Monday, June 24, 2013


If the cockpit of a 747 were as badly designed as some kitchen appliances, most of us would never make it to Denver alive. Imagine a jet pilot having to fumble around for the landing gear lever because it looks just like all the other controls.

I’ve owned (or inherited) far too many domestic appliances with just such inane shortcomings and more, and it’s gotten me to wondering: Don’t the engineers and stylists who design these products at least try them out at home for the weekend? If they had, many of them would never have made it onto the market.

Since we already know a great deal about ergonomics--the science concerning the design of objects for human use--and are always finding out more, you’d presume that products would become easier and easier to use. Not so; in fact, with the bane of “feature creep”--the compulsion of marketers to add more and more gratuitous gimmicks to their products--many devices have actually gotten harder to use. 

Remember the first-generation microwave oven, which had a big round dial for setting the time, and a huge rectangular button labeled “START”?  As primitive as it was, it still beats the supposedly state-of-the-art microwave my mother had installed few years back. I won’t embarrass the manufacturer by naming the brand--oh, alright then, it’s Bosch--since it richly deserves an award for its atrocious ergonomics. The control panel is a mind-numbing matrix of lookalike keypads, thirty-six in all, all of the same color and having the same kind of lettering. The most frequently used functions, such as the number pads and the START and STOP keys, are haphazardly buried in this grid without being distinguished by color, shape, position, labeling, or anything else. Lacking any kind of visual cues for guidance, the hapless user is condemned to sift through the whole dreadful phalanx of pads again and again, essentially having to relearn the controls with every single use.

While this Bosch product might be accorded special wonder for its supremely lame design, it’s certainly not alone in being hard to use. A Krups coffee maker I finally had the pleasure of throwing out (it broke, to my relief) was another such example of witless engineering. Its filter basket came out along with the carafe rather than remaining in the unit, ensuring a trail of coffee drips every time you removed it for pouring. It also featured a slippery, jellybean-like power switch mounted on a trendily curved front surface, an arrangement so slithery it required both hands to operate.

Nor is this kind of dunderheaded design confined to kitchen products. The infamous Ford car radios with their clutter of matchhead-sized buttons spring quickly to mind. Then there’s my all-time personal un-favorite--the vast array of Hewlett-Packard products seemingly designed by and for propellerheads only, and necessarily furnished with user manuals as thick as a San Jose phone book.

Thankfully, truly savvy designers are finally returning to basic ergonomic principles--simple, comprhensible and intuitive controls that can be distinguished by position, shape, color, or touch. Now, if only Bosch would hire one of them.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


As the child of Depression-era parents who still save old bits of string, used gift wrap, and the flimsy plastic trays from candy boxes, I  too am mentally incapable of seeing things go to waste. 

This confounding compulsion to conserve goes well beyond the usual household flotsam. When I’m dining out, not only do I feel guilt at leaving a few bites of food on my plate--I feel even worse when the guy at the next table leaves half his steak dinner to be thrown out. 

I ‘m always annoying my wife by rushing around turning off lights, because in the back of my mind I imagine how much oil, gas or coal is being burned to keep that bulb lit for no reason. Likewise, I shower under a relative trickle of hot water because it bothers me to think of all that hard-won energy literally pouring down the drain. Come to that, I keep my water heater set so low that I can shower with only the hot water valve turned on. 

As an admitted basket case in compulsive conservation, though, I feel entitled to say that I’m getting pretty sick and tired of having the government tell me exactly how, what, and where I’m supposed to conserve. 

I’ve got nothing against well-crafted energy-efficiency regulations such as California’s Title 24, which for the most part leaves designers plenty of latitude provided they meet an overall energy budget. On the other hand, some government micromanagers just want to issue marching orders--for example, the recent legislation that effectively bans the sale of all incandescent bulbs nationwide over the next few years. It's worth noting that one of the most enthusiastic backers of this legislation was Philips Lighting, the world’s biggest producer of compact fluorescent bulbs. One wonders if Phillips will be as quick to endorse a future ban on CFs in favor of light-emitting diode technology, which is even more efficient.

However well-meaning the government's energy-saving edicts might be, they utterly fail to harness the power of economic self interest that--for instance--a well-designed tax credit might. Rather, draconian measures of this kind simply breed popular resentment and widespread attempts at circumvention. Rest assured, it won't be long before people are buying cases of hundred-watt  bulbs out of the back of some hooligan’s van. 

Enlightened self interest is a far better motivator than laws that attempt to dictate a social conscience. Hence I have to trust that the mindless consumerism that’s overtaken America in the last couple of decades will eventually be reversed by the same old-fashioned capitalist forces that created it. 

There are already glimmerings of this trend. For example, as photovoltaic panels continue inching their way toward economic viability, more and more of us are looking into their use--not because we’re pious, but because we’d love to tell our local utility to shove it. Ditto for the idea of owning a hybrid car that keeps us slightly less in thrall to our well-fed friends at the oil companies.

Such developments, modest though they are, make me believe that all Americans will eventually see the economic sense--if not the philosophical beauty--of cherishing everything Mother Nature gives us. Not because some law demands it, but because we’d be crazy to do otherwise.

Monday, June 10, 2013

POWER STRUGGLE (Part Two of Two Parts)

The American landscape was forever changed by the arrival of electricity in the late 1890s. What’s surprising, though, is how little it’s changed since. To a time traveler from a century ago, our cars, planes, and iPhones would surely border on the miraculous, but the old wooden power poles that march down our streets would look perfectly familiar.

As we noted last time, America’s electrical distribution system grew out of an earlier technology--the telegraph, whose infrastructure was already largely in place by the 1860s. And while rural areas might have just one set of telegraph lines paralleling the local railroad track, by the century’s end major cities were already bristling with telegraph poles carrying stacks of ten or more crossarms and scores of cables. 

Given the rush to electrify urban areas, the basic infrastructure of the telegraph network was borrowed for electrical distribution as well, with one difference: Unlike low voltage telegraph wires (and later on telephone lines), alternating current power lines carried lethally high voltages and therefore had to be strung high above street level, on poles with heights of thirty feet, forty feet, or even more. As electrification advanced from cities into suburbs and finally into rural areas, the wooden power pole became a familiar and even welcome symbol of progress. Amazingly, this same basic infrastructure--little changed from its roots of 150 years ago--can still be found on most any rural or urban street in America. 

The splintery, weatherbeaten poles that march drunkenly down our streets are so ubiquitous that most of us no longer notice them, but they’re not invisible to everyone. Europeans, for one, stare in disbelief at the chaotic tangles of wire and wood that clutter our streets, no doubt wondering how the most advanced nation on earth could make do with an almost comically primitive-looking network of electrical distribution. 

Ironically, the very fact that the United States pioneered electrification is one reason we’re saddled with such an antiquated infrastructure. Nations that once lagged far behind the United States in electrification have since benefitted from the leapfrog effect, which bypasses first generation technologies in favor of those that have had more time to evolve. Exurban China, for example, which only began to be widely electrified after 1950, now has a modern distribution system that’s substantially underground. What systems remain overhead are carried on simple and maintenance-free concrete poles that blend in with the streetscape.

Europe was electrified only slightly later than the United States, but was served by the fact that it didn’t have America’s abundant supply of timber. Hence, European streets generally have power lines carried on concrete poles, with notably neater results. 

A century and a half have passed since Samuel Morse’s fateful decision to put his telegraph lines overhead rather than under the ground, and ever since, those notably anti-aesthetic forces of economics and expedience have largely ensured that overhead is where they’ll stay. So it’s a good thing that all those half-decayed poles, rusty transformers and tangles of wire have become invisible. To us, anyway.

Monday, June 3, 2013


Glance down pretty much any old boulevard in America and what do you see?
Aside from the usual tangle of traffic signals, signs, sidewalks, and storefronts, there’s something else that we’ve become uncannily good at overlooking: Power poles.

The United States, having been the first nation to electrify, is now ironically the last to be saddled with an antiquated infrastructure of power distribution.  So it is that European or Asian visitors stop and stare with disbelief at the almost comically disheveled phalanx of old wooden poles that march helter skelter down American streets even today. Here, in the most technically advanced nation on earth, the network of power distribution looks like some last remnant of the Wild West.

In fact, that’s precisely what it is. The astonishing modern-day clutter of “telephone poles” dates back to a fateful moment in 1844 when Samuel Morse, inventior of the telegraph, was constructing the nation’s first telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington.Ezra Cornell, later to found the eponymous university, had invented a machine to lay an underground pipe in which to string the wires--essentially, our modern concept of undergrounding utilities. Alas, condensation in the pipes and insulation failures caused problems, and it was decided to string the wires above ground on poles instead--a momentous decision whose aesthetic implications are still with us today.

Things got even more complicated after Thomas Edison invented the first practical incandescent bulb in 1879. Since the commercial value of electric lighting was moot without an electrical network to power it--which, needless to say, didn’t exist--Edison’s next brief was to find some means of distributing power. Four years later he inaugurated the world’s first electrical distribution system, which provided 110 volts of direct current to exactly 59 customers near his Pearl Street laboratory in lower Manhattan.

Shortly thereafter, industrialist George Westinghouse also turned his attention to the problem of power distribution, but took a different tack. Westinghouse dismissed Edison’s direct current system, which suffered huge efficiency losses when transmitted over the sort of distances a civic power network would require. Instead, Westinghouse chose alternating current, which used high voltages that could be transmitted with minimal power losses and then could be “stepped down”to usable voltages by transformers. In 1886, Westinghouse and his assistant William Stanley completed the first such practical AC network. 

Thus arose the “War of Currents”, a bitter feud between Edison and Westinghouse over whose system was better, and no less important, who would reap the vast commercial benefits. Edison argued that the high voltages used in AC distribution were deadly dangerous, while Westinghouse maintained that the benefits of high voltage transmission far outweighed the risks..

In 1893, the Westinghouse system was chosen to provide AC power to the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. In the following years, the company completed the first long-range AC power network, transmitting electricity from generators at Niagara Falls to Buffalo, New York, some forty miles distant. Thereafter, the fate of Edison’s DC distribution system was sealed. High voltage AC power, strung on elevated poles for safety, had won the day, and the American landscape hasn’t been the same since.

Next time: How Morse's decision forever changed the American street--and not for the better.