Monday, February 22, 2016

the Incident at Dunkin' Donuts.

Two trusted sources - Sir Charles (left fg) and Sgt. Calvin (right bg) agree that games of any type are almost always fun - and as they are expert gamers who spend most of their free time either gaming, or thinking about gaming, I feel very confident that they qualify as Expert Sources.  Just saying...
Depending on how you look at it, this story begins in one of two places: either on a coffee farm in Columbia in 2015, or in the offices of Bill Moggridge, co-founder of the technology design company IDEO, and a British author and engineer who is responsible for creating the classic clamshell design of the modern notebook and laptop computers, situated somewhere in Palo Alto, California in 1980.

Actually the events I am about to describe occurred at approximately 09:35 in the morning of 21 February 2016; geographically the best description for a postman would be 614 Main Street, in the town of Falmouth, Massachusetts.

If you were giving directions to a computer, it would probably prefer them in either its latitude and longitude (41.552980, -70.60555) if it's an old school device, or by its GPS coordinates (41° 33' 10.7280'' North by 70° 36' 19.9800'' West) if it is a more modern one.

Originally known as the village of Succonessett, after it was settled in 1660 and incorporated as a town in 1686 by Bartholomew Gosnold (in honor of the town of Falmouth in Cornwall, England), Falmouth, Massachusetts is conveniently situated in what I like to think of as the armpit of the universe (look at it on a map some time and you will see what I mean), and can be reached by accessing the Cape via Route 28 and the Bourne Bridge.

The second-largest municipality on Cape Cod, and the first town of considerable size a visitor will encounter after passing over the Cape Cod Canal, Falmouth is situated in beautiful Barnstable County, and consists of previously independent villages of East Falmouth, Falmouth Village, North Falmouth, Teaticket, West Falmouth, and Woods Hole. It is widely recognized as the town that introduced Merino sheep and its wool to North America.

Falmouth, Massachusetts - the Armpit of the Universe
In addition to helping America discover the joys of wearing fashion created from its fine wool, Falmouth also serves as the home of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), the Woods Hole Research Center, National Marine Fisheries Aquarium, and is also the terminal for the Massachusetts Steamship Authority, which provides ferries to Martha's Vineyard.

Actually - and to be fair - while all of those facts related to Falmouth should be interesting to tourists, the fact is that most tourists are more interested in the wonderful beaches that Falmouth maintains, which they use to frolic half-naked in the surf, obtain the suntans that the Cape is best known for, and serve as the primary reasons for which Falmouth is a holiday destination.

If you are curious those beaches (listed in what I consider to be the best to least best, with the best listed first) are: Old Silver Beach, Bristol Beach, Surf Drive Beach, Falmouth Heights Beach, Wood Neck Beach, Stoney Beach, Megansett Beach, Menauhant Beach, Chapoquoit Beach, and Grews Pond Beach.

If you are looking for a classic beach that also has available food and beverage service nearby, the only choice would have to be Falmouth Heights Beach as it is across the street from the Falmouth branch of the BBC (British Beer Company) - all of the other beaches you pretty much need to bring your own food and beverages, though Surf Drive Beach has a snacks bar open during the prime season - just saying.

From a bird's eye view, Falmouth borders Buzzards Bay to the west and south, Waquoit Bay to the east, and the largely rural but nevertheless cozy region of the Cape that claims to be the summer home for much of the upwardly mobile population of Boston to the north.

On a more personal note, Falmouth has legitimate claim to a large number of famous and creative people, among whom are actors (Casey Affleck, and Jim Connors), artists (Frederick E. Olmsted), authors (Katharine Lee Bates, Melissa Febos, and Peter Abrahams), politicians (Jacob Sloat Fassett), and athletes (Colleen Coyne, Jamaal Branch, Paul Harney, and Steve Cishek).

Falmouth also happens to be home to a large number of coffee houses, including (but not limited to because I am only listing these from personal memory) the Coffee Obsession on Palmer Ave. in Falmouth and Water Street in Woods Hole, Starbucks on Davis Straits, Pies Ala Mode Cafe on Main Street, Cape Cod Bagel Cafe on Palmer Ave., Betsy's Diner on Main Street (which totally has the best coffee and pie in town but because it has really weird hours is usually not the go-to place for java most of the time plus they don't take plastic so bring cash or go home), Peet's Coffee & Tea on Teaticket Highway, the Cheesecake Cafe on Teaticket Highway, Moonakis Cafe on Waquoit Highway, and of course Dunkin' Donuts, which can be found on Sandwich Road, Main Street, Falmouth Highway, North and Falmouth Highway, Double-D being the one with the most locations in town really, which sort of explains why this all happened there.

Actually that is just a very brief list - there are LOTS of others I could add but when I realized that list was rapidly becoming a wall of text AND I realized that if you can't pick a coffee spot from the ones I have already listed you have bigger problems than just needing a cup of joe, well, you get the idea.

Now that I have filled you in on the backstory pretty much, before I explain the events about which this posting is, well, about... It would be an idea to bring you to this morning from the two possible origination points first, right?

The Two Possible Origination Points
I will try not to drag this out, but since there are only two prime paths to the events that took place this morning that should not be too difficult...

Bill Moggridge - Creator of the Clamshell Design
The offices of Bill Moggridge in 1980

Back in the day Bill designed the first successful laptop - the GRiD Compass. His design used a clamshell case (where the screen folds flat to the rest of the computer when closed) made from a magnesium alloy - which combined makes it a very sexy piece of kit. But what made it even MORE sexy was who it was created for: the US Government.

Actually to be fair it wasn't really made for the US Government per se, but as its unit price tag was around $10k they were mostly the only entity that could afford it. But, you may wonder, why did they buy it? That is the even more sexy part - the Compass was the laptop selected by NASA to go into space on the shuttle, and by the DoD to be supplied to Special Forces operators when they needed to take a computer into the field.

The important bit about the Compass was not that it was a computer - or portable - but rather its user-friendly design that basically protected the important bits by separating the display from the body of the computer and then using the display (and its case) to protect both the display AND the keyboard. Without that innovative approach the notebook and laptop never could have enjoyed the success that they did.

It probably won't surprise you to learn that, while the GRiD Compass did not have a massive commercial run, found its profits via returns on its patent rights as that innovative design became the most commonplace feature on portable computers.

Before you gleefully email me to tell me I am totally wrong - that Xerox invented that - well, yes and no.

Xerox invented a LOT of things - they invented the computer mouse you know? And Ethernet, and... But the point is that while Xerox was really great at inventing things, they were terrible at filing patent applications, which is why most of the stuff that they invented was also “invented” by the first person to file a patent on it.

The Genealogy of the Laptop
Back in the good-old days when the tech that eventually lead to the laptop computer was in the process of being created I was busily computing on my heavily modified hardware. I will explain that in a moment...

Laptop tech began not as a small package but as an idea towards creating the portable computer. At the time nobody was thinking about making a clamshell device - they just wanted to somehow make the PC portable.

The Osborne 1
1981 -- The Osborne 1
The first successful commercially offered PC that was portable - sort of - was the Osborne 1. It was legitimately a PC, being a microprocessor-based portable computer of a sort that was usually referred to as a “Luggable” rather than portable computer.

This was 1981 - before Microsoft had managed to put a lock on the Operating System market and well before Windows appeared and dominated the market and tech in terms of PCs.

It used the CP/M OS which, actually, was better and easier to use than DOS, but when Microsoft tried to purchase CP/M from its creator they were told flatly “Not Interested” which is why they ended up buying a competing OS that was called QDOS (which stood for Quick-and-Dirty Operating System) which was created and sold to hobbyists by a little company called Seattle Computer.

The Osborne 1 looked like the typical portable sewing machine until you actually opened the bottom, and then you saw it was actually a computer with a 5” screen, floppy drive, and keyboard concealed within.

It was large, it was heavy, and compared to today's laptops, impossible to own and use like we use laptops today. Despite those obvious limitations it had a near-revolutionary impact on businesses that benefited from the use of a PC in the field.

The Compaq Portable PC
1982 -- The Compaq Portable
While the Osborn might have been able to carve out a dominant niche for itself once it found a way to get smaller and lighter, the decision to use CP/M as its OS is thought to have been the main reason why it never quite caught on. Well that and it was wicked large and wicked heavy!

Which is why in 1982 the introduction at CES of Compaq Computer's portable PC that they called - I kid you not - the Compaq Portable shook things up.

Sure their naming imagination may have been pushed to its limits with the launch of this portable PC, it is clear that it was heavily influenced by both the IBM PC and the fact that Compaq had entered the market as a clone maker, and certainly too its decision to choose Microsoft DOS as its designated OS.

Once it found its niche -- and once it began the process of revision to get smaller and more capable -- even though the Compaq Portable was only slightly smaller and lighter than the Osborne, its close association with Compaq's desktop line of PCs and the fact that it was a true IBM Clone gave it advantages that caused most business class users to be willing to overlook its obvious flaws and to favor it.

Consider this - when IBM finally got around to designing and then contracting out the manufacture of its own portable - the IBM Portable Personal Computer 5155 model 68 - it was barely compatible with MS DOS and the desktop PCs the company made!

As noted above, the Compaq Portable had the good fortune to be embraced by its user base - mostly businesses that already relied heavily upon PC Clones made by Compaq - the engineers assigned to the project worked hard to get it smaller and make it more portable, with a committed eye towards removing what they viewed as its Achilles heel, which was the fact that despite being technically portable the device still required an AC power source to function at all.

Its third major design revision - which Compaq called the Compaq Portable II - offered users a smaller and more portable frame that featured a high resolution display capable of somewhat limited graphics that included a very progressive CAD/CAM suite.

The Epson HX-20 / HC-20 - World's First Laptop PC
1982 / 1983 -- The Epson HX-20
While its original project team was assembled in 1980 it took almost all of two years for them to complete the R&D for the HX-20, which was the Seiko Epson Corporation's contribution to portable computing in the 1980s.

Like previous efforts in portable computing, the HX-20 did not live up to expectations - it also took a completely different path towards the same end in that it was never contemplated to be a portable PC, but rather a handheld computing device (there really is a significant difference between the two).

Created as a handheld computer that supported the 68-key keyboard which was, at the time, an industry standard, it also used a rechargeable nickel-cadmium battery, one of its failings was found in its display - a pretty small 120×32-pixel dot-matrix LCD display that only supported 4 20-character lines of text, as its primary “display” was meant to be the standard 24-column dot matrix printer!

As such its use in the field was very limited and that design model never caught on with consumers or the business computing community. That said though, some of the innovative design elements in its motherboard and circuitry DID catch on, and so it made some significant contributions to portable computer design on the hardware side of the coin.

The GRiD Compass 1101 - Touch enough for the Special Forces, Hi-Tech enough for NASA!
1983 / 1984 -- GRiD Compass 1101
The GRiD Compass 1101 was THE portable computer that finally delivered ALL of the elements that computer makers - and users - had been seeking in a portable computer for almost ten years.

In relative terms it really did offer it all: a full-sized display capable of rudimentary graphical display, a full-sized keyboard, internal power, and the ability to “fold-up” making it smaller for transport purposes while at the same time retaining all of the components that were necessary for field use in a single package.

Nobody disputes its claim as the first true laptop -- and its design by Bill Moggridge in 1979–80, thanks to the many patents covering it that GRiD was very careful to make sure were properly filed first with the US Patent Office and then with strategic foreign patent authorities, pretty much called the tune for true-portable-computing for the next forever or until someone somewhere figures out how to plug the things into our brains.

It wasn't simply ahead of its time, it was ahead of computer technology in whole! The 1101 clamshell case was a brilliant piece of design, but it was the icing on the cake so to speak. The hardware? Now that is where this thing really jumped generations. Consider this - the GRiD utilized non-volatile Bubble-Chip Memory years before anybody knew what it was!

It ran either using its internal, rechargeable battery, or via standard AC power, and its switching power supply could be plugged directly into the classified power network on board the US Space Shuttle Fleet without a conversion unit.

In fact its only drawback was that the 1101 was not IBM compatible; it used its own proprietary OS that was based off of CP/M and was called GRiDOS.

It may also interest you to know that the 1101 was fully compatible with the Space Shuttle main computer, and that astronauts on the Shuttle carried a special set of cables and a data cartridge that allowed an 1101 to be attached to the instrument panel in the Shuttle cockpit, essentially serving as the Shuttle's emergency backup co-pilot!

Once attached to the Shuttle computer network and, as long as the Shuttle was in any one of ten standard and programmed orbital positions, the 1101 and its emergency pilot program would function as a full substitute for the Shuttle's flight and navigation computer, allowing the laptop to land the Shuttle by itself in the event that an emergency occurred or the pilots were incapacitated.

Other laptops and, eventually, notebook computers, followed the GRiD 1101, and as the technology of portable computing matured and grew smaller improved upon its form, but it is safe to say that the GRiD 1101 set in motion almost all of the form factors that eventually lead to the design and manufacture of the HP notebook that is my constant companion and upon which I do most of my writing.

And that is how, thanks to Bill Moggridge we arrived at a table in our local Dunkin' Donuts at 09:35 on the morning of 21 February 2016 where the events I will soon describe occurred.

But before we get to that we have to briefly visit a coffee farm in Colombia - and before we do THAT we also have to go back in time to 1981 where we will revisit my computer at the time, which was pretty special - a special that actually involved no fewer than TWO blood sacrifices to make!

The C=64 with 1541 Drive and 1084 Colour Display

My 1983 Computers
In 1983 my personal computer kit consisted of my first personal computer - a VIC-20 my father bought me for my birthday in 1981, a Timex-Sinclair 1000 that I had a love-hate relationship with, and my main system, a heavily modified Commodore C=64, that my father originally gave me for my birthday in 1982.

Over the summer school break just after Christmas 1982 my sister's boyfriend Mike - who was in uni to become an electronics engineer - helped me to modify my C=64 with expanded storage and a hard drive. That mod was a breadboard kit you had to assemble yourself, that allowed the C=64 to interface with either a 10MB or 20MB MFM Hard Drive - which would have been incredibly expensive but my dad's office had upgraded their storage at the time and he “found” a 10MB drive for me.

When I got it it was a stock C=64 -- it had the standard 8-bit MOS Technology 6510 microprocessor, 64K of RAM, and a 1541 external floppy drive. I added my Commodore 1530 C2N-B Datasette that we bought for my VIC-20 to replace the bog-standard portable audio tape unit it originally came with. I also added my VIC-1600 which was a 100 baud modem that plugged into the user interface port on the VIC-20, and the C=64 (using an adapter).

My VIC-1600 was just 100 baud, so when Telecom/Telstra launched the Viatel Service in Australia and sent us an offer to try it out that included a free Commodore CBM 1660 300 baud modem for a brief period - hey, free is free right? - I jumped on that. It was actually sort of useful - one way we got a lot of use out of it was making Qantas reservations for my dad. He traveled a lot and one of the more useful services on Viatel was being able to obtain flight reservations for Qantas.

That lasted a few months then I upgraded to a 2400 baud modem which was pretty much the fastest you could ever get for the C=64. Later when it was available I added an additional 256K of RAM to my C=64 but, by that time all I was using the C=64 got was to run my single-line BBS system as by that time I had my first PC clone and preferred to use that for my general computing needs. So yeah, that is the story of my early computer kit.

So with that covered I feel like I have fulfilled all I said I would do and then some, so it is time for us to visit the alternate possible origins as we visit a coffee farm in Colombia.

Juan Valdez is a fictional character who has appeared in advertisements for the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia since 1958, representing a Colombian coffee farmer.
A coffee farm in Columbia in 2015

From an article posted by John Costello, Chief Global Marketing and Innovation Officer at Dunkin’ Brands on the “Behind the Bean” website of Dunkin' Donuts Corporate, Costello declares:

“Dunkin’ Donuts sources its coffee from a number of countries in Central and South America. Though I can’t reveal exactly which countries, Dunkin’ Donuts works closely with the coffee farmers and professionals in those countries to select the highest quality, 100% Arabica beans available. We have a coffee excellence team that has implemented strict Dunkin' Donuts Quality (DDQ) specifications, which is used throughout the entire tree to cup process.”

We happen to know that in addition to Brazil, Dunkin' Donuts sources its coffee from growers in Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia among others, and our story begins on a coffee farm in Columbia. Colombia's average annual coffee production of 11.5 million bags is the third total highest in the world,
with most of it being Arabica beans grown in the Colombian coffee growing axis region in the north.

In North America consumers are used to obtaining their foodstuff from big corporate growers who operate farms that are as large as the typical mid-sized American city, and thanks in no small part to the very successful "Juan Valdez" advertising campaign by the public relations arm of the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia) think that coffee comes from similar commercial farms. You may be surprised to learn that it actually doesn't.

The art of growing Arabica in Columbia is a product of nearly half-a-million small farms - the vast majority of which consist of growing fields smaller than a single hectare. In case you never heard of that term, a hectare is a metric unit of square measure equal to 100 ares, which translates to 2.471 acres.

You read that right, the typical coffee farmer in Columbia growing the Arabica bean has a field that is just under two-and-a-half acres in size.

Fortunately for those growers, who are all members of the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, a non-profit business association that was founded in 1927 as a business cooperative to promote the production and exportation of Colombian coffee. The secret to its success - and how it ensures the best possible price for its members - can be found in its strict adherence to the three pillars around which it was founded: its vows to protect the coffee industry, study the problems facing that industry, and to promote its interests through education and public relations.

In addition to assisting in price negotiations and ensuring that the member farmers are paid a fair price for their products, the NFCGC also monitors the annual production on a farm-by-farm basis to ensure that the crops being grown meet the minimum standards for the Colombian brand.

They also provide training and material support to the farmers to help them achieve mastery of their art, which is pretty cool if you think about it and probably a big reason why their coffee is so well-received on the world market - so it's a good thing that there is no National Federation of Coca Growers of Colombia!

Actually, if you think about it, coffee drinkers in America are probably the most effective army in the war on cocaine! The demand for coffee - and specifically the fine coffee that is brewed from Colombian Arabica beans - is all that has prevented a large percentage of small family owned farms from switching over to that illicit crop - so the next time you have a cup of coffee, pat yourself on the back for preventing even more illegal drugs from reaching the streets of America!

In his book The Orinoco Illustrated (1730), Jesuit priest José Gumilla described the beans as being among the richest and most desirable coffee, emphasizing that the locally-grown and roasted beans were a constant presence on the tables of the mission of Saint Teresa of Tabajé, who doubtlessly obtained those beans from a small family farm in much the same manner as they are obtained today - though probably at a price far lower than that paid by the typical consumer.

The reason it was cheaper is not because coffee cost less in 1730, but rather because they bought it at the source. You will probably be shocked to learn that a pound of green coffee beans at the source today is valued at around $2 - but it has to pass through a large number of hands before it ends up as a steaming cup clutched in your hands, which you paid $5 for. Following that path can be illuminating.

For our purposes let us imagine ourselves on a small family farm somewhere in the north of Colombia in 2015. The crop for the year was good - better than anticipated actually - so it ended up selling for around $1.75 per pound instead of $2 - but the consumer still ended up paying $12 a pound, so how is it that the overabundance of coffee beans failed to reflect a lower consumer price?

I spent an afternoon researching this and crunching the numbers that were offiially released by the various industries who handle coffee beans as it makes its way from the farm to your hand, and what I found was, well, rather disturbing.

The farmers grow the coffee and then sell it - as green beans - to a coffee exporter for $1.75 a pound, which was the established fair trade price at the time.

The exporter who contracts with the farmers to purchase their crops collects the crops with their trucks and hauls it to their warehouse, where it is then combined with the crops from other farmers - though it is the same type so no worries there - and is packaged in 1000 lb palette bags.

In a gesture of solidarity with Juan, I get up at 05:30 and prepare the fields for planting...
A coffee importer purchases these bags of green beans from the exporter for a per-unit price of $2000 (which works out to $2 per pound). The Importer then ships the pallet bags to its warehouses in the country (or countries) it does business in, then repackages the coffee in 50 lb bags, and sells it to the roasters for a per unit price of $112.50 (or $2.25 per pound).

The Roasters then take these bags of green beans and roast them - which you may be interested to know actually reduces the volume of a typical pound of green beans from 1 lb to .82 pounds - which is roughly a shrinkage of 18%. If we apply that to the value of the coffee what we get is $2.75 per pound.

The Roaster has to factor in all sorts of expenses - not just the tax and import fees and shipping and transportation costs, but also labor on several sides, packaging costs, and storage for example. A liberal assessment of the costs on the Roaster's part might make the overall cost of that 1 lb of roasted coffee to something like $6. Of course the Roaster needs to make a profit from that product, so they might set the per-pound price at $7.50 which is what the coffee shops, cafes, and restaurants end up paying - but not the consumer!

If we can digress for a moment, the coffee you buy, whether it is a can or bag off of the shelf at your grocers, or a bag from your favorite coffee house, you are buying commercially-packaged coffee that was assembled in a factory whose business it is to create 1 lb packages of roasted coffee intended to be sold to consumers, who will brew it at home. This is NOT the same coffee that you buy in the cafe or coffee house, even IF it has their label on its packaging.

The coffee that you buy by the cup from your favorite cafe or coffee shop was brewed from roasted beans that were purchased from the Roaster, usually packaged in 5 or 10 pound lots. It is not packaged for or intended for sale to consumers - it is meant to be brewed by the cafe / coffee house and sold, by the cup, to consumers. So yeah, not the same thing at all.

Now the typical pound of coffee will, when brewed, create an average of 50 4 oz cups - which is great if you are drinking coffee from 4 oz cups at your church or Boy Scout meeting, but coffee is not purchased in 4 oz. cups at coffee shops or cafes, it is typically bought in 16 oz cups, which changes the yield to 16 cups per pound. So the ultimate per-pound cost is going to depend on who you bought your cup of coffee from. Examples! We need examples!

The following applies to regular cups of coffee - not Cappuccino, or Latte, or some other drink that contains coffee - but a standard 16 oz cup of joe. You can add your own creamer or sugar if you want, but that does not really factor in here.

A 16 oz cup of coffee at our local Starbucks costs us $3.25 - so the per-pound price works out to $52. That pound of coffee cost Starbucks $7.50 and so, before labor, the cost of the cup, the energy used to brew it, water, and other costs, Starbucks made $44.50 from it.

A cup of coffee at our local Dunkin' Donuts costs us $2.29 - so the per-pound price works out to $36.64. That pound of coffee cost Double-D $7.50 and so, before labor, the cost of the cup, the energy used to brew it, water, and other costs, they made $29.14 from it.

Sure this is not thousands of dollars... Or is it? I asked the local Dunkin' coffee jockey how much coffee they sell on a typical day - but as they only worked the morning shift they could not tell me that. But they could tell me what they did on a good weekday morning - which they said averaged around 575 cups of regular coffee.

According to my math, that average of 575 cups works out to just over 36 pounds of coffee, which is $270 at cost and a profit of $1,049.04 so hey, yeah, it IS thousands!

Before I tell you that this brings us to the Dunkin' Donuts where the incident took place I wanted to point out that the figures I offer here are mostly estimated and are based on publicly available numbers. If you disagree with them, okay. They are presented as a general estimate here. That is all. And now, this is where we arrive at the Dunkin' Donuts where the incident took place.

Les statistiques suggèrent que la famille typique de 2016 tous jeux - et ici, à quatre pins ferme, c'est certainement vrai. Maman (photographié ci-dessus) préfère sa Nintendo 3DS ; Sœur est un PC Gamer, tandis que Papy et Junior préfèrent le One Xbox.
09:35 @ Dunkin' Donuts

The menu item at Double-D listed as “Hash Browns” are described as: “Our hash browns are lightly seasoned, crispy bites of gooDDness. Pair them with your breakfast sandwich and your morning pit stop gets even more tasty.”

In fact (and in my considered opinion) what the Double-D Hash Browns are is a custom-take on the 'Tater Tot” (a uniquely American invention) distinctly flavored with dried garlic and onion, a pinch of celery salt, and golden-fried goodness that is best enjoyed on-site. 

They just do not travel well, and they do not re-warm well. In fact to get the best quality taste experience, just like with the fries at McDonalds, one needs to consume them as soon as conveniently possible.  Which is what I proceeded to do - taking my coffee, my sandwich, and my two bags of "Hash Browns" to the back corner table in the tiny dining area of the Double-D.

That is when the incident happened.  

I will try to recreate what happened - and what was said - from memory as best I can.  Some of it I might get slightly wrong, but you will still get the gist of what transpired, to the best of my abilities.

The Incident

“Why do you waste your time playing video games?” the voice asked.

I looked up from the screen of my laptop on which I was in the midst of a game of Pyramid, and looked around, unsure where the question originated.  I reminded myself that the person was talking at me, so I looked for who was looking at me.  Two people were looking at me - a middle-aged woman, and a tween boy sitting at the table next to me.

Pyramid is a card game that is part of Microsoft's Solitaire Collection - a free video game that pretty much comes free with Windows 10.  Actually it's one of a bunch of games created specifically for Windows 10 that you can download for free via the Microsoft Online Store.  When you go the Free Route you get the game - with some ads injected into it.  Upgrade to Premium and you lose the ads.

I promise this is not a commercial for Microsoft but, in addition to the game I was playing - Pyramid Solitaire - the suite also contains versions of Klondike, Spider, Freecell, and TriPeaks. 

There are other free games - all of them fun - that you can download free versions of - including Mahjong, Jigsaw, Sudoku, Bingo, Minesweeper, Treasure Hunt, Jackpot (a video slot machine), and Age of Empires: Castle Siege.The price is right for these games and they really are a lot of fun, but they are also pretty addictive.  Fair warning mates.

The voice clearly belonged to the middle-aged woman and, by the expression on the tween's face, he found this very embarrassing.  It was also pretty clear that Mom had done this before - because he did not look surprised so much as he did resigned.  

Asking a question like that - a personal question that was clearly prompted by intrusive observation - well I don't know about you but I consider that pretty ballsy for a stranger to do.  A perfect stranger I might add, because as I carefully examined the face, and then accessed my personal memory database of faces, I was reasonably certain that I did not know this woman.

I might have responded with any number of answers depending on a whim... 

I could have said “Did you know that all of these games are fully compliant with the Xbox Live game license requirements? They each include Achievements and they each offer varying levels of social play?” 

Or I might have said “I am addicted to the daily challenges scheme as it allows me to spend the gold I earn completing each daily challenge on expansions or game customization content!”

I might have replied “Mind your own business, Sheesh!” 

Or I could have asked why she cared? What was it to her? 

Instead I calmly replied: “You feel that game play is a waste of time?”

“Yes I do!” she instantly answered. 

“My kids would spend all of their free time playing video games if I let them," she told me.  "Instead I encourage them to spend their time doing things that make their lives better or teach them useful skills. 

"If they must find entertainment, why not find that entertainment in a good book?” she asked.

“So you are saying that games - video games - have no redeeming qualities whatsoever?” I asked.  I was trying very hard not to show just how surprised and taken aback I felt at her words.

“Of course they don't," she quickly replied - her tone and facial expression indicating to me that she really believed what she was saying.

"You had to spend good money on them; they don't give you anything tangible in return,” she pointed out.

“Actually that's not true,” I shook my head. 

“A recent study at Oxford University indicates that an hour of game play daily is linked with better-adjusted children and teenagers - kids who game regularly were found to be more sociable, happier overall, and less hyperactive," I pointed out.

“Another study in New Zealand revealed that regular video game play is beneficial for positive aging in senior citizens. In addition to being happier overall, seniors who game also have better decision-making skills and are more aware of their surroundings."

I could tell by the expression on her face that she suspected I was making all of this up.

“A bunch of studies completed over the past five years have concluded that regular game play helps to improve preschoolers' motor skills, improves vision, and is therapeutic for children with chronic illnesses," I quickly add.  “Video games have also been found to reduce stress and depression, and have been proven to provide pain relief in patients suffering from chronic pain and also for patients in post-surgical recovery."

Her mouth opened, her eyes darted down and to her left - she was about to speak and she was thinking about what she was going to say first.  Before she could decide on her reply I plowed on.

“Another study suggests that games set in historical environments - like the Assassin's Creed series - increases interest in learning about history and other cultures; it also teaches and reinforces problem-solving skills, and helps to build social skills, which are all good things if you ask me.  I am guessing that basically everything you think you know about video games is probably wrong” I added. 

Every year around April 15 the folks from Penny Arcade throw a protest event called PAX East where thousands of parents get together and force their kids to watch them play video games in order to teach them how evil and totally no fun this modern era electronic curse really is.  The kids all realize how much they are not having fun playing video games and vow never to play video games again, then the government refunds all of the tax dollars their parents have ever payed and everyone goes down to Boston Harbor and throws their tea bags into the water screaming "This is NOT my Prius!"  Because 'Merica!
She stared at me like I was a bug on a wall for an even dozen heartbeats, took a few long and considered breaths, and then shook her head, the motion extending all the way to her shoulders like a wet dog.

Is any of that true?” she demanded.

“All of it," I replied, nodding my head in what I hopeed would be interpreted as vigorous motion and not the uncontrolled spasms of the emotionally disturbed.

"You know when I was a kid my parents told me that video games were a waste of time - you can't make a living playing video games my Mum used to say.”

“And your mother was right!” she agreed, glancing at the tween sitting across from her with a knowing and smug expression on her face.  He did not like that one little bit I could see, but this one had pretty good manners, as he refrained from sharing just how much he didn't like it with us.

“Actually no, she was wrong,” I replied. Score one for our team - the tween had to stifle a grin.

“Oh? What do you do for a living?” she asked.

“I'm a games journalist,” I answered.  "And I write online walkthrough guides to help gamers get through the more complicated parts of different games.”

You're kidding?” she said, illustrating with an exaggerated frown that her response, roughly translated, really meant "You lying sack of bovine excrement!"

“Is that why you know so much about those studies?” She quickly added - as if to indicate that maybe - just maybe - she believed me.  A little.

“Why yes it is,” I confirmed. 

“It's part of the beat I write on so I have to stay current. Besides,” I quickly add, “I like playing video games.”

To be fair I probably shouldn't have smirked, but to be honest here I was pretty offended by both her tone of voice and the words she chose to use.  There was a LOT going on between the lines in this conversation, of that I was certain.

But before I made it worse, I caught the expression on the face of the tween boy.  He had been calmly sitting there, taking it all in, but now he spoke.

“Bet you wish you hadn't asked him that question now, huh Mom?”

She growled at him.