Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Retro-Grouch at the Laundromat

I thought it was a bad idea whose time had come...and passed. But there it was, staring at me, once again.

Quarters aren't accepted by an ultra-modern laundromat, like this one. Now you must waste money to buy a plastic card even before putting a balance on the card that lets you do laundry. Yea, like that is really advantageous for the traveler who is only going to be there once.

Of course there were complex instructions for paying for the card itself, then putting a balance on the card, then inserting it into the washing machine (once chance in four of getting it right), and then pulling it out at the right speed so it actually begins working. I have seen a poor attendant have to help every other customer with these damn things!

I actually groaned out-loud when I walked into this business and saw the bad news. I was traveling with a European friend for a week. Recognizing all the telltale signs of an incipient rant, they started looking for a fire extinguisher to spray me down.

This isn't the first time I've seen this type of setup. The first time was in Yuma. Obviously charging you $5 for card -- with zero balance -- was an integral part of their business model. They were counting on a certain fraction of their elderly snowbird clientele leaving for the summer, losing the card, or croaking during the summer.

Besides the technical annoyances, which admittedly are short term, what bothers me the most is what this scam represents: another way to financialize daily life and hide price increases. When you have been putting 7 quarters into the washer for a few years, you are used to it. If the price is raised to 8, you will notice it and consider trying the laundromat down the street. Even worse, when our 'non-existent' inflation pushes the price to 9 in another year or two, all of the hardware of the washers will have to be changed because they only have 8 slots. What a nuisance that will be to the laundromat -- clearly an advantage to the financialized approach.

Step by step, the customer is meant to lose track of how much they are actually paying to do laundry. Perhaps the machines can be upgraded to use EBT cards. Perhaps putting more money on your balance will be done with a smartphone app. If you don't have any more balance on your app, PayPal, or EBT account, perhaps you can get a short term 'bridge' loan, based on your car title. Recently I saw progress in shifting from car title loans to car registration loans.

It pleases me to report (and I have a witness) that I made three nice compliments to the laundry attendant about how clean and fast her new machines were.

But let's face it: going to the laundromat is never going to be a traveler's favorite chore. Recently I was at a laundromat near an Indian reservation. (Oh no...) Recall the book "Kabloona", which I twisted into my nom de plume.  In the book the French anthropologist was living with the esquimaux in northern Canada. He admitted that he never fantasized over having a harem of esquimaux women. But after two years of living amongst them, he was noticing that they were starting to look better to him. (What do you expect, for a Frenchman...) As I looked around at my laundromat's clientele, it seemed that two years might not be quite enough.

With that churlish thought in my mind, in comes a youngish Indian woman, with interesting shoes and leggings. They were not ostentatiously retro; in fact they looked like they came from a thrift store; but they somehow suggested traditional clothing. She was short, had bronzed skin, raven black hair, and high cheekbones. It didn't take much imagination to think, "Bering Strait." Quite a handsome woman, in a rugged sort of way. Except for being a hunchback...

But wait, it wasn't a hump. It was a young daughter -- a papoose -- carried in a vivid purple towel. I wish I knew more about knots because the purple towel was tied in a way that was both ornamental and functional. It was all that kept the papoose from falling to the ground. But the mother moved freely around the laundromat, as if the papoose were just a part of her body.

What a spark that woman had to her personality, to take something traditional and make it look so natural and un-forced. Personally I have never paid much attention to style. Perhaps I should have.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Some Equipment Guys Finally Get It Right

It has always been strange how competent individuals can be agglomerated into organizations that end up being dysfunctional. The example nonpareil is the military. A close second is an American presidential election. Yes, this observation can be discouraging. But it also delights you to stumble onto an exception -- when you find a surprisingly effective organization.

When I was at my favorite outdoors store, Sportsman's Warehouse, I found something that used to be easy to find, but then the world of commerce took the product away, probably because it cannibalized more expensive products. Here is the wonderful little pouch, made for carrying 1 liter water bottles:

Liberty Mountain's "Bomber 1 Quart Bottle Carrier", #146494.
Of course you can put other things into it. It is so convenient to wear a fanny pack (or just a D-ring belt) with several pouches of this type strung on it. Normally pouches are too small and have zippers, the bane of any outdoorsman's existence.

When I saw these "bottle carriers" at Sportsman's Warehouse, I immediately fell into a horny frenzy of consumer lust, and cleaned them out. After all, who knows when they will be removed from the market again.

Wow, somebody in that organization might have actually considered being able to put your hand into the bottle carrier. I have owned more expensive ones in the past that were "deliberately" made by designers to be 5% too small for a hand.
The orgy continued when I saw this lumbar pack from MountainSmith: 

"Day TLS" lumbar pack, by MountainSmith.

Somebody at MountainSmith actually realized how annoying it is to find the zipper when USING the pack, so they put huge bright yellow pull thingies on the zippers. These guys are my heroes.

Notice how the bottle carrier actually has a big enough loop to fit on the belt strap of the lumbar pack. That is a small miracle in itself. But the miracles go on and on...

Notice that the side pouches do NOT have zippers. And they are large. Normally the most expensive  pack will have teeny zippered side pouches.

The inside of the pack is bright yellow so you can actually see your junk inside, especially when you are wearing sunglasses. Why has it taken equipment designers so long to realize that this is a problem? Don't they ever use the crap they make?

The lumbar pack has useful loops on it, instead of the usual overly busy clutter of belts and buckles.

But the main fault with most of these products is the marketing psychology that they try to exploit: let's see if we can con the consumers into believing that this is an upscale, image-enhancing product by loading it up with a dozen tiny useless zippered compartments. (In reality it is 35 cents of nylon, sewn up by slave labor camps in Vietnam.)

I am so happy to get away from a day pack. I never mountain bike with one. And I dislike the sweatiness of a day pack when hiking. So if the reader is in the market for a top-of-the-line day pack made by Osprey, I have a Stratos 24 in mint condition for sale. Any reasonable offer will be considered:

For sale: a high-end day pack by Osprey, the Statos 24 model, with a 2 liter bladder inside.

Side view of the Osprey Stratos 24, showing the mesh trampoline that creates a space between your back and the pack. It does cut down on the sweatiness of a daypack.
The general reader isn't interested in these gory details, no matter how enthusiastic I am about them. But it illustrates important principles. How can organizations be so dysfunctional? Or maybe they aren't, and it really is the consumer who is dysfunctional. This applies to democracies, armies, manufacturers, and to all organizations.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Shopping Orgy at the Best Outdoors Store

It is so strange going through small towns in the ranching country of the West. Especially shopping. You can not avoid the feeling that the purpose of life for these businesses is to be closed. No wonder there is a Dollar Store in the tiniest and most impoverished town.

Show Low, AZ, is one of the few shopping meccas for me, on my annual loop. As always, I visited a couple car dealerships. I come away shaking my head about how ignorant car salesmen are about the product itself. They only know about the process of selling: demographics, applied psychology, and filling out the paperwork. The average customer could not care less about the $60,000 pickup truck they just got suckered into. They only care about the monthly payment and whether it is huge and showy, and raises their self-esteem. Imagine that: a culture where people get a boost to their self-esteem by being a fool!

But this post has good news: I had a wonderful time at my favorite store for outdoor products. I didn't even know that that chain had a store in this town. 

Years ago my favorite store might have been REI. The last time I looked at their website, the prices appalled me. On top of that their greenie posturing is offensive to me. They have become a boutique for wealthy Blue-staters, living in metropolitan areas.

For awhile, some years back, my favorite store might have been Cabela's. But today, they are just a theme park for wealthy Red-staters. Their customer is the type who would spend $3000 on a puppy from a breeder because of its hunting pedigree; but then the guy goes hunting one weekend a year.

My favorite store is Sportsman's Warehouse. For the no-nonsense outdoorsman.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Why Not Be Good at Being a Consumer?

In January of this year I posted several times about a curious question: why didn't more people work harder at being good conversationalists, considering the benefits of improvement and its feasibility? It is in the reach of just about everybody. For the most part, it just involves overcoming a small set of bad habits.

The same question comes up in a different setting: why don't more people work harder at being good consumers, considering the benefits of doing so, and its feasibility? Is it a lack of knowledge? Or just the sheep-like behavior of the herd who sees too many commercials?

What caused me to think about this was the experience of screwing up on the purchase of an external keyboard for a computer which works fine but has a defective keyboard. How could I not notice that the 'enter' key and right hand shift keys were half size? This is the very reason why I avoided 10 inch netbooks when they were the rage a few years ago. Same for 10" tablet keyboards.

And how people type on smart phones, I will never understand.

I even made a second mistake by getting sucked into paying more for a wireless keyboard. There is no reason why I would need that. But it seemed like the 'cool' thing to do.

This is just a trivial example, and yet it is so inconsistent with my normal patterns. Perhaps it is easier to be a good shopper when a large and important item is needed. After all, you get serious about it then. But small expenses slip under the radar screen.

Considering what a big part of life it is to be a consumer, why wouldn't a guy enjoy being good at it? People desire to be good at other fundamental parts of their lives (being an employee, a driver, a spouse or parent), so why not consumer-hood?

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Stupid Is as Stupid Does

Running water, in New Mexico? It just goes to show you that anything in this old world is possible. But it was worrisome: there was too much force to it. Should I or shouldn't I?

The slippery slope of a stream crossing. The photograph does not show the small waterfall downstream, to the right. It would have destroyed the van.

It certainly helps not to be a young buckaroo anymore. What did I need to prove? Besides, a driver has no experience with moving water. And experience could be expensive.

So I didn't even try it. The deciding factor was imagining the locals talking about some dang city-slicker who was stupid enough to be swept down the river.

Would my mountain bike do better than the van? It would be interesting to probe the risk/reward situation with stream crossings. It is too bad there isn't a rational and non-catastrophic way to get good at stream crossings. 

I started this post as a short anecdote of a fun experience. But now it occurs to me that a stream crossing is a marvelous metaphor for many situations in life in which risk is difficult to manage: investments, legal problems, physical accidents of different kinds, addictions including drugs, and the ultimate risk of marriage.

While reading "A World Undone" by G.J. Meyer, I ran into a ghastly example of situations that make risk hard to manage. During the tense negotiations in the summer of 1914, just before the Great War started, Germany and Russia almost had a compromise worked out. 

If Russia only had a partial mobilization, Germany would also hold back. In turn, the Austrians would agree to only punish the capital of Serbia, not the entire country. But the Russian generals told the Tsar that partial mobilization was impossible -- that it would throw their army into total confusion. In other words, 'partial' meant 'zero'. So the Russians opted for total mobilization. Germany responded with total mobilization. The result was the destruction of half of the twentieth century.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Progress in Popular Culture

In one sense, everything was normal at the gasoline pump the other day. It is no longer unusual for a loudspeaker to blare out advertisements at you, usually for a car wash or junk food. You can't blame the ad-world for making progress in this direction. After all, television viewers mute out the commercials, and internet eye-ballers use Ad-Block.

But there was something new today. My ears were regaled with a country-western version of rap music. This was a new cultural low for me. A radio listener probably doesn't consider this news at  all.

I've lived too long. Maybe I should be dead by now. Lately I have been contrasting the popular culture of my childhood with that of today. Will an old person always prefer the past because they are "conservative" and narrow-minded? Actually, it is young people who are narrow-minded -- they only know one side of the question.