Thursday, January 25, 2007

An Elevator Pushes My Buttons

My wife has been going a little crazy from the lack of mobility imposed on her by her injuries. Just to get her out of the house, I drove her to the mall the other day, and wheeled her around in her wheelchair. The mall has two floors, so we had to use the elevator.

When I got into the elevator, I saw a control panel that looked like this:

This kind of thing bothers me terribly. There's only one possible place for the elevator to go, so why are there two floor buttons? I realize that elevators aren’t intelligent, but I'm sure they know which floor they're on.

In my opinion, the elevator control panel should look like this:

The GO button tells the elevator to go to the next floor, whichever that might be. There’s no need for the “close door” button, because pushing the GO button closes the doors.

There are approximately 170,000 commercial buildings being constructed in the United States every year. I estimate that about half of those are 2-story buildings. If the elevator industry uses my improved design, eliminating two buttons, they’ll probably save at least $2.50 per installation. I would expect a Finder’s Fee of 1%, which means the elevator industry will owe me $2,125 by Christmas.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Why Rich People are Miserable

One of the things that annoys me about living in the 21st century is all of the stupid, mundane problems we can’t seem to fix, despite the advanced technology at our disposal. I am particularly annoyed by alarm clocks. For the most part, these are primitive, shock-oriented devices that fall into that peculiar category that we call “necessary evil.”

Perhaps I should begin by telling you that I don’t have sleep problems. I sleep soundly and well, but at times I can be awakened by slight noises. When I do wake up unintentionally, I can fall right back to sleep without difficulty. For example, here in Florida, we have a phenomenon known as the Space Shuttle. When the Space Shuttle comes in for a landing (typically at dawn for some reason known only to scientists with advanced degrees and chronic insomnia), it produces two loud sonic booms in quick succession. These sound remarkably like someone firing a double-barreled shotgun in your bedroom. The first time it happened, I left a forehead mark on the ceiling. Now, I wake up, look around groggily, and fall gently back to sleep.

Apparently, there are people in the world who sleep so soundly, they won’t wake up without severe provocation. I once had a roommate who had three alarm clocks placed at different locations around his room so that he had to get out of bed and shut them off, one by one.

Other people just find creative ways to fool themselves. Another friend of mine found that if he set his alarm clock ahead by 10 minutes, he could sleep for 10 more minutes before he had to get up. But he gradually increased this to 15, then 20 minutes. The last time I checked, he had his alarm clock set 4 hours ahead.

So alarm clocks have been due for redesign for some time, and lately there has been a flurry of activity, attempting to meet the needs of people who sleep soundly and those who wake easily. Two of my favorite designs, intended for sound sleepers, are Clocky and the Puzzle Clock.

Clocky and the Puzzle Clock.

Clocky is a battery-powered clock on wheels. When it goes off, it rolls off your nightstand and scurries around the room forcing you to get out of bed and catch it to shut it off. The Puzzle Clock has four jigsaw pieces in the top, which pop out when the alarm sounds. You can’t shut off the alarm until you find the pieces and assemble them correctly. I like these designs, but I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot of them, horribly mutilated, lying in the street outside of apartment buildings.

Like most people, I owned a traditional clock radio, which I despised. This is because in the morning it would just start blaring in my ear, waking me in a foul temper. If I set the volume too low, it wouldn’t wake me. If I set it too high, it pissed me off.

The first and second "Nature Sounds" clock.

Then, someone gave me a “Nature Sounds” clock. In the morning, it played the synthesized sounds of rolling surf or chirping birds. This was a vast improvement, waking me gently and effectively with no seething hatred. Unfortunately, it was poorly designed. The clock is tall, with a narrow base. The controls are located on the front in such a way that if you try to turn the alarm off, you knock the clock over, or push it off the nightstand. You have to use two hands, which means sitting up. So the snooze feature is useless, because you’re already fully awake.

Worse, the “Nature Sounds” clock was cheaply made, and developed a loud, annoying, electronic “POP” sound whenever the alarm went off. It sounds remarkably like someone firing a silencer-equipped .38 caliber automatic pistol in my bedroom. This wakes me up with a start, rendering the gentle rolling surf sound useless.

So I embarked on a search for a clock that would meet my particular needs. I found another “Nature Sounds” clock made by different manufacturer with the controls correctly located on the top. It plays soothing wind chime sounds with a gradually increasing volume feature, rousing me to consciousness gently.

It’s the perfect alarm clock, except for one thing. This week, it developed a loud, electronic “POP” sound when the alarm goes off.

I suspect that all electronic alarm clocks are made by the same giant corporate conglomerate, which has some factory in Malaysia, churning out cheap electronic clock guts at such economies of scale that they make huge profit margins for their investors. These investors become wealthy, and live in enormous, luxurious oceanfront mansions with expansive lawns, fancy cars and servants. But they all wake up feeling like shit, because despite their wealth, they can’t find a decent alarm clock.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Off Season

My wife is going slowly insane as a result of her enforced inactivity. However, this same lack of activity has enabled her to indulge daily in one of her greatest weekend pleasures: sleeping late. My daughter shares this particular genetic abnormality. Typically, I don’t sleep late. I get up on weekends around 7:30 and tiptoe around the house, forbidden from making any sound until the two of them stagger out of bed around 11:30.

But a month of sleeping late and vegetating in front of the TV are starting to wear on her. This week, she told me she wanted to go to the beach on Saturday. I started naming beaches with boardwalks or piers, but she told me in no uncertain terms that she doesn’t want to go TO the beach, she wants to go ON the beach.

I immediately pointed out that wheelchairs won’t roll in sand. But she is desperate, so we decided to go to Daytona Beach, where the sand is hard-packed, and you can drive a car on the beach. This may make it possible to wrestle her down to the water’s edge, although it will be tempting to leave her there as the tide comes in.

So when Saturday arrived, I got up at 7:30 and waited until 11:00 for the two of them to slide out of bed. By the time we got on the road, it was already well into the afternoon. Halfway to Daytona, we realized that we had forgotten to bring two important items: A beach chair (my wife hates sitting in the wheelchair), and the digital camera. As it turned out, I would regret these oversights.

My wife said, “It’s OK. When we get to Daytona Beach, we can stop in one of those beach shops and pick up another beach chair. You can’t have too many beach chairs.”

I didn’t respond to this, but of course you can have too many beach chairs. We’ve already got too many damn beach chairs, which are supposed to fold up into compact, flat shapes, but never do. It’s like trying to stuff a live flamingo into a suitcase.

So we have a shelf in our garage devoted to the storage of beach chairs, which are jammed in at awkward angles, most of which won't be used in my lifetime. It’s like we’re planning some huge luau that will never happen.

We stopped at the first beach shop, and I helped my wife out of the car, into her wheelchair, and then into the shop, where we found a pathetically small display of uncomfortable, cheaply-made beach chairs leaning against a wall. Of course, we didn’t want just ANY beach chair. We wanted one that will be comfortable for my wife.

“It’s off-season,” the clerk told us. “We’ll have more in the summer.”

The story was exactly the same at the next beach shop, and the next. Eventually, I stopped taking my wife out of the car, I’d just leave the engine running, dash in, find no beach chairs, and dash out. Finally, we stopped at a drugstore and found an enormous selection of beach chairs. Of course, we disagreed on which one would suit our needs, but my wife had the final say. So we bought one that doesn’t fold flat, and will be an ongoing storage problem in the years to come.

By the time we got to the beach, it was already 4:00, and the beach access gates had a sign that clearly informed us that the beach closes at sunset. This time of year, sunset occurs at 5:45, which meant we’d have about an hour and a half before the beach patrol guys would kick us out.

For those of you who have never been to Daytona Beach, the beach slopes very gradually to the water, and is made up of very fine sand, which is packed quite hard below the high-tide line. You can drive on it easily. But above the high-tide line, it gets all fluffy and soft, and if you’re driving a minivan, you’ll get stuck. We were driving a minivan. We got stuck.

I was able to rock it out, using my Boston snow-driving skills, turned the car around and got stuck again. Eventually, I was able to park in such a way that we could get my wife out of the car and I could drag her wheelchair down to the ocean’s edge.

Despite the frustration and effort needed to get her there, the experience was rather pleasant. The temperature was perfect. People of every description walked, biked or jogged past us, seagulls fought each other for Pringles we had brought, and at one point, a wedding party from one of the high-rise condos came down to the beach for photos.

But the best part of the afternoon began when my wife noticed a small rainstorm approaching the shore. We began to make friendly wagers on whether it was headed towards us, or would run south of our location. As it drew closer, and the sun sank lower in the sky, a rainbow suddenly appeared, but it was like no rainbow I’ve ever seen. Instead of materializing slowly in the typical arch shape, it grew out of the sea. It began as a glow on the horizon, then rose slowly out of the water like a broken (and gaily-decorated) Grecian column. It was intensely bright, glowing like neon. It grew higher and higher, arching as it went, until it was almost half complete.

At that point, the beach patrol came by and announced that it was time to leave, so I began packing my wife into the car. As I did so, we continued watching the rainbow phenomenon, which grew longer and longer, arching over the ocean. The moment we got everything packed away and started the car, the rainbow completed its arch, and it began to rain. So we drove home marveling at the sight we had witnessed, and lamenting the fact that we didn’t have a camera to record it.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Good Riddance to Old Rubbish

Now that the dust has settled from my wife’s accident, we decided to return our attention to the original problem that resulted in the accident: cleaning out the attic. The goal was to separate out those items that we could sell at a yard sale. I called the Homeowner’s Association to order some Yard Sale signs. It’s against the Homeowner’s Association rules to use homemade Yard Sale signs, and it’s against the Homeowner’s Association rules to attach balloons to your sign.

On Friday night, I picked up the Yard Sale signs on the way home. They’re small, with tasteful green lettering. Very elegant and understated.

After dinner, I climbed up the attic stairway to resume the process of organizing, reviewing and, in certain rare cases, discarding the seemingly endless collection of useless junk we keep in the attic. The garage soon filled with a gigantic mound of bags, boxes and trash, with a narrow path threading through the center, just wide enough to admit a wheelchair.

On Saturday morning, I got up at 6:00 to begin the laborious process of hauling the junk out to the driveway and arranging it in some kind of seductive arrangement, to make our crap look like desirable treasures. Then came the task of sign placement. It seems that I suck at this. It’s my opinion that you place the signs in such a way that they are visible to the existing flow of traffic, with arrows on the signs to inform the driver whether to proceed in the current direction or whether to turn. Apparently this is hogwash, because several people made a point of telling me that they got lost trying to follow my signs. I harbor a sour suspicion that those people routinely get lost in their own homes.

One small corner of the junk we tried to sell

What’s worse is that there seems to be a problem with people placing other signs. Later in the day, I noticed that a realtor had placed an Open House sign directly in front of my sign, so that it could no longer be seen by drivers until they were right on top of it. And in front of the Open House sign, another homeowner had placed a HOMEMADE Yard Sale sign, handwritten on a piece of orange Day-Glo poster board, festooned with balloons.

I didn’t see any Homeowner’s Association vigilantes cruising around, roughing up homeowners who dared to use unapproved Yard Sale signs, but we did see a uniformed sheriff’s deputy eyeballing our stuff from an unmarked car. I suspect he does it every weekend, looking for stolen merchandise.

I’m amused by the drive-by shoppers. A large American car (usually a Buick or an Oldsmobile) will come up the road and slow to a crawl in front of our house. The window will roll down, and an elderly woman will stick her head out and examines our merchandise with beady eyes and a scowl. Inevitably, the window rolls up, and the car drives away.

Collectors come by as well. One guy wanted World War II memorabilia. He didn’t even look at our merchandise; he just got out of his car, hustled up and asked. Then he hustled back to his car and peeled out, on his way to the next yard sale. Another guy asked me if I had any coins. As it turned out, I had a big bag of wheat-back pennies in my bureau drawer that I’ve had for years. I brought them out and he gave me 2 cents apiece for them.

At the end of the day, we had sold about a quarter of our inventory, but nobody bought any of the particularly heavy items, which of course, I had to drag back into the garage.

The next day, we repeated the process, but on Sunday, you get most of your traffic between 11:30 and 1:00, because that’s when people get out of church. We sold a few more things, netting a total of about $100, which my wife pointed out will not even cover the emergency room co-pay.

I made two trips to Goodwill Industries (which I refer to as Good Riddance Industries), ferrying the unsold items. I was met at the donation door by a woman who politely informed me that they would not accept some of our items for various reasons. I said, “OK, if you can’t take them you can’t take them.” The following day was trash day, and I had no qualms about depositing the leftovers at the curb.
“Thanks for being so understanding,” she said. “Some people just scream at me.”

Friday, January 5, 2007

Death Camps, Secret Codes and X-Rays

My wife thoughtfully fell through the garage ceiling just before I was scheduled for a nice, restful 13-day vacation. With all the doctor visits, home care arrangements and wheelchair handling, I didn’t get much rest. But of course, the goal was to get my wife on the healing path, so that she wouldn’t require surgery. Surgery would mean nuts and bolts and pins and plates holding her bones together, and a much longer recovery period.

Yesterday was the day where the doctor would tell us whether surgery would be necessary, and we had been looking forward to it with nervous anticipation.

I woke up at 5:30 to get my daughter ready for school. Because there is a limited supply of school busses, the school districts use them six times every day. The first trip is to get high-school kids to school. The second trip is to get middle-school kids to school. The third trip is to get elementary school kids to school. The process is repeated in reverse later in the day to get kids home. Anyone who has lived with a teenager (or anyone who has actually been a teenager) will tell you that this is completely the opposite of how it should work. Teenagers need their sleep, and are capable of horrible acts of violence against their well-meaning parents, who have to face them and fix them breakfast at that unreasonable hour.

Nonetheless, I was up much earlier than I like, after 13 days of sleeping late. Because I knew I would be up early, I scheduled a dentist appointment that morning at 7:00. I arrived, not yet fully awake, and was ushered into a room containing one of those electrically-operated chairs that can be configured to thousands of positions, none of which are comfortable. I think the CIA uses them for waterboarding.

The dental assistant was new, a woman about my age with a thick accent. I asked her where she was from, and she said, “Poland.”

I said, “Oh that’s interesting. What part of Poland?”

“Southern Poland,” she replied. I should have sensed that she was evading my question.

“Yes, but which city?” I asked.


I swear I had no idea there was a city where the famous Nazi death camp was located. I just assumed it was out in the countryside somewhere, to provide privacy for the atrocities that would be committed by members of the German Master Race. Where I live, school children are often taken on field trips to the clean, charming theme parks for which the city of Orlando is famous. I didn’t ask the dental assistant where school children in Poland go on their field trips.

I spent the next few minutes struggling to make light conversation, until the dentist arrived to jam a needle into my jaw, injecting what felt like a quart of burning Novocain. Frankly, I prefer a cup of coffee at that hour of the morning.

An hour later, slack-jawed and drooling, I drove home to pick up my wife, who had an appointment at her school to meet with her boss and clean up some paperwork. While we were in her office, a little boy from third grade was ushered in with his teacher. The teacher said, “Josh has something to tell you.”

Josh, looking very uncomfortable, said, “I think I’m in danger.”

My wife asked him what he meant, and he said, “Because bad men might find out that I know the secret code.”

At my wife’s school, there are electronic locks on all the exterior doors, and teachers who take kids out to recess must enter a numeric code to open the doors to re-enter the building. Josh’s teacher explained that he had shown intense curiosity about the code all year, and had been shoulder-surfing to try and learn it. Eventually, he succeeded. His teacher found him telling other students about it, and she had to explain to him why the code was a secret. Now she needed the administration to change the code, and she wanted Josh to know what pain in the ass he had caused. In about 10 years, look for a kid named Josh to be arrested for hacking into the Pentagon launch-control computers.

Finally, we headed off to my wife’s doctor appointment. They took some X-rays, and the doctor peeked at them briefly. I don’t know about you, but I always want doctors to show more interest in my X-rays than they do. It’s the same with auto mechanics. They are professionals, and they’ve seen so many broken bones and leaky head gaskets that they can identify them with just a casual glance. So it always looks as though they’re not paying attention, and might miss something.

He quickly spun around and said, “Everything looks good. No surgery.” He told us that my wife needs to stay off the ankle for 4 more weeks and she can then begin to hobble around. The shoulder will take a little longer, and she’ll need rehab, but probably just what they call “at home” rehab, where she does some exercises on her own time. She’s relieved to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Personally, I’m relieved to be back at work