Rendered Fat Content


Marcel Duchamp: Fountain (1917)
photograph by Alfred Stieglitz at 291 art gallery following the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibit.

"How terribly innovative!"

The First General Rule of Innovation states that the more convenience any innovation delivers, the more difficult that innovation must be to fix should it break. Innovations always eventually break and when they break, they exhibit enantiodromia, the tenacious tendency for things to turn into their opposite. Great convenience becomes even greater inconvenience. Years of steadfast duty erases in an instant, replaced by dread and frustration. Once revered, twice feared and forever thereafter reviled, for the user sees behind the curtain and begins to understand that the innovation only amounted to some well-disguised sleight of hand trick and not really a marvel of modern technology at all. Underneath, it's generally nothing more sophisticated than two sticks rubbing together, and often much, much less. I present our shower faucet as Exhibit A in my argument.

Of all innovations, innovative plumbing tends to fail most spectacularly.
Losing a shower faucet results in losing water to the whole house because unless one turns off the main, the shower won't turn off until returning the futuristic shower faucet to full function again. These failures tend to happen at least convenient times, on those rare occasions when one's dance card was full and never on a dull Tuesday morning when nothing special's cooking. They prefer weekends, late Sunday evenings strongly preferred, but holidays work as do days of holy obligation when plumbers and supply store owners have all flown off to Rome or something. In short, the homeowner's on his own with this one and already having displayed his own personal understanding of the technology involved, and personally quite proud of having so deftly engaged it by turning off the main. From there, the fix, if there is to be one, could take that homeowner anywhere, though a side trip through parts Hell seems destined.

I fortunately have The Muse living with me. She sits on her throne unperturbed, for she has access to The Internet and knows how to use it to her advantage. She quickly determines the manufacturer and even parts numbers before declaring that we need to purchase a "cartridge." I'd reported over recent weeks a persistent drip from that shower head and noticed increasing difficulty turning it on and off, as if some gears or something weren't quite meshing, but I held only the most primitive understanding of what might be causing the problem. That faucet seemed like magic to me and I felt no compelling need to see how the magician was so successfully fooling me. Why spoil a performance? The part itself showed clear evidence of design, never a promising feature. It allowed me, the naive user, to control both volume and temperature with a single handle, though I tended to always leave it set just where I always wanted it set. I could have started hot then switched to cold if I wanted. The Second General Rule of innovation states that an innovation should be capable of mostly producing what no user in the history of the world has ever wanted and that most of its function should be focused upon producing those eternally unwanted results. Those unwanted features produce greater complexity and tend to fail more reliably than the wanted features, but those failures tend to cascade to effect the wanted features, too. When fixing, there can be no halfway. The unwanted features must be fixed to regain use of even the least of the wanted ones; our faucet, no exception.

The internet runs on rumor. The very best information about any failing innovation tends to come as hints from smug technicians. The manufactures inevitably demonstrate that they have no clue how their innovation actually operates and their instructions trend toward pride in pronouncing complicated names, which they breeze through without explaining or demonstrating what those named parts do. This results, of course, in tenaciously ambiguous instructions. Two Independent observers couldn't help but draw two different conclusions. I suppose that the venerable Moen company launched a project featuring the most skilled shower faucet designers and engineers in the business. These are not really the people one should trust with producing innovations, but The Third General Rule of Innovation states that one must always employ the over-qualified to properly baffle the ultimate end user. Nobody, not even plumbers, carry the deep down dark understanding of the physics of the problem being solved to ever resolve any difficulty emerging in actual use, and those overqualified designers and engineers find themselves unable to speak with anything but marbles in their mouths. The more they explain, the more they tend to confuse situations.

We found the replacement cartridge because The Muse understands how to use The Home Despot App, which locates by aisle and bay number, anything carried by each store. The cartridge puller, though, was a different matter. That, a clerk explained, was either improperly entered into the inventory system or sits lost on some higher shelf. This information sparked a frenzied quarter hour spent scanning labels on higher shelves, the result of which yielded a sincere "Sorry" from the clerk. He was clearly well-practiced. All this while the water main's turned off on the hottest day of the year so far. We found a cartridge puller at the venerable Ranch Supply, though it turned out to a) not work and b) not really be necessary to complete the repair. It. too, seemed an innovation and came without instructions, as if its use might somehow be obvious. Of course, it wasn't. The repair seemed deceptively simple. I, myself, while The Muse took a phone call, disassembled that faucet four times, each time reassembling it according to my understanding of the instructions, which yielded four slightly different configurations, each of which produced precisely the same resolution, which was to reproduce the originating problem. The cartridge itself was a little black box of a thing, oozing cutting edge innovation, by which I mean it could have been used for almost anything. No intent seemed present on any observable surface. Had I not known better, I might have installed it in a toaster or a toilet, no hint to its underlying purpose showed in its surface.

I, only five hours in, finally excused myself to get away from the source of the problem, though I suspected that the source was following me along. I ran a couple of errands and almost managed to feel as though I was experiencing no problem, and had it not been for the wilting bleed hearts and fuchsias, I might have retained that state of bliss. I returned and ate my lunch, thinking that even irresolution might be better tolerated on a full stomach. The Muse, finally off her call, asked if I'd appreciate her assistance. I by then was three levels into considering the broader philosophical aspects of the problem, hoping that metaphysics might at least do no harm, so I welcomed her intrusion. Much bumping and scraping emanated from that bathroom and after a fairly short time, I heard her stomping down two flights of stairs to turn on the main again. She later reported that she'd apparently fixed the innovation, though she had no idea how she'd done it. I had, of course, forgotten The Fourth General Rule of Innovation, which clearly states that should you manage to fix it, you'll never know precisely how you did it. The fixes tend to be no less magical than the innovation itself, probably because the best and brightest designed it.

I am considering notifying the venerable Moen company that together, The Muse and me, managed to fix their innovation faucet in under six hours, which might well be world class time. Further, we did it without once managing to stab or scald ourselves, something the designers might want to reconsider when configuring newer models. We ended up with only one tool we'll never use, the cartridge puller which didn't work, but The Ranch Supply will gladly accept that as a return. I can now return to that state of unconsciousness true innovation encourages and, over time, blissfully forget whatever I witnessed when peeking into that black box. Next time it breaks, I'll experience authentic Tabula Rasa again and enter the repair with a genuine beginner's mind. How terribly, terribly innovative!

©2021 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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