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New and Improved?

by Julia Sneden

Oh, brave new world that has such people in it!
       William Shakespeare

    and in our times, such inventive minds in it.  The list of good stuff seems endless. It astonishes me to realize that in my grandmothers lifetime people went from traveling by horse and buggy and living in homes lighted by oil lamps, to zipping around in automobiles and airplanes, and reading or cooking supper by electric lights. Her life also spanned the invention of every imaginable kind of electric appliance. During her 98 years on the earth, almost all our modern medicines were developed, from aspirin to antibiotics.  In her lifetime, X-rays, radio, telephones, television, audio and video tapes, computers, and all sorts of marvelous electronic diagnostic tools were invented. The expanding technology of transportation made it possible for the heroes of our country to evolve from brave young men exploring the west on horseback, to brave young men stepping out of the LEM to stand on the moon.
    Even the human physique has changed during those years. Were bigger (thank you, vitamins and good nutrition!), less likely to die young (ditto), less fit (thank you, junk food and vehicles and sit-still entertainment).  We have better teeth (thank you, fluoride) and better knowledge of the world (thank you media).
   The lists could go on and on for pages. And for every improvement, every exciting invention, there are probably a thousand just-misseds, or missed-altogethers. Those dont concern me much. The things that bother me are the lousy ideas that manage somehow to creep into our lives.
Take improvements that are made solely for the sake of marketing (consumer be damned). They have more to do with the seller than the buyer. For example: the other day I decided to eat an apple, but first I had to peel off the little sticker that told:

  • The country of origin
  • The state of origin 
  • The growers name
  • The type of apple
  • The numerical code the checker enters before weighing the fruit.
     Its amazing how much information can be crammed onto a small sticker. Its also amazing how much sticky residue is left after one pulls that sticker off. Rather than ingest the glue, I decided to wash that portion thoroughly. Once the glue was gone, there was an oddly clean circle which was surrounded by whatever substance the apple had been dipped in. It was shiny, and in places it had left milky marks, as if little waves had been left to dry on the surface. I assume that it was some sort of preservative or protective coating, but it was most unappetizing. I decided to peel the apple, because although I enjoy biting into a shiny red (or green or yellow) apple, I dont like ingesting unidentified glop.
     The grower, of course, benefits from having his name on the fruit. Then too, the checkers in the supermarket need a quick and easy way to identify which brand of apple they must ring up. But it seems to me that the same result could be obtained in any number of different ways. Just one idea: place color-coded plastic bags in the bins of fruit. The customer would put golden delicious apples into a pink bag, or pippins into a blue bag. The grower could supply the bags, with his name visible on them. The checker could identify the kind of apple by the bag color, which would be much easier than having to pick up an apple and squint at the tiny print on the label.
     Certainly the consumer reaps no benefit from the stickers. Removing them is time-consuming and a nuisance, especially if one is preparing more than one apple. Places like cafeterias or school lunchrooms must need to pay an extra person just to perform sticker removal, and heaven help the poor kindergarten teacher who must prepare apples for snack for her entire class!
     Another example of a lousy idea is heavy plastic packaging that, while it protects the wrapped item from theft or from falling off its backing card, is virtually impenetrable. The instruction to  Peel Back At Corner just pours salt into the wound, because how can one peel what one cannot grasp? Scissors, knives, razor blades, fireby the time the package comes open, youre usually scarred and bleeding, and often the whatever-it-is inside is damaged, too.
    And then there are the plastic grocery bags that come so close to being a good idea. They certainly benefit the grocery store, because theyre light, easy to store, strong, and a good surface on which to print the stores name. They are cheaper than paper bags. They can, of course, be recycled. So, however, can paper bags, and paper bags have a huge advantage over plastic: They are not as likely to topple over in the trunk of your car. When I allow the bag boys at the market to put my groceries into plastic bags, I arrive home with cans and packages and bottles strewn all over the trunk.
     The other day I pulled into my driveway and opened my trunk. Although I hadnt had any fast stops or sudden swerves, the stuff was everywhere. I unloaded all the stray items and re-bagged them to carry into the house. There was one lone can of pineapple all the way in the back corner of the trunk. I couldnt reach it, no matter how I stretched, but I was too lazy to go into the house and fetch the broom so that I could poke it forward. Instead, I wriggled belly-down into the trunk, keeping one knee bent with my foot in the air so that the trunk lid couldnt slam down on me. Just as my hand closed on the culprit pineapple can, I heard a stifled guffaw from behind me. I backed out with only a few bumps and lurches, and turned to see who had caught me. It was Jim, the mailman. He just shook his head, silently handed me the mail, turned on his heel, and fled up the driveway.
     Someday I am going to compile a list of all the marketing ploys that are not consumer friendly, and are benefit only the seller. Id keep the list on my computer, but I have only 128 MB RAM.


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