The Maintenance Of Everyday Things

The manual for my cordless jug tells me I must switch off the power lever before lifting it from its cradle. It doesn’t tell me why. When I lift it off, the lever actually returns itself to zero automatically. What might happen if I do it “wrong”, how bad is it, and how likely? Some engineer knows somewhere.

When Aunt Magda comes to visit and decides to make tea, will she perform this step? Highly unlikely. I guess I’m supposed to tell everyone who uses the jug, or request they read the manual. Heaven forbid someone buys it second-hand without the manual, or just doesn’t read it. I’ve lifted it without switching the level off once or twice; if something terrible happened I didn’t notice. Maybe missiles were launched in China.

I have no information to go on for how important this is, and it’s a theme I see everywhere. Use and maintenance information in the official literature is often overly strict and thorough – seemingly designed to remove all liability and responsibility from the maker, not to mention sometimes wrong or applying to some subtly different product.

We have a problem as a society with not explaining why, from maths teachers to superstition. This is just one symptom of that problem.

Yet these things sorround us, the only real solution being to own less things.

One can ask an expert, but experts in a field feel incredibly surprised that anything works at all. The expert’s PC/car/valve radio collection requires constant tinkering to avert a disaster that somehow rarely happens to people who don’t know it can happen.

The one who truly knows a thing is cursed deeply with the power not just to fix problems but also to prevent them. Our possessions are a cup that slowly fills with trouble – and the more you understand it, the more transparent the cup. “My cup overflowed, can you fix it?” one may ask the expert. The expert glances constantly at his own cup: It has liquid in it, and must be emptied. How ignorant the masses are to the expert. How paranoid the expert, to the masses.

Naturally a bed bug expert tells us to check for bed bugs around the house once a week. He sees bed bugs all the time. A door-knocker from a security company tells me my house’s safety is worth $20/wk, she constantly hears about break-ins. I’m certain there are hundreds of things I should be checking and maintaining every week around my house. Life is a risk/benefit analysis and everyone’s shouting about their own thing’s risk being high (though it’s totally safe, if you do these three easy steps daily and these other two weekly).

In fact the expert frequently becomes so embroiled in the fragility of his domain that he overcompensates. Constantly cleaning his lens even though it takes a crazy amount of dirt to have any visible effect on image quality. Buying expensive cables even though a coathangar will do.

So again we are left with uncertainty and a longer list for use and maintenance than we care to carry out. Maybe we wouldn’t have bought the product if we’d known how much care it would take. Often there’s some expensive industrial version that’s simpler, yet somehow better, more reliable. You pay for what you get I guess. But I wish I knew what I was getting sometimes.

Everything has its extra tasks. Unplug your charger – not just your device – after using it or it wastes power. Install the latest updates or you’ll be in danger. Turn the taps off carefully because that water knock can damage the pipes. Don’t turn those CFL bulbs off if you’ll be back in a couple of minutes because turning them on and off quickly can damage them (at least LED bulbs are coming to save us there).

The solution du jour is for some startup to  look at those annoyances with Product A, and offer you Product B: An ostensibly time-saving device with even more complexity and even more points of failure.

Products like the Juicero or the June or whatever nonsense are complexity presented as fake simplicity. Too many dependencies to last. Products that are really designed for life – SpeedQueen, MagiMix – have simplicity and reliability at all levels.

Though actually I bought a MagiMix and the pulse button was faulty on arrival. Maybe we should go back to sticks and rocks.

The Nokia N9 Alarm Clock

I want to talk about the Nokia N9 alarm clock application because it’s a really nice example of thoughtful, functional design – and because it’s only on the N9, so a lot of people won’t have seen it. There are more important things in life than getting excited about an alarm clock app, but its nice when simple things are done well.

I don’t know how many of these ideas are borrowed from previous apps (the N9 is contemporary with the iPhone 4S), but either way it’s implemented exceptionally well.

Continue reading