Ten years ago I wrote a humorous article titled “Useful Dead Technologies” about technologies that are no longer used that I sorely miss, like furnaces that still worked when the power went out, or things made of durable steel instead of today's fragile and short-lived plastics.
A couple of the things on the list have improved since then. Shoelaces, for instance. Ten years ago I wrote:
“Shoelaces have been designed for hundreds of years to keep your shoes on your feet. No longer. Today's shoelaces are designed with one purpose in mind – to annoy you.
“What are they making shoelaces out of now? Nylon! Good old frictionless nylon ‘because of its strength’. One wonders if today's engineers even need a college degree, as it seems that some things, like today's shoelaces, were designed by ‘special ed’ students.
“Because now, not only are they made of a friction-free material, they're round rather than flat, further eroding their ability to stay tied.”
Since then, they've been making them of both cotton and nylon woven together, with all the friction of cotton and the strength of nylon.
And they're flat again.
Another item was knobs on car radios. At the beginning of the century they had buttons for tuning and volume, so you couldn't turn it up or down without taking your eyes off the road. It was dangerous. Thankfully, they've gone back to knobs, even though they're digital rather than potentiometers.
The radio in my car now really annoys me, because the morons who designed it stupidly put the volume knob right above the tuning knob rather than the time-tested volume on the left side of the radio and tuning on the right. Often when I try to adjust the volume, I'll grab the wrong knob.
I also miss the way presets worked back in the analog age. They were simple to operate: to set a preset to a station, you tuned the radio to that station, pulled out on the button, and pushed it back in. These days you simply cannot tune a station to a preset while you're driving, at least unless you're a suicidal maniac. What's worse, every radio has a different way of tuning a preset button, and many are impossible to figure out without an owner's manual.
The worst thing about that radio is I can't change the time on the clock. The car came with a manual, but they put three different models of radio in those cars, and the manual lists all of them. But each of the three says to push a button that simply isn't on the radio!
And I just discovered by watching a commercial where they were trying to sell new cars – the morons took the knobs away again, and now it's even worse than the buttons. Now they have touch screens. There's no way possible to change the station or volume without taking your eyes off the road!
I'm all for hiring the handicapped, but I wish they wouldn't hire idiots to be engineers. Touch screens for automobile controls are brain-dead stupid.
The following items haven't all become extinct in the last decade, I simply didn't think of them when I wrote the first article. Here are some more.
Thermostats that don't need batteries
In the twentieth century, thermostats were simple yet clever devices: a mercury switch on the end of two dissimilar metals. The metal would bend one way or the other depending on temperature. When the metal reached a certain shape, the mercury would roll down the inside of the switch and close the circuit.
Shortly before the turn of the century they came out with programmable thermostats, and they were indeed superior despite the one disadvantage of needing a battery; perhaps it could be done, but I don't see how you could have a programmable thermostat without one. But they could be set to turn themselves down at bedtime, then warm the house back up before you arose in the morning. More comfort, lower heating costs.
Fast forward to a couple of years ago when the landlord had a new furnace installed in my house. With the new furnace came a new thermostat. The old thermostat was programmable, the new one isn't.
But it's digital and still needs batteries.
At first I thought they had to be digital because mercury has been shown to be toxic, but on second thought you could simply have a copper ball replacing the mercury. Such a switch would be easy to engineer.
Folks, digital thermostats have been in use for a couple of decades now. Why aren't new homes designed to have a low voltage DC supply to thermostats so batteries wouldn't be needed?
When GUIs first came out they were a great improvement over the old CLIs. Easy to use and hard to screw up. Click on a menu heading and the menu drops down. Nothing happened until you clicked somewhere. If you clicked on an empty space the menu closed. Click on a different menu and that menu opened.
So some moron had the bright idea that if you had the file menu open and simply mouse over the edit menu, File closes and Edit opens.
This incredibly stupid change drives me nuts, especially in Firefox and GIMP. I have nested bookmarks in Firefox, and after clicking a folder I have to slowly and carefully slide the cursor over, making sure the cursor never goes over a different folder, as the folder I want will close and the one I don't opens.
GIMP drives me nuts, too, especially trying to select the “rectangle select” from the “selection” menu, as the “filters” menu will open when I’m trying to navigate to “rectangle select”.
Folks, losing sticky menus was an incredibly stupid, productivity killing thing. BRING THEM BACK!
Stuff used to have cabinets made of wood. The better stuff had rounded corners, because they were safer.
Every large CRT TV I ever owned was rectangular, before 2002 when I bought a forty two inch Sony Trinitron. It takes up a huge amount of floor space, and you can't set anything on it because it's stupidly shaped. My DVD and VCR and converter box should be able to sit on it, but nothing can.
The rectangular shape is far from extinct, but more and more things seem to be eschewing it.
Useful user manuals
Some would criticize me for this one, saying user manuals always sucked, and they would have a valid point. When I was young, user manuals were complete – and completely unreadable to many if not most people. I had trouble making heads or tails out of more than one, and I could read at a post-doctoral level at age twelve.
DOS 6.2 came in a box with two floppies and a thick user manual. Windows 95 came with a very thin manual. I don’t remember what XP's was like, but the manual for this old Acer laptop was really thin.
Then my phone. Honestly, come on, now. A smart phone is a complex, sophisticated piece of equipment but its user manual is three by five inches and a dozen pages?
The worst was the “Seagate Personal Cloud”, which is really a network hard drive. Tiny pamphlet with pictures and few words. Look, folks, pictures are good for illustration but lousy for information. I spent twenty useless minutes studying the thing, then finally just plugged it in and turned it on. It didn't even need a manual!
I did find a detailed, very good manual for it online. Its printed manual should have added its URL.
Automobile hoods and trunks that didn't need props
Before the 1970s, to open a hood you opened the hood latch, and springs opened the hood and held it open. It was an ingenious design where it didn't spring open right away, you lifted it a little first. Trunks worked the same way. It didn’t matter if it was a Volkswagen, a little Plymouth Valiant, or a big luxury Cadillac.
Then the Arab oil embargo hit in 1974 and the price of gasoline doubled in a matter of months. People started replacing their American gas guzzlers with compact Japanese cars that had far better mileage.
The more weight a vehicle carries, the worse its mileage is. Part of the raising of gas mileage was replacing the heavy steel with a lighter material when possible, and those springs and the rest of the steel assembly for them were jettisoned, replaced with that stupid hood prop.
Soon American auto makers started following suit. I don't know if big sedans and luxury cars ever went to hood props, but I know my '67 Mustang had no hood prop, nor did my '74 LeMans. My '76 Vega did, though, as did every other car I owned afterwards until I bought an '02 Concorde. Rather than springs or a hood prop, it had lightweight hydraulic struts for both the front and back.
It was far better than a hood prop, but not as good as the spring mechanism. Those springs lasted forever, but the struts fail in a few years and you wind up propping up your hood and trunk with a stick. Either that or shell out for new ones.
All cars and trucks used to have bumpers, and there was a slot on each end of each bumper. The slots were for flat tires. If you had a flat, you got the jack out of the car, hooked it into the slot, and jacked it up with its handle like you were pumping water out of a hand operated well pump. This was easy on the back, as you were standing up. It took very little effort to jack up the vehicle.
Now they all have scissors jacks, and I hate them. You have to get down on your hands and knees to slide it under the car, and jack it up by cranking it. It always takes skin off of your knuckles and takes twice the effort and three times the time.
Yes, the new jacks take up far less space, but the trade-offs simply weren't worth it.
I miss the full sized spares, too. If you had a flat, you changed the tire, got the flat tire fixed, and simply put that one in the trunk instead of having to change the “doughnut” to put your real tire on.
At least we have fix-a-flat now.
May 5, 2016