Sometimes highly useful things, and other times are just more stupid consumer warnings that exist because people are idiots; though they still don't prevent the stupidest of the stupid from becoming well and throughly dead. Common warning signs are Danger: High Voltage, Warning: No Trespassing, and Danger: High Explosives.

Through his mailing list Red Rock Eater in late 1999, Phil Agre shared the surprising (to me) news that the National Park Service has discovered a serious problem: increasing numbers of visitors to the Grand Canyon FALL IN. The number of people who fall into the canyon (per year, I guess) is rising more rapidly than the total number of visitors...

The best theory the Park Service has come up with, is that Americans live their lives in a cloud of what Tsarren just called stupid consumer warnings, which they tend to ignore, and that because a lot of harmful stuff does in fact get taken off the market, they assume nothing they encounter could possibly be dangerous. So when they see a warning sign on the edge of the canyon they just ignore it and walk right in.

Warnings should be useful, and a few are. The reminder that smoking is harmful to your health and alcohol impairs your ability to operate large machinary may actually give someone a second thought before dragging or imbibing. "Warning: the bridge is out!" is also information which commuters would find helpful, whether they want to get home safely or end it all after a rough quarter. If I'm visiting the Great Plains and hear the freight train sound of an approaching tornado, the first thing I'm going to do is look for a sign directing me to the tornado shelter.

However, in our increasingly legalistic society, more and more warnings are written and displayed so as to protect their authors, not their readers. Call them literary lead underpants.

Some of these warnings are about such obvious dangers that the only purpose of their existence is to provide legal cover. Probably the most common is "Caution: contents of this styrofoam beverage container may be hot!" Whoops! Usually I expect my coffee served at room temperature. Thanks for the heads-up.

While the obvious warnings are annoying, uselessly vague warnings are such an affront to common sense that they are downright infuriating. The chromatic Homeland Security Advisory System has often been met with this criticism. However, on a trip to San Francisco, I came upon the epitomy of these vague warnings. A brass sign in the 36th floor lounge of the Grand Hyatt Hotel reads

Chemicals Known to the State of California
To Cause Cancer, Or Birth Defects or Other Reproductive Harm
May Be Present In Foods or Beverages Sold or Served Here.

Gee whiz, thanks California! Could you give me a hint about which food or beverage is going to give me cancer or kill my sperm? Is this just the usual warning, processed through a dozen lawyers, that alcohol isn't good for pregnant women? Or is this a new Schwarzenegger roulette: one of these foods may kill you, enjoy your California fruits, vegetables and microbrews!

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