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Friday, September 18, 2009

Why Ask Why? Maybe I Should Try Bud Dry!!

Some days, I am hit by a barrage of questions that seem to defy easy answers. Today must be one of those days. I am sure some of these questions have answers that will make perfect sense once someone tells me what they are, but in the meantime, I am just left scratching my head and wondering.

Early in the morning, I stopped by my bank's ATM to deposit some cash. This is an ATM that does not require envelopes for deposits. It has a slot where you can insert loose cash, and the ATM can internally sort and count the cash you deposited without the need for you to sort it, count it, put it in an envelope, etc. Very advanced and nice, especially because, in the past, they sometimes ran out of envelopes, preventing you from depositing anything until the envelope supply was replenished (a side effect of this problem was that some people started hording ATM envelopes, making the shortages even more acute!).

However, this ATM will still only allow withdrawals in multiples of $20 and produce all withdrawals as $20 bills. Here is my question: obviously, this ATM stores a large stash of loose bills of different denominations somewhere inside itself. Why can't it dispense these notes as the need arises? Sometimes, I want $150 of my money. I don't want $140 or $160. And I know this ATM can give me $150 (probably in $1 bills if I wanted it, though 15 $10 bills would be nice), but it just won't. Why? Who decided that the notes it takes in are not to be dispensed back? Are there security issues to doing this? I can't believe there are actual mechanical difficulties in doing this, so it has to have been a conscious decision on someone's part not to allow this to happen.

I have noticed a similar problem at my local grocery store which has self-checkout lines. Apart from all the stupidities associated with these lines (constant false alarms about unbagged items, unexpected items in the checkout area, etc., etc.), these lines have one more annoying feature I find very difficult to explain: when I pay with a debit card or with a Discover card, I am given the option of getting some cash back along with my purchase. However, this cashback is in fixed increments, in multiples of $10. I can not choose to get $3.75 in cash back.

Now, you might think that I would be crazy to want such an odd amount as cash back from a transaction. The reason I might want something like that is so that I can get enough change for various other purposes. For instance, some vending machines require only $1 bills and quarters. Some public laundry machines will only take quarters and so on. So, there are legitimate reasons why someone might want something other than $10 bills.

These grocery store checkout lines have the ability to take cash payments and dispense change. The change is down to the penny level, so the machine has internal stores of all denominations of dollar bills and coins. But somebody made a conscious decision that this change can not be dispensed to people who want cash back as opposed to people who just want change for their purchases. I can't imagine why it is programmed this way. Can you?

While we are on the subject of shopping, there is another thing that bothers me to no end in these stores: all the prices are before taxes, and not after taxes. Where I grew up, all items came with a full price marked on them. When you picked that item up at the store, you knew exactly what your total price was, including all taxes.

When I buy something at any store here, I have to make a guess as to what the final price is actually going to be. It is not a big problem for me because a few cents more or less does not make a huge difference when you put it on a credit card anyways. But I have wasted several minutes in checkout lines where the person in front of me suddenly realizes that they don't have enough money to buy everything they picked up because they did not account for taxes. Obviously, sometimes, these are just idiots who would get into the same situation even if prices were marked inclusive of taxes, but I would think the incidence would go down at least a little bit.

It is not as if this is a huge problem. The store already knows what the taxes on every item are. Their computers are already programmed for it. They could input the price before taxes into the computer and have it print out a shelf label with the price inclusive of taxes. Moreover, tax rates change far less frequently than store-initiated price changes anyways, so it would not create a huge blizzard of frequent relabelings either. But stores just refuse to do it. They think that the psychological impact of prices that don't end in 99 cents or 97 cents is more than the convenience full pricing would provide to shoppers. Just seems stupid to me.

Obviously, it is not just stores that are guilty of this, but all kinds of other businesses. All the way from restaurants to airlines. It would be a good idea to have a law that says if you are going to quote a price, you have to quote the price with all taxes added in. Whether you choose to quote only this all-inclusive price or whether you choose to quote a price net of taxes in addition to this should be up to the business, but I should be able to look at anything that has a price on it and figure out what it will cost me in full if I buy it.

The next question I had occured to me when I was waiting for an elevator at work. The elevators in my office building are a little old, to put it mildly, so they are not very fast. Many people have a bit of a wait in front of the bank of elevators to get on one. As I was waiting, I happened to notice the admonition that is commonly found near all elevators: in case of fire, do not use the elevator, use the stairs instead. And as is equally common, there are no directions to the stairs in or next to this sign. Just a bland admonition to me to use the stairs, but how I find the stairs is entirely up to me and my resourcefulness.

My question is: how difficult is it to include a small arrow next to such a sign that at least gets me started towards the stairs? A full map showing me how to get from where I am to the stairs would be ideal, but I will settle for at least an arrow to get me started. It is not as if the relative positions of the elevators and stairs in a building change very often. In fact, if I had to take a wild guess, I would say they never change relative positions, but what do I know?!!

This must be a case of the building owners (or tenants) just deciding that they would comply with the law (I assume some law exists that requires this notice next to all elevators, otherwise, I am guessing the sign wouldn't even be there) by putting up the sign, but not really thinking through what the intent of the law is, and making the sign useful. If you die trying to find the stairs in a fire, they don't really care. They have complied with the law as written, and if you are not familiar enough with the building to figure out where the stairs are, too bad for you!

The thing is, a sign with directions to the stairs would serve another useful purpose: I often find myself in buildings where I just have to go up or down one or a couple of flights of stairs. But it is not obvious to me where the stairs are, so I end up wasting my time waiting for an elevator. I don't want to leave the area to look around for stairs because I don't want to miss the elevator (and end up not being able to find the stairs either), and be even more delayed, but if I knew I was going in the right direction, I would certainly consider taking the stairs for such short trips up or down. It would save some time for people in the elevator also because there would be fewer people getting on and off for short trips. I would also get some exercise in the bargain instead of standing around and staring at a pair of closed elevator doors or a numerical display above the doors showing the stuttering progress of the elevator towards me.

The most enduring puzzle of all is something that did not occur to me today until I started writing about these other questions. It has to do with government bureaucracy, so that may very well be the answer to this question, but I am still intrigued by it. When I went through the process of applying for my permanent residency in the US (green card), one of the steps I, as an applicant, had to go through was fingerprinting. The immigration service records the applicant's fingerprints and presumably runs them through some sort of screening database to see if the applicant has any outstanding criminal and other problems.

The screening is not done by the immigration service though. They are just in charge of recording the fingerprints and transmitting them to the screening agency (I think it is the FBI, but I could be wrong on that). But, the bizzare thing is that the immigration service has a rule that says that if your permanent residency is not approved within 6 months of your fingerprinting, you have to be fingerprinted once again! Yes, that is correct! Go figure that out!! I certainly could not.

They already have my fingerprints. If my fingerprints can change just because it is 6 months later, then what is the point of even comparing fingerprints to each other? The whole point of fingerprint-matching, I thought, is that they never change throughout your life. I can understand that the screening agency's database of "bad" fingerprints changes constantly, but what prevents the immigration service from resubmitting my fingerprints to the screening agency for a second opinion after 6 months? The answer has eluded my feeble brain thus far, and probably will for eternity!

And, by the way, the lunacy does not end there. When I applied for my citizenship after being a permanent resident for 5 years, I had to be fingerprinted again! Neither of my old fingerprints was good enough for the immigration service. I had to make the trudge down to one of their service centers to have my finger prints recorded once again. Never mind that they had two perfectly good recordings of them already! The law says I have to be fingerprinted, and by golly, I am going to be, whether it is necessary or not!! Who knows, I might have had a hand transplant in the intervening period, and then become a deadly ax murderer too!!!

And, of course, I still have no answer as to why automobiles have a check engine light, but no digital display telling the driver what the problem is. Why do they want to force you to go to a mechanic to figure out what exactly is wrong? I can think of an obvious financial motive, but I am surprised more people haven't been outraged by such a blatant money-grab and demanded a change in the system.

I am sure there are perfectly valid, logical answers to all these questions. It is just that, at least today, I am not able to come up with what they would be. Maybe someone else can take a crack at them and let me know! Or maybe, the answer to all of them is . . . 42!

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