Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Great Balls of Fire

While heating some food in our eleven year old microwave oven, I was 'shocked' to witness the entire inside of the oven suddenly burst into flame. It was a brief burst, but for that single moment, the inside of the oven resembled the fiery pit of hell.

So, I'm reminded of what the microwave instruction booklets blithely call 'arcing', an electrical phenomenon that occurs when, among other times, a non-microwave safe object is subjected to the radiation emitted from these ubiquitous kitchen appliances.

Those instruction booklets advise how to avoid this condition, what to avoid placing in the oven, and how to keep the unit nice and clean. Yet, when I stop and think about it, almost every home now has within it a machine with the capability of flaming out if these rules of conduct are not followed precisely. After witnessing my own machine appear to nearly burst into a flaming terror, I can't help but wonder about the real odds of catastrophe the sits in the average kitchen.

I hate to sound like a raving paranoid, but I guess all technology contains what may best be described as "acceptable risk". That's why we are advised to unplug toaster ovens when not in use, those cheap appliances but with the potential to burn down the house. It's these inexpensive accoutrements of modern life that both make life 'easier', and at the same time, actually have the potential to do great harm. I wonder who decided what the level of risk would be "acceptable"?

Yes, I know anyone at anytime can get hit by a bus just walking across the street. I know that driving a car is less safe than flying in an airplane. Even though you'd never know it, defensive driving is taught to all new drivers, but these risks remain, and modern life demands we accept these risks. But, what is the real risk, and who gets to make that decision?

A ten dollar carbon monoxide alarm needs a new battery twice a year, but why do we count on a ten dollar item to safeguard our lives in the first place? Should a task like that require something more, I don't know, formidable?

Like all things built by man, there is no perfect machine and no way to reduce the risks to zero. I suppose I could take a "Dirty Harry" perspective on the microwave incident. The machine was manufactured over ten years ago, so I guess I should feel lucky that it lasted this long. Right, punk?

The instructions indicate that an electrical arcing need not mean that the machine is kaput, but after the micro-inferno I saw, we trashed the microwave and now have another inexpensive, but new microwave oven. Perhaps it's irrational, but we can't live with the lingering notion that our next meal could be our last.

Now, what's the deal with all those nuclear reactors?

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