Wolfgang Wiebach's Light Musings on Heavy Subjects

    So, who giveth and taketh away?

     It appears that nowadays the major happenings in our personal receiving and shipping department are not caused by a singular higher being, otherwise known as the Good Lord, but by higher beings in the plural, better known as Big Business. In the hope to get the bad news over with, let's look first at a few goodies that have been taken away.
     There are believable reports that at one time a piece of lumber called a "2 by 4" actually measured 2 inches by 4 inches. In one fell swoop, the lumber industry took away a cool 35% of the volume by making these pieces 1.5" by 3.5". This kept the timber barons happy for some time, but not any longer: now there are more 32nds being chiseled away. The thickness of wooden boards is shrinking in the same manner.
     Since no particular outcry was raised by the consumers, this grand strategy was quickly adopted by many other branches of Big Business. One of the most recent examples has hit us ice cream lovers: in case you didn't notice, the standard half-gallon package just shrank to something like 1.75 quarts. Chiseling, always chiseling

    It wasn't too long ago that a person selected a TV set for the living room with a nice wooden cabinet as a matter of course. For the last decade or so, you could have any cabinet as long as it is black plastic. It gives your living room a real homey look, doesn't it? Who were the first people who bought a large TV in a black plastic housing? The dealers should have been left sitting on their black plastic TVs until they rotted in hell!
     The makers of loudspeakers took the hint, and all those pretty speaker cabinets of walnut, teak, oak, birch gave way to ... you know what. Again, who were the first cheapskates who purchased them?
     How can it happen that a trickle of bad merchandise can swell to a flood that completely flushes away the good stuff?


     Speaking of TV sets, it used to be that even the cheapest model for the kitchen had an external, permanently visible channel number display. Now, even the most extravagant, wall-size, plasma-screen, high-definition TV does not show you the selected channel in a continuously visible way.Why not? Because it would have cost the manufacturer another two bucks. And in the oriental "monkey-see, monkey-do" way, if Japan won't install it, neither will Korea, and certainly not China.
     Of course, the TV stations were just itching to display their moniker on-screen all the time; and when the channel indicators were gone, they felt that they had a halfway valid excuse to do it. Even PBS chimed in. It increases the artistic enjoyment of the program tremendously, doesn't it.
     Does anyone remember that the first VCRs too all had channel number indicators? Naturally the early cable-TV converters? Now you can stare all you want at the blank box of your Tivo recorder, your satellite receiver, it won't tell you anything. Aren't we supposed to live in the information age? How about some basic and readily available information on the channel I'm watching?
     American manufacturers of more pedestrian hardware didn't catch on quite as quickly, but they sure have now.
Take your basic, push-type rotary lawn mower. In the sea of black plastic we're living, you may have overlooked that the grass discharge chute is no sheet metal any longer. But did anyone notice that the darn things don't have a speed control anymore? Even if you are just going over a few half-dead weeds, or are pushing the thing along the driveway, you can't cut down the RPMs. You and your neighbors are cursed to listen to the full glorious racket forever. Of course, a speed control lever might cost a buck or two, which would curtail the manufacturer's profit in an unacceptable way.
     In case there are any illusions, your government doesn't mind when manufacturers lower quantity or quality instead of raising prices: It saves it from having to admit to increases of the consumer price index, which would trigger raises of pay scales and pension payments. Similarly, Big Business' own employees and unions aren't given a firm handle to demand wage increases because of rising inflation. "Inflation is under control", the government tells everyone. To the government department calculating the price index, a "2 by 4" is and remains a "2 by 4", regardless of how thin it gets, and the chiseling on the ice cream package is conveniently overlooked.


     Perhaps we should inspect now the things given to us, good things, no? Take that lawnmower again. Was it the manufacturers, or was it our benevolent government which gave us the idiot-shutoff mechanism? As if it weren't hard enough to push that beast through the three-week growth, now you have to clamp down on that stupid safety bar until your hand goes lame. You scratch your back, you move a stick out of the way, pick up a toy - the bastard dies on you. How did this come about? Some bright homeowner, after sticking his foot under the mower deck and cutting off his toes, determined that the manufacturer was at fault by placing a sharp rotating blade there; and consequently needed to pay a zillion dollars; and some equally perceptive jury agreed; and the manufacturer paid; and then the manufacturer said, we'll fix you suckers good. That's how it came about. These are the sort of things given to us.

     Take that eager mail order company, to which your business is most important, as they tell you repeatedly while you are waiting on the phone for one of their forever otherwise engaged service representatives. They gave you, first, a stratospheric shipping charge to make up for the lost profit on the loss-leader price. Secondly, they gave you a handling charge, since the poor things must actually handle the merchandise they are selling, and you can't expect them to do this for free, like the store around the corner, now can you. Third, they give you the option, on receipt of a defective item, to either throw it away, or send it back by paying the return shipping cost in addition to the one you were charged for getting it.
     Then there is the company that, bless it, gave us health insurance. If you ever need it, you may be surprised that they gave us also: deductibles; copayments; coinsurance; where the latter is a type of insurance that you chip in yourself. What was the term, Indian givers?


     But how about that hot new area, digital cameras - aren't we literally showered with features unheard of in the days of mere film boxes? Six shooting modes, eight autofocus regions, three white-balance settings, bursts, movie clips, audio recording, digital zoom, and the time of the day? Yeah, but what about a precise focal length indicator? An actual distance scale? A depth-of-field scale, for crying out loud?

     Heaps of gimmicks, dearth of features, that's what the receiving department sees; but plenty of features and lots of cash disapper on the shipping side. Does anyone know a way to reinstate the Good Lord in place of Big Business?