Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Ampm credit card fee violates California law

I  visited an Ampm store the other day in Long Beach, California, and was surprised that the store has a 95-cent fee for using a credit card.

This is against California law.

California Civil Code section 1748.1 reads:"No retailer in any sales, service, or lease transaction with a consumer may impose a surcharge on a cardholder who elects to use a credit card in lieu of payment by cash, check, or similar means."

I told the clerk that the fee was against the law. She just shrugged her shoulders and said it was Ampm policy.

The problem with these sort of fees is that they're so insidious. Obviously, 95 cents is no big deal for a single consumer. But by multiplying that small amount by thousands or millions of transactions, Ampm is vastly enriching itself – while breaking the law.

I sent an online complaint to the California attorney general, and also sent an email to Ampm about this. I'll let you know if I get any response.

You'll find more info on the surcharge law at the attorney general's website: 
California credit card fee law 

(Please support this blog by clicking on an ad, or by donating via the Paypal button below.)

Book review: "Two Against the Ice" by Ejnar Mikkelsen

"Two Against the Ice" is the story of how Danish explorers Ejnar Mikkelsen and Iver Iversen struggled to survive while alone on the bleak and frozen northeast coast of Greenland from 1910 to 1913.

Their demonstration of will and endurance in the face of severe hunger, freezing temperatures and extreme fatigue is a quite an achievement.

The book, frankly, isn't as good as their achievement, giving us too much information on some things and too little on others. Still, if you're a survival story buff, it's worth a read, if only because Mikkelsen and Iversen come off as likeable chaps that are worth rooting for.

Mikkelsen, at times, can be almost poetic as he describes the vast wilderness he and Iversen surveyed.

"Whipping up the dogs, we drove down towards the gorge through which we had just come and halted spell bound: the sun was standing right above a dip in the ice, and its rays were pouring in between the tall ice-cliffs straight towards us. There was sparkling and glittering on the mirror-smooth, crystal-clear banks, the ice crystals which as numerous as the sands of the sea, caught the sun's rays and reflected them in condensed, blazing splendor. Wherever we looked was the flash and sparkle of light and colour; it was like a fantastically lavish firework display, something out of the Arabian Nights."

Still, at other times, the author leaves out simple storytelling facts. For example, it's unclear how many men are involved in the first sled journey of the book until the trip is over. Later, Mikkelson and Iverson seem to easily find the body of a member of a previous expedition, but the author doesn't explain how they knew where to look.

As impressive as Mikkleson and Iverson's ability to survive is, their ordeal has certain monotony for the reader: Hunger, cold, fatigue. Hunger, cold, fatigue. Repeat. There are not many surprises. Feel free to skim ahead.

But it's still interesting to read of a place and a time as empty and desolate as this when there were still truly unexplored parts of the Earth.

In many ways the book is a testament to friendship, as Mikkeson and Iverson grow increasingly dependent on each other. The fear that one of them might die is overwhelming to them, not simply for the fact that it would make it harder to survive, but because of the fact that the survivor would be left utterly alone in a desolate landscape.

 (Please support this blog by clicking on an ad, or by donating via the Paypal button below.)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Book review: "Lou Manfredini's House Smarts"

"House Smarts" will not suit everyone, but it was just what I needed.

My wife and I were planning a major home remodeling and we had scores of questions about different elements of home construction. I'm not Mr. Fix-It by a long shot, so I felt I needed to gain fundamental knowledge so I could converse with some intelligence with architects and contractors. "House Smarts" fit the bill.

Lou Manfredini takes a holistic approach in this book, giving you a feel for how all the parts of your house plumbing, electrical, structural and so forth work together. It's sort of a "homes for dummies" sort of book, but with a warmer tone, like an older brother giving sage advice.

While with many home maintenance books you pick out particular parts to solve particular problems, I found this book worked well just reading straight through, front to back.

The author gives sound and easily understandable advice on everything from how a wall is built to how your furnace works to why water could be the most dangerous thing in your house. By the end, I knew a "joist" from a "rafter" and had a better understanding of flooring, air conditioning and other elements. The only part that's a little weak is his advice on decorating.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Book review: "The Last of His Kind: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America's Boldest Mountaineer"

It's hard to believe all the things Bradford Washburn did in just one lifetime: He led ground-breaking mountain climbs, introducing new routes and techniques. He revolutionized aerial photography. He turned a stodgy science museum into a renowned institution. And, at age 88, when most men are retired or dead, he did research proving that Mt. Everest was even taller than thought.

In "The Last of His Kind," author David Roberts capably, though not perfectly, tells Washburn's story. He takes us to Alaska and the Yukon, where Washburn did most of his climbing and where he removed airplane doors so he could lean outside and get better pictures of the mountains. Washburn's climbs of Mt. Hayes and Lucania, and the traverse of the St. Elias range are particularly interesting reading.

At times, Robert veers off his main subject to give the reader some mountaineering history, which is not necessarily a bad thing. His telling of the K2 expediton of 1939 which did not involve Washburn is one of the best parts of the book.

There are plenty of good stories in "The Last of His Kind" but it sometimes hits disappointing dead spots. The first 70 pages other than an initial teaser is devoid of real adventure or drama, with Roberts rather blandly describing some of Washburn's early climbs. Too much space is spent on some prosaic elements of Washburn's life such as women he dated and not enough on his climbing adventures. The reader can afford to skip and skim.

Roberts also often gives away too much too soon for example, he says early in the book that, other than one incident, no one was ever killed or injured on any of Washburn's climbs. That's a suspense-killer.

Still, there are surprises. In a meeting with Amelia Earhart before her ill-fated flight, Washburn seemed to foresee the mistake that would doom her. Washburn's role during World War II in helping stem an alarming trend of frostbite among military pilots is interesting. And the story of fraud explorer Frederick Cook whom Washburn would spend years debunking is good, too.

 (Please support this blog by clicking on an ad, or by donating via the Paypal button below.)

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Book review: "Goosebumps: Deep Trouble" by R.L. Stine

I read "Deep Trouble" to my son, 6, and my daughter, 8, and the story hooked us and reeled us in. The last 30 pages was truly can't-put-it-down, with the kids shouting "Keep going!" as we pushed past bedtime. I was eager to see how it turned out, too.

The story takes some nice twists and turns, which I won't reveal here. It's maybe a little scary, but it's more about mystery and suspense.

R. L. Stine's story has nicely drawn characters and the plot moves along at a good clip. I think my kids liked that there's a brother and sister in the story they can identify with.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Book review: "Werewolf of Fever Swamp"

I read "Werewolf of Fever Swamp" to my 6-year-old son and we both enjoyed it. The fact that he sat through the whole thing shows that he was pretty engaged, since he rarely sticks with a book this long.

Though the book is part of the Goosebumps series, my son said it wasn't scary. I thought it was a little scary, but it's really more of a whodunit.

The mystery centers on who, or what, is the werewolf or is there a werewolf at all? Author R.L. Stine keeps you guessing all the way through. I liked the clever ending, although Stine seemed to rush to a conclusion after the long build-up.

Two small complaints: Stine likes to end each chapter on a cliffhanger, but often they're a false tease the danger he implies isn't there when you turn the page. I got a little tired of that. Also, I wish he wouldn't use the word "shrilly" so much it's hard to say when you're reading aloud! (Go ahead, try it.)

Still, all in all, the story is a good one with a lot of action, characters kids can relate to, and suspense.

 (Please support this blog by clicking on an ad, or by donating via the Paypal button below.)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Book review: "The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree"

"The Spooky Old Tree" is a simple story that is great for read-aloud to toddlers and pre-schoolers.

Kids are drawn into the adventure and danger as the three bears go exploring where they're not supposed to. The illustrations are excellent.

The simple language also makes this a good book for a beginning reader.

Book review: "Poorly Made in China" by Paul Midler

American companies looking to outsource work to China will find it surprisingly easy to get started, explains Paul Midler in the excellent "Poorly Made in China." Chinese manufacturers eagerly woo foreign businesses with promises of a simple start-up "All we need is your sample" and tantalizingly low prices.

But beware, Midler warns.

"Many deals that initially seem too good to be true in China, like a low price, often end in tears and disappointment," he writes.

In "Poorly Made in China," Midler uses his personal experience as an intermediary between Chinese and American companies to outline the many perils that face foreign firms that are lured to China. For any company considering shifting manufacturing to China, this book should be required reading.

For consumers, it's an eye-opening look for at slipshod manufacturing processes that create countless products for U.S. consumption.

Midler, who lived and worked in China for years, describes many ploys used by Chinese factory owners, including:
  •  Quality fade. After first creating a product that meets requested standards, Chinese manufacturers will then gradually introduce cheaper ingredients or skimp on key parts hoping no one will notice. Midler recalls the maker of shampoo bottles who slowly reduced the amount of plastic in the product, until they started bursting in shipment. "It's a goddamn plastic bag," the American importer complained.

  • Last-minute price increases. After a U.S. company has won a large new order from a retailer, and the order has been sent to China, the manufacturer will suddenly announce a price increase. It's too late to find another supplier, and the Chinese company knows it.

  • The convenient misunderstanding. A Chinese manufacturer changed the price it had offered for selling aluminum tubing from 1.9 renminbi per foot to 1.99 renminbi per foot with a simple phrase: "You heard me wrong." Also, the agreed tubing lengths were changed from 10-feet to 3 meters, a slight change that conveniently favored the Chinese. Again, it was too late to find another maker.

  • Skimming. Midler found Chinese manufacturers skimming off extra products and selling them elsewhere, sometimes as knock-offs of the original products they were making.
"Chinese suppliers could work magic when it came to keeping their prices cost competitive, and yet they had a strong affinity for the small nibble, and it was these small bites that frustrated importers more than anything," he notes.

While Midler lays most of the blame on the Chinese, he makes it clear that the U.S. companies were often complicit in the behavior that led to problems. In many cases, the Americans didn't care how a product was made as long as it was made. Combine that attitude with the inclination of Chinese manufacturer to save money, and inevitably you're going have problems, like lead in toys and poisonous substances in toothpaste.

Along with the business issues, Midler offers illuminating stories of cultural conflicts. He found it impossible to get the owners of one plant to convince their workers to wash their hands and this was in a soap factory. Factory owners would not remove an unqualified worker from an assembly line because it might embarrass the employee.

While some have argued that Chinese manufacturing will improve in safety and reliability as the country blossoms, Midler disagrees.

"My own experience suggested the opposite that things were getting worse, if only because factory owners were picking up more tricks as they went along. And importers who placed increasingly larger orders in China did not help matters, but gave factory owners courage and the sense that they could push limits."

 (Please support this blog by clicking on an ad, or by donating via the Paypal button below.)