Monday, March 7, 2016

Quickies: The Way Things Improve

     There’s a rather well known book nominally aimed at younger readers, The Way Things Work, that provides a pretty good explanation of the principles and mechanisms behind many important devices. Quite a lot of budding engineers first get their curiosities tickled by this volume.

     It came to mind this morning after I viewed the video embedded here: a humorous “endorsement” of the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. I showed it to my wife, who immediately reminded me of an episode involving a friend of ours who immigrated here from Russia in 1991. She’d asked me to recommend a cooling pad for her laptop, so I pointed her to Amazon and the many such devices available there. Her response was an absolute classic:

     “Fran, I come from a socialist country. I can’t be given a choice!”

     She meant it, too.

     Many immigrants to the U.S. from the old Soviet Union were baffled, even appalled, by the array of choices offered in our supermarkets, among such things as bread, coffee, and toilet paper. They couldn’t cope with the choice problem. It paralyzed them; they needed assistance from an American inured to such things. Fortunately, over time even a former Russian becomes accustomed to it, though the acclimatization interval varies among them.

     As with varieties of bread and coffee, so also with everything else available in American stores. The Amazon phenomenon – these days, how likely is it that one who uses the word “amazon” in conversation is referring to the semi-mythical warrior-women? – has multiplied those choices as never before. Vendors who would have quailed at the many details and difficulties involved in running a retail operation now let Amazon handle most of the grubby bits. The result has been an explosion in product variety no one twenty-five years ago could have imagined.

     My friend is a highly capable engineer. She would learn almost nothing from The Way Things Work. Indeed, she could probably find all the errors in it. But were you to ask her, “How do things improve?” she’d have to take her time over it...and might venture a few less relevant guesses before she arrived at competition as a possibility.

     In a socialist, and therefore noncompetitive, context, things improve slowly if at all. Choice pressures don’t function there. The multivariate comparisons among alternatives, where the prospective purchaser balances price, features, quality, durability, and so forth against one another simply don’t occur. You buy the State’s bread or you go without. You buy the State’s coffee or you drink tea...the State’s tea. You buy the State’s toilet paper or you...well, perhaps we shouldn’t go there.

     Every so often it’s good to remind ourselves – especially those of us subject to the stresses of employment in a competitive field – that competition is the most important of all the forces that improves things: that makes them better, cheaper, and more copiously available. It even improves us somewhat. Those of us that don’t go totally, gothically mad at having to learn a new programming language every three months, at least.

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