*to Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Optimized Technologies

There are certain technologies from the 19th and 20th centuries, and even some from earlier, which cannot be further optimized.  You can refine them for more specific applications, but you cannot improve them, without taking away their optimization in some other way: 'a thing is perfect when there is nothing more you can take away.'

Take the case of the 'safety razor'.  You can imagine that this made the lives of men, and women, much easier than when they had either to use a straight razor, visit a barber, or do something more creative for hair other than on the face.  A straight razor in the hands of a skilled barber does give a superlative shave, but this technology gives one nearly as good in the hands of a duffer.  All of the double, triple and absurdly quintuple, blades neither improve the shave nor the safety.  Even if they improve the shave for you, the disadvantages for most people are telling: they are ten or more times as expensive per shave, they are wasteful of materials and packaging, they are not interchangeable, and they gum up and wear out quickly.  The best and cheapest home shave is a 'safety razor' and a good shaving soap: brush not required, hot water or cold as an option.  Shaving foams are another 'innovation' that is no such thing.

If you race at a high enough level that you have a doping schedule to get around discovery, get back to your training.  For the rest of us who want a bike, get steel.  Sure, you can build a bike out of steel, aluminum, titanium or even plastic (er... carbon), but steel is the cheap material that absorbs road noise, is durable, is repairable, has been perfected for a couple of centuries, is not going to add more than two pounds to your frame, and is far prettier.  The extra pounds should come off of your @$$.  Neither will those few pounds slow you down, if you are more comfortable riding than being beaten up by an unresilient frame.  Aesthetics?  Would you rather your frame has the coltish figure of a young Asian, or the bovine figure of a N. American?  I suppose 'there's no accounting for taste'.

Merino wool is a fantastic athletic material for all but the hottest weather and most aerobic sports.  It's a fantastic material for any cool weather activities, including sleep!  There are materials that transpire moisture more quickly, like certain synthetic ones, but they stink: merino doesn't.  Cashmere is even nicer, but much more expensive.  "Cotton kills."  Merino is soft enough against the skin, and doesn't irritate.  Start with a pair of socks for hiking, and notice your blisters halve in size and frequency.

Japan has a great shortage of stone buildings, and that is one reason it is freezing in buildings here in the winter, and muggy in summer.  The culture does not have a historical expectation for buildings to be snug in winter, and cool in summer.  They could insulate the plywood and reinforced-concrete they build with, but do not sense the need.  The reason for the shortage of stone buildings is the high mortality for residents in them during Japan's earthquakes.  The ancients did not build most of their buildings in stone, but much of the stone survived, and not the wood.  Stone endures.

Of course a 'Kindle' is convenient, and digitizing written information is important, but all civilizations fall, even ours.  Will I trust there to be a working computer after the next dark age, or will I trust there to be some extant literature on modern acid free paper?  You can say that digital information is permanent, but that's true only if you have the system to access it, and can recognize that it is literature!  If there are any readers left, they will know a book is literature, even if they cannot read it.  A hard drive?  Mysterious.  In human history, vellum has been the most enduring information storage medium.  Might be a good time to lay up some calf skin.

These are just a few I can think of from the top of my head.  There must be many more (leather bike saddles!).

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