I had some dreams ... they were klowns in my koffee.

(With apologies to Carly Simon)

This is my journey through job transition from a toxic environment to a better life. Join me for a few thoughts and a few laughs along the way.
What are "klowns in my koffee"? They are the factors large and small that make you less than you are. A "klown" can be a grossly incompetent boss,
a short-sighted policy or a moronic coworker. They won't kill you, at least not immediately, but they abrade the soul
as you scrape past them to get through the day. Sometimes it's best to dump them out of the cup.


Day 198 - Klowns Giving Krap to Children

Daily Kup (My Life as a Gainfully Unemployed Person)
Who cares what I did today. There be klowns about!

A Negligent Mistake Followed by Refreshing Corrective Action
I haven't had a really good diatribe in a long time and it really felt good. I think everyone has one area where they really excel and, for me, it's complaining. It's not much of a higher calling, I know, but all the other really good spiritual gifts were taken by the time I got to the front of the line.

I loath school fundraising. I hate the containers of chocolate chip cookie dough a little less than the other shilled items, but that's merely a big fat salute to big and fat.

Our elementary school PTO raises thousands of dollars with a magazine drive coordinated with fundraising giant QSP. QSP is really Reader's Digest and my attitude toward them is in some small way influenced by the knowledge that founder DeWitt Wallace was a major wingnut, that condensing writing to remove the unpleasant thoughts and difficult words is censorship by the stupid, and, most importantly, that every copy of "Laughter, The Best Medicine" in every dentist office in the country has the same old jokes.

QSP promises the kids some fantastic prize for selling a phenomenal number of magazines and then cuts them loose on the world with the suggestion not to sell door to door but to "remind Mom and Dad to take the catalog to work." The super prize was an Ipod Touch this year. There are minor prizes for turning in the names and addresses of 12 of your closest friends so that they can be harangued to buy magazines by the head office. In a 50's McCarthy flashback, they make you name names.

The prize for selling a couple of subscriptions is some piece of cheap plastic crap. This year, it was the Spy.ear, a 60 dB amplifier with designed to help the listener tune into private conversations. If the concept weren't bad enough, the implementation is pumping 1000x audio/feedback through ear buds directly into kids' cochleas.

This is real klown stuff and needed to be addressed. Excerpts from the emails are shown below. There were phone conversations as well. I've cut out the names since these people have had enough unwanted exposure. The bold-face is mine.

Spoiler Alert: Common sense wins.


{To School Principal, cc: PTO President},
I called {PTO president} ... to express our concerns about the "Spy.Ear" device given out to the children as the lowest level promotion for the magazine drive. As a point of disclosure, the sentiments that another parent expressed about the magazine drive at the Third Grade Curriculum Night exactly mirror my husband's and my feelings about it. As you recall, the questioner was directed by the teachers to talk to the PTO since that group is the sponsor. {PTO} was a good sport about listening to our strongly worded complaints and I appreciate her patience. When it's your watch, you get the complaints and the credit; that's the nature of the job, even for a volunteer organization. {PTO}, I hate to put you in the hot seat, but someone has to be responsible and your name is at the top of that list. I've been in the same situation and understand the trade-off. Trust me, it was better that I called you than if my husband did.

The Spy.Ear is a dangerous piece of garbage with an unethical intent. It's loud enough to cause ringing in the ears. The manufacturer claims that the device amplifies to 40 dB, but an independent engineering evaluation reported on a technical website found 60 dB, an amplification factor of 1000. For context, legal limits for classroom noise in Australia and some places in the US is 40-45 dB. Children have no sense of what is too loud and will continue to crank it up like in the "boiling frog" story. The battery compartment does not stay shut, creating a potential issue of the battery, and the cover for that matter, falling out and being ingested by small children or pets. Since the extra batteries fall out of the packaging as soon as it is open, how many batteries -- technically hazardous waste -- are rolling around the school floors, bus floors, and in backpacks right now? And encouraging children to spy on people is reprehensible and ethically indefensible.

As I told {PTO}, allowing this device to be distributed was a bad, thoughtless choice on the part of the PTO. She mentioned that QSP selects the trinkets and basically foists them on the parent group. I thoroughly believe that, which raises the issue of who is in charge when it comes to this activity. An external company in the business of making money by incentivizing small children just might be thinking first about maximizing profits and minimizing expenses instead of the safety of our children.

{Principal}, (PTO} said that she would bring this complaint to your attention on Monday. Both to document the full extent of our concerns and to relieve {PTO} of the onerous task of being the go-between, I decided to document this for you while it's on my mind. I don't believe in any way that someone related to the school did this with a negligent intent. There's just a gap. An unfortunate gap that looks bad, sounds bad, and is bad. Our feeling is that QSP may be the negligent party in the true legal sense of the word. On that premise, I've contacted WCCO and was interviewed on the incident with the intent of investigating why a good public school is influenced to go against common sense and hand out a dangerous and inappropriate electronic device to small children.

We think these contraptions should be collected back from the children, disposed of with attention to the environmental requirements, and replaced by QSP with something more appropriate.

Thank you for your attention to this issue. We're sorry to have to contact you with a complaint. We genuinely appreciate your leadership and management and look forward to your response on this concern.



{From PTO President}

Over the weekend, I've had a chance to follow-up a bit more on your concerns re: the QSP prizes.

1. {Principal} and I have communicated re: your concerns and will bring it to the attention of the Magazine Drive co-chairs.


3. I am planning a meeting with the Magazine Drive committee to discuss future changes that can be implemented to avoid any similar problems in the future.

Thank you for bringing your concerns to our attention. If you have any further concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me. I am happy to help and/or follow-up with any involved parties on your behalf.



{From me to PTO President, cc: Principal}

Thank you for your quick and thoughtful response. My husband and I would be interested in knowing what specific actions come out of the meeting with the Magazine Drive committee for the purpose of closure. I'll create an auto reminder for one month to remind myself to follow up if the issue is still open. (Thank goodness for that technology -- otherwise, I'd have to have a to-do list on a cart!)

I was doing some research this weekend and discovered a couple of factoids that aren't 100% applicable but interesting nonetheless:

1) QSP has recalled "prizes" in the past for safety issues. At the size of their operation, it wouldn't be surprising that there is the occasional misstep, particularly when dealing with low-cost goods. Potentially bursting into flame seems a drawback to a children's toy.

2) The spy.ear does not carry the UL mark. Note that UL is not the only agency that can do safety testing to the required standard; it is merely the best known. The product appears to to carry the CE Mark indicating at least a self-declaration to compliance with electromagnetic and safety requirements for home products, but you'll notice that the mark is actually bogus. Some Chinese companies affix what they call a Chinese Export mark to confuse consumers into thinking that a product has undergone testing that it has not. This article explains it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CE_mark

2a) Without UL or an equivalent safety mark, the liability falls entirely on the distributor. I don't know enough about the law in that area to understand in this state whether that's the original manufacturer (no identification on the packaging), the distributor who sold it to QSP, QSP, or the school district. Given the litigious state of our society and the tendency for downhill flow, it seems a risk for the school to hand out untested electronic devices that would be banned in some US municipalities.

3) Spy.ears have a very wide following with adult electronic hobbyists because they are cheap and can be used for controlled amplification for things like lasers. That actually is fairly intriguing. It does give you an idea of the type of amplification we are talking about.


Thank you again for your response. Please let me know the final result.


{From Principal to all parents}

A message from {} ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

A concern has been expressed to the PTO regarding the safety of the Spy Ear prize in the magazine fundraiser. The company, QSP, has written assurance that all of its products have been tested and meet all of the requirements of the Consumer Product Safety Act; nonetheless, QSP is willing to substitute a different prize for any child whose parents have safety concerns. Please return the Spy Ear to the {} office by Wednesday of this week for a substitute prize.

{From me to Principal}

Thank you again for the rapid and effective response.

By the way, the Consumer Product Safety Act as it applies to children's toys addresses lead and phthalate content as well as choking risks for small children. Home electronic devices are governed by IEC 60950 (UL or other agency testing) or equivalent or the electrical safety testing required by the European directives for the (genuine) CE mark.

I'll gladly look at any electronic devices that you are considering for future giveaways and analyze their safety status based on their markings to the extent that they are applicable.

Many thanks,


And so, the good guys win this round. I'd like to think it was excellent school leadership and just maybe a wicked compelling complaint email.

Or maybe it was calling the media ...

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