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Monday, June 13, 2005

BIO degradeable

For most of the non-petroleum-based alternatives proposed for our fossil fuel free future we will somehow have to get over a bunch of "humps". What the "hump" means in every case I can't really say, but I have tended to obsession over a few of the "mini-humps" I see in our immediate path.

At the top on my list, I place the issue of (for a lack of a better term) built-in obsolescence. BIO occurs for just about every modern gizmo, but it varies widely depending on how much the consumer tolerates it. In my opinion, BIO consists of two marketing strategies:
  1. Newer technologies obsoleting older technologies
  2. Fast wear and tear leading to frequent repurchases
The two strategies happen to occupy orthogonal niches in corporate policy. Companies typically want at least one policy to hold for their products, otherwise they won't have the steady income stream caused by repeat customers. Other companies that try to compete on these factors -- for example, by providing better reliability on ordinary clothes-pins, usually have to sacrifice profit.

Hard-disk drives, for all intents and purposes, occupy the first BIO niche. These devices truly demonstrate high dependability and would last indefinitely if technology advances suddenly stopped. Makers of disk drives realize that the human reaction to disk crashes -- :( -- forces them to invest more intellectual and monetary capital on reliable systems, on which they will hopefully recap on more advanced models and those same customers making new purchases. In other words, disk drives can never occupy the second niche, without a groundswell of objection accompanying it.

A bunch of crap occupies the second BIO niche. I may sound a bit tin-hatty here, but I believe we can make ordinary shoes last a lot longer than they do in practice, but won't any time soon due to the forces of capitalism and a bit of collusion within the industry. Companies simply don't have the incentive to sell only one pair over a person's adult lifetime. (On a trivial note, ever notice how headphones and ear-buds happen to last on average less than a year? Usually the cord hardens and breaks or the padding hardens and cracks. Even the stuff you pay a premium for? Because acoustics has no technology glide path like computer hardware does.)

I really believe that we have to get over the BIO attitude for many of our alternative energy strategies. We really should get in a good habit of making and demanding quality products that occupy neither of the BIO niches. In other words, we need to enter the paradigm of quality superseding profitability; a likely dismal prospect unless consumers drive this.

The reason I mention this at all arises from my constant battles with the bicycle. Lucky that I have the patience of a saint, because the BIO of today's bicycle parts will predictably drive the run-of-the-mill consumer nuts if we ever enter a human-power-friendly transportation environment. Case in point, I have had two inner tubes break at the valve stem on my road bike within the span of a week. Now, I can handle changing tires or applying a patch without getting exasperated, but I fear that most people would never get over the hump if they learned of the day-to-day tribulations and long-term prospects of bicycle commuting. Having commuted by bicycle for over 25 years, I can say that the median priced bicycle can frequently act like a shoe that spontaneously starts on fire. And it doesn't necessarily get any better if you pay more. The quality is only as good as the weakest link in the chain; and when your bike chain goes through the rain/snow cycle a few times, you begin to realize that bicycles occupy the second BIO niche.

So what can we do to get bicycles into the first niche of BIO? I don't really know and I fear that history shows some resistance to change. After all, the design of the conventional road bike has not changed much over the last century.

I just have a sense that something will force the bicycle into the dependability regime of the disk drive. And I say: Profits for inner tube manufacturers be damned.


Professor Blogger Bill said...

The economic system of the United States and increasingly of the rest of the world depends on BIO in the forms you mention as well as in the imposition of fashion and trends in order to ensure retail sales growth. Our economy would implode and our culture would collapse if all products were built and priced to last forever or to be repaired indefinitely. Cheap energy alone has made this possible.

I agree that we must find a way to embrace these principles as we seek a rational post oil response but I really can't imagine it happening.

10:20 PM  
Professor Blogger WHT said...

Concisely put. I agree.

11:08 PM  
Professor Anonymous Anonymous said...

The BIO aspect of our world today is vast, and it becomes very apparent when you go "antique shopping". This weekend I went to a local antique swap meet. I decided to buy a sewing machine. I walked around, and inspected all the machines I could find. About 3/4 ths of machines were electric. I ended up getting a 1936, hand powered sewing machine, which as long as they make thread, will last.
Hydrocarbons expanded electrical generation by several factors, and today, everything from tools, appilances, printing, etc, etc, is based upon the availability of electricty. When you shop an antique fair, it is clear that this electrical, hydrocarbon revalution transformed the quality of goods after 1940's. Things were produced to last, like my sewing machine, and they were selfsustainable. Tools same thing. Printing, same thing. Music,,, same thing. Then, things were no longer selfsustainable, and were not made very well. If the power producers do not succed in establishing a sustainable level of production, life will have to revert back to man powered tools, and production, including cooking. This includes oil lamps. And that transformation is not going to be driven by the economic drive of finding a "new way", or a new energy source, but by necessity and survival. Not fun, but will happen. Modern Refigeration is so nice. I will miss it a lot.

10:06 AM  
Professor Blogger Patrick said...

yeah, good point.

it would seem we need to choose a certain point with each technology and call it quits. we can declare "it is good enough." computers for example are at this point. they are now fast and relatively cheap.

as energy descent hastens we will see that current technology is indeed good enough.

10:57 AM  
Professor Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the many BIO moments:

A braun hand chopper where the plastic cracked. Same with a Kitchenaid sausage griding attachment for the mixmaster.

My personal Fav - a heart rate monitor. So I use it. And it's telling me my bicycle to grain grinding mill setup I'm burning 500+ cals an hour. Man, that's great. Cept the 'normal' range is 200-300 cals for a cyclist. Hrmmmm. I finally call the company. They admit that the heart rate monitor watch has a divide by 2 error - they didn't divide by 2. I ask 'So, what's the process to send it back to you' and am told that 'because it is a software error they would not take the product back'.

As for bikes....the best advice I've seen is just buy the cheap damn steel frame bike with a replaceable crank. Personally I wear the teeth out on cranks or I crack the frame from my peddling. Personally I'd be farther ahead to loose 10 lbs myself than worry about shaving 10 lbs from the bike - and most of us are in that same situation.

12:23 AM  
Professor Blogger WHT said...

How about this one? Bicycle cyclometers. Occasionally they go nuts and show wildly fluctuating average speeds.

6:15 PM  

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