Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Rube Goldberg School of Economics

"Buy this car to drive to work
Drive to work to pay for this car"

Metric - Handshakes

I slid my mousepad aside to type this. On it currently resides an eight-dollar slightly dingy wired mouse. Behind me, still boxed, carelessly tossed into my semi-clean laundry suitcase lies its identical future replacement. I've started stockpiling wired mice. Long ago, when wireless mice first came on the market, I avoided them for the same reason most gamers did: their reaction speed was crap and they lost more Data than the Enterprise that time they dumped him into the desert to rot. I'm willing to believe designs have improved since then but I still see no reason to buy a much more expensive version of something that works perfectly fine. Stores, naturally, see every reason to sell a much more expensive version, so hunting the increasingly elusive wired mouse in its natural electronics store habitat has grown into a bit of a sport. Every time I've had to buy a replacement these past few years I feel like a poacher hoping to catch the last tiger by its disappearing tail. So yeah, I'm buying them at least one in advance now.

The table on which the mouse, pad, keyboard and entire computer sits is actually two picnic tables. I used to have a great computer table. It cost $30, a big-ass slab of particle board covered in cheap heavy-duty plastic with four sturdy, wide aluminum legs screwed directly into it, slightly curved in front for ergonomic reasons. Simple and to the point. The closest design I could find to it now at nearby stores (size, height, stability, etc.) cost $170, except I don't need a detachable side-table. I don't need to hide my computer tower in a tiny heat-trap wooden box by the dusty floor. I don't need a set of drawers, or top shelves waiting to fall on my head or a little door to bang my shin against, or a keyboard tray to poke me in the solar plexus, and most of all I could not give a flying cherry maple what the hell kind of wood it's made of!
So yeah, picnic tables. Simple flat surface at gut level. Stylin'.

I had to unclog my sink. Spent an hour at three stores looking for a simple plastic drain wand, which of course no store nearby carried because instead of selling you a reusable $3 piece of flexible barbed plastic they'd much rather sell you disposable $6 plastic bottles of single-use corrosive chemicals that'll melt your skin off as soon as look at you.

I drive one of the last cars without power windows. I was quite ashamed of this and thought it a great inconvenience, until I realized I roll my windows down about two to five times a year. Well crank my toll booths and call me a Spartan!

I wear pink underwear. Not because I bought pink underwear, but because I once tossed something red into the wash with them and, well, nature took its course. Turns out local stores no longer sell reusable dye catcher cloths, though they all have a shelf full of wasteful, disposable, consumable versions of the same product.

I read a scientific paper recently in which the researchers had to measure one linear dimension of a perfectly mundane, macroscopic object. They placed the object next to a ruler. Then they photographed the object next to the ruler, uploaded the pictures into Adobe Photoshop and used Photoshop's tools to read the ruler measurement. 'Cuz Science!
These people have doctorates. Then again, so do the dye-catcher manufacturers, I'm guessing.

This is a thermometer. That plastic used to be white, not yellow. After twenty-plus years of use and several moves, its readings are now off by at least half a degree. Pity. Might have to replace it. Might get fancy and buy one of those newfangled little dial thermometers. What I don't need (for the purposes of measuring whether my living room's colder than my bedroom) is a digital... anything! This design (reservoir, tube, liquid and scale) has been in use since the days of Torricelli and Gallileo for measuring temperature and pressure because it just fucking works. That's it. And hey, guess what? I never had to change its battery.

We don't just live in a wasteful society. We live in a society based on waste. Yes, I know we've all seen rants like this before. We've heard of planned obsolescence, especially when it comes to computers. We know, somewhere in the back of our minds, that automobile dependency was born of one of the few true conspiracies in history, to replace low-cost efficient public transport with wasteful one-user-per-five-seats private cars. We know we'll never use any of the mind-numbing wealth of "features" we're forced to buy with Microsoft Word for the sake of software compatibility, that dizzying array of templates, shapes, fonts, charts, ancient Sanskrit algebra and smileys that even magazine editors don't know what to do with. We don't like to think about it though, do we, even when it's so obvious in every single mundane piece of junk cluttering our daily lebensraum?

Capitalism avoids any product that works too well, any design too efficient, any solution too elegant. Companies instead pile extras into anything and everything: extra pieces, extra steps, wasted space and bonus apps. Every extra adds another five cents of production cost but another ten cents of justifiable price gouging. Every "disposable" is another sale. Unit cost is where percentage meets ka-ching! Just have to find some flimsy justification for it. For every wasted day of work, every wasted kilogram of copper, every wasted square meter of shelf space, some fatcat multibillionnaire investor increases his relative worth over you by another 0.05% That extra profit gets fed right back into market manipulation to prevent you from buying the better alternative. Well, market manipulation plus ale and whores. And Learjets. And private islands.

But of course we have to keep buying overbuilt gaudy trinkets or the whole world will grind to a halt! At least that's the general thrust of the confused babbling you'll get from any well-heeled economist's discussion of the topic. Every template and smiley and better mousetrap serves as existential justification for some poor schmoe to slave away every single hour of his waking life so he can afford to buy a digital wall thermometer for no particular reason, or new batteries for his wireless mouse. Why do you need a wireless mouse, Clevon? Gonna take it jogging? Is it full of 'lectrolites? Is it scrumptious, precious? Is it crunchable?

Do not even get me started on "smart"phones.

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