Monday, September 24, 2007

Meditations on Quality

I was meditating this morning on the nature of quality. You might wonder, which “quality,” like of course there are different kinds of quality. The idea of quality sought by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance comes to mind, however I want to talk about quality as it relates to bicycles. Directly, in fact, to the bicycle itself. What is quality? What makes a bicycle “quality?” Goodness, or lasting, or attractiveness?

Think in terms of efficiency: What is the most efficient way to construct a bike? That is what gives it Qualityy. How can a bike be made best? You have to define “best,” I guess.

Best can only be understood in terms of Worst. They don’t exist without each other, in fact, it is so obvious that we can all have immediate understanding of “Worst” just by thinking of something, anything, that we think is “worst.” Death, pain, etc.

So, getting back to bicycles, how do you build a bicycle which is best? Consider the options:

1. Simple quality. First, lets look at the cheapest stuff. That should be easy to find: you just look around, get a feel for prices and what they are and where, then gravitate toward the lowest numbers, regardless of any other considerations. That will give you a good benchmark. “Cheapest.” I don’t need to direct you there.

Then, find all the stuff that breaks of has broken, or wore out right away...that will give you an idea of “worst.” You may have to do some research on this. Talk to a bicycle shop, read reviews, ask friends, actually get your hands on some. Lets say, if you’re looking for new tires, talk to someone who has some tires. Take your brain along, because that person might have some hidden agenda, or really doesn’t know anything ABOUT tires, and you need to be able to sense that.

And cheapest is easy to find, you know, we all know where to get it. It’s the fixed. lowest common denominator. You pick it up in the alley. Or you buy it from a huge warehouse-like outlet, over the internet, etc.

But you can also make it yourself. You can repair things, for example. Now, there’s a connection between cheapest and worst, remember. So when you buy something cheapest that goes right on toward breaking, don’t waste your time using the wrong kind of glue to put it together because it’s made out of plastic!

It gets even more complex from there, of course, but you can see, we need to be looking for something else. How about staying with the cheap stuff, and just trying to find the “best” of it? Well, that sounds good. I think it is attributed to Keith Bontrager: “Cheap, Light, Strong; pick two.”

So, Cheap + Light ∫ Strong. That’s the plastic handlebar that broke when you jumped off the loading dock. Don’t Do It. Worst.

Cheap + Strong ∫ Light. That could be OK. At least you won’t have mechanical failures all the time, and the increased weight will keep your speed down. Here, though, you might start making tactical decisions, like, “I don’t want my spokes breaking all the time during my transcontinental bicycle tour.” So you get 48-spoke wheels. Or, “my kid needs a bike, and then he’s going to need another one in eighteen months, and then a bigger one eighteen months after that.” (So you just don’t ever get him a bike, loser) Really, what you do is you get used bikes, or trade-ins, or you can even get the cheapest one and have it improved. Best Cheap.

Light + Strong ∫ Cheap. Here you have to start talking politics: Why isn’t it possible for all of us to have the best? Because it’s not cheap. And that’s a sin in an industrial , capitalist society where wage-slavery forces a person to cheapness and society accepts it because it also allows a person to put on an air of owning a “lot”. Never mind, either, that what you get is just more, deeper shit. Where cheapness is glorified (Clearance Sales, Walmart), camoflaged (Marketing), mass-produced (China). You are brainwashed into being cheap because it’s an easy way to fit in, never mind that you just build a world of garbage for yourself. But I diverge; let me refer you to Noam Chomsky, or Adam Smith, or Karl Marx for more on that...

2. Complex Quality. How you combine simple qualities to construct “best” is what defines complex quality. And the complexity increases disproportionately to the complexity of the system, due to combinatoriality. Let’s look at individual qualities, and just call them 1, 2, 3, and 4. Cominatoriality states that the more elements you add to a group, the more ways there are to combine that number. This includes permutations, thus:
1 2 3 4
1 3 2 4
1 4 2 3
2 3 4 1

you can see, there are more combinations than numbers. And let’s not forget the way the individual qualities AFFECT each other, thus:

But how does this effect bicyles?
You have a huge number of ways to build a bicycle, due to sizes, measurements, component availability, technology and materials. and you combine all these things to make a bicycle efficient for its intended use.

It’s easy to build a bicycle; they have existed for a couple of centuries (at least). You find two round things, and attach them together and roll around on the resultant contraption. Simple. And good for what? Nothing. 1x1=1, 1+1=2. Big deal.
So, you have to add steering. Now you can control it, actually lift your feet up off the ground and coast. Wow, amazing. How does that do that? 1x3=3, 1+3=4, 2+3=5, 2x3=6, 2x3+1=7, 2x2x2=8, etc.

It’s one of those things that seems obvious, once you’ve done it. I suppose someone in Moses’ time, or some monk in medieval Italy might have thought it up, but technology was pretty limited then, and really what is two wagon wheels and some logs, leather thongs, etc. goo for? Still nothing, honey, we need to keep the wagon; we just can’t afford to keep up with Baron von Drais up the hill. Maybe that would be a sports car to them back then, but you know most peasants couldn’t afford a sports car, industry wasn’t geared up for cheap production, and even if it were, you were too busy busting your hump for the king, or the church, or the nut in the manor house. (eventually these nuts learned how to produce cheap stuff, and then sell it to the people at a profit, effectively keeping them in wage slavery, but there again, see the Op Eds, or Mark Twain, or Black Panthers, or something, for more on that...).

Now, (at least for a hundred years or so) we have technology, and that makes the bicycle possible. Steel builds light, durable wheels (even more so thanks to Dunlop) which going back to that time marks the end of bicycle’s stone age and the beginning of the actual sport, and alternate materials development (aluminum, plastics, composites) has moved forward constantly since then.

Those are the elements we have to work with: Rolling, steering, technology. And Zoom!
In respect to the amazing efficiency of the machine, it is actually easy to build a Strong, Cheap, Light bicycle even today. We call it a fixed gear. It’s the one huge step beyond simple quality to complex quality which can be grasped by everyone. Purists even today, in 2004, say that it’s the best sort of bicycle, possibly the one sort of bicycle if you only had one bike and it were the end of the world and you could have any bike you wanted but you weren’t ever going to have another.

That sound kind of extreme, but think about it. How many parts does it have? Wheels (2), frame, fork, drivetrain, and technology. That’s 6 elements, AT LEAST.
So, you have an old bike you got at Goodwill, and you strip all the junk off of it, air up the tires, tighten everything down and you can ride that thing forever. It won’t ever be permananently disabled unless you crash hard. You have to do repairs, and maintenance and stuff, but it’s cheap, right? And (pretty) Strong and (reasonably) Light.

So your cheapness scores on all accounts, and-voila-you’re a cyclist!
It’s quite easy to get beyond that, though. If you want the thing to handle well, you look for one the right size; it will go faster, too, and is less likely to trash you body and give you the hoopdies. You know what a hoopdy bike is, right? An old ten speed kid’s bike with handlebars turned up and the seat as low as it gets. These are simple efficiency issues, not rocket science (yet).

The rocket science starts when technology takes us beyond that cheapness level, and yes that means it’s going to be more expensive (you might normally just buy cheap, but if you also buy LESS, you might eventually be able to afford BETTER. Strange how that works).

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