27 June 2017

WHY NOTHING REALLY WORKS


How come we can get a man on the moon but a sink always leaks?

Plumbers will tell you that the simple task of replacing a sink trap is one of the most trying jobs they do. After twenty years our sink started to leak. How difficult could that be to mend? Six attempts later, two trips to the D-I-Y store and five hours work, and I say “very”. Water has a way of getting through every connection, new part, washer and layer of putty.

The plastic parts are cheap and they're simple to assemble. They are the same parts that professional plumbers use, you can't upgrade to a product with better performance. Their cheapness encourages the amateur to do the job himself, but there’s a knack to it and in the end, you have to employ someone who knows what he’s doing.

It’s in the nature of DIY that you do most jobs only once, so that however much you learn in the course of your life, you never know what you're doing. In situations like this I’m reminded of Hilaire Belloc’s rhyme:
Lord Finchley tried to mend the electric light
Himself. It struck him dead, and serve him right.
It is the duty of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan.
If the parts are cheap and the expert has the knack, there's no incentive to the manufacturer to design them better or make them easier to use. David Pye, one time professor of furniture at the RCA, and one of the most original thinkers on design, had an explanation. He said that functionalism was nonsense. “Things simply are not 'fit for their purpose',” he said. “At one time, a flake of flint was fit for the purpose of surgery; and stainless steel is not fit for the purpose now. Everything we design and make is an improvisation, a lash-up, something inept and provisional.”

In other words, nothing really works.