guest, Literally! They usually don’t just have regular people in the studio but their special guest plays along really well. If you like this, I’d listen to the “Best of” episodes to see if you’re in.

Spontaneanation: Comedian Paul F. Tompkins didn’t start out as a king of comedy podcasts, but he is now. Prolific and a great improviser, he’s a frequent guest on other shows. But did you know he has his own?! Yes! It’s a funny improv podcast of a different sort. Paul has on a guest, that guest has a conversation with him and then he and his “improviser friends” make up a scene based on the chat. I am especially fond of improv and PFT so, again, if you’re not a deep comedy nerd maybe not your thing. Episode to try:  #4 Savannah, Georgia. It’s just a silly time with silly voices and gives you a good idea of what this show is all about. BONUS RECOMMENDATION: Watch PFT and puppets on ‘No You Shut Up!’ on YouTube.

How Did This Get Made?: Paul Scheer from “The League” sits down with his wife June Diane Raphael and Jason Mantzoukas (one of my favorites) to review terrible movies. Comedy and terrible movies are two of my favorite things, so this is just a natural win. Fun fact! This podcast is the reason why I went back and watched all of the Fast and the Furious movies! Episode to try: If you see a movie on their episode list you’ve watched, go for that, but otherwise try #53 Anaconda. You can listen to this without having watched the movie because they do a good job talking about it, but… you also pretty much know what you’re getting into.

An Update on the Laurens

For those of you who might not know, there are several people who share my name and frequently use my email address when they go about their daily lives. It’s a minor annoyance but I figure it’s my duty in the universe to be a good ambassador of my name.

With the holidays came a new flurry of activity and I thought everyone would appreciate knowing what they’re (I’m) up to.

  • Almost joined the Nextdoor website when someone invited a Lauren for their neighborhood. It’s social media for your physical neighborhood so you can, I don’t know, arrange block parties and complain about that lady who feeds the stray cats. If I were evil that could have been fun.
  • Invited to a track meet.
  • Proof of insurance for a car.
  • Someone loves shopping at Anthropologie!!!
  • Registered a Playstation.
  • Signed up for French daily deal emails. For, well, France.
  • I joined two employment seeking websites in the UK! (Which if she can’t type her email address in correctly does not bode well for her at all.) (I wonder if this is the UK Lauren with the debt service and the disposable phone?)
    • Note to self: she is quickly turning into literary fodder.
  • Had not one but TWO spa appointments. The conversation was great as I fumbled though, “Look, I’d love to take her up on the massage but I think the travel to Florida would disrupt my day.”
  • One Lauren had something (???) destroyed so I was greeted with an email titled, “CERTIFICATE OF DESTRUCTION” which might be the most metal thing I’ve ever been emailed.

But then there’s the sad ones. Where some family member has made a mistake and emailed to let me know there’s a loss. There was one especially heartbreaking one right around Christmas. Grandma wanted everyone to know how she was doing that season, especially since her husband had died recently. She was sad but said she was surrounded by loved ones and it made a difference.

I always let them know that I’m not their Lauren. But I also let them know that loss and grief is something shared by many people. We’ve all been touched by it in one way or another. I hope for their peace of mind.

I never get a reply on those emails and it’s fine. I’m sure they have a lot to think about. But I hope their Laurens are reaching out and trying to help them. We need to take care of each other. It’s what humans do. Even if it means that we don’t get a spa day in Florida.

Minions: New Voice of The Internet?

Minions are everywhere. Surely, you’ve seen them. The adorable gibberish speaking monsters? creatures? aliens? things? from the Despicable Me movies. They’ve taken over movie theaters, McDonalds… and our HEARTS? To say that the public is obsessed about these little things is a huge understatement. But I must be honest. A couple weeks ago, I had no idea what they were. It wasn’t on my radar.

Then I started seeing things like this on Facebook:

minionblock

What the what? I was confused. I knew they were from a movie but not much else. I investigated and asked friends about it. “They’re so cute!” “They’re hilarious.” “They’re the best!” “What do you mean you’ve never watched the movies?!” Some weekend media binging later, my husband and I were caught up. We even went and watched the new movie. They are cute and hilarious.

But… how did they become the voice of the internet?

I mean, I understand how they came to meme status. (Quick explaination of memes: when the internet makes something like an inside joke, often using pictures and text, it’s called a meme.) Minions share a lot with the fabled LOLcats of years ago. They’re cute and loveable in the eyes of most people. They have no color or creed or affiliation. They don’t speak any specific language, so you can project whatever you want on them. They are anything to everyone.

towleycomp

Except for some crucial differences… Minions are a symbol of friendship. They are friendly creatures. Cats are aloof loners who would gladly stab you to pieces and burn down your house, if they had the thumbs to do it. They “cannot haz friends”. Minions do, which is why the memes above all have a friendly tone. (Except that one that one caters to the mischievous crowd. But you know the comments on that one were all, “OH TAG CHERYL! THIS IS SO YOU”.) Minions are also LIKE people. Being humanesque makes it easy to project ourselves onto them.

And finally: they’re well known and (because of how popular children’s characters work) they’ll probably be around forever. Before, when Grandma would see something on Facebook like a LOLcat, she’d be confused. “Why is that cat talking in broken English about a hamburger?” But as soon as someone posted this to her Facebook wall:

miniongramps

All of a sudden, Nan is like, “aww Abigail was just showing me this on the TV!!!!!! IT IS WONDERFUL THANKS FOR SHARING KISSES XOXOXO NAN PS SORRY ABOUT THE CAPS I CAN’T TURN THEM OFF”

So the Minions are your mom’s LOLcats.

I will say, though, that I’ve seen some odd spinoffs of this meme. Like, for example, the art featured above is someone’s handcrafted derivative of a minion because they needed ones that looked like grandparents. Okay. And then there’s this:

strongminion

I have so many questions. I know why this is a sentiment that resonates with people, but:

  • why does it exist? like who was like, “I’m going to type this up, it’s IMPORTANT”
  • why slap a picture of a minion on it? the subject matter has so little to do with it
  • is the minion thinking about strong, beautiful women?
  • why not put a picture of a STRONG, BEAUTIFUL WOMAN on it?
  • what’s with the wonky justification on the font? (now I’m just being nitpicky)

I know, I know. The answer is “because internet”. That’s how these things work. You get something influenced by something influenced by something else and then we’re down the rabbit hole looking at something like this:

minionswearswhy

I’ve seen a lot of things come and go the internet. Especially little image based fads. Is this one a keeper? Maybe for a certain demographic. I certainly don’t see it going stale anytime soon.

But it is still pretty weird.

Clickbait is terrible.

I considered writing this post and naming it, “When I see the way article titles are written now, you’ll never BELIEVE my reaction!!!” (Which is annoyed.) But I didn’t want to be a part of the problem. You see, an emerging trend in the realm of digital media/journalism is to have a headline that doesn’t actually reveal what an article is about. You’ve surely seen these online. Let me give you an example I’ve made up:

Newspaper Headline: Food Drive Collects Record 500 Pounds of Goods

Clickbait Headline: When they asked for help, the response had me IN TEARS!!!

The newspaper headline lays out exactly what you’re getting into. The clickbait headline doesn’t tell you the who/what/where/when for a very specific reason: they want you to go to their website. They want to lure you in or trick you into going to their website, so they can show you ads and track your information and get you to like their Facebook page, etc. etc. That’s why it’s called ‘clickbait’. It’s a lazy, deceptive, and gross practice. You’re being misled.

I understand that we’re in a time where people are giving away content basically for free and that ads are paying for the hardware and people that brought me the video of a puppy and baby who are ~best friends~. But often the website bringing you that information via a clickbait headline didn’t make it. They’re just dropping in someone else’s video or a link to a news story where someone else did the legwork. They just slapped it up on their site and passed it around Facebook with their crummy headline. I just think that there’s got to be a better way to go about this. Like producing quality content that will drive people to your site. Partnerships. Anything else. Just make it worth my while to click by telling me what I’m clicking on!

There’s one I just saw on Facebook that had a headline like, “Her dog died due to a TRAGIC mistake. The killer could be at home!” Awesome. Let’s scare people into going to your website. By the way, the dog ate sugar free gum with Xylitol in it, so be careful and keep an eye out for that. It’s harmful to dogs. I just want you to know because it’s important and useful information, no clickbait needed.

There’s a twitter account I love called @savedyouaclick that’s directly fighting against this by doing the same thing I just did and spoiling the headline.

You’re an angel, @savedyouaclick.

I wish I had a more proactive ending to this post, like a suggestion of how to better monetize your website so you don’t have to be a skeezy guy with clickbait headlines. But the reality is that it’s a much bigger problem than one person can fix. All I can do is appeal to the people writing these things and say, “Please don’t be that guy.”