Saturday, December 27, 2014

Please Stop Improving Things

When the Coke machine where I work broke down, I was delighted.

We live in an amazing age of consumer products with new ones entering the marketplace every day. There does not seem to be any new product that cannot be “improved” within a few months.

I recently fixed a friend’s laptop. It had a virus too tenacious for normal software to screen and then eliminate. Normally, cleaning a computer is easy but I had to contend with Windows 8. You know, an improved Windows 7, an improvement of Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows ME, Windows 98, Windows 95, Windows (1.0, 2.0, 2.1, 3.0, 3.1).

When I first worked on a computer, I word processed in an IBM program called DisplayWrite, version 1.0. I enjoyed it because it was simple and straightforward. IBM improved it but by the time DisplayWrite 4 came out, the program was, for me, unusable. IBM improved it so much they killed it.

But what does this have to do with a Coke machine?

When I was a laboratory gopher the summer of my sophomore year in high school, I had a slew of duties at the lab in between getting to do some really exciting projects, one which was for the Apollo Program related to the Moon rocks we were to bring back from the five lunar landings. As they say, “that’s a story for another day.”

 Among my mundane duties was acting as the projectionist for slide shows when graduate students were required to make a presentation. Another one was walking around the earth station’s campus retrieving articles left behind by my absent minded professor boss, Dr. Paul Gast. He was a brilliant scientist but when it rained he’d leave his raincoat in one building, his umbrella in another and his galoshes in a third. My job was to go on a scavenger hunt to find these droppings, and of course, there were more droppings on rainy days.

[Dr. Gast was so absent-minded that he always ate the lunch his wife packed as soon as he arrived at work so he wouldn’t forget to eat at lunch time. I often wonder how he remembered to do that first thing in the morning.]

And then there was the job refilling the Coke machine. One key opened the small compartment on the front of the machine. Just below the mechanism that recorded the coin total was a small metal box usually filled with mostly dimes and nickels. I would take the money and give it to Dr. Gast’s secretary. The compartment was then closed and locked and the entire front of the machine hinged open where I would reload the Cokes. The inside of the machine had a metal conveyor belt that ran all around the cold refrigerator section, which was at the center.
The machine I filled at the lab.

Each belt of the conveyor held a Coke, the glass bottle neck stuck out through metal leaves that resembled a camera lense. After the machine decided you paid the correct amount, it relaxed the leaves so you could manually pull the bottle out. A silver crank lever, prominently centered on the machine would push down, advancing the conveyor belt, moving the next bottle into position, behind a silver door.

The whole idea of the machine was so simple that Coca-Cola could not resist improving. Now, 48 years later, we have the model in our pantry that has broken down. This is the machine with about 5 rows of soda or canned drinks and when you deposit your money you will be treated to a stupendous display of unnecessary machine maneuvers which will take several seconds before you receive your order. First you have to feed money into the machine but woe unto thee if thou selectith your Coke too quickly.

The improved machine

 The computer will not spit product unless it takes a moment to count up what you shoved in and then displays it on the digital readout. If you punch a selection too fast, the machine is too slow and confused to do anything about it. The machine, mind you, has enough electronics, which if rearranged, could perform a lunar docking procedure and bring men back successfully from the Moon. But as assembled and configured here, data entry at too fast a pace just confuses poor HAL.

Apollo 11 Command Capsule
at the Smithsonian

But let’s assume you had a momentary pause of patience, you put the correct amount of money for the purchase down its metal throat, and now like a stick thrown to a dog, the machine hurriedly goes off on a jaunt for your bottle of Coke. It reminds me of when you have a stick or ball and the anxious dog gets so excited he doesn’t know where to go. He follows your hand as you feign a throw in several different directions before releasing the stick or ball.

The machine goes berserk, this plastic cupping holder races up and down the rows, searching for the selection. Then it excitedly brings it proudly back to the tiny side door but not after almost missing the level of the door. It jerks up and down zeroing in on the exact level to equal the door’s opening. The Coke drops with a clank-thud on the floor of a plastic teeter-totter which then angles out, presenting you with your purchase. All in a mechanical expression of “look what I just did—how cool is this?”

I stand in awe of how much energy I just burned to get a Coke in 2014 compared to almost negligible energy when I bought that same Coke in 1967 (Oh, remember, they tried to improve on that Coke in 1985 but then gave up). I realize I just witnessed enough energy being burned to make a Prius owner blush. Moreover, this improved machine made me wait about ten times as long to get my Coke as the Coke 1.0 version.


When the machine broke the last time, the plastic arm sat in frozen animation for about 10 days before people in the mother ship got the message that this particular machine wasn’t burning enough electricity to light up an Iraq village. Sometime during my vacation last week they fixed WALL-E and now we can watch a dazzling mechanical show as we wait for our Coke to  be delivered, making a journey of about 10 feet instead of moving 5 inches in under a half second.

I sure hope they stop improving things.

No comments:

Post a Comment