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My eyes glaze over, etc., contd
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come_to_think
Reading:  Inventing for Fun and Profit, by Jacob Rabinow (San Francisco Press, 1990; OOP, of course).

Recommended by Dan the Red (http://come-to-think.livejournal.com/28784.html#comments), it is indeed a lovely book, and joins on well to The Design of Design.  The author, who accumulated 230 US patents on an astonishing variety of mechanical, electrical, and electronic inventions, confesses that inventing, for him, is part religion & part addiction.  As such, it was far more benign than most religions or addictions.  It gave him orders of magnitude more fun than falls to most humans, it made him a nice living, and it did not deflect him from other pursuits, such as propagating the species.  One of his daughters, we learn, has at least one patent.

Once again, I have trouble following the descriptions, and that may not be all my fault.  In Chapter 5, e.g., he describes an electrostatic clutch in which two polished plates, one of metal and one of metal-backed graphite, were in contact.  He says


When voltage was applied to [i.e., between?] these two surfaces, a very appreciable torque resulted [i.e., was enabled --- he does not mean that the voltage caused a torque, but that it allowed a torque to be exerted by one plate on the other].  At molecular dimensions, even highly polished surfaces exhibit some roughness, so that the voltage gradient...can actually drop to zero between protrusions if there is direct contact; but elsewhere a high gradient is maintained....

It seems to me that if there are direct contacts, they short out the insulating regions, so that the voltage between the plates must be zero everywhere.

There is quite a bit about the wonderful world of Business, which Rabinow saw close up from all angles: as a government employee (Bureau of Standards) serving industry, as an engineer and an executive in private companies, as the founder of a couple of such companies, and as an independent inventor.  Once again, a great deal of foolishness is recorded (some of it the author's), and also some structural defects of the market system that prevent sensible solutions to real problems from being recognized & implemented.  As an ignoramus I appreciate Rabinow's describing The Way Things Actually Work, which may not be as foolish as it seems.  I was particularly chastened by his remarks on the problem of overruns in the cost & completion time of projects, which vexed me when I was a commune member in the '70s and about which I formulated a sour Darwinian theory.  In 1990, in a review of Great Planning Disasters by Peter Hall (1982), I complained,

...there is almost nothing about the question that was most on my mind: how, in deciding among competing proposals for the use of its resources, can an organization, even with clear priorities & the best will in the world, avoid setting up a contest in dishonesty & stupidity?  The people who make the decisions are almost never competent to assess the costs or the benefits; that is the province of experts, who of course have enthusiasms according to their specialties and their careers. Spectacular rewards (sometimes followed by muted & long-delayed humiliations) await those who will lie to the managers or, if that is distasteful, fool themselves first.  I can find only one sentence in the book about this problem, to the effect that one can look at the track record of persons & organizations that are asked for estimates. There is no discussion of the difficulties of doing so.  Even supposing that such information is available..., it must always be hard to take account of it without offending important people inside & outside one's organization....

Rabinow is more genial.  While working at Sprague Electric (whose ubiquitous capacitors --- then called condensers --- those of a certain age will remember), he asked his boss why he never complained about Rabinow's own habitual overruns.  He paraphrases the reply as follows:

When you give me an estimate I know you are optimistic.  If you weren't, you wouldn't be in the business you're in.  I know that it will cost more and take longer to build than you estimate because you estimate that things will work the way you expect [by definition! %^)].  That never happens....  I therefore put in a fudge factor of my own....  If you estimated higher and I allowed it, you would change the scheduling of your project; you would do a bigger thing, whatever it was you were doing.  And it would still run over.  This way you try to keep it low; it comes in for more, but it's as good as can be....


He comments, "This was a brilliant piece of administration.  Every good manager should copy."

One of Rabinow's principles caused me to raise my eyebrows.  He says, sensibly, that when designing a machine to handle objects, one should wherever possible & convenient redesign the objects to be handled by the machine.  However, he extends this principle, without evident caution, from objects to users.  We read:

Every six months the Census Bureau sends out cards to all U.S. wholesalers....  Most of the people who fill out these forms do so by typewriter.  But...they often use a pencil or pen.  To test how people would react to handprint constraints, I redesigned the census form.  We used two circle constraints with a box around them....  The instructions to the users were:  "If you do not type, please write like this," and the ten numerals were shown as examples.  There was no punishment and no rewards,....  Eighty percent of American wholesalers who filled out the form by hand did it correctly.

The employees of the Census Bureau have to fill out a daily worksheet....  I tested the seven-bar constraint on these employees....  Eighty percent of the Census employees did it correctly, again, with no punishment or reward.

We tried another constraint with a mail-order house in Germany....  And, again, 80%...did as requested.

As a result, I formulated another Rabinow law that states that 20% of the world are bastards.  I told this story to [a] Japanese Post Office visitor.  He looked at me very soberly and said:

"In Japan, Mr. Rabinow, if you do not write the zip code in the boxes that we provide, we will not deliver the mail.  There are no bastards in Japan."

As an American, I think that Mr Rabinow, as an American, should have used the word "ornery" instead of "bastards", and might well have judged that 20% is about the right proportion for the protection of our liberties.  It is true that, when a human interacts with a machine, the machine --- even in the computer age --- is bound to be less flexible in its behavior than the human, and so it is the human that will have to do most of the adapting: as Paul Goodman says, machines are canned rituals.  But it is also true that --- especially in the computer age --- it is worth some effort to accommodate the asperities of persons, even those we do not deal with in person.  This is an old issue, going back long before the Industrial Revolution, for it concerns the design & functioning of the oldest machines of all, the ones whose parts are human beings, the ones we call societies.

I also have a quarrel with Rabinow's determination of the resistance between the opposite corners of a cube made of 1-ohm resistors --- not with his answer, but with his argument.  However, since I don't know how to draw diagrams in this place, I will let that be.


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I'm glad you're enjoying the book! I thought you might.

"Bastards" is very much what one would expect Rabinow to have said. "Ornery" would've been a couple of shades too demure. I think his word choice here is 50% that, 38% English not being his first language, and 12% fudge factor. ;-)

Usage questions aside, my main point was that a little of that attitude goes a long way, and that it would have been prudent of him to reassure the reader that he was not issuing a charter for impudent bureaucrats. Perhaps that, also, has something to do with English not being his first language %^). (I am something of an Anglophone exceptionalist.)

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