Thursday, 5 May 2011

Culture in the Laundry Room

Like many Europeans, one of our minor surprises when we moved to the US was the laundry equipment. The top-loading washing machine with its vicious agitator swirling back and forth was not only three times bigger than anything we'd seen before, it also tore clothes apart three times as quickly. Maybe that's why casual clothing caught on so quickly in the US - anything with any kind of structure is rapidly reduced to a formless mess by the traditional top-loader. Another surprise is that the washer and dryer are considered to be part of the house, and are left in place by the previous owner - in Europe anything which isn't physically part of the structure moves with the owner.

Anyway, it quickly became urgent for us to replace the machines with something less destructive to our apparel. We bought a nice, civilized Bosch front-loading washer and matching dryer, and our clothes lasted a lot longer. It's true that when you find a dropped sock on the floor five seconds after starting the washer, a top-loader is handy. But having our clothes last for more than three washes made up for it.

All good things come to an end though. Our wash cycles started lasting longer and longer, until the machine was taking more than two hours to wash a few shirts. The service guy came, ran a bunch of diagnostics, and declared that there was noting wrong with the machine, but took $200 anyway. Then it started to smell bad. The service guy came again, took another $200, and declared that there was still nothing wrong with the machine. We certainly weren't going to pay him again, especially when a quick browse showed that we could buy a new machine for not much more money than we had already paid him.

A big surprise was the choice of brands: LG and Samsung. Pretty much nothing else is available. Bosch shows up on about page 10 of the web catalog, along with the traditional American brands like GE. Soon, we had a brand-new, non-smelly Samsung washing machine. Made for the American market, it is about twice as big as its predecessor, which is actually quite handy since it means you can stuff more washing into it.

One thing we weren't expecting was its cultural contribution to our household. We're used to things going beep - I've lost count of how many things beep. Most things beep when they've finished, like the microwave and the toaster. The fridge never really finishes, so it beeps if you leave the door open. I've never heard the garbage disposal beep, but there's probably some occasion when it does. So how is a poor appliance to compete in this melee of beeps? Well, Samsung has an answer. Whenever the washer wants attention - when it has finished, when it has started, and various other odd times as well - it plays the opening bars from Schubert's Trout Quintet.

This is sheer genius. Whoever would have thought of a washing machine that plays uplifting classical music? It really raises the bar for all of these appliances. The watery theme is perfect for a washer, though Handel's Water Music would be even better. The knife sharpener (if we had one - I prefer an old fashioned stone) should naturally play Katachurian's Sabre Dance when the knife is truly sharp. Haydn's Clock Symphony is a clear choice for the timer, and maybe his Miracle Symphony for the microwave.

But there could be more, much more. Twenty years ago nobody imagined there was a fortune to made in downloadable ringtones. Soon, all these appliances will be WiFi enabled, and you'll control your toaster from a web browser. Then, they can all have menus of tones for different things, and it can be monetized - a neologism which I'd hate if it wasn't so descriptively handy. For only $2.99, a choice of ten different tones for your bagel maker. Hmm, maybe I should patent it. But since I don't have the stomach for that (my last attempt at a personal patent got definitively rejected after I'd spent a serious amount of money on it), just consider this to be prior art.

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