Stephen Karlson (shkarlson) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
Stephen Karlson

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I've long been a fan of Henry Petroski, with a recent review of The Book on the Bookshelf and a much-delayed (I found promises of a review as early as June 2005) review of Pushing the Limits, and I read a number of his other books long before I started Cold Spring Shops. Now comes Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design, and an enthusiastic Book Review No. 17. Turn to page 4.
[The engineer] pointed out the primary purpose of most things is to perform a function, and because the goals of aesthetics, user friendliness, and doing a job effectively can be in conflict, economics often becomes the referee.
Indeed. Go to page 10.
Some engineers even define the creative aspect of engineering as "design under constraint," to emphasize that what engineers do is always tied to the reality of the world and of the budget.
Minimize wx subject to y = f(x), forsooth.  Now go to page 13.
Choices must be made among the conditions that satisfy the constraints.
The rest is commentary. Page 27.
Robert Frost once said that he would "as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down." Designing without constraint would be like playing baseball without fences or foul lines. Designing without choice would be like negotiating a maze with no alternative routes. Designing without compromise would be like having your cake and eating it too. Designing without fault is impossible. The result would not be of this world.
Incentives matter: the disposable paper cup is a substantial public health improvement on the communal mug, even in a Soviet juice dispenser where it's kulturny to rinse the mug before you put it back; but it was the prospect of profit that lead to the Dixie Cup.

Institutions matter: sport-utility headlights blind U.S. motorists because in the absence of a specific prohibition on high-mounted headlights, the design is permissible, but in France the absence of a specific permission for high-mounted headlights means there are none. Good stuff, well-written. Read and understand, particularly if you dream of the perfectibility of human institutions.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)
Tags: economics, technology

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