Re: The Pantheon

I feel the need to elaborate a few more practical outcomes of the previously mentioned East / West divide.

The West will see the East’s idea of accepted transience as a sort of bum’s life. In accepting what is instead of striving for what could be, you are in effect making excuses for your laziness and  therefor aren’t a contributing part of society. This is partially true – if we were all 100% happy with simply what is, we would really never invent anything new or solve any problem with the famous “this could be better” inspiration we designers think so often. On the other hand, if we were all 100% strivers (and I think this is more true to our reality now) we would run into each other and counteract a lot of innovation with this silly notion of fame or overwhelming financial success.

The immediate example that comes to mind is patent trolling.

I use the word “silly” which implies my feeling for a thing. I’ve received outraged emails before that I’m biased. Well, yes. I am not a journalist and as such under no such obligation to unbias ‘truth’ (as if such a thing were to exist, anyway). With that said, my bias will often change and occasionally flip to the opposite completely over time.

But I do think it’s silly that someone or a company will have an awesome idea, spend all the money and time and effort to patent and… not do anything after. No attempt to actually make it or implement it. They wait instead for someone else to have the idea and make that awesome thing real, and then sue them for “infringement” walking away with money. It’s just, counter productive to society in favour of personal profit.

Does this make me anti-capitalist? Debatable. I would say in this example it shows that I value  the greater advancement of design (both as a physical and an ideal outcome) over mere personal gain, yes. I think a truly capitalist person would look at this as the ultimate way to make money without having to do anything besides predict future inventions and get there first. If money is the measure of success, then yes, this is a very successful practice.

Full circle: if that’s the West’s true pantheon, I would argue it’s corrupt. Is infamy the same as fame? Depends who you ask. The funny thing – the fickle thing – about fame is it inherently cannot be available to everyone. While everyone can learn to be content, not everyone can make themselves famous. As the number of famous people increases, the disparity between ‘fame’ and ‘non-fame’ lessens. Essentially, we could all say we’re all famous right now, but because everyone is, it’s not special at all. Now, you can re-read that entire paragraph and substitute the word ‘wealth’ for ‘fame’ and it’s the same thing. The pantheon of the West, it seems, is inherently unavailable. That is the point – you could be the person who rises over everyone around you.

Call me socialist if you want, but doesn’t that goal seem pretty messed up?

But it’s not about me, this is about design with me as an author-proxy.

Should design be socialist? And by that I mean, available for everyone? I’d say so. The Eames definitely would say so. Rams, given his economic time, would say so. The ultimate irony is the remnants of their legacy is the exact opposite: their works are inflated and expensive now because someone more recent decided that rarity implied disparity. Obviously I can’t point to Herman Miller as evil, but I do think the Eames would be disappointed if they were alive now.

Full circle #2: the pursuit of money is not evil in itself, but to put it before the greater good of design is selfish in the bad way. If it were not a status symbol thing as the West insists it should be, it would happen less. If there was some compromise in the middle that took the West’s ability to create new and awesome things and the East’s ability to allow it to be nameless and freely available, we’d be better off.

Next week: the Scandinavians do just that.

The West and East Pantheons

I’ve been devouring mythology lately – brought on, in part, by Skyrim’s own fictional lore – and while I’ve always known a lot of these things, I’m just now developing a sense for how they connect. This, I feel, is the important part.

The West’s pantheon (and I say this less in the strict sense of the word but rather the metaphoric) has two parts, as does the East’s. Old and new. I don’t want to distinguish them so bluntly, but we should describe them, at least, as two ends of each spectrum and a chronology of evolution in between.

Now, I should say up front that I don’t claim to fully understand all these things yet. This is not an instructional piece by any means. It is, however, a collection of observations that I’ve found interesting, and some thoughts on how they connect to my life personally. The West and East, it should also be mentioned, aren’t strictly the same as the geographic kind by the same names. If it helps, think of those words as meaning completely different things and used here as mere placeholder variable names instead of actual things. This too will alleviate the mistakes and inaccuracies I will inevitably make.

The West’s newer end is this so-called “American Dream” and it’s one that’s been shaping the rest of the world as we know it. I don’t want to directly associate it with egoism, but there are strong threads tying them together. The goal, typically, is success. Better defined as: a beautiful wife, 2.2 kids and a lovely house with a cherry tree and a white fence. This was the 50’s. We have the same thing now, but it’s more amorphous: now, perhaps, success could be measured in YouTube fame or a car with the bigger engine in it. The outcome effect, typically, is still one of external values. The goal is to make the people around you envious. It’s one of making a name for yourself and being the best there ever was. It’s one of wealth and influence.

The East’s (and this is where you’ll have to correct me, I’m still learning) tends to be more accepting. This will probably more refer to the traditional philosophy of wabi-sabi. Happiness is not in making things better, but learning to fit better into the existing things. As such, fame isn’t really a goal and striving to be ‘better’ leads down a different inherent thought path.

Where the West seeks perfection as ideal, the East seeks acceptance of imperfection as ideal.

What does that mean for design?

Now we enter into a tricky semantics minefield. I don’t want to say that things should be done carelessly, but I do want to stress that sometimes perfection is impossible and we can do better work by not striving for it. All of my works are imperfect. I downright despise half of them, and half of that group I force myself to post and the other half I so selfishly hoard away because at some root level I will always be something of a perfectionist.

Today we were working on a bracket and the ‘elegant’ solution turned out to be the ugly one. There was the option to make it out of one piece of aluminum and bend it all into shape, which I had cleverly designed to actually be possible (it’s amazing how easy it is to design impossible bent shapes) but the option to weld a piece in turned out to be faster, easier and in the end much simpler. Is that, then, the truly elegant one? Is that, then, the more ‘perfect’ one? And so, is imperfection here considered better?

I’d say so. I mean, the simplicity was beautiful; making anything out of one piece of anything else is a feat worth mentioning, but it wasn’t really the best option.

Will I say the East or West schools of thought are better? I simply can’t.

Will I say that the East is becoming really, really interesting to me lately? Definitely.

1963 Chrysler Turbine

It’s a shame the program ended the way it did – a few in museums and the rest destroyed. There was actually a turbine tank in the works from Chrysler and like the car counterpart wasn’t accepted mostly because it was new and different. To be fair, though, while they didn’t sell any turbine cars, they did sell a few turbine M1 tanks.

I don’t think I’ll get into the industrial design of the car itself: it’s pretty era-typical in it’s decadence. It features a circular turbine heat sink motif, but really wasn’t that different from what was on the road at the time.

So. Why a turbine, anyway? Well, Jay Leno and a 60’s educational film has you covered:

(I can’t embed with time markers, so you’ll have to manually skip to 10:14)

It should be noted at this point that Americans seem to say ‘Turbine’ like ‘Turban’ which I hadn’t heard before. We say Turbine acknowledging the ‘e’ at the end: tur-bine.

Basically, there are far less moving parts which means it runs longer without maintenance and has a much longer engine life. It doesn’t require antifreeze and can start without problems in the cold, providing instant heat for passengers. It gets much better fuel economy (the mechanism itself is much more efficient) and you can run it on basically any fuel. Exhaust gases burn much cleaner. No vibrations and negligible oil consumption; won’t stall from over burden. The engine itself is smaller and lighter than comparable internal combustion varieties.

Pretty great, from the sounds of it.

So what went wrong?

It was a combination of things, according to Bob Sheaves, Chrysler Corp. wasn’t doing so well in 1979 and in the bailout had to shut down the Defense contracts, which included the Turbine M1 project. It was public knowledge that the technology was there but has since faded into obscurity. The company had the tool and dies for Turbine car production but given the shaky economic times it was deemed too risky.

I always thought it had to do with the lag – turbines work really well at set RPM and don’t like to vary all that much, making for a delay between when you put your foot down and when you get response from the engine. This, as I’ve learned, wasn’t really an issue by the end of the program. In 1980 they had a seventh generation engine which had a lag of under one second (only a bit longer than piston versions) which was down from the notorious seven seconds seen in the first generations. If you’ve driven anything turbocharged you’ll know that spooling feeling, that delay. This was a stigma that stuck with the cars in the public’s mind.

Since it requires a higher RPM to stay efficient there were concerns with excessive fuel consumption while idling, even with it’s better efficiency. This is interesting, considering it will deliver torque at zero RPM – just starting the engine easily has enough power to push the car. Couldn’t they have just turned off the engine at every available chance?

Exhaust heat was exactly that: hot. Not only dangerous as a public concern but also that the engineering incorporated expensive alloys. I am curious, though, given how much material technology has improved in the past fifty years, if that would still be as much a problem.

The first generations were loud but if you kept watching the Jay Leno video above the noise (albeit more vacuum cleaner sounding than normal) seems reasonable inside the cabin. Again, I wonder how much that could be improved just by using modern materials and technologies.

Cost. Yup. The all defining factor. There might be less parts but each part has to be that much more exotic. Despite the awesome low maintenance of the engines, if something goes it really goes – and that’s costly. Back once more: modern materials? I’m curious and the internet doesn’t seem to have much on the subject.

You can read more here, which is where a lot of the above information comes from (cross referenced, of course).

I suspect there are a lot of really cool technologies that were invented long ago and because of the materials and methodology were impossible / impractical to make so then became forgotten. If I had the money, believe me, I’d make an entire research department that just revisits old tech like this. Alas.

It’s crazy to read about the first Apollo missions. How they managed to do anything with such limited computing power is astounding to me. I’m a new generation, I guess. I can’t long divide on paper because I haven’t needed to since grade five or whenever it was that we learned it.

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