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Our ship came in, and entropy was its cargo

January 4, 2010

In my experience, obsolescence and entropy are inevitable hallmarks of any self-respecting new year. I don’t know why these things happen, but they do. This year we got off fairly lightly, with only three minor appliance failures within the New Year’s week.

My consumer advocate’s advice for the year is: don’t buy a WaterPik. The one we had for two years auto-perforated its hose, so we replaced it with a streamlined hoseless model that has lasted for lo, these five short months. Although we took it apart and rinsed and dried it after every use, the object managed to secrete a mold stash in its motor. We declared it disgusting. Such declarations do not bode well for objects at our house.

I am compelled also to warn against purchasing a Hamilton Beach food processor. I suppose $30-some for something that lasts about four years is not unreasonable, but we used ours so seldom that I think it should have had a life expectancy of at least 118. It received some fairly intensive use three years ago, when the Covenant Cat developed hepatic lipidosis and required a feeding tube. Six times a day, for nine inglorious weeks, I had to liquefy the Cat’s food in the processor and syringe it into his feeding tube. It was the worst summer of both of our lives. Although the processor grated cheese and shredded onions efficiently, it dredged miserable memories every time I hauled it from the cupboard, and it deserved to burn out its clutch and die.

The other casualty was more up close and personal. I would never advise someone to forego owning a panini grill. I will miss my panini grill. We used it for nearly everything but panini; we don’t eat sandwiches. Nothing could possibly make such a perfect omelette so efficiently. But alas, the Breville grill harbored a lurking design defect. My husband’s autopsy of the deceased grill revealed that if one opens the grill enough times, one actually crimps the wiring to the heating unit. Unfortunately, opening the grill is fairly integral to its use, and the incremental effect of this necessary step over time causes the panini grill to short out. Today marked rather unsubtly the end of that time — four days short of five years from the date of purchase. We have decided not to replace it. I will indulge my pride of thrift and resort to a spiffless skillet.

My parents received a radio as a wedding gift in 1949, and I know my mother still had that radio in 1992, and someone may still have it. It was a GE model with tubes, and my mother played it constantly. My mother had a Kenmore vacuum cleaner, all metal body with cloth hoses, for more than 30 years. I think she only gave it up when she downsized. We still use the travel alarm clock I bought in 1987 to take to China.

Stuff used to work, and now it doesn’t. Entropy is accelerating. Everything is designed with built-in planned obsolescence, and consumption is a black hole. Even if the black hole in this case is an economic abstraction, product entropy is a demoralizing material reality, and a sign that breach of expectation has come to be expected.

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2 Comments
  1. Laura K permalink
    January 5, 2010 7:39 pm

    Depressing. But a 30-year-old vacuum cleaner…! I wonder whether people generally paid top dollar for the things that have lasted through generations, or if they were well-made, or the owners knew how to maintain them, or what. I don’t know how I’m supposed to tell truth from lies (marketing) in this regard, but I do generally expect to pay $$$ for anything bearing claims of longevity. Except cast iron. And very often I settle for the $ over the long-lasting $$$. It seems the common economic fallacy is reflected in American consumer habits, at least during a recession: the short-term—how little can I spend—takes precedence over a moment’s consideration of the long-term cost of buying the cheapest x on the market, every time it breaks/wears out.

    Speaking of which, if cast iron isn’t too much for your wrists…and I suppose it may be…I’ve heard that even a small skillet makes a good panini grill substitute, with the weight on top of the sandwich. Instead of the nice grill marks I get a faint outline of the circular Lodge logo. I tried pressing tortillas with my 12″ once. Never again.

  2. January 5, 2010 7:52 pm

    The WaterPik that lasted 5 months cost $35. The Panini grill that lasted 5 years cost $60. I think that’s a lot of dollars for a little time. The food processor was a case of buying what they sold.

    You’re right — cast iron is too much for my wrists. I am totally into beautiful Korean enameled aluminum cookware with nonstick finish. It’s lightweight even in large-sized pots. I don’t make sandwiches (we don’t eat bread), but my new omelette maker is my good old Farberware skillet, nonstick coated aluminum, small and light, and it makes a perfect omelette.

    The other thing is that Vic is extremely handy, and had been repairing these things unto their deaths all along. Most consumers can’t disassemble a motor and fix it and put it back together, or test the wiring in a thermal unit. He has mechanical and electrical skills not typical of the general consumer population, so I can only think that things last longer at our house than most, and clearly that is not saying very much.

    The consumer lesson to manufacturers ought to be: everything is replaceable with something else. As for the WaterPik, I replaced it by flossing twice a day.

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