Coffee heat rising

Ten Great Improvements that Aren’t

Am I the only survivor of the Cretaceous who thinks that some of the grand new conveniences, devices to protect ourselves from ourselves (or from bogeymen), and schemes to force us to conserve this, that or the other add up to a collective pain in the butt of titanic proportions? Here are a few improvements that are NOT:

Grounded electrical plugs with one blade thicker than the other, so the thing will only go into the outlet one way: always the other direction from the way you’re holding it. Yes, I know these things keep us safe and I’m sure they’ve saved a jillion people from electrocution by running their hair dryers while standing in a puddle. But they’re still a nuisance.

Consumer-proof packaging, which forces you to purchase a box-cutter and risk slicing your fingers to open anything from soup to nuts.

Electric irons with no “off” switch, designed to force you to unplug them.

Electric irons that switch themselves off if you leave them long enough to walk into the kitchen and pour a cup of coffee.

Electric heaters that come with a glaring, annoying “night light” that will not go off unless you unplug the heater. Yes, I know you should always unplug the heater. I also know you can unscrew the lightbulb and throw the damn thing away, with no ill effect on the heater itself.

Kitchen faucets with dampers on them that dribble out a little stream of water, so that you have to stand there and wait and wait and wait to fill up a pan or the dog dish. The stupidity of these things defies belief. Obviously, when you’re busy and you have five things to do at once, you’re going to set the dog dish in the sink and let the water run while you go on about your business, causing water to overflow and run down the drain. This would not have happened if you could have filled up the vessel quickly.

Showerheads that have to be jimmied to make them dispense enough water to wash the shampoo out of your hair during your natural lifetime. Another stone-stupid invention: obviously, if you have to stand in the shower 20 minutes to rinse the soap out of your hair, you are going to use a lot more water than you would have if enough water poured out of the shower to rinse your hair in two minutes.

Toilets that have to be flushed three times to get the stuff down. Now how does that work? A low-water toilet uses one-third less water per flush, but you have to flush three or four times to make the thing work. Uh huh.

Inner lids on every. damned. bottle. of anything you buy in an American grocery store or drugstore. Yes, yes, I do understand this protects us from the lunatics who want to slip cyanide in our Tylenol. But how many tubes of antibiotic cream have been consumed by people who had to bandage their fingers after slicing them on scissors, knives, boxcutters, or the plastic and cardboard wrap itself, compared to how many lunatics slipped cyanide in the Tylenol?

CFLs. Yes, yes, I do have them in every fixture that will accept them. They are cheap. But let’s face it: the things are ugly and annoying. Their vaguely greenish light is less than perfectly homey, and some people can perceive their fine fluorescent flicker. Put one in a three-way lamp socket, and you have to fiddle through two switches to get it to come on. And when you turn them on, they just sit there glumly, casting a dim and murky light until they finally warm up. Not unlike, say, an old Philco black-and-white television set…

Do these things really make our lives better? What improvements do you love to hate?

She who squawks gets

So after our Copyeditor’s Desk client tried to faze an indemnity clause past us in our 2009 contract, I politely demurred. We couldn’t, said I, sign a contract in which we promised to pay their lawyer’s fees for any action they should take against us, regardless of whether we were in the wrong or the right. In Arizona, I observed, courts generally award lawyer’s and court fees to the complainant if the suit is found to have substance. And, I added, the proposed arrangement was not fair to us.

It worked. The client allowed as how this paragraph was a piece of boilerplate she’d lifted off the Web and thanked us for pointing out its unfairness. She asked that we simply cross out and initial the offending passage and said the company would accept the revised agreement.

What a relief! Naturally, I wasn’t happy about causing a stink over a contract with our bread-and-butter client. On the other hand, there’s no way we could have agreed to any such arrangement. Better to go hungry now than to be pauperized later by circumstances over which you have no control.

A$k, and ye shall re¢eive.

Read that contract!

One of our Copyeditor’s Desk clients asked us to sign a contract to cover whatever work we do for them in 2009.

Ohhh-kay. It looked fairly benign. I started to read through it and was about to fill in our names and sign it when I came across this little gem:

15. ATTORNEY’S FEES: Should Contractor not abide by the terms and conditions set forth in this Agreement and it becomes necessary for the Company to engage the services of an attorney or mediator to resolve any such dispute, Contractor agrees to pay all Company costs associated with this action, including, but not limited to, attorney, mediator, and process server fees. All legal action will be initiated in a Maricopa County, Arizona court.

Even though the dreaded word does not appear, this is an indemnity clause.

Never sign something like this. The paragraph above isn’t as drastic as many; in some contracts the language says you agree to indemnify the other party against (i.e., pay for) any action associated with your work that comes up at any time and in any place. It puts you at horrific risk.

What the paragraph above says is that if a dispute arises between you and the client, you had bloody well better knuckle under to anything the client demands or you will be paying lawyer’s and court fees. Doesn’t matter whether you’re in the right; doesn’t matter whether the client is reasonable or unreasonable: whatever comes up, you get to pay for it. And that’s not fair to you.

People will sue for anything and nothing. Years ago the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual offered as an example of this fact the story of a woman who spotted a photo published in a book showing a crowded beach scene; she decided to sue because her kids were visible and she hadn’t been asked for permission to print their images. She sued everyone—the writer, the publisher, the photographer, everyone in sight. Eventually the writer, who had had no say in what images would appear in the published volume, was let off the hook, but not before he had been forced to hire and pay for a lawyer. Lawyers cost as much as doctors.

Clauses like these often occur in publishing contracts. You’ll see them in book contracts and, even worse, in assignments for freelance magazine articles where the writer earns all of $300 for two or three weeks’ worth of work. They’re often promulgated against people who are underpaid and don’t know any better, as though you were earning the kind of money that you could afford to pay for a publisher’s lawyers.

It’s hard enough to avoid being made to foot the bill for things you shouldn’t have to pay for. Don’t agree to do so just to make a few shekels here or there.

Always, always read every contract before you sign it.
The sequel to this tale appears here.

DIY Window Cleaner: Pro and con

The budget’s a little low after Christmas. I need glass cleaner, but tours of Costco, Safeway, and Target in search of Windex and its knockoffs yield the same result: the stuff costs a great deal more than it’s worth. With $64 left to last till next Tuesday and gasoline and several key food items remaining to purchase, I can’t afford it.Vinegar works well for most glass-cleaning purposes, but it doesn’t cut grease very well—for that, you need something stronger.

The classic old-time formula for household window cleaner combines ammonia, alcohol, and water in equal quantities. So, to make a little less than a quart, you’d mix 1 cup of ammonia, one cup of rubbing alcohol, and one cup of water. Use the clear, nonsudsing variety of ammonia.

I suspect you don’t need that much ammonia. And in fact, a newer version shows 1 cup rubbing alcohol, 1 cup water, 1 Tbsp nonsudsing ammonia. An ammonia-free variant contains1 cup water, 1 cup rubbing alcohol, and 1 Tbsp vinegar. Having used the mostly alcohol variant, I’d make the formula with a little less alcohol—maybe a half to three-quarters cup to one cup of water—and add a very small amount of ammonia. And be careful not to get it on the woodwork!

So…are these home-made concoctions greener or more user-friendly than the commercial cleansers? Let’s investigate:

Windex contains butoxyethanol, which the State of California lists as a hazardous substance; it has been shown to cause reduced fertility, birth defects, and embryo death in animals. Windex-type cleaners also contain isopropanol, a type of alcohol that, like any alcohol, is flammable; exposure causes flushing, headache, dizziness, central nervous system depression, nausea, vomiting, anaesthesia, and coma; inhaling it or absorbing it through your skin can cause toxic effects. Always use it in a well-ventilated place. And Windex contains ethylene, a solvent that in small quantities is relatively benign.

But just because you’re making your own doesn’t mean it’s green or safe. Ordinary household chemicals such as ammonia and rubbing alcohol also have dangerous characteristics. By comparison, your home-made glass cleaner isn’t a big improvement, in the green department, over the expensive blue stuff.

In the U.S., rubbing alcohol is usually isopropyl alcohol but it may also be a mix of ethanol and water. It is toxic and can be fatal if ingested. Do not drink or breathe it, and keep it away from any products containing chlorine. Keep it way out of reach of children and alcoholics.

Ammonia functions as a solvent. It is irritating to the eyes, mucous membranes, and skin. Limit your exposure to it, and use rubber gloves when using it as a cleaning compound. Do not mix it with chlorine in any form: this means household products such as scouring powder and toilet cleaners that contain chlorine. The resulting gas is extremely poisonous.

Making your own glass cleaner is cheaper than buying a commercial product, but unless all you’re using is vinegar and water, don’t imagine it’s safer or greener than Windex-y products.

Privacy: It’s none of their business

Peter at Bible Money Matters reports that when he called American Express to cancel an old credit card account that hadn’t been used in years, he was blitzed with a high-pressure pitch to keep the card. Among other things, the person who answered his phone call asked him why he would want to cancel a perfectly fine credit card. One of Peter’s readers also reported having been asked a similar question and then pursuedwith attempts to discuss balances on other cards and her arrangements for emergency funds. Wow! All of these matters come under the heading of nobody’s business but yours. Stand in front of the mirror and practice uttering these phrases:
That’s none of your business.
Why do you want to know?
I don’t share that kind of information with strangers.

Be prepared to use them at the drop of a hat.

The psychology of phone interactions between companies and consumers is fascinating. Decades ago, my mother worked for the phone company in California. Part of her job was to check up on fraudulent long-distance calls, which in those days were pretty easy to make. When a customer called in and said a call to thus-&-such a number was incorrectly billed to him, she would telephone the number and ask whoever answered who had called them at the time and date shown on the bill. Amazingly, when asked point-blank most people would blurt out the perp’s name without thinking.

She said she’d been taught during the phone company’s training sessions that when confronted with an unexpected personal question, most people will answer honestly before they think about it. A lot of the conversation that Peter and his readers report entails having some minimum wage employee at a phone bank—possibly in some other country—engage the mark in a conversation about matters that are none of his or her business, solely for the purpose of manipulation.

It’s another reason we should protect our privacy and draw a line where information that belongs to us is concerned.

Remember: Just say no!

Yard sale adventures

It’s twenty after five and I’m done in…and I didn’t do much of the work.

VickyC is still trying to shovel out the mountains of clothing and other personal effects left after her mom passed last April. She’s already sold over $1,500 worth of clothing on consignment. But bags and bags of perfectly fine clothing—some of it very attractive—were rejected by the consigner. So, she decided to throw a yard sale. Another of her friends and I offered to help out and to bring some of our own yard-salable stuff to the big event.

And what a yard sale she’s got going! We convened at her central-city home right at 7:00 a.m. One of her house-mates put up the yard sale signs on his way to work, and shortly customers started to show up.

In addition to hundreds of clothing items and mountains of towels, sheets, and bedding, she offered several pieces of furniture, including a Thomasville coffee table and a handsome red upholstered love seat. I brought the security cameras M’hijito had installed to record activity in the backyard during the late great swimming pool vandalism adventures, plus some old stereo components and a few pieces of kitsch. A male friend contributed two electric guitars and an amplifier.

People will buy the darnedest things…and not buy the darnedest things. The clothing, as expected, sold well, even though there was so much of it we had no hope of hanging it up or even of spreading it out in any way to display it effectively. Buyers just pawed through stacks and bags of stuff, apparently undisturbed by the absence of merchandising flare. Someone paid $100 for one of the guitars, but no one would pay $75 for the love seat, which was clean and in nearly new condition. It took all day to unload the coffee table. Someone bought two of the stereo components, neither of which was the receiver. The cameras, hard disk, and electronic stuff to connect them to a TV set were stolen.

VickyC collected over $300 today and probably will sell more tomorrow, provided it’s not raining. Rain wasn’t predicted until Sunday, but gray clouds lowered overhead all day and it wouldn’t be surprising if we got rain by tomorrow.I collected $21 and change, and VickyC gave me a lamp that I coveted for M’hijito’s house as consolation for the theft of the electronic goods.

Staging this yard sale was an enormous amount of work, especially for the proprietor. We hangers-on didn’t do much, other than help drag a few tables around and spread out the loot, and then drag it all back into a secure area when VickyC was ready to close for the afternoon. Was it worth it?

Really: is a yard sale worth the amount of work it requires?

Only, IMHO, if you have a lot of stuff to get rid of and you can be pretty certain it’s the sort of stuff that will sell. Around here, that means clothing, children’s toys, tools, low-end cookware, and (sometimes) small household items. And by a lot, I mean a lot:a houseful of stuff left by a deceased relative, or everything you own when you decide to not to rent a truck or pay a moving company to decamp to another state.

Given the time and effort it takes to put together even a fairly small yard sale, I don’t think it’s worth the effort unless you can make at least $300. We held the sale open from 7 in the morning till around 2:00 p.m.—seven hours—and VickyC had put in many, many hours more than that. I’d estimate she put in at least 20 hours, bare minimum. That meant she earned about $15 an hour, not a bad wage.

In my case, however, if you count VickyC’s $15 asking price for the lamp as a fair trade for the $800 worth of security camera equipment that was ripped off (I hoped to get about $30 for the stuff, at yard-sale rates), then I came away with $36 for the seven hours of my time at the sale plus another hour spent gathering my junk, cleaning it up, tagging it, and hauling it downtown. That’s $4.50 an hour…a far cry from the $60 an hour my time commands on the freelance market.

So, no: in ordinary circumstances, I doubt if yard-saling is worth your time. Financially, I would have been better off to have spent today marketing The Copyeditor’s Desk or writing the proposed CE Desk book. Had I donated my junk to Goodwill, the deduction from my income taxes would have been worth more than my yard-sale proceeds. It was a choice people-watching opportunity, and I enjoyed spending the time with my friend. But beyond that, I don’t see it as a particularly efficient way to generate sidestream income.