I stand beside my car, melting in the heat as I press the button for the doors to unlock.  No response from the car, no click of locks, no flash of headlights in acknowledgement of my signal.  I just changed the battery–or had it changed, since it was not at all obvious how to get at the battery–yesterday.  Is the freshly-purchased battery bad?  Well, it’s not a major problem.  I hold the keys in my hand, and there is a keyhole in the door.


Startled, I jump back as my car’s anti-theft alarm goes off.  The horn honks frantically, the headlights blink, I stand staring at my suddenly rebellious car.  It’s my car, the key unlocked the door, why is the blasted thing suddenly acting as if I were trying to steal it?  How do I turn the blaring sound off?  I try climbing into the overheated interior and starting the car–it won’t start.  I walk around it, again thumbing the keyless system.  No response.  Only continued loud embarrassment.

A cyclist rides up, looking amused.  I try to defend myself.  “I don’t know why it’s acting this way.  All I did is unlock the door of my car!”

Luckily, I don’t look like a car thief.  I look like what I am, the stereotypical little old lady in tennis shoes, with a name badge proclaiming that I am on campus legitimately.  “Get in and turn the key on and off five times,” he advises, and it works.  The blaring stops.  When I stammer my thanks, he comments that he heard the car clear across the lot and it happens all the time, then waves and rides off.

Later I drive by the dealership, certain something is wrong with the car.  The keyless entry of course works perfectly for the dealer.  “Just make sure you press the button hard,” he advises loftily. No, there is no way to turn off the anti-theft system.  The car is working correctly; it seems the manufacturers prefer that customers use the keyless feature.  What happens if the batteries go dead?  “Keep fresh batteries in the remote.”  Interesting that they gave me more keys than remotes.  And the only new thing I learn is that it only takes three times turning the key on and off in the ignition to silence the alarm in my new car.

If it’s that simple, and that widely known–remember it was a cyclist who first gave me the information–then any competent car thief surely knows how to turn off the alarm.  Just use whatever he used to turn the lock in the door to turn the ignition on and off–probably much faster than I did.  Bystanders are unlikely to interfere, especially if the nuisances go off all the time.  Car thieves don’t necessarily look like car thieves; some may even be little old ladies in tennis shoes.  So what is the use of having an anti-theft alarm that goes off if you use the key to open the door?

The “perversity of inanimate objects?”  Not exactly.  When was the last time you considered a rock, a stick, even a tree, perverse?  Annoying at times, even maddening, but not really perverse.  That particular adjective is most often applied to made objects.  Objects that are designed by human beings.

I am convinced that the inventors of Superman got Clark Kent’s profession wrong.  He wasn’t a reporter; he was a designer–and a rather thoughtless designer, at that.  One is expected to fly to the ceiling to change the batteries in a smoke alarm, and use X-ray vision to see how the battery is to be replaced.  X-ray vision would also be useful in tracing the wiring of the anti-theft system, and great strength would have allowed me to open a glass jar of pickles in less than the three days it took.
More realistically, product designers act as if everyone were six feet tall, possessed of perfect vision and hearing, superstrength, and had an average body shape.  Oh, and live in an average climate.  That covers very few of us who actually use their gadgets.

Take climate.  I live in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the first new car I bought was the year the law required that the car wouldn’t start unless the driver was wearing a seat belt.  If the driver’s weight came on the seat and the seat belt catch did not report it was closed, a loud alarm blared inside the car.  No problem, I thought.  I always used seat belts.  My father drilled holes in the frame of our old Woody to put in seat belts.  That is, no problem until a Fairbanks winter.  Then I discovered that the sensor that told the car that the seat belt was fastened quit working when the temperature of the car’s interior was below zero °F.  I was a lot younger then, and I could still start the car by bracing my shoulders against the seat back and my feet against the floor. But the instant my weight hit the brittle plastic of the seats, the alarm started blaring.  The cacophony continued until the car interior warmed to above zero, and when it was forty below outside–common that winter–it never got that warm inside the car.  Since it was illegal for the dealer to disconnect the thing, and I didn’t know how, it blared continuously every time I drove anywhere.  If a siren or the horn of another car had sounded, I’d never have heard it–what was intended as a safety device was anything but.  I can blame Congress for that one, but it was the design of the implementation that was faulty.

(Congress is also responsible for my washing machine.  To save energy, they have made a hot-water wash with a warm rinse nearly impossible, forgetting that powdered “cold-water” detergents are not designed to work with cold water half a degree above freezing.)

Good design includes the idea that it should be possible to use an object for its intended purpose.