X-mas FAQ

Should my family make a photo holiday card or just do the classic Hallmark thing?

No matter how crappy a photo card is, 90 percent of recipients will save it their entire lives. Hallmark cards are completely pointless and will be in the recycling bin on Dec. 26 by noon.

Kids are so cute. Should I just use a picture of my children on my card?

Your kids are indisputably adorable. There is no question about that. The thing is: Christmas is not the time of year to flaunt the loveliness of your offspring. It's time to show off what a square, grown-up dweeb you are. That's why the whole family needs to be in your photo.

The holiday season is a time of giving, and what you have to give is how stupid you look in that awful sweater your mom bought for you in the early stages of her dementia. Put it on. Make sure your kid is dressed in something that advertises a fad that will be over by next Christmas.

If your family photo doesn't invoke a hard belly laugh at your expense, and get funnier with each passing year, you are doing something wrong. Don't let your public down.

I don't have kids. Should I send out a picture of my dog?

Only if you dress up your dog and pose with it.

Should I write a letter to enclose with the card, detailing our family vacation and information on junior's grades?

Make sure it's several pages long and doesn't leave out a single detail. Also, I highly recommend writing your letter in verse with a lot of forced rhymes in it.

I feel overwhelmed by the number of gifts I'm expected to buy. What can I do to simplify?

People who love you don't depend on you for gifts. The only reason to give them something is because you want to. If you find it stressful, don't do it. Or, just buy a lot of socks. You can buy a sack full of socks at one store in 15 minutes. Everyone needs new socks.

What about my kids?

Kids are easy. Buy them anything you see advertised on television. They will love it.

What about my wife?

According to Jewelers of America, the national association of retail jewelers, you should spend 93 percent of your annual income on a present for your wife. What's complicated about that?

Paul Lundgren is a newspaper columnist and a very nice man. His e-mail address is mail @ paullundgren.com.


Debate? What for?

One of the quieter races of the 2008 campaign season was Democratic Congressman Jim Oberstar's reelection over Republican Michael Cummins in Minnesota's Eighth District. Oberstar will soon begin his 18th term, having served since 1974.

The margin of victory in the race was huge, with 78 percent of voters agreeing to send Oberstar back to Washington. Don't worry about the power of that mandate going to his head, though, because it's too late. His arrogance is already out of control.

Days before the election, Oberstar appeared on WDSE-TV's Almanac North program and made a statement that should have been jaw-dropping to anyone who tuned in.

Julie Zenner, co-host of the show, asked Oberstar why he never debated Cummins. "He claims that he's offered to debate a number of times and that your campaign has refused," Zenner said. "Is that a fair characterization?"

Congressman Oberstar responded: "I don't recall. That's a standard gimmick by challengers. (They say) 'I want to have a debate every day.' There's not much to debate with him, frankly. He's a nice fellow. I've met him. I met him up at the Chisholm Fire Days parade. We had a picture taken together with him and his daughters, and he's a very nice fellow. But I don't think there's anything of substance to debate."

The interview went on as if the congressman's haughty response was no surprise. Maybe it all went by too fast, and a replay is in order.

First, Oberstar claimed to not remember if Cummins wanted to debate at all. Then, he suggested that Cummins' wanted to "have a debate every day."

After declining to participate in any debate, Oberstar actually had the nerve to refer to his opponent's desire to debate as "a gimmick." The public exchange of ideas between political candidates is apparently not something a high-ranking member of the United States Congress should feel obligated to respect in the interest of informing voters; it's really just a trick to get votes.

Oberstar also said he didn't think there was "anything of substance to debate," as if there are no issues in contemporary American politics that citizens should be concerned about at this time. Well, if that's the case, there isn't much to lose by voting out the incumbent. Maybe next time.

Paul Lundgren is a newspaper columnist and a very nice man. He'll take back everything in this column if Oberstar will pose for a picture with him at the next Chisholm Fire Days. His e-mail address is mail @ paullundgren.com.


Joe the Plumber

You might not be aware that I moderated the final debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. Bob Schieffer of CBS News handled the job on TV, but in my living room things went more like this:

MCCAIN: Senator Obama was out in Ohio and he had an encounter with a guy who's a plumber, his name is Joe Wurzelbacher. Joe wants to buy the business that he has been in for all of these years. He looked at your tax plan and he saw that he was going to pay much higher taxes.

OBAMA: Let me tell you what I'm actually going to do. If you make less than a quarter million dollars a year, then you will not see your income tax go up, your capital gains tax go up, your payroll tax. Not one dime.

LUNDGREN: So, if Joe the Plumber buys the business and his annual profits are over $250,000, then his taxes would go up under the Obama plan, otherwise they wouldn't. That seems simple enough to understand.

OBAMA: Not only do 98 percent of small businesses make less than $250,000, but I also want to give them additional tax breaks.

LUNDGREN: Joe the Plumber must be part of that 98 percent, because if he makes a quarter mil from a year of plumbing ... well, that would be kind of incredible.

MCCAIN: When Senator Obama ended up his conversation with Joe the Plumber, he said, "We need to spread the wealth around." In other words, we're going to take Joe's money, give it to Senator Obama, and let him spread the wealth around.

LUNDGREN: Well, yeah. That's how it works. Citizens pay taxes, and whether it's Barack Obama or John McCain, someone in the government will decide how to spread it around.

MCCAIN: I want Joe the Plumber to spread that wealth around.

LUNDGREN: We've already established that Senator Obama is not going to raise Joe the Plumber's taxes. He said he's going to lower them.

MCCAIN: The whole premise behind Senator Obama's plans are class warfare -- let's spread the wealth around.

LUNDGREN: It seems like you want to say Senator Obama would take from the rich to help the poor and middle class, but you don't think making that statement would help you politically. I've got to hand it to you, though. Putting the name of a plumber on the rich, even if it doesn't make sense, seems to be working for you.

Paul Lundgren is a newspaper columnist and a very nice man. His e-mail address is paul @ geekprom.com.


Cash Back

I've given up on trying to stop telemarketers. I thought perhaps the National Do Not Call Registry could help me, but it didn't. I thought the Federal Communications Commission could help me, but it didn't.

The fact is, I just have to accept people constantly trying to deceive me. It's not just on the telephone, but on the Internet, on television and in person. They sound so ridiculous, it's hard to imagine anyone falling for them, but they wouldn't keep doing it without a payoff.

The latest call I got, pitching satellite TV, bordered on hilarious:

"Free installation, free activation, three months of free movie channels, free receivers and remotes for up to four rooms, and a free DVR. If you don't know what a DVR is, press 1 on your phone and our reps will tell you all about it. It's awesome technology that will change the way you watch TV. Basically, if you still have a cable provider, we want your business and we're going to great lengths to get it by giving you all the equipment free. That's right, over $2,000 worth of equipment free, and we're going to save you money every month. We'll even give you an additional $100 back if you sign up today. So, with no obligation, give us a chance. Press 1 now. Or, if we've reached your number in error, please press 9 to be removed from our list."

The "additional $100 back" is my favorite part. They're giving me equipment, saving me money, and promising to return money to me without even mentioning the need to pay anything in the first place.

But even seemingly reputable companies aren't afraid to offer "cash back." General Electric does it. Home Depot does it. Dodge and Hyundai do it. Well, what the hell is cash back? Am I a moron, or could they just sell me a truck for $500 less?

For some reason, the word "rebate" has been replaced with "cash back." Whatever word you use, this age-old concept is generally tolerated by consumers, though it's utterly asinine in nature.

I'm not sure why people accept treatment from Menards that they wouldn't accept at a garage sale. Can you imagine someone telling you he'd sell you his old record collection for $50, but you can fill out a form and mail it to him to get $10 cash back?

Paul Lundgren is a newspaper columnist and a very nice man. His e-mail address is paul @ geekprom.com.


Final Warning, part three

When I had my telephone number added to the National Do Not Call Registry, it was mostly out of curiosity. I didn't really believe it was going to stop annoying telemarketing calls, but there wasn't much to lose in trying.

What I liked about the registry was that, once I was on it, those unwanted calls would clearly be illegal. With a little ambition, perhaps I could seek remedies for my suffering. It seemed to be worth a shot.

I filed my first complaint using the Federal Trade Commission's automated telephone service. Since there was no response, I used a form on the Internet the second time.

"Thank you for filing your complaint with the National Do Not Call Registry," read the automatic response. "Do not call complaints will be entered into a secure online database available to civil and criminal law enforcement agencies. While the FTC does not resolve individual consumer problems, your complaint will help the agency investigate the company, and could lead to law enforcement action."

I translate that to mean: "We probably aren't going to do anything, but if we do, you will never know."

It seems the response to receiving illegal calls should be to hang up and get over it. Still, when I got my next call I couldn't resist continuing my investigation.

"It is urgent that you contact us concerning your eligibility for lowering your interest rate to as little as 6.9 percent," the recorded message told me. I pressed 1 to speak to a representative.

"Hi, this is Naomi with card services," the friendly voice said. "I understand you are interested in lowering your current interest rates. Can I have your first name please?"

I informed Naomi that my number is on the National Do Not Call Registry and I shouldn't be bothered. I asked her to identify the company she works for, and, to my surprise, she happily told me.

"The name of my company is IXE Banking Centers," she said. "We got your information through the credit bureau Experian."

This came as quite a surprise to me, because the last time I pressed 1 to speak to a representative, an angry woman refused to give me information and then hung up. Now, I had Naomi killing me with kindness.

It made me realize that hanging up is the best thing she could have done for both of us. The more information I have, the more capable I am of wasting time.

Paul Lundgren is a newspaper columnist and a very nice man. His e-mail address is paul @ geekprom.com.


Final Warning, part two

After receiving numerous "final" warnings that the factory warranty on my vehicle "may have expired and should be reactivated," I decided to contact the Federal Trade Commission and file a complaint. It seemed like the right thing to do.

The FTC's answering service required me to report the telephone number of the company that called me and the time the call was made. I was pretty sure the most recent call came on Saturday, July 26. As for the number, I was clueless.

An Internet search on warranty scams showed one number this type of call originates from is 973-328-7372. So I entered that information, hoping it would lead a human being from the FTC to contact me about this. No such luck.

Then, at the carefully documented time of Tuesday, Aug. 5, at 12:38 p.m., there was a break in the case. I received another final warning call from the warranty scammers, and was home to answer. I decided to press 1 to speak to a representative.

"Warranty Activation Department," the female voice said. "May I have the year, make and model of the vehicle?"

"I'm wondering how many of these final warnings I'm going to get," I said in all sincerity.

"Sir, did you need a warranty on your vehicle? Yes or no," she replied sternly.

"I'm asking you a question. How many of these final warnings am I going to get?" I asked again.

Before I could finish repeating my question, she hung up. Any notion that I could have a future as a hostage negotiator was quickly shattered. I had no new information for the FTC.

Then, one week later, my answering machine recorded a new scam:

"Don't be alarmed, but this is your final notice for lower interest rates on your current account," the message said. "This offer expires today. Press 1 and speak to your account manager and reduce your rates. Again, press 1 now; this is the last offer of the season. Or, press 2 to discontinue further notices. Thank you, and have a great day."

This time, I decided to go ahead and pay 95 cents and use my phone company's last-call-return service to get the number that called me. Armed with the proper digits (954-925-0717) I could now file an accurate report with the FTC.

That's right, now I'm spending money to keep people from trying to rip me off.

Paul Lundgren is a newspaper columnist and a very nice man. His e-mail address is paul @ geekprom.com.


Final Warning, part one

As of April 18, 2008, my telephone number has been listed on the National Do Not Call Registry. Telemarketers -- except for political organizations, charities and telephone surveyors -- are required by law to leave me alone.

Unfortunately, I'm still getting endless "final warnings" telling me the warranty may have expired on my laughably old car. One of these calls was captured by my answering machine, so I can provide a transcript, though the first few words were cut off.

"... factory warranty on your vehicle may have expired and should be reactivated to protect you against the cost of repairs. If you have not responded to this notification, it's not too late. Please don't make the mistake of driving without a warranty. You are still eligible to reactivate warranty coverage. This is the final call before we close the file. Press 2 to be removed from the follow-up list or press 1 to speak with a representative now about your vehicle."

I can't decide which is more asinine: the notion that my 1990 Ford Taurus should be under warranty or the suggestion that I should attempt to remove myself from a "follow-up list" despite the assurance that "this is the final call."

A quick Internet search indicates I'm far from alone in receiving these calls, and attorneys general in some states are issuing warnings to avoid buying expensive service contacts from scoundrels who target random suckers.

I thought it would be fun to contact the Federal Trade Commission and file a complaint, since this company is obviously not supposed to call me and has no intention of removing me from its list. For my patriotism in reporting this willful disregard for Federal law, perhaps I'll receive a medal and/or a check from whatever legal settlement might occur.

"We need the date that the company called you, and the name or phone number of the company that called," a friendly recorded voice told me when I called the FTC. "If you do not have this information, we cannot take your complaint."

Since I don't have caller I.D., and the company did not identify itself, I decided to do the honorable thing and provide the FTC's answering service with false information. My hope is that maybe this will trigger an investigation in which a human being will talk to me.

That's right, in order to prevent certain machines from calling me, I'm calling other machines and asking for more calls.

Paul Lundgren is a newspaper columnist and a very nice man. His e-mail address is paul @ geekprom.com.


Online Social Networking

Though I created a Facebook profile of my own free will, I nonetheless have no idea how it is supposed to serve or entertain me in any way. I joined because several people suggested I should, and I thought I might as well find out what the big deal is.

Here's what has happened so far:

Various people have requested to be my "friend," and I have chosen to "confirm" their friendships. Many of them are people who have been friends of mine for years, though we never formally announced our friendship on the Internet until Facebook came along.

Some friendship requests have come from people I am only remotely connected to, such as some guy who went to college with some woman I dated eight years ago. Other requests come from people I'm not sure I've ever met in my life.

I have chosen to confirm all of these requests. I don't want to be rude and "ignore" people who want to be my friend, even if I'm sometimes not sure who they are or what their motivation is.

Sometimes I visit the profile pages of mysterious people who seek my friendship and try to figure out if I've ever met them before, just in case the clerk at my neighborhood grocery store expects me to acknowledge that we are now "friends" since she found me on Facebook.

Usually, once I become Facebook friends with someone, nothing else happens. They become a name and picture on a list. If I want, I can read their "status update," so I know if they're "restocking the refrigerator" or "recovering from a great weekend!"

Some of my "friends" invite me to play games on Facebook. They want to "see how alike" we are or challenge my knowledge of "animals in movies." I have no interest in that, because I completed junior high school in 1988.

Other people try to "poke" me, "high fiiiive" me or "use the force" on me. I don't know what any of that means, but it nonetheless makes me want to use Facebook to invite them to "drop dead."

Maybe the reason I don't get any enjoyment out of Facebook is that I can't even imagine how it could possibly be useful to me. I simply don't understand it. All I know is, with "friends" like these, who needs the Internet?

Paul Lundgren is a newspaper columnist and a very nice man. His e-mail address, paul @ geekprom.com, works just fine, so there is no need to write anything on his Facebook "wall."


Critical Reviews for April 2008

As an informed, articulate member of the media it is my responsibility to provide well-reasoned, unbiased analysis on topics relevant to modern society. I fulfill that duty by occasionally writing brief, critical reviews.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton continue to vie for the Democratic nomination in the presidential race. Critical Review: Clinton is far more annoying than Obama, so it's surprising that she's not winning.

Gas prices have hit a record high. Critical Review: Something needs to be done about this, not because of the financial implications, but because talking about gas prices was already boring two years ago.

Crystal is out of the office and cannot reply to my e-mail. Critical Review: Oh, like Crystal is so important that I'll be totally lost if I don't receive an out-of-office reply from her telling me she won't read my e-mail until tomorrow.

Authorities in Texas removed more than 400 children from a polygamist compound based on allegations of a pattern of sexual abuse by the sect. Critical Review: Sure, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is composed of inbred loonballs, but there's bound to be sexual deviance anywhere sexy prairie-style dresses are worn.

According to a recorded message that automatically dials my telephone four times a week, the warranty on my automobile is about to expire. Critical Review: Although I've never had a warranty on any car I've owned, the fact that I received dozens of "final warnings" about this leads me to believe I should take action.

A simple, free call to the National Do Not Call Registry will prevent telemarketers from bothering me. Critical Review: I can't believe I waited so long to do this. It takes less than 30 seconds to register.

On Feb. 17, most television stations will stop broadcasting in analog format. People who don't have cable, satellite or a digital television need to buy a digital-to-analog converter box to watch TV. Critical Review: Having purchased my converter, I now have four remote controls, my VCR doesn't work unless the converter is tuned to the channel I want to record, and, when the reception is bad, the sound and picture completely cut out. On the other hand, when it works my picture is slightly improved. Also, in addition to the standard five channels, there are seven new channels with programs as scintillating as reruns of The Cosby Show and hours upon hours of hunting and fishing.

Paul Lundgren is a newspaper columnist and a very nice man. His e-mail address is paul @ geekprom.com.