Freedom to be wrong

“The Deacon’s Masterpiece or Wonderful One-Hoss-Shay – A Logical Story” is a poem from 1858 by Oliver Wendell Holmes

Chain gang
European Union

which describes a man’s search for improvements in the design of  a horse-drawn carriage.  “A chaise breaks down, but doesn’t wear out”, he complains, i.e. it has weak points. He expends considerable time and energy in eliminating these weak points, one by one until none are left. (This is analogous to the various Kaizen, CIP or CP processes undertaken routinely by modern manufacturers). One day, after long service, the chaise collapses during an earthquake. The collapse occurs everywhere at once as there are no weak points. This is, to the modern mind, efficient.

We can compare and contrast this approach with Nature’s way of going about things. Living things, as Neal Stephenson has it in Cryptonomicon, spam their environments with rough copies of themselves. Nature’s / the Creator’s genius is encapsulated in the word “rough” for none of the copies are exactly the same. This allows some to be better than others in the competition for space and resources in any given environment. Their characteristics tend to predominate. As the environment changes, other attributes gain advantage and assume dominance. Even in a stable environment organisms continue to change, it is their only way. Inherent in this system are two factors, resilience and redundancy (waste).

For manufacturers the one-hoss-shay approach is entirely suitable, provided the point of ultimate collapse can be extended beyond the appropriate lifetime of the product. This is usually determined by technological factors. I have perfectly serviceable cassette and minidisc players I no longer use as I have something better in all respects. Cars are often junked while still operational and safe for reasons of boredom / changing taste, cost of maintenance, or their inferior fuel economy when compared to modern designs.

As the culture of managerialism intrudes from the factory into our domestic and personal settings, and the ways of thinking of our political elites, this is the mindset that is being applied more and more into every aspect of life. Every effort is applied to finding best practice and then applying it everywhere. Efficiency is all. Homogenous healthcare systems, shopping experiences, music, tv and films predominate. Homogeneity even pervades the spoken word. Recently nearly everyone interviewed on the radio or tv instead of beginning their answer meaninglessly with “I mean …” or “Yeah, no …” as they did until about a year ago, has started with the equally meaningless and irritating “So …” .

Not only is the world becoming monstrously dull because of all this consensus of mediocrity, when the culture pervades an area with an unusually high density of really clever people such as economists or investment bankers it also becomes catastrophically brittle. When one bunch of geniuses are found to have underestimated the risk inherent in products which have been created and manipulated by people more greedy and less clever than themselves, not only does their house of cards collapse it takes the street with it. Politicians are no better, jamming the countries of continental Europe into an ever more constricting set of economic and political straightjackets has certainly brought an end to what were once considered inevitable ongoing conflicts. It has also, however, placed them, and us in a common predicament in a way which has never happened before.

Perhaps a more ‘natural’ model of nation states, economies and national rather than global banks, each operating and mutating in its own manner would provide greater resilience at the cost of some redundancy and loss of efficiency. Innovation and competition would surely improve and we probably wouldn’t all end up with a leg in a hole at the same time. After all countries, unlike manufactured goods, don’t have an appropriate lifetime after which it is acceptable to collapse everywhere at once.

I had too little to dream last night

Well, either the EU food police have got the Stilton producers to neuter their product (a la absinthe) or I got some duff stock, but I have to report complete failure in the vivid imaginings I was hoping to report after the last post.

However, I have been musing in the ensuing days, whilst listening to the cricket mostly, and have come up with two half formed ideas.

The first, inspired by those sort of updated Tamagochi type virtual pet apps is to develop low maintenance pets, in particular machine washable pets. Upon reflection this is perhaps a bit of a leap from where we currently stand and will have to be left to the Eugenicists of the Kennel Club, cat breeders and similar to sort out. After all having the idea is the hard bit and I’ve done that for them. If these prove the success I anticipate, they would provide valuable research data for the ultimate goal of machine washable babies.

The second is to produce an app like Farmville and strip out the virtual lego / playset stuff and get Oxfam to link you to a real farm in a developing area. This would, of course involve giving you less (if any) direct control and the spending of real rather than virtual funds but would possibly do some good and be less, how can I put it, pointless? The real problem here is that farming takes a deal of hard work, so the farmer has better things to do than keep his app users up to date, and takes a long time so the user wouldn’t get the sort of immediate feedback they are used to. That apart, as paid subscription becomes more common, people may become amenable to the idea of a subscription blog from a struggling farmer or community, and the aggregate payments from a quite modest readership by blogging standards could well make the sort of significant difference that the Microfinance organisations are achieving.

This has a serious point, as many charities seem to have become little more than front organisations which use donations to pay lobbyists to try to convince Governments to use their donors taxes to one end or another (I used Oxfam as the example above as I see them as exemplary in not doing this, other good charities abound I’m sure), and I tend to avoid those charities that do. If I am not alone in this, and this is affecting the overall level of giving, there is a real opportunity to re-connect donors with the purposes of the charities. It would also, maybe, feel less like charity and more like a commercial transaction in itself, bringing a bit more dignity to both donor and recipient.

Two way traffic

I have, in the past, wittered on about the possible benefits to be had from substituting smartphone apps for real artefacts. This saves resources in manufacture, transportation, warehousing, packaging, distribution and because they are considerably cheaper and easy to delete when unwanted, savings in regret about duff purchases and landfill. An almost undiluted “good thing” then. Which set me to wondering …

What about transfers the other way? Could the immensely  creative and often fun world of apps inform products we already produce in the real world?

My first thought was of the sort of app that lets you take a picture of your new baby and then see what he/she would look like with a handlebar moustache or a beehive hairdo with chandelier earrings. Obviously there is the option of using indelible markers and the dressing-up box but this seems likely to invite unfavourable comment if you are caught trying it. This reminded me of the brilliant idea of having shaving foam produced in a selection of colours to match a chap’s hair. That way when horsing about whilst shaving to see what configuration of facial topiary would suit him, he would get a much better impression than the usual Father Christmas look. Then I remembered that this idea was not mine at all but one of James May’s (You can read it here ), and hadn’t been inspired by an app. Ho-Hum. Stilton before bedtime for me to see what vivid imaginings of my own may occur.

New version says you? … Har says I

Nautical Time Display


Just in time for International Talk like a Pirate day (September 19th), version 2.0 of the almanac app should be approved and in the App Store in a week or so.

Wannabe pirates, sailors, explorers, navigators and those wishing to join in NATO or other military exercises can now use Nautical / Military time to guide and synchronise their actions.

In addition they can refer to their current location with proper NATO style zone names which will surely impress.

Other information available concerns watches and bells for those wanting to run their affairs or households in a shipshape manner.