Month: July 2012

I wish I knew…

We can’t escape marketing, sales and advertising information. No matter where we are there is some effort underway to get us to buy something or select one product over another.

There are numerous publications and sites devoted to helping us make a decision about where to spend our money. Blue? White? Green? There’s probably some place that will give you the low-down on each one and make a recommendation of one over the other.

I like to read various sources about the latest car, gadget or tool. Whether I particularly want what’s being reviewed or not, I’m interested to know what is available.

But I’m often flummoxed after a purchase because the information I really wanted was never brought to light. There is a standard list of features and benefits and differentiators touted between competitors, but what I need to know is somehow left out.

In the fall of 2009 I was shopping for a car. I was interested in several moderately-priced, high-MPG models. I read everything I could find on the models I liked, I test-drove several and walked out of at least one dealership due to ill-treatment.  I was going to spend about $16,000, and the last car I purchased (the famed 2000 Ford “Explodes In Your Garage” Focus) hadn’t been such a great experience, so I took my time.

In the end I bought a new Honda Fit.  I really wanted the sport model because that was the only way to get cruise control, but I didn’t want to spend that much more money, so I got the base unit. Ever since I’ve regretted that decision because I really, really miss cruise control. But I knew that going in. Many sources clued me in to the fact that I couldn’t just add cruise control — it was only part of a multi-thousands-of-dollars package. What I didn’t know was that the radio controls are totally whack.

During my test drive of the Fit, I made sure I could see well, made sure I was comfortable, tested the brakes, the handling, all that normal stuff.  I pushed the radio button, listened to a couple of stations and evaluated other features of the car. I liked the car enough to buy it on the spot and take it home.

But years after my purchase the radio still confounds me. Why? It’s a stupid little thing, but it annoys me every day. In the center of the radio is a very large round button.  You push that button to turn the radio on. Very convenient. Very obvious. Works great. But when it comes time to turn it off? You might think you’d push the same button that got the jams jammin’ in the first place, but you’d be oh so wrong. No, push that same large button and you get into some other zone of time and space where you adjust fade, balance, and myriad other functions I don’t care about. To turn the unit off you must press a tiny oval button located off to the edge of the unit. It’s so NOT user-friendly. And try to frantically kill the radio when you must answer an important call whilst barreling down the interstate at 90 MPH!  (Okay, 45 MPH, it IS a Fit after all).

The large Mr. Obvious button in the center turns the radio on. The hidden ovoid button in the top left turns it off.

That’s something I would have liked to have seen in one of the reviews. I still would have bought the car, it’s a great car, but every day I want to ask some Honda designer “What the Dolittle!”

My wife and I each use Canon cameras. Even though they are very different models, the controls are very similar and we can use each other’s cameras without much trouble. But my wife’s has this “quirk” that really annoys me. When you press the Take-A-Picture-Now button, there’s a delay before the picture is actually taken. The subject can move, the photographer can breathe, the Space Shuttle can be restored to service and the picture hasn’t been committed to memory yet. My Canon however is nearly instantaneous. And in fact I’ve used other people’s cameras and noticed the same thing: some shoot instantly, some must pause and check current atmospheric conditions in Outer Slobovia before agreeing to capture the moment. And yet I’ve never seen a review or advertisement talk about this property. This is a quirk that would prevent me from buying a camera. It’s very annoying.

Similarly, I have used a friend’s Nikon camera and found that when you take a picture with that little black box, it makes so much noise that the sleeping lion you’re shooting is likely to awaken from her mid-noon purr to see if human tastes as good as tuna. I don’t like that one bit. And if you haven’t had the opportunity to make a comparison, you might never know that such a distinction existed.

Some time ago I helped a fellow woodworker assemble his brand-new table saw. We had a fun day of drinking beer, putting Tab M into Slot Q and wondering why the manufacturer had included so many extra washers that clearly we did not need. My own table saw is nearly 20 years old and while I haven’t seriously considered replacing it, while working on the setup of this new model I was struck by the fact that it had heavy plastic covers for the feet. Again, this is not a huge deal. But my saw has bare metal feet. Many do. But I noticed on my friend’s saw that it made it much more stable and if you need to move it around it moves without scraping the floor and vibrating like a 747 loaded with buffalo crashing into the Mojave. All reviews on table saws will talk about amperage, cutting capacity, accuracy, etc. But nobody told me I had a choice in feet!

My, what nice legs you have!

Household appliances need better pre-sale revelations as well. I’m a real goober when it comes to noise. I don’t like it. But when you shop for a refrigerator or vacuum sweeper or hair comb, you’ll get information about sucking power, amperage, efficiency, storage capacity, bag versus bagless — all kinds of important stuff. But they don’t tell you that this particular refrigerator will keep folks in the next zip code from getting a sound sleep because of its bubbling, gurgling, hacking and knocking noises. Why does it need to make so much noise? I have visited other people’s homes and their cold boxes purr along quietly while mine announces its presence on an hourly basis causing me to increase the volume on the TV so as not to miss the latest Life Alert advert. The vacuum may get every last crumb of particulate from the last meteor impact, but even the ear protection I wear when shooting powerful handguns cannot restore sanity to my aggravated cochlea.

Does the EnergyGuide label give me a decibel level for my refrigerator? Or does the box for the vacuum have a sound rating? They don’t. And neither Consumer Reports nor the Good Housekeeping Institute will tell you, either.

I have a DishNetwork satellite TV system. I really like it. I’ve had satellite TV from DirecTV and DishNetwork since 1993. I’ve had receivers from a variety of manufacturers. But did you know there’s a difference in how quickly channels change, based upon the receiver you have? I didn’t, either, until I’d been through a few. The RCA unit I had was the best. Key in a new channel number and as soon as you released that last number, you were watching Headline News in all its glory. But the Sony unit I had needed time to consider my channel change request before granting my wish. I guess the Sony was being my built-in conscience: “Do you REALLY want to watch Rednecks Fighting Gators, Aaron?” But that’s a feature of this equipment that I’ve never seen discussed. It’s only after you’ve made an expensive and hard-to-change-decision that you learn these things.

Most of these peeves are about minor things. But they add up! I leave work in the afternoon and the radio puts me in a bad mood. I walk in the door of the house and the fridge is rattling away, scaring the cats and goats next door. I vacuum the carpets and get a buzzing deafness in my ears. I proceed to watch a little HGTV and fall asleep waiting for the program to change away from the latest Lifetime “My Husband Is A Terrorist” flick.

I think we need a website that gives no-nonsense “I wish I knew…” information on a variety of products. I’ll make millions!

I just hope the site works the way you want it too, or you’ll write a nasty blog article about me.


Eating in public #5
The free refill

Beverage refills used to cost extra.

Yes, it’s true. Many of today’s kids don’t remember a time when drink refills weren’t free. That’s right punks, we used to pay our buck for a Coke and when that one was gone, if we were still gripped by the dusty fist of thirst, we had to, gasp, pay another buck!

I don’t know when it happened, but it sure seemed to take hold overnight. One day Coke and Pepsi were duking it out with taste-test challenges all over the country, the next day they were all but giving it way. And oh, what a blessed thing it was!

In the old days when we’d order our favorite carbonated beverage to go with our our deep-fried mushrooms, we’d get our beverage but if we wanted more we, brace for it, HAD TO PAY EXTRA! I am not lying to you. I swear, I am not! Of course you had to be really thirsty to justify the expense so I don’t think too many people did it.  I know I’d try to pace myself and ration the goodness that is a fountain-served Coca-Cola.  Then I’d turn to the free water to handle the critical thirst-quenching duties.

My experience with the restaurant carbonated beverage goes back to last days when the flavoring syrup was mixed with soda water right at the counter. The Carousel ice cream joint on Main Street in Kalamazoo, MI as well as the Spayde’s Pharmacy lunch counter in Gobles, MI held on to the old ways as long as they could.  At The Carousel a big red Coca-Cola contraption sat upon the counter and Dorothy, the proprietor, had to pour the thick Coca-Cola syrup into one section and soda water into another. (On some occasions she’d re-sell just the syrup to those suffering from a sore throat — on a doctor’s order only). She pulled the lever on the machine and the two fluids would mix and you’d have yourself a cool eight ounces to go with your hot dog (hold the relish, please).

It was pricey stuff.  I don’t remember how much Dorothy was charging for a Coke, but once your measly glass was empty, you had to pony up some more coin if you wanted another. Today the waitress at Pizza Hut brings you a brand-new 164-ounce flagon of Pepsi after you’ve only but glanced at your current supply.

I don’t know the financial model behind all of this. Of course they’ve been giving away condiments, as well as salt and pepper, all along.  So why not the beverages?  But if you’re going to go that far why not give me another three ounces of sirloin if the first eight didn’t quite fill me up?

When I put myself in the shoes of the restaurant owner I just can’t make it add up. Apart from giving away the added beverage I’ve also increased my labor costs. Wilma the waitress now has to make repeated trips back to give all the teenagers in your brood countless refills on their Mountain Dews.  That’s time Wilma can’t be upselling table five to add the grilled onions to their steak or order up a hot fudge sundae. And don’t even get me started on the increased ice expense!

Now I’m sure there are those who are cynical enough to think that they’ve just watered-down the beverages so it all works out. I’m sure that may have happened, but they couldn’t water it down too much – the soda junkies of the world would notice. At a minimum there’s some color in there and that’s gotta cost something.

The Freestyle

To take an even greater leap toward insanity, now there is a machine, called The Freestyle, that can dispense 100 beverages from a single spigot. From its touch-screen interface the customer mixes and blends their own crappy concoction.  A little Mountain Dew, a little Mr. Pibb, a splash of Ginger Ale, a swish of Orange Crush and a topper of Coca-Cola.  Oh yeah, this is for the better, no doubt about it.


With almost every joint offering up the free refill, I’m amazed by all of the goobers who continue to buy anything larger than the smallest vessel available. When you can get the 99-cent baby cup, and refill it to your heart’s content, why would you pay $2.95  for the Mega-Burpo size?  There’s no logic in it…other than we’re too lazy to get up and push our empty beverage cup into the lever and get another spray of beverage.

No, I don’t think we’re meant to understand this one. And after several years of studying the angles I’ve decided to give up. Instead, I’m going to accept it as one of those extra-special little things in life that make facing each day a little more joyous. Sort of like the whipped cream in a can.  Whipped cream you can shoot into your mouth until it’s hard to breathe. Oh, but that’s another story.