Ten Things That Don’t Work

These products and processes don’t really work, at least not as they should.

  1. Cell phones

Amazingly, after a quarter-century, cell phones still do not work reliably for making simple voice calls.  I still have to move to the south side of my house to keep a call from breaking up into unintelligibility. “Can you hear me now?” is no joke. And I live in a major American city, on a hill, not in some undeveloped rural backwater. Sure, voice calls work adequately most of the time, but why not all the time? Why is it still a challenge to make a phone call?

  1. Ice dispensers in refrigerator doors

The old-time aluminum trays with a lever that had to be yanked vigorously and multiple times to release broken ice cubes while the tray itself stuck to your hands – those were no fun, but since the 1970’s, small, colorful plastic trays have been around that release the ice cleanly with a twist. I never had any trouble keeping a plastic bin of ice in the freezer and I scoffed at my first refrigerator with in-door ice cube dispenser. Well, I admit I like the convenience, when it works, but that’s only 75% of the time. Often the dispenser either grinds and grinds with no output, or jams and beeps, or spews ice all over the floor. It’s just not a reliable technology. How hard can it be?

  1. Wireless printers

A wireless printer should be a no-brainer. The computer is on Wi-Fi and has no trouble staying connected and sharing on the home network, but the printer!  For some reason it can’t seem to stay online. Quite often the computer tells me the printer is “offline,” and I feel that there ought to be a button labeled, “Well put it back on line, then.”  But instead I have to go into the control panel and find and select the printer and click it back online. Sometimes I have to recycle the power on the printer. Ironically, the printer is only two feet from the computer and a short piece of cable would make it 100% reliable, though not shareable. It’s inexplicable.

  1. Gift cards

Judging from the kiosks holding ten thousand of them in supermarkets, gift cards are extremely popular.  Sometimes, it’s just the right thing as a “Thank you” token, so I’ve chosen from the multi-colored display, and that’s where the trouble begins. First, it’s unclear what they cost. I presume the cost will be face value plus some fee which represents the seller’s costs and profit margin but that fee is not known until after you’ve bought it. It’s a crap shoot. The fee can run as high as 25%. Plus, the card has to be “activated” by the seller, but I have purchased gift cards and paid the fee, and later heard from the recipient that at the time of use, the card was not “activated” and the fee had to be paid a second time. Surely that was an error, but it is impossible to know anything about your gift card’s status until the recipient tries to use it. Even then, how much value remains on a gift card is a guess. Some receipts will say what it is but most don’t. When the purchase price is more than the remaining value on the card – good luck at the chip-only card reader at the checkout stand. How can such a non-transparent and hard-to-use product be a success in the market? It’s a mystery.

  1. Car batteries

Have you ever noticed that your car battery goes dead just at the moment when you need it to start the engine?  Does it go dead in the middle of the night when nobody cares then send you an email alert? No. You find out at 4:30 am when you’ve got 40 minutes to make it to the airport. Is that really the best we can do?  I vaguely remember, back in the 1960’s, cars had a gauge with a red needle that told you the status of your electrical system. What happened to those?  Now the day your car battery will die is as unpredictable as your own death. You know it has to happen, but you also know it will be a surprise.

  1. Postal Address

What is my “postal address?” Is it the place where I sleep most of the time? Where my refrigerator is? Where I park my car? My postal address should be an arbitrary identifier, like my email address, designating  a point in space where I want my mail delivered.  But if you change your address, even for 6 months while you’re away on assignment or vacation, or in the hospital, or for any reason, watch out! Suddenly your tax obligations change, your school tuition doubles, your insurance may be cancelled, and your employment status may be jeopardized.  Merely “forwarding” your mail to a new location is not a viable workaround. The postal service calls that a “temporary change of address,” with all the consequences any change of address brings with it. The idea that a person is located at a postal address is wrong, a holdover from another era. My postal address should be where I want my mail delivered and nothing else. It should not presume to indicate “where I live.” Alas, I don’t see this confusion being cleared up soon.

  1. Home Alarm Systems

A home alarm system is supposed to protect your home from burglary, but does it?  My research into such systems revealed that 99% of alarm events are false alarms. My friends who have systems confirm this. In many cities (including mine) the police charge you $200 every time they respond to a false alarm, so these systems can get expensive. In addition, when the alarm is triggered, the dispatch company only responds about half the time, according to online reviews, and when they do respond, it is usually one to three hours after the event. I once had an alarm system that notified me directly by email and text when my alarm was triggered, supposedly an “advanced feature.” But I discovered that the alerts were often more than 24 hours after the fact.  You get an alarm alert, you take time off work (if you can), rush home to find everything is normal. It was just a pet, or the wind, or a brown-out or something forever inexplicable. And if there really were a burglary, and you and the police were dispatched say within a half hour, what good would that do?  A house burglary will be over in five minutes. A home alarm system is not a viable commercial product, but people buy them.

  1. Computer Tablets

It took me a long time to understand why anyone would ever want an iPad or its Android equivalent but finally the price was low enough that I thought I’d get one for taking notes at a seminar I would attend.  It was easy enough to learn and to my surprise, the handwriting translation to text was remarkably good.  But when I tried to actually use it in class, I found out why a tablet is not a good product for this use. The fatal flaw is that you can only have one application open at a time. Oh, they advertise otherwise, sure they do. “Use multiple apps at once!” Turns out though, it that’s only for certain apps, ones which they choose, not the ones you would like. So you can have a mapping program open while your email is open. I guess that’s something. But for taking notes in a class, I need to have, at a minimum, several reference documents open, including reading notes I already made, a browser with multiple tabs, and the note-taking app itself.  I’m not there to record what the speaker says, like a stenographer. I’m there to understand, to process, to learn, and for that I need reference material. So I went back to taking notes on paper and using the tablet to look up references, but again, only one reference at a time, a very slow process. I finally gave it up as more trouble than it was worth and concluded that tablets are designed for consuming information, like shopping online and movies (though not both at once), but they are no good for producing information, which requires multiple streams of data.  And I wonder, what kind of a weird limitation is that? Why is it necessary?  Memory is cheap. CPU is cheap. What is the hold up? Nobody knows.

  1. Fruits and Vegetables

The problem with “produce” (odd term) is that fruits and vegetables no longer have any taste. They’ve been engineered to survive shipping and storage, with thick skins and permanent color, to maximize the seller’s opportunity to buy in bulk and sell them to you before they go rotten, at least, visibly rotten. They look good even when they’re old. As a vegetarian, I care about how my food tastes, but even when I buy at farmers’ markets, nothing tastes like anything. Tomatoes? They have texture and a little bit of aroma left, but that’s about all. Potatoes, the same. Spinach? Nothing. I could go on and on. I’ve had avocadoes in my kitchen that don’t ripen at all after weeks on the counter, and others that look and feel perfect but are completely rotten on the inside. You can’t tell by looking any more. And today’s food is flavorless. Except for fruits, which have been managed into dense sugar blasts. Most apples are now so sweet, I find them inedible. A pineapple will send me into a coma. Strawberries do not taste like strawberries; they taste only like sugar. Grapes? Never mind. I’ve learned to buy only more obscure fruits and vegetables that are apparently not worth the engineering time and money to have been messed up yet.  I dare not name them.

  1. Self-publishing

Self-publishing is easy and cheap to do. I’ve done it. The problem is that nobody will find or read your book. Getting published is not a problem anymore. Anybody can make books available for sale online as e-books, and, for a very reasonable price, have handsome physical paperback (or hardback) books printed “on demand” and for sale as well. But very few people will ever read your material. Five thousand new ebooks are published every day (every day!)  and at least ten times that many printed books are published every year by the major publishers for bookstores. That’s a lot of books. Why would yours attract any attention? Of course, your five friends and your mother will buy your book, but is that enough? For some people it might be. If you’re trying to reach an audience, it’s not. If you have a captive audience already, you’re home free. For example, you have ten thousand twitter followers, or you’re a public figure or head of a large organization. Then you have an audience, though a narrow one. Yes, there are a dozen examples of books that have been “discovered” from the self-publishing domain and become popular hits. Somebody always wins the lottery too. That’s not a meaningful fact for a writer who wants to find an audience.  So when people say they are “a published author,” it means little. Publishing is not the trick. Finding readers is the trick. Self-publishing can be done, but that doesn’t mean it’s a process that works.


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