End of an era

July 11, 2018

USA Today reports that Southwest Airlines will soon stop serving its iconic peanuts, in deference to those with allergies. I only hope this heightened awareness of the needs of its customers with allergies will extend to those sensitive to the fur of so-called “support” animals, as well as those whose migraines can be triggered by screaming babies. I’m not holding my breath.

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Auto repair

June 12, 2018

While there have been many advances in automotive technology over the years, and car prices have remained reasonable (especially when one considers the added convenience and safety features, now standard, that used to be optional or not available at all), I think both manufacturers and consumers have paid little attention to costs of ownership, particularly repairs and maintenance.

I recently noticed a small scratch and dent on one of my car’s doors.  The damage was not extensive, but was unsightly enough for me to want to have it repaired.

My collision deductible is $100, and I knew the repair cost would exceed that.  What shocked me was when I received an estimate for over $800.  The repair ended up costing over $1500, plus over $300 for a rental car that my insurance covered for the time it and the body shop dickered over the cost of the repair and the time it took to complete the repair.

I was only out $100, and I had the use of a car while mine was in the shop, so what’s the problem?  Like health care, another area where many have insurance, the problem falls disproportionately upon those who do not.  In addition, the cost of insurance for everyone must reflect the inflated prices of repairs and parts.

Also, as in health care, when one does not pay directly out of pocket, on is not likely to actively seek lower prices.

Decades ago, I recall that the insurance industry, through a lobbying and advertising campaign, sought common-sense changes in auto design that would help contain repair costs, such as standardizing bumper heights, requiring bumpers to meet crash resistance standards, and the like.  These efforts were fruitless, and now we all pay.


Repeal and replace

March 13, 2018

No, not Obamacare.  With all the focus on gun laws after the latest school massacre, it occurred to me that the problem could largely be solved if the Second Amendment were repealed, and that the chances of that happening — despite the fact that I’ve not heard it mentioned anywhere — have never been better.  The national sentiment appears to have shifted away from “protection” of unlimited rights to buy and own any type of gun toward support for sensible regulation.  A repeal of the Second Amendment would make that possible and undercut a lot of the NRA’s “moral” authority.

Of course, any move to repeal the Second Amendment could backfire.  I know many “gun nuts” who would fight it to the last.  But I don’t think the times have ever been more favorable to the success of such a move.

Whether a “replacement” to secure some gun rights would be necessary is hard to say.  The absence of any constitutional support for gun ownership would be new to this country, and many of those on the fence about repeal might insist on a replacement.  But any constitutional protection for gun ownership could hinder sensible regulation.

I say let’s run the idea up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it.


What goes around comes around

September 13, 2017

This recent New York Times story about the rapid decline in the value of taxi medallions, due to competition from Uber, Lyft and the like, portrayed the purchasers of the medallions in a sympathetic light.  Many are immigrants struggling to enter the middle class, willing to work hard to achieve the American dream.

My reaction to the story was reflected in many of the readers’ comments (usually the best part of any Times story) who recounted taxi drivers refusing to pick them up because of their race, or refusing to take them to an outer borough.  I remember coming home more than once from an exhausting business trip, laden with luggage, and being refused a ride to where I lived at the time, in Brooklyn Heights.

While I do have sympathy for those rule-abiding driver-owners who lost their investments, I have no sympathy for the all-too-many drivers who viewed the oligopoly conferred by their medallions as a license to engage in predatory behavior.  Karma, as they say, can be a bitch.


Breakage

July 11, 2017

I first heard the term “breakage” when learning about betting on horses.  Breakage is the rounding down (never up) of payoffs to the nearest nickel, dime, quarter or dollar, ostensibly to eliminate the need for mutuel clerks to handle pennies or other small change.  Breakage also helps fund “minus pools” in which the net amount bet on losers does not cover the legally mandated minimum payout of $2.10 on a winning $2.00 bet.  However, breakage really is a surcharge on almost every winning bet a horse player makes, especially when the rounding down is to an amount greater than a nickel, or when it is imposed on non-cash betting accounts.

In the casino gambling industry, the term is used to describe when an establishment does not have to give something a patron has been offered or is entitled to, as explained in this post.  Casinos want to appear generous in extending offers to potential patrons, but don’t necessarily want to incur the costs of fulfillment to everyone who shows up to take advantage.

Breakage also occurs in the commercial world.  I have written about several varieties, such as the gas discount that may be used only once for up to 20 gallons, when most people’s cars have tanks that don’t hold that much, and coupons that, in large type, purport to apply to any item in the store; the small-type exclusions (which always seem to apply to the item you intend to purchase) are not apparent until after you’ve traveled to the store and been told the bad news at the check out counter.

I don’t understand how merchants believe that losing a customer who feels misled by an offer (even if, when carefully read, the offer fairly represents its terms) is worth the savings it can realize in terms of breakage.  I prefer giving my business to businesses that are forthright in their communications with customers and don’t play “gotcha.”

 


Design

July 11, 2017

Good design is something we all crave in consumer products.  In my experience, manufacturers seldom deliver.  In many cases, the lack of good design is shocking — if anyone actually used the product for any time before putting it in production,  its design would have been changed.  Two examples of this appeared shortly after I bought a new car.  While I generally am pleased with the vehicle, two features, each very obvious to me after a few short drives, make me want to scream.  The first is the ornamental chrome-like trim on the dashboard air vent to the left of the steering wheel.  This metal reflects in a glaring way in the outside rear view mirror and is a constant annoyance.  Interestingly, my father’s car, from a different manufacturer, exhibits the same problem.  A more serious design flaw is presented by the control for the instrument panel lights — a thin, plastic stalk that sticks out of the instrument panel that is twisted to control the brightness of the instrument back lights.  Aside from the fact that the stalk is flimsy and likely to break, it presents a safety hazard when accessed while driving, because accessing it requires the driver to reach through the steering wheel with one hand.

Other design elements that are bad for the consumer are deliberate.  In my limited experience, Apple, whatever the other merits of its products, is a master at this — so much so, that when other companies see what it gets away with, they emulate it. The lack of a memory card slot on its phones and tablets (before any claim at water resistance, which might have justified its omission), as well as the lack of a user-replaceable battery put me off Apple products when I was looking to buy my first smart phone and tablet.  I simply did not want to pay five times the cost of a standard memory card for the same storage that had to be built into the phone, or pay the Apple store a hundred dollars to replace a fifteen dollar battery.  The recent elimination of the headphone jack on some products, to force the user to purchase a dongle or bluetooth ear pieces, is the same type of deliberate anti-consumer planned obsolescence design. Another is the changing of the jack for the charging cable that forces a consumer to buy all new cables each time he or she buys a new model Apple phone. In the biopic about Steve Jobs, a scene that resonated with me was the launch of a new Apple computer.  When the machine wouldn’t work seconds before the public unveiling, the poor guy who tried to fix it found that Jobs had used screws that prevented the opening of the computer with a standard screw driver.


Other hotel pet peeves

June 5, 2017

A couple of years ago, I wrote about some annoyances I encountered while staying at hotels.  Last night, at a fairly upscale hotel associated with a casino in the northeast, I encountered a few more.

When I entered the room, the bed had been turned down, chocolates had been placed on it, and the radio had been turned on.  I turned off the radio, and didn’t notice that the alarm had been left on by the previous guest.  My blissful sleep was rudely interrupted by the alarm at 6:00 a.m., long before my intended hour of waking.  I don’t think it’s incumbent upon the hotel guest to figure out whether the alarm clock in a hotel room (of which there are infinite confusing varieties) has been armed; that should be an item on the housekeeping check list, especially when a housekeeper is tasked with turning on the same radio as part of the hotel’s turn down service.

Were it not for the rude awakening I experienced, I would not be writing this.  But as long as I’m ranting, this hotel had a loose faucet in the bathroom sink that no housekeeper could have missed while cleaning the room.  The room, recently (and apparently expensively) renovated, also had a paucity of soft surfaces, such as drapes and rugs.  While I was on the phone, I sounded like I was in an echo chamber, and noises from the hallway and other rooms were quite audible.  The heavy doors also clanged loudly when closed by guests.

I do not envy the jobs of hotel housekeepers, whom I’ve heard work to a very tight schedule and sometimes encounter the messes left very inconsiderate guests that make their jobs more difficult and increase the pressures on them.  However, I think they are the crucial eyes and ears that must be trained to look for certain things, and correct or report them, before the room is released to a guest. Management, please take note.