Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bah humbug

I think I must be turning into a curmudgeon.  Is 35 old enough to be a curmudgeon?  How old do you need to be to qualify for a license?

The way I know I've become a curmudgeon is that my thoughts on Christmas, rather than focusing on peace on earth and goodwill to man, are along these lines:

  • If children got fewer presents each Christmas, they might appreciate the ones they got more.  My nephew, in particular, barely looked at each gift after tearing the wrapping off.  Then he declared, "I want to open another one!"
  • Children's toys should not make noise without the active participation of the child.  A drum that makes noise when the kid hits it is one thing.  An Elmo electric guitar that produces a different riff for each button pushed is quite another.  It takes very little effort to keep pushing buttons.
  • It is a grave tactical error to give a child under the age of five a recorder.
  • Of the four types of cookies we make every year, the "Chocolate Delights" are always the first to disappear, yet for some reason everyone seems to think that they're the one kind we could get away with skipping.
  • If you give a child a launcher that shoots foam darts, you should not be surprised at being asked to retrieve foam darts from behind the television set.
  • A man (or a troll) who can get four children under the age of five to focus on any task (such as decorating gingerbread men) for half an hour at a time is obviously some sort of genius.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Where Have All the Bread Makers Gone?

My dad mentioned that he was thinking of replacing their old bread machine, which was the very earliest model made. It's large, cumbersome, and noisy, and it makes weird cylindrical loaves that are awkward to slice. So my sister and I decided to give them a new bread maker as a Hanukkah present. Simple, right?

Not so much. The Troll and I visited four different stores that one would expect to carry this kind of small appliance: Sears, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, and PC Richard, a big electronics/home appliance store. We saw all manner of microwaves, coffeemakers, convection overs, rice cookers, and "portable wine cellars," but not one single bread machine. It was like being in an episode of the Twilight Zone--every bread machine on earth had suddenly ceased to exist, and we were the only ones alive who knew that there ever was such a thing. We could find any other type of electrical appliance imaginable, including some that we'd never imagined (an electric wine-uncorker?) but not the one we were looking for.

I called up my sister and she started searching the Web for stores that would have it in her area. Since she lives in the big city, she ought to have more shopping options, right? Well, not exactly. She found exactly one store that carried a bread machine--Williams-Sonoma--and they only had the fancy $200 model, not the modest $60 one we had in mind.

So then I figured I'd have to order the bread machine online. My parents wouldn't get to unwrap the machine itself, but we could at least present them with a description, printed out from the Web, of the new toy that would eventually show up on their doorstep. A quick Google search turned up several sites that had the right model listed for around $40 (plus shipping, of course). Unfortunately, every site I tried to order it from said the item was out of stock or on back order. One of them initially claimed to have the machine in stock and allowed me to place an order, only to e-mail me back two hours later informing me that the item was out of stock and apologizing for any inconvenience.

At last, I came to realize that, if I was ever going to succeed in my mission, I was going to have to resort to truly desperate measures. It chilled me to the core, but I knew I had no choice.

I would have to go to Wal-Mart.

Please understand, I had never set foot in a Wal-Mart before, and I had more or less sworn that I never would. I hate just about everything about that company, from its labor practices to its predatory pricing to its insistence on selling bowdlerized versions of popular music. (The list goes on and on and on... PBS made a whole documentary about it, and Brave New Films did the same.) So I had always viewed the Big Blue Box as a symbol of everything that's wrong with American capitalism, and while I was willing to admit that the other big boxes where I shopped (Target, Home Despot, etc.) were probably far from virtuous, I had always considered Wal-Mart the one place where I absolutely drew the line. And now that line was about to be crossed.

I must admit, once I gritted my teeth and stepped across the threshold, the whole trip was quick and really quite painless. It took us probably ten minutes to find what we wanted on the shelf, take it up to the checkout, and walk out again. In fact, after all the rigmarole I'd gone through trying to find this machine elsewhere, it was almost laughable how easy the trip turned out to be. All the same, I still felt kind of dirty afterward. I consoled myself with the thought that I really hadn't given Wal-Mart my business in preference to any other retailer--there simply was no other retailer willing to sell it to me.

I can't help wondering, though: if this bread machine is so popular that all of the online stores have it backordered, then why was Wal-Mart the only bricks-and-mortar store that carried it?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

And ten percent of nothing is, let's see...

According to this article in the New York Times, people are now willing to buy up Treasury securities at zero percent yield. That's zero as in nothing. Nada. Zilch. The same amount you get putting your money under the mattress.

Now, I realize times are bad and the markets are unstable and people are afraid of losing money, but--can't you still earn four percent or so putting your money in a plain-vanilla CD? And isn't that equal to, let's see, roughly four percent more than zero? I mean, what, are the investors afraid that all the banks are going to collapse at once, bankrupting the FDIC and leaving them with nothing?

Hey, maybe the government can raise the money needed for the bailout by persuading investors to buy Treasuries at negative interest. "Here, we'll store your money in a nice safe place for just a nominal fee, and when this trouble's all over, you'll get the rest of it back."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Stamp Act

So, you know how charities, when they write to ask you for money, will enclose an envelope for your contribution? Most of them use postpaid envelopes, marked "postage to be paid by addressee." A few of them don't provide postage at all: they write in the spot where the stamp is supposed to go, "Your first-class stamp will help us devote more funds to our programs!" (as if that 42 cents was going to make all the difference to them). But a few of them enclose envelopes with actual stamps on them. Maybe they're hoping that you'll figure, "Gee, I guess I might as well send them a check rather than throw away a perfectly good stamp."

I never fell for that, but I did hate throwing away the stamped envelopes. I used to return them to the post office for a credit, but the last time I tried this, they told me they wouldn't accept them anymore. So then I got a brilliant idea: instead of returning the stamp, I would reuse the whole envelope, by just pasting a blank label over the address of the organization and re-addressing it. I figured there was nothing dishonest about this: after all, I couldn't be stealing from the organization, because they had already paid for the stamp whether I returned the envelope or not--right? And I couldn't be stealing from the postal service, because they were still getting one stamp to deliver one letter--right? All I was doing was frugally putting to use a stamp that would otherwise be wasted--right?

Apparently the postal service didn't see it that way, because the envelope bounced. So, in a fit of pique, I grabbed all the remaining stamped envelopes I'd been saving in hopes that I'd be able to use them and just stuffed them into the mailbox. If they won't accept a perfectly good stamped envelope that's never been through the mail before, then they can go to the trouble of delivering a whole bunch of empty envelopes. That'll show 'em.

Actually, I have no idea what I meant to accomplish by this act of pointless protest, but it did make me feel better somehow.