Thursday, June 28, 2012

Washing Machines

We're looking at a kitchen remodel - we'll get the first round of quotes tomorrow.  And one big issue is the laundry equipment, because our kitchen is also our laundry.  Our washer and dryer are about 4 years old.  The washer is pretty good; the dryer has a stupid design flaw that has ruined some clothes, but I work around it.  Jim suggested we should replace the set.  The kitchen designer also suggested we should replace the set - with a Miele compact washer and dryer.  I checked this object out.  It's smaller that what we have (2.5 cu.ft. instead of 3.5); and Consumer Reports says it has twice the cycle length (95 minutes to 45 minutes). 

After looking around, I've realized that most washers and dryers on the market today, if they handle the same cubic footage as ours, are too big for our kitchen.  They're 5-9 inches deeper, and 3-9 inches taller.  Taller is important because I use them as a working platform to fold clothes, and I'm only 5' 5 1/2" tall.  A washer top 40" high is too high for me to work comfortably on.  No, folks, bigger isn't always better.  We probably don't need the 3.5 cubic feet day-to-day, but it does mean that we don't have to take Jim's sleeping bag to the laundromat.

So I'm looking at "compact" washers, which handle 2.5 cubic feet more or less.  These are small enough to fit in our kitchen.  There aren't many of them, and the two top brands seem to be Miele and Bosch.  Which brings me to the evaluation part.  How do I tell what to buy, and whether Miele really is a good idea?  I have three sources:  Consumer Reports, online customer reviews (including CR), and the verbal evaluations of local merchants who sell and service them.

Consumer Reports doesn't rate small washers.  It only rates the big honking 4 cubic foot models.  So all I can use there are the brand ratings, and the remarks of people who've bought the big boys.  CR isn't even rating Bosch these days; a search brings up an old review page on a Bosch model with customer comments.  It rated a large Miele (which has since been discontinued), but it doesn't give a brand reliability rating.

For both Bosch and Miele, the online comments (and not just at Consumer Reports) are deeply split.  People who buy these machines either ADORE them or HATE them.  And the haters tell stories about  leaky machines and slow, rude customer service response which don't encourage me.

The local merchants who sell the brands say they're both good and neither brand has unusual reliability problems.  But then, they want me to buy from them.  The guy who sells Miele did say that he doesn't service them because Miele does all its own service. Maybe it's a good thing I've been learning German.  The woman who sells Bosch says they service them and they don't have a lot of calls; I've been buying appliances from this store for years, and I kind of trust them.  The guy who sells both Miele and Bosch says he thinks Miele is a little better on not needing service. 

I got curious and checked the user comments on the Whirlpool Duet and the LG washer, both very highly rated by Consumer Reports.  Interesting - they too had the split between "I love it" and "I'll never buy another one."  I'm concluding that online comments on washing machines aren't as useful as I've sometimes found when researching computer equipment.  With any luck on a computer review, you'll get someone who has done a detailed technical analysis.

Given that all the machines on the market today are either (a) too big for my space or (b) smaller capacity than I now have, and given that all of them seem to feel that 75 minutes and up are an appropriate length for a laundry cycle, I don't see any good choices.  I'm actually considering keeping the old Frigidaire, even if the dryer does occasionally tear up a sweater.  On the other hand, eventually this too will die and then I'll have the same problem all over again.

But this raises the question:  how do consumers (that would be us) determine whether these expensive pieces of equipment are with the four figures that most of them cost?  Consumer Reports is the only independent evaluator I know, and from what I read in the customer comments, even a washer they rate highly in their really exhaustive tests is as likely as not to leak water all over the floor, or tie the towels in a damp soggy knot because the load was unbalanced, or drip soap down the front of the machine.  My crappy old Frigidaire is compact, washes really well, never takes more than 45 minutes on a load, and usually spins things really dry.  I don't see an advantage in upgrading because of the risk of getting a lemon.

Or am I letting myself by bulldozed by a very small number of vocal discontents?  Any of my friends have any opinions on washing machines?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Learning German

After we decided to take a river cruise in Europe this summer,  Rhine-Main-Danube, Jim decided that he wanted to relearn German; I think his grandparents spoke it, and it was common in Milwaukee when he was a child.  I borrowed the first book of the Pimsleur German course from the local library, and he liked it so much he sprang for the whole thing, so we've both been studying it. 

Pimsleur teaches you languages by walking you through a series of increasingly complicated conversations; I'm finding it quite effective.  It's true that languages are my strong point, I took German in college and have been singing in it for years; I don't know how well it would work for someone who's never said Ja or Nein in his life. 

All the conversations, which we faithfully repeat several times to learn them, are between a Lady and a Gentleman, so they can work in the appropriate gender endings - an American man is Amerikaner, but an American woman is Amerikanerin.  It's all done by repetition; they never tell you how the stuff is spelled, although every lesson has a "reading lesson," a PDF that shows some words on the page and has you repeat the pronunciation.  I'm remembering a lot; but I cannot learn a word if I don't know how it's spelled (a personal quirk), so I've been dodging over to Google Translate now and then to check things I'm not sure of.

But the conversational situations are - well, they're odd.  Back in the early lessons, when all the instructions were in English, we talked a lot about ordering Bier (beer) and Wein (wine); I remember thinking, my God, these people drink like fish. ("I want to order five beers," said the Lady in German, for example.)  And I was relieved when they finally taught me how to order Thee (tea) and Mineralwasser (mineral water), since my doctor advises me not to drink.  Then later the Lady kept asking the Gentleman to give her a lot of money.  And they never could agree on a time for a dinner date.

I'm almost done with Book I; I've advanced to the point where the instructions are also in German. We're learning the various words for traveling - fahren (to drive, or travel in a vehicle), wegfahren (to go away).  We also just learned zusammen (together) and alleine (alone).  This led to a really odd little conversation between the Lady and the Gentlemen, which I repeat in English because I don't want to fool with German diacritical marks.  Are you alone?  he asked her.  No, I'm here with my husband, she said.  If you're not alone, I'm going away, he said; I'm going alone.  You're going alone?  she asks.  We could go away together. Yes, he said, we could go away together.  All this was repeated several times to get the vocabulary and the word order solidly down. 

Meanwhile I'm thinking, wait a minute, lady, I thought you were here with your husband (Mit Ihrem Mann), now you're going to go away together (zusammen) with this guy?  What's going on?

I await with interest Lesson 28, and the next adventures of these two oddballs.

Of course, we'll be on a totally English-speaking cruise ship with totally English-speaking guides; but never mind.  It's useful to relearn a language.

Thursday, June 07, 2012


I've heard one too many anguished complaints from Ban Ki-Moon and Kofi Annan that if "nothing happens," the situation in Syria may develop into a "civil war."  I can't stand it any more.

Reality check, folks:  the situation in Syria is a civil war.  Specifically, it is a religious civil war; the Sunni majority is trying to oust the Assad family and their supporters, mainly members of the Alawite sect (a minority Shia group).  To give the protesters credit, for a long time they simply stood out in the squares and protested peacefully - to which Assad responded with tanks and mortar fire.  In the last few months, some of the formerly peaceful people have been shooting back (using captured or smuggled arms), but they're still out-gunned by the Syrian army.  And the Syrian army, except for a few defectors who refused to shoot their  fellow citizens, still supports Assad.

It's clear to me that Assad, in apparently agreeing to Annan's "peace plan," was using what I call the "Yes, Ma" response.  My dad used to say that to his mother, after which he would go about whatever it was he meant to do anyway.  Assad knows perfectly well that "negotiations" would lead to exile and loss of power at best, and he has no intention of negotiating with anybody.

Ki-Moon and Annan know this; but if they admit that the "peace plan" isn't worth the paper it's written on, they then have to confront the question:  now what?  A lot of people are asking that question anyway, and they're all looking sideways at the United States when they do. 

So - now what?  After the Houla massacre (not to mention the one that just happened in Mazraat al-Qubeir), Syria is diplomatically isolated.  Everybody's ambassadors have gone home, nobody is talking to Syria except the U.N. team - and the Russians, who persistently support Assad.  It's pretty clear that international disapproval doesn't mean a thing to Assad.  I believe he thinks he's fighting for survival; he may be right.  I also think there's probably a touch of "My father built this and handed it to me and I'm going to keep it."  As long as Russia keeps supporting him and selling him arms, he can pretty much ignore the rest of the world.  And he will.

Nobody at the Secretary of State/Foreign Minister level in any country is saying this publicly, but I think there's some background muttering to the effect that we helped the Libyans, why aren't we - why isn't NATO - helping the Syrians?  Recently I've seen some signs that the Syrian opposition is coalescing into a single force; but until now there were just scattered towns and villages under attack, there wasn't any "Syrian opposition" to support.  And that means that "helping the Syrians" would involve ... invading Syria. 

Just think about that for a minute.  Russia is feeding Syria arms, do we really want to get into a proxy war with Russia in Syria?  And the Syrian people might welcome western troops as liberators, but on the record in Iraq and Afghanistan, they're just as likely to stop fighting each other and unite against the invaders. 

Really, folks, the last time U.S. troops were genuinely welcomed as liberators was in France in 1944.  We've sent troops into a number of other countries since then and it's never happened again.  We have to stop trying to be the world's peacekeeper.  The U.S. hasn't got one single political reason to go into Syria, and that means that we should Stay Out.

Are we going to sit here and watch Assad murder his own citizens?  Yeah, I think we have to.  The Syrian people have to solve this one themselves.  I really believe this.  I also believe in the Pottery Barn rule:  You break it, you bought it.  If we go into Syria for the noble cause of helping them overthrow their own government, we'll be there for decades.