Beater Buttons And The Stupidity Of Tomorrow

Apologies for the relative flurry of content here at Riverside Green; I’m just getting a bit of work in before I disappear with my son for a week to ride bikes in the South. Alas, I’m going to have to visit another gas station before I do so, because the one I visited this morning was suffering from… let’s call it technical idiocy.

Today’s post is dedicated to all the people who Bleeping Love Science, and all the people who don’t.

I’ve used this space in the past to talk about Scott Locklin’s comments regarding the stupidity of “starting from scratch”. This is as true among interface designers as it is among computer programmers. Consider, if you will, the above photograph, which is from a United Dairy Farmers gas station in rural Ohio. (For those of you who are as confused as I was many years ago, “UDF” is a Midwestern competitor to 7-11, and the name presumably stems from it being a co-operative grocery store at some point.)

Pretty much all UDF stores have the same design of fuel pump, featuring a monochrome LCD screen with four membrane buttons on each side, a credit-card reader, and an angled mechanical keypad with stainless-steel keys beneath said reader. The system is a case study in stupidity, for three different reasons.

Reason Zero: the keypad itself is set an angle, and in a position, where it frequently ices over in bad weather. When it does that, the fuel pump cannot be used, because of…

Reason One: The “sales flow” of the UDF pumps is both deliberately frustrating and accidentally frustrating. Let’s review.

Step Zero: Insert card.

Step One: If card is MasterCard or Visa, ask “IS THIS CARD DEBIT Y/N?” Although the mechanical keypad has YES and NO buttons, they don’t work for this. You have to press one of the two membrane buttons on the bottom left of the screen. (American Express cards, and presumably other cards like JCB, skip this step.)

Step Two: ENTER ZIP CODE. This is done via the mechanical keypad — so if that’s iced-over, you’re done, sorry, go get your fuel elsewhere or go inside the store to wait in line. UDF is about the only retailer in my home town that bothers to give you the ZIP CODE step, which is designed to protect the credit-card companies. Everyone else skips it. There’s virtually no crime in Powell, Ohio. If you have a card here, chances are it’s your card. This isn’t an ARCO station in SoCal, which takes cash only and makes you pass it through bulletproof glass. We have a high-trust society here.

Step Three: ENTER UDF U-DRIVE LOYALTY. There are three choices, all of which require the membrane buttons. YES, at which point you slide your U-DRIVE card. ALT ID, at which point you enter your phone number. And the one that 95% of people will press, NO, which happens to be the same membrane button used for NO in Step One. (That’s going to be important later.)

Step Four: CARWASH Y/N? No prizes for guessing that the mechanical YES and NO keys are disabled. You do get a small prize for guessing that the membrane button used for NO is the same one used for NO in Steps One and Three.


None of these steps has a timeout or a default action associated with them; if you don’t answer the U-DRIVE LOYALTY question, the pump will simply wait until you do. Other companies, like Pilot or Sheetz, will allow you to pick up the pump and start pumping as soon as you’ve put your card in, effectively skipping loyalty and carwash questions, but UDF does not.

So at this point we get into questions of interface design and hardware compatibility, with the former being considered first. The U-DRIVE and CARWASH questions are, fundamentally, predatory and annoying. Most pump users don’t have a loyalty card and they don’t want a carwash. If your primary goal was to ensure the highest satisfaction among the greatest number of customers, you would have a sales flow in which these questions were optional. As an example, you could press an optional membrane button while the fuel was being pumped, or after the fuel was pumped.

I guarantee you that someone showed a sales flow like that to the Lizard People who run UDF, and they said something along the lines of “WAIT A MINUTE WHY AREN’T WE GIVING EVERYONE A CHANCE TO USE THESE GREAT OFFERINGS? WE SHOULD BE ASKING THESE QUESTIONS UP FRONT!!!!” A primary, indeed distinguishing, characteristic of Lizard People is their love for laboring under the delusion that their personal enthusiasm for a corporation is, in fact, a universal enthusiasm.

Example: If your customers interact with you less than once a week, they don’t need an app for that. I probably need an app for my bank. Probably don’t need one for a restaurant. Certainly don’t need one for my local electric utility. Yet I’m pretty sure my local utilities all have “apps” with many theoretical features, because the people on the boards of those utilities have FOMO about not having an app. “WHY WOULDN’T PEOPLE WANT TO STAY UP TO DATE ON THE NEWS HERE AT CONSOLIDATED POWER AND LIGHT?” Because they are functioning human beings, that’s why.

Rearranging the sales flow to be Lizard-approved has two consequences. One of them, you’d expect: when I have a choice between UDF and another gas station, I’ll go to the other station, because I hate the sales flow at UDF. The other one is less obvious: every single transaction involves pushing that NO button up to three times. I mean, the ideal customer uses a debit card (which doesn’t charge UDF a percentage of the sale) then enters a loyalty ID before agreeing to a carwash, but the actual customers are like: Put this on my Visa Infinite, no I don’t want a freakin’ carwash, no I’m part of your stupid program to save up to 0.8 cents per gallon by giving you my blood type and SSN.

In other words, as the YouTubers say, we’re gonna smash that NO button. Hundreds of times a day, in all weather conditions, and sometimes we will do it repeatedly because another feature of the UDF gas pump is that it takes a professorially long time to think about each choice you’ve made before the next screen appears, as if it used the chip from a Star Wars LED watch of 1977 or something.

Which, after lo these many words, brings us in typical lazy-programmer, long-subroutine, closing-the-brackets-500-lines-after-you-open-them fashion to…

Reason Two: The UDF sales flow is designed to ensure that you’re destroying the gas pump. Let’s review. The pump has a robust stainless-steel mechanical keypad that you use to enter your ZIP Code. That keypad has robust “YES” and “NO” buttons which are literally never used. Instead, we have to smash the same membrane button three times per transaction.

Long-time readers will know that I am not particularly prone to tears (the end of August Rush aside) but I really thought I was going to cry back in 1982 when my brand-new Atari 600XL turned out to be defective, pretty much every 600XL in the store had the same problem, we had to return it with no replacement possible, and it looked like Dad might buy me an Atari 400 instead. To understand why, let’s look at a 600XL:

Now let’s look at a 400:

These are mechanically about the same computer (Yes, yes, CTIA and GTIA, save your 8-bit nerd vitriol, I know this stuff like I know the lyrics to Stairway) but the 400 has that crummy membrane keyboard. For a child who could type 105 wpm at the age of ten, it would have been like being consigned to Hell. I started BEGGING the old man for an additional $59 so I could buy and install an aftermarket keyboard:

After listening to his four-foot-five child talk at length about detail-soldering keyboard connectors next to the POKEY chip, the old man did the hugely decent thing and bought me this:

Let the record show that I loved the Atari 800 more than I loved at least the first five or six women with which I had any sort of sexual intercourse. Scratch that: I continue to love the Atari 800 more, which is why I have two perfect Atari 800s in their retail boxes in my basement plus my original one from 1982. Age cannot wither the 800, nor custom stale. And the keyboard was very, very good. As opposed to the 400 keyboard, which was trash.

Membrane switches as found on the 400 (and the gas pump!), in which a conventional mechanical key is replaced by a “bubble” connector behind a stiff plastic covering, are the literal worst of both worlds. They are neither reliable (you can’t be sure you’ve actually hit the key) nor durable (they tend to wear out in a hurry). My Silverado truck has membrane switches for the cruise control. Surely I have hit that switch less than a thousand times in 58,000 miles, but it’s already wearing out. In practical use, mechanical keys are known to outlast membrane keys at a 10 to 1 ratio — and that’s comparing computer keyboards used indoors by people who care about their keyboards, not furious proles stabbing from hell’s heart at a white square with their car keys in ten-degree weather.

Eventually, the membrane switch is guaranteed to fail. Which is what has happened at my UDF as of this morning. Since all roads through the sales flow (other than the Holy Grail of the debit-card-using loyalty member who wants a carwash, of course) use that lower-left membrane switch, the pump is effectively inoperative until they replace the switch. As you can see from the above photo, it has suffered some considerable abuse. At some UDF pumps, the white square has worn off entirely, revealing the “bubble switch” beneath, at which point it has the remaining operating life of a fruit fly.

Thus we see that you can actually kill a fifty-thousand-dollar pump through bad interface design. What frosts my flakes the most, however, is that it could have been avoided so easily.

How? Just tell the customer to use the metal buttons instead. “PRESS YES OR NO ON THE KEYPAD”. This addresses the CARWASH and DEBIT questions, reducing the hit to the membrane button by 66.6%. But wait, there’s more. The metal keypad actually has UNLABELED buttons, likely because it was originally sourced from an ATM builder, so you could have an ALT-ID key there as well, thus handling the LOYALTY question and reducing the membrane-button usage by 100%.

There’s almost zero argument against this, except for one: Test marketing showed that customers were too stupid to find and use the keypad. I don’t believe that was the case. They’re already using the keypad for zip code or debit PIN entry. And while the keypad is known to freeze over, that kills the transaction anyway because you can’t enter ZIP or PIN at that point.

That being said, there is one powerfully persuasive argument for using the membrane keypad, and it’s one that resonates in the hearts of Lizard People everywhere: THE GAS PUMP VENDOR MUSTA GIVEN US THOSE BUTTONS FOR A PURPOSE. Well, they did: the buttons are for unspecified future functionality that, in all cases of which I am aware, never came to fruition. Like, doing banking via the gas pump, or choosing the different levels of car wash you’d buy.

Alright. The Chief Lizard Officer says we gotta use the membrane. So here’s an idea: don’t use the same key to mean NO all three times. This is a technical violation of Raskin’s rule 1b, which states that the interface should be habituating. The same buttons should always mean YES and NO. But we can interpret to mean that we just need all three actions to be consistent every time. So you have a different NO key for each of the three actions, but it works the same way every time, as opposed to moving the NO key for each action across the eight keys in random fashion the way an old DVD player would “screen save” by moving the DVD-Video logo around the screen over time.

There’s a cost to this: the user needs to take additional time to read the screen instead of just repeatedly punching the lower-left membrane with his Chevy key. But we’ve already decided we don’t care about customer time or convenience, thanks to the Lizard doctrine of multiple extra interactions. So we might as well go ahead and save our gas pumps from wearing out earlier.

Good deal. Our team, consisting of one BritLit graduate, has solved the problem. Which raises the painfully obvious question: If this is so obvious to me, why wasn’t it obvious to the dozens of people who built the system? As fate would have it, I worked a gig at a big bank a while back, designing ATM software. (That’s automated teller machine, not (Anything) To Mouth.) We had thirty people on the team. I’d estimate that

* Ten of these people just went to meetings and sent email;
* Ten of these people were congenital liars trying to stretch out their very small parts of the task into endless “story points”;
* Five people were managers;
* Four people had jobs where they could only see one part of the elephant, and never thought about the whole elephant;
* One guy left to work at an insurance company after writing a whole bunch of machine-learning stuff that didn’t have any tangible impact on the project but helped the manager advance his career as a manager of machine learning.

Is it any wonder that no one ever bothered to think about how the product would work in actual use? More importantly, is it any wonder that virtually every piece of software you use in daily life, from your ATM to Amazon Music, is progressively getting worse? I didn’t pick Amazon Music at random; I’ve gone from using it on a daily, perhaps hourly, basis to deleting it from my phones.

Five years ago, Amazon Music was a great way to universally play music that you’d uploaded to a central repository. Today, it starts every time by demanding a signup to Amazon Music Unlimited. Pressing any part of your screen other than a 5% square will sign you up by default; I’ve had to cancel it twice as a result. Once you’re in the app, it defaults to a shopping list rather than to a list of your own music. The “Search” function now only takes you to purchase opportunities. You can no longer search your own music. If you have, say, 19,400 songs uploaded/purchased, as I do, it will take the better part of ten minutes to index them and make them available — but the purchase functionality is immediate and never fails.

Each one of these changes is a result of a Lizard Person asking for a Screw The Customer change, combined with an incompetent team that can’t be bothered to think about how the app works. I have come to believe that the entire Western world now works on some variation of this model, whether it is vaccine distribution or stealth-bomber development. If we want to fix the world, or even preserve it as it works now, some radical thought will have to be given to changing that model.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to find a gas station.

80 Replies to “Beater Buttons And The Stupidity Of Tomorrow”

  1. AvatarEric L.

    This is great and all, but the UDF stations are literally the only ones around you using that pattern? All of our Shell/Circle Ks and Mobils in San Diego do that, as did 95% of the gas stations I remember frequenting in Louisville.

    There is one, count it, one Shell near me that has mechanical buttons by the screen, Baruth. GLORIOUS, SHINY, ROUND MECHANICAL BUTTONS UP HIGH. AND GUESS WHAT? That sucker screams. I literally pay an extra $0.30 a gallon over a similar top-tier station by my house because it’s hands down, the fastest gas pump interface I’ve used in my life. No artificial delays like the chip ‘n pin readers. You swipe your card and BAM give me your zip. You push enter on that lower pad and BAM BEFORE YOUR FINGER COMES FULLY OFF THE BUTTON, “u want rewards bro?” SMASH THAT NO BUTTON AND BAM, “wat graad u want??”

    …and then hurry up and wait, because of whatever the weird CA rule is that makes gas pumps pump super slow. ᕕ( ᐛ )ᕗ

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      We have it easier in central Ohio. The local Sunoco is a swipe-then-pump affair, but it’s also pretty expensive…

      • Avatargtem

        Costco’s the best game in town here. I originally got a membership for the sole purpose of saving money on diapers (savings from which singlehandedly justify the annual membership fee), but I also have the Costo Citi VISA, which makes getting gas is a simple tap of the card, select 87, yes to receipt (yes, I touch receipt paper), and away you go filling up with “Top Tier” fuel at $.30 cents a gallon less PLUS the 4% cash back on all gas stations (not just Costco, in fact). Softens the blow of filling up a Suburban’s 31 gallon tank.

    • AvatarDisinterested-Observer

      One of the local gas stations is owned by a guy who used to be my neighbor. In general I’d hit his station just to support my guy. Recently I assume some genius at Shell decided that every interaction would require five minutes worth of smashing the ‘no’ button with lots of bullshit delays built in between asking the next question that I am going to say no to, so I can’t go there anymore.

  2. AvatarTony LaHood

    A bit off topic, but every time I push those buttons and lift the pump handle I can’t help but wonder who’s done so before me. Perhaps COVID isn’t touch-transmissible; however, given our national obsession with it I’m surprised our California COVID police haven’t mandated protective measures. Then again, no one seems to fear touching currency…

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      I wear gloves, I can’t lie.

      But I also wore gloves before COVID, because I’ve seen too many dirty-ass people in ’93 Cavaliers sneeze into their hands then grab the pump.

      • AvatarNoID

        Hey, what’s wrong with 2nd Gen J-Bodies? The first car I ever purchased, for my new bride way back in 2006, was a ’92 Sunbird with like 79k miles. $2100 bucks out the door and served us well until the heater core rotted out and I decided to park it in my parents’ yard back home to sell for “no less than $500 bucks, mom”, while we hightailed it back to Michigan where functioning heater cores are more important. My mother, bless her heart and curse her negotiating skills, told the first person interested that “My son said he’d take $500” as soon as he introduced himself. So $500 is what I got.

        Anyways, I’m getting off track. Similarly to how we treat our senators and representatives, maybe all the other Cavs and Birds are junk, but not mine.

        • AvatarCitationMan

          I look back in amazement that J-Bodies could be had as a coupe, hatchback, sedan, wagon, or convertible! It’s almost like GM was producing what customers wanted. Crazy talk, I know.

          • AvatarJohn C.

            If the 400,000 that settled for Cavaliers and Sunbirds in 1993 could have just managed to spend a little more for a smaller Civic. Imagine how wonderful the world could be. The sun would have shown brighter, the car’s economy advantage over the J would have prevented the move to those wasteful, Jesus disappointing SUVs. All those bloodsuckers from abroad and on wall street would instead be Japan’s problem. The extra domestic Honda output, East Liberty was at capacity, would have prevented their bubble from bursting and so the blood suckers would have to go to Japan to find some blood. The CRT folks would be talking up the perils of being yellow to the blood suckers and heritage Japan. The billionaire who calls himself Mark Cuban here would stop pretending to fly the Rising Sun flag at his Japanese games..

            Meanwhile, here in the USA, when Jack spots an old Civic at the pump, he would have more time to marvel at an entry level car lasting so long, confident that the poor driver’s hygiene is first rate, the old Civic imparting such confidence.

            The saddest words of all, “It could have been”

  3. AvatarPower6

    Very indulgent in such a small thing, but the implications are huge. This is the kind of tanget I would go off on, not nearly to the detail and level that you have, where my wife would roll her eyes pretty hard at me.

    There are bright spots: Cumberland Farms in the northeast, they have an app for that, but it’s pretty cool. They’ve done an end run around the credit cards, you sign up and link your bank account via ACH. Then you pull up to their pumps, GPS knows which station you are at, you put in the pump number and you are authorized, you touch nothing but the nozzle and the grade button. They give you 10c off per gallon to use the system. Probably saves them a bunch in card fees and membrane buttons.

    • AvatarCitationMan

      I use the Shell version and I haven’t touched a gas station keypad in a year, it’s great and there’s a discount. And I use my knee to press the large low buttons on Shell pumps to select the gas grade LOL.

      • Avatarsgeffe

        That Shell app is great, except that it doesn’t integrate loyalty points from someplace like Kroger, so if I want to use those points, I have to interact with the pump. And at every Shell pump I’ve used in Ohio and Michigan has required the ZIP!

        They almost lost me as a customer last summer when my Shell card expired, and I couldn’t simply update the expiration date in the app, then upon removing the card from the app, the app kept erroring-out, and then when I tried to unlink and relink the card on the Shell Web site itself, it closed the account!!

        After cutting the card up in a rage, and later dealing with either a parade of H1-Bs or multiple rats in the same Bangalore shithole at their “customer service,” I finally got a replacement card, and the app itself received an upgrade, which finally worked. Still frustrating as hell! And of course, that’s after you have to sign up for their “Fuel Perks” using yet another online account which will be yet another vector for your personal information to be on sale!

  4. Avatarbenjohnson

    My personal horror: People who used their fingernail on the membrane switch – causing the failure to happen that much sooner.

    My hunch is that deep inside the fuel pump something is using Hayes command set over 9600 baud RS-232. Somewhere in the operator book is a picture of DIP switches, and there’s a mention of “OS/2 is a trademark of IBM.”

    Actually scratch that – things made with OS/2 rarely suck. The level of garbage you described means Fujitsu is involved.

    • AvatarChairworthiness

      I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Fujitsu makes Kroger’s U-Scan machines that require you to select the “credit” button even if you’ve already inserted your card. It also barks at you if you don’t scan a Plus card. It’s no wonder I rarely go there.

      • Avatarsgeffe

        The Kroger nearest me was sucktastic even before they expanded the thing into a “marketplace,” basically doubling the size of the physical store, but in their inimitable way, made navigation through the store an absolute disaster! The damned place is just TOO big! The place will suck your soul if you go there just about any time of day, but especially around 5:00pm on a weekday, when you can’t turn around without bumping into someone else!

        Thank goodness they have a pickup area where they’ll gather your purchases in advance, bag them, and put them in your car. But last Thursday, at my appointed pickup time, I waited FORTY MINUTES because despite the line of cars back to Terre Haute, there was only one poor kid delivering the orders! (And of course, again in Kroger fashion, there’s always SOMETHING that isn’t available!!)

  5. AvatarJMcG

    A: I thought you said 18th Century British Literature. Let’s not muddy the waters with W. Shakespeare.
    B: I found it illuminating that you elected to specify the meaning of ATM, yet left me confused as to the fact that the Ulster Defence Forces are now taking credit cards. Not well, apparently, but one doesn’t expect to see it done at all.
    3. Everything continues to get worse. Especially if you’re the Bard of New Jersey.

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      I did write “United Dairy Farmers” before I wrote “UDF”, and by long standing (if not always helpful) media practice I only gotta do it once!

      The Ulster Defense Force… aren’t those the “Red Right Hand” people?

      • AvatarJMcG

        That’s the Ulster Volunteer Force. The Ulster Defence Association also used the Red Hand of Ulster as part of its emblem. They were both loyalist paramilitary groups. They, like the IRA, have, since the Good Friday Agreement taken up drug dealing, pimping, smuggling, tax arbitrage , dry-gulching lone travelers, etc.
        I think that guy that got caught with the box truck full of dead Vietnamese in an English port a couple of years ago was associated with one of the Protestant paramilitary gangs.

      • Avatarawagliar

        I thought the “Red Right Hand” people were John Milton and/or Nick Cave.

        I’d be willing to bet that, if offered, the Ulster Defence Association would gladly accept your credit card.

  6. AvatarCJinSD

    Costco recently installed chip readers in their gas pumps. I don’t know what it is about Costco members and chip readers, but installing them has raised the bar too high for the vast majority of Costco members to pump their gas and get out of my life before I am seething in anger. I spoke to my father on the phone yesterday, and he told me that he’d just experienced the same thing at his local Costco.

    When I lived in California, I did not buy my gas at Costco. The price discount is drastic enough that there were always lines, and two of my cars barely ran on whatever they were selling. I moved to Virginia five years ago. Here, all Costco gas is Top Tier and cheap. For five years I never waited in a line for Costco gas worth mentioning. Now it has been about three months since I bought gas without cursing the existence of some dufus who spent more time getting the pump started than they should have taken to pump their gas and go home.

    • AvatarRick T.

      The MAPCO stations, here in middle Tennessee at least, have been converting from reading your credit card with a swipe to having it stay inserted while it processes the transaction. I assume much hilarity has ensued more than once as customers were caught unawares. There is no signage explaining there has been a change.

      On the other hand, I got 12 cents off today, which is a day I don’t usually buy gas, so I got a bigger discount than the normal 3 cents off. Which was nice.

      • AvatarCJinSD

        Costco has signs on the pumps explaining the change. I thought that using chipped cards would be second nature for anyone likely to have a Costco membership by now, but I was wrong.

  7. AvatarJames Williams

    Now imagine your frustration at the pump waiting on all of those prompts when it’s -10°F, like it has been for the last week here in WI. I almost ran out of gas this week because I couldn’t stand the idea of waiting through all of those prompts. Any I’m a loyalty user ($0.35/gal last fill-up) and I bought a car wash!

  8. Avatarstingray65

    If I was a Tesla fan boy I would tell you this would not be a problem if you drove a Tesla, because you could leave your house every morning with a “full tank” of coal generated electricity from your very own home outlet. Of course if I was a Tesla hater I would tell you that the Tesla Supercharger network often has broken charging stations that even when working only “pump” as half speed if another car is using the same station, and that even in the very best case it will take you longer to recharge your battery than it would take you to fumble through the bad UDF interface, get frustrated, leave and drive down the street to the Shell station and fill up your 500 miles of gasoline range there in 5 minutes. In any case, I thank you for a very entertaining telling of a very frustrating experience.

    • AvatarRick T.

      I’d say us older folks’ attitudes about germs are a result of being raised with the “what didn’t kill us makes us stronger” child-rearing philosophy but unfortunately I’ve noticed too many in my cohort have now contracted the “Covid is going to kill us all; let’s double mask and never leave our house” hysteria.

  9. AvatarSteve G

    I just now got an email from a departing coworker who’s last day is today. In his email he told of another departing software engineer who had left a note on his desk. He said he had always planned to pass the note to someone else when he left, but the whole pandemic thing put a damper on that, so he passed it along to the tech team.
    It’s something that should probably be passed around at any company creating user facing products.
    The note was very simple : “Always defend the user experience.”

  10. Avatarhank chinaski

    I’ve never used it, but was the Exxon Speedpass ahead of its time, insecure, poorly implemented, or just supplanted by phone apps (and the datamining and marketing that goes with) or all of the above?

  11. AvatarDan

    God, no, don’t give us a wandering No key. Extending the life of their membrane keys at the expense of the customer buying upsells he didn’t want because he hit the wrong button which had been the right button 250 milliseconds ago is so predatory that I’m surprised it isn’t the default behavior already.

    So long as we’re complaining, additional UI points should be awarded for putting all dialogs in 1/4″ high text on the top line of a recessed display where they can’t be seen without ducking.

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      To be fair, I was discussing a No key that wandered PER TRANSACTION rather than during the transaction. So it’s Button Three for you then Six for the next user and so on.

  12. AvatarLynnG

    The Shell stations in NVA have changed to leaving your car in the machine until it says “approved” this resulted in my wife calling me and telling me none of her cards were working at the gas station and “What had I done to her credit cards?” I told her that she just could not put the card in the pump and pull it out, to wait till the pump told her to take it out, gee. It is correct that the user experience is secondary in many of todays human machine interactions, but what can you do…..
    Jack enjoy your trip south, avoid the Polar Vortex at all costs… it was 85 today on the I-4…. Oh, and don’t forget your Blue Cross & Blue Shield card, never leave home without it… 🙂 and your American Express to buy gas……..

  13. AvatarIce Age

    Why is it that of all the expenses that come with owning a car, people only complain about the price of GAS?

    No one ever whines about the crippling size of the monthly payment, the laughably expensive insurance, the exorbitant repair bills or the ruinous cost of property taxes.

    Nope, only the GAS is putting people in the poorhouse.

    In any given month, I spend about $900 on my car payment and insurance combined, but I only shell out about a hundred bucks for fuel. 93 octane, in fact. My gas cost is a rounding error by comparison. And I’m not hypermiling it, either.

    My theory is that complaining about the price of gas is just another one of those inane cliches people use without thinking, like “livin’ the dream” or “stay safe.”

    Maybe it doesn’t bother me because I’m a financial relativist, rather than a financial absolutist. Where the financial absolutist says, “every penny counts,” I figure if I’m already prepared to spend $100, what’s another $10? I’m sure as hell not gonna go two miles out of my way to save 15 cents on a gallon that’s already costing me $2.50.

  14. AvatarDuong Nyguen

    You think that’s bad…

    Try placing an order from Kohl’s in store kiosk that has a vertical touch screen. It takes forever to “type” and your arms are dead tired by the end of it.

  15. AvatarWidgetsltd

    Wow! Your piece is a gold mine for commentary!
    1. I kinda miss UDF ice cream
    2. I buy nearly all of my gas at ARCO stations in the exurbs of Los Angeles. The cashiers at the ARCO locations in my town (and indeed in many areas) are not behind bulletproof glass. They DO accept debit cards – not just cash. It’s easier (and there’s less stuff to touch) when I use tap-to-pay with my debit card at the pump. It’s top tier gas, so it doesn’t suck.
    3. I think that we all know that the “car wash?” question is a sales opportunity. I actually do buy these from the pump, as I’m usually driving a company car. I can pick the level of wash that I want by using the membrane buttons to the left of the screen. That feature has been implemented! Some places have too many varieties of wash; in that case, the el-cheapo wash (which I buy) is forced onto to a second screen which I must select by punching the lowest membrane button. Those buttons really are a curse.
    4. The first computer in my house was an Atari 800! Oh, the hours that I spent on that thing…mostly playing games.

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      I apologize for the low-quality sarcasm; I was implying that nobody has ever gotten far enough in the sales flow to choose a car wash.

      For the record, I hate ARCO and their no credit card policy. It means filling out an extra expense report.

  16. AvatarKen

    Jack – If this is a trailer for the kind of thoughts that swim around your head on a daily basis; I wonder what the full movie is like.

    Either way, this was a hilarious read and a great way to start off a Friday morning.

  17. AvatarMichael Wangler

    As a trucker, I have a special sort of disdain for these membrane switches on fuel pumps. Innumerable times, I’ve been forced to abandon a pump or go inside and wait in what always seems to be a 10 person deep line on such an occurrence, and have the clerk manually activate the pump. Luckily, pilot / flying j is starting to get religion and install durable metal keypads on all pumps, unfortunately it’s dependent upon the franchise owner how quickly they install the new style pumps, corporate doesn’t seem to be forcing their hand.

  18. AvatarDaniel J

    I designed both hardware and software for Push Button panels used in broadcast video/audio. (Local TV stations, but mostly production studios built from Trailers pulled by 18 wheelers)

    We added a touch screen to one of these panels because everyone was doing it and that’s what our marketing team wanted. It was a disaster. I wondered years ago who cobbled up the interface for fuel pumps.

    One reason that they ask about car washes is that if they didn’t ask about the car wash up front, then you can’t get a car wash once paid up at the pump. Of course, the simple solution there would put a payment interface before the carwash first, but that I guess is too complicated.

    I spend 90 percent of my time designing hardware and software for that 1 percent.

    • Avatarsgeffe

      And then when you NEED the car wash, where IS IT??!!

      The other week, on what was my worst day at work in a long while (the day after I found out that my “anti-Millennial Millennial” supervisor who’s been like a brother to me for the last six years would be moving on), I stopped for gas at my local Speedway on the way home, and for whatever reason, the shut-off didn’t work properly! As I stopped the geyser of gasoline pouring over my car, I realized that I hadn’t been prompted for a car wash! After waiting behind five separate people grabbing their evening meal from the dessicated hot dogs, I finally got to the counter, where I obtained my receipt (since the pumps always seem to be out of paper), and was told that the car wash was down!

      Hopefully the half-bottle of detail spray I unloaded on the area below my gas filler stopped any paint damage! (I didn’t want to wait any longer to throw wash soap in a bucket, and nobody in my area, least of all my local AutoZone, has heard of “waterless car wash!”)

  19. AvatarCliffG

    This is simply another example of “bubble” thinking. Not one person in the room was capable of raising their hand and asking a common sense question: What will the customer think? Because the customer is never in the room. A great recent example of bubble thinking is the marketing geniuses who came up with that Jeep commercial. Now the NY ad populace and the marketing chiefs all thought is was fabulous. Let us reunite now that Orange Man Bad is gone. Woo woo.. Midwest. Church. That ought to get the lumpenproletariat all enthused. And, hey let’s get a famous rock and roller to do the ad. Bruce Springsteen. No one in the room thought about the fact that the people needing to be sold to have been hearing him calling them Nazis for the last 4 years. Oops. Anyone who thinks they pulled the ad off of Youtube because of his DWI is a little naïve.

    • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

      How does a company in Auburn Hills approve an ad that leaves Michigan’s Upper Peninsula off a map of the USA?

  20. AvatarChairworthiness

    I just noticed today that my most frequented station, a small, locally owned BP just outside downtown, doesn’t ask for a zip code. The owner has also put white pieces of thick tape over the buttons used for “pay with card” and “no receipt” to presumably make them easier to see and to give some protection to the membrane. It’s nice to notice little things like that. That said, I can put up with a lot of superfluous button-pressing, so long as I don’t have to listen to those awful videos while I’m pumping.

    • Avatarsgeffe

      Oh yes! “GREEDway TV!!”


      One of the aforementioned first-stations-to-pull-the-trigger-on-a-forty-cent-per-gallon-spike-for-no-reason-other-than-a-squirrel-started-a-fire-in-a-refinery-parking-lot in my town is near a residential area, and I’m sure the echo from the eight pumps babbling that tripe 24/7 has done a number on the property values!

  21. Avatardejal

    Those Ataris used 6502 processors. So did Commodore and Apple II.
    I believe NCR Mainframe Centurys used them or very close cousins of them.

    Centurys were a big part of banking data processing way back when.

    Back in the 80s, the company had a logic test you’d take and then they’d show you NEAT/3, the language for these things. A guy, still here, took the test. Gets shown the green bar code. On the right is the hex code of the instructions. He covers up the left side and start reeling off the instructions based on the hex code. He was hired in a instant.
    How did he know? He screwed with Apple IIs and Ataris all the time.

    I used to be pretty good with that stuff.
    I think these are some of the OP codes.

    51 = TESTCE
    52 = TESTCU
    64? = MVAR
    65 = BCOMP
    45 = PCOMP?

    So, you’d have a 6400EACA 0700BCD3 on the right with the NEAT/3 code on the left.
    that would be a 65 MVAR (Move left to right the 7 bytes at EACA to address BCD3.

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      6502 was the basis for almost everything including, I think, the Tandy Color Computer. Z80 was the primary competitor. As a kid I remember thinking the 6502 was stronger than the Z80 but as an adult, reading specs, it doesn’t seem so clear cut.

      • AvatarEric H

        The Sybex “Programming the 6502” (Rodney Zaks) I got when I was eleven is still on my bookshelf today.

        Almost 15 years ago I was involved with reverse engineering the JECS ECUs in early 90’s Nissan and Subaru cars. When I started digging in, I realized that those ECSs were using 6502 derived chips. These were really weird Hitachi hybrid 8 or 16 bit chips depending on bits in the status register. You could tell they used a compiler as these bits were set and restored on every function call.

      • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

        There’s a Z80 processor in the embroidery machine about 15 feet from where I’m sitting now. It’s an artifact from an era that straddled two technological ages. It has a modern (for the ’80s) microprocessor but the command sequence to start the machine is Read, Tape, Run, as in punched paper tape that was used in the machining industry to send G-code before computers. Anachronistically, digitizing embroidery designs is still called “punching”.

      • Avatarsgeffe

        The Z-80 was used in the Trash-80, correct? (Yes I know..Tandy/Radio Shack = TRS-80!)

        Wasn’t that also the case with Heathkit/Zenith?

        Cut my teeth programming BASIC and TRS-DOS, and in the gifted program in the 5th/6th-grade, a retired programmer who volunteered his time teaching computer classes showed me and a couple other people the ropes. It was at that point that I decided I wanted to do programming, and I’m still doing that now! Anyway, this guy had built several Heathkits, the most powerful of which would be overpowered today by the ABS module in your car! How far we’ve come!

      • AvatarAlphaHotel

        I’m two days late but I can’t resist. Color Computer was Motorola 6809. I bought^Wgot my parents to buy me one because my first job was at a place running GMX and Southwest Technical Products microcomputers running OS/9. (A multi-user, multi-tasking OS on an 8-bit microprocessor. The GMX had 1MB of RAM using a primitive memory mapping unit). The CC could theoretically run OS/9, and eventually did.

        • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

          You’re correct, of course — and the 6809 was considerably stouter than the 6502 OR Z/80.

          Why did I think the CCs were so weak at the time? I think it was the Radio Shack lame factor plus the astoundingly bad games they always demoed them with.

  22. AvatarOne Leg at a Time

    My “lizard people” comment from the last article was written before reading this one.

    And the fact that it is in no way apparent bothered me the entire time I was reading.

    TRS-80 (with the optional cassette tape drive!) for me.

    • Avatarsgeffe

      Worked with several of those in my elementary school daze!

      If, when you were loading a program, if you had two asterisks in the upper-right of the screen, right one blinking, you were good! If the left asterisk changed to a “B,” you had a read-error, anything from an incorrect volume level on the player to a bad tape! Usually it meant you were fucked! You had just spent the last two days painstakingly typing that program in from a book, and it’s gone!! 🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤬🤬💩

      High school, and Apple BASIC and 5.25” floppy disks (Apple IIe FTW), was an improvement!

      • AvatarOne Leg at a Time

        Completely agree about the floppys. I was stunned that the data transferred seamlessly between the media and the machine – what a concept!

        I never touched BASIC again after my home machine died. In high school we programmed in Pascal (? I think).

  23. AvatarJon Buder

    What keyboard are you using currently?
    I know you are a fan of made in USA products, what do you think about the Unicomp keyboards based on the IBM model M? Any firsthand experience with them?

    It seems mechanical keyboards are gaining popularity lately. I’m using a Logitech K845 with cherry blue switches at work. Nice looking and feels solid but the key caps have sharp edges, slightly uncomfortable to hit at an angle like I do with the spacebar and number pad.

    I want a small board, maybe 60% layout, to use with the Raspberry Pi and hopefully to teach my kids some Linux command line use and some coding. But an expensive and probably not spill proof piece of equipment isn’t a good match for my kids. I just think the sound and feel of mechanical is satisfying and I’d like to share that with them.

    Maybe they will be nostalgic for physical keys when they are running around with augmented reality and actually useful voice for recognition in the future…

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      That’s exactly what I’m using… a Unicomp, purchased 15 years ago, in the 101-key (I think) layout.

      The problem is that it will never wear out.

      Prior to the Unicomp I used a bunch of Model Ms, all Eighties PS/2 USA style. Still have about 30 of those.

  24. AvatarSteveRenwick

    How do you feel about automatic spell correction?

    Your UDF (Urban Direction Finding, by the way) comment made me think of this. In my job I occasionally work with hyperspectral imaging (HSI). Every time I write that in an email, M’snot Outlook helpfully backs up and changes that to “HIS.”

    Every. Fracking. Time. It cannot be turned off.

    “But people love spell checking! It’s an important Feature!”

    Fireman Montag, call your office.

  25. AvatarRonnie Schreiber

    My commercial embroidery machine was built in the mid 1980s so it has a Z80 based motherboard and a membrane keyboard. When keys first started failing, I traced the runs on the PCB and replaced the keys with momentary mechanical switches. Eventually, though, I had to replace the entire keyboard. The tech I use keeps refurbished boards in stock.

    Modern mechanical keyboards aren’t much better than membranes as far as I’m concerned. I’m upgraded my computer to a fairly fast, modern box because I’m doing more CAD and processing VR. I’m happy with the computer, by Dell, but it comes with a keyboard that’s about the worst mechanical keyboard I’ve every used. No “tits on the keyboard” on the home keys so I frequently hit the caps lock key instead of the A.

    Screw it, I’ll go order an IBM Model M from Unicomp. Made in the USA too.

    • AvatarBon Ivermectin

      There are 3 main technologies:
      1. Mechanical (families include buckling spring, Cherry MX switch, ALPS switch, etc.)

      2. Membrane

      3. Rubber dome

      #3 ranges from “fairly decent” to “absolute garbage”, and quality seems to be declining over the decades

  26. AvatarJonathan H.

    In the not so distant past this maddening procedure drove me to the point of punching the screen as I yelled to nobody in particular that “I just want to pump my goddamn gas!”. Punched it so hard the pump went into some sort of error mode/reboot forcing me to move my car to a different pump and begin the procedure again. I’ve learned to direct my rage away from the pumps and towards any nearby women, children or small animals.

    • Avatarsgeffe

      Sadly, I’ve yelled at those pumps too!

      And, getting back to the Kroger venom, up-thread, at their self-checkouts, too! Especially when the damn thing insists that you “place the item in the bagging area” for the umpteenth time! My most embarrassing moment was the French bread that I intended to..uhh..SET DOWN on the bagging platform with register. But it bounced over the kiosk and landed behind the bagging area of the regular checkout line immediately adjacent, which was empty, mercifully! 🤬🤬

      As far as the POS membrane switches, I knew that the problems Jack’s having with his cruise control buttons would happen the instant I SAW those things at an auto show! I wonder if some enterprising soul has come up with a kit to retrofit the buttons used in the upper-tier (Buick, Cadillac) vehicles to a Chevy wheel? Or if one of the switches fails, does the whole steering wheel, complete with airbag and clockspring, need to be replaced?

  27. AvatarCar Journo

    Does your brother seriously think that “car journos posting L’s” thing is funny? Because it’s kind of an embarrassment to the Baruth franchise, if you ask me.

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      I can’t say it’s a move I would have made, but the biggest reason we still get along after 43 years is that I don’t try to force my opinions on him.

      I also could have done without the obviously coordinated group of people who called my job trying to get me fired this week because of something that my relative did, but then again I don’t live in a worldview where I punish people for the actions of their families, 1600-in-Scotland or 1980-in-USSR style.

    • AvatarForzaAzzuro

      The original, good natured, poking fun, conceit of car journo L’s was much more entertaining and had more potential; than the politically tinged, mean-spirited us v them tone it has taken on recently… but then again they did strike first…

  28. AvatarBillG

    Funny I own one of each Atari 400 pictured. That after market keyboard ain’t all that great so your dad made the right call on the 800.

  29. Avatarjc

    I remember back in the mid 80s when I started working as a mechanical engineer, we did a lot of calling on the phone to find specs – remember, no internet – just paper catalogs, and a lot of phone calls trying to track down a particular component. We had Western Electric touch tone desk phones. Each engineer in our office customized his ringer (some would tape a weight to the bell; others would cut some off to raise the pitch, and so on). I was terribly unhappy when Corporate forced new phones with membrane switches on us. Imagine you’re running a $1M assembly line installation. You’re going to have the phone numbers of the integrator, the millwright, the plumbing company, the electricians, the machinery movers, etc., etc., all memorized and completely integrated into muscle memory. Now some doofus upstairs forces a new phone system and you’re dialing all those numbers, from 7 to 10 digits, at the rate of one.second.per.digit. AAARRRRRGGGGGHHHHH!

    And it hasn’t gotten a bit better.

    • Avatarsgeffe

      How quickly did the phone keypad wear?

      Reminds me of the Atari 5200 my folks purchased back in 1983, except that the failure point was the points on the axis of each joystick (which included a numeric keypad), which would bust through the boot of the joystick after a short time of use!

      I think we went through two sets of the joysticks before the problem stopped after whatever design flaw was finally addressed!

      Pole Position rocked on that system!! Mario Bros. was OK as well, along with Pac-Man.


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