Monday, July 16, 2012

Air Unapparent

In a New York Times column last week, Richard Thaler had an article about using behavioral science to help governments design programs that people will use. He starts with a basic principle,
If you want to encourage some activity, make it easy.
This will not be a surprise to anyone, but the extent to which circumstances and regulations conspire to produce sub-optimal situations are is pervasive, and pernicious.

For example. The other day, Worldwide was preparing to take the BG and some friends to the neighbourhood pool. We have a couple of floating tubes that we bought in conjunction with a family trip to Myrtle Beach a couple of years ago.  The tubes came with an inflator, which is powered off of what used to be called the car's cigarette lighter.

She had found a device, which looked exactly the same, but it was, in reality, different in two ways: it was battery powered, and it had a connector designed to fit a camp bed purchased before we moved to Cairo in 2005. So it was useless because it lacked 4 D batteries, and because it wouldn't have fit the tube anyway.

Looking around the shed, Worldwide found a handheld bicycle pump with a handy needle attachment for basketballs. Not wanting to disappoint the excited children, she cheerfully began pumping away. After several minutes of action produced no discernible result, she sent the BG upstairs to see if I might have any ideas. I happened to remember the car attachment, and we managed to locate it in the shed, plug it into the car, and to blow up one of the tubes and to send the kids on their way.

Which brings me to today. I've been going to the gym six days a week during my sabbatical, and, as a result, have been feeling a little run down of late. This morning, as I read about the recovery of the American economy, the better angel of my nature convinced me that, even if I skipped the Y, I ought to do something. Remembering that I had planned to go to the library and the post office today, I decided to ride my bike along the Bolin Creek trail, which essentially begins near our house, and ends at the post office. I loaded up my backpack with Gail Collins' William Henry Harrison biography and the collected writings of Hunter S. Thompson in Rolling Stone, and headed to the shed, where I found the tires of my mountain bike soft, after a couple of months of inactivity.

No problem. Faced with similar situations many times in the past, I purchased, several years ago, an air compressor with a rechargeable battery. Because the battery no longer holds a charge for more than a day or two (and I don't need to use it more than once a month at most), I keep the unit plugged in near the grade door in the basement. This, however, may have been why the unit was dead when I tried to use it this morning. I suspect that a power surge from one of the many thunderstorms this month (we lost power at least twice) may have fried the unit. But whatever the reason, it didn't work.

Luckily, we had the bicycle pump. It might not work on a float tube, but surely it was just the thing for a ... bicycle, right? Not exactly. Whether it be poor design, user error or sabotage, I could not get the pump to do its job, and even when I put it under my nose, it didn't seem to be producing much, if any air, which is really the key thing I usually look for in an air pump. So after twenty minutes of futility, I decided to coast down the hill on my soft tires to our local gas station, where, for four quarters, I can use an industrial strength machine to do the job. In fact, because someone had left a little time on the pump, I didn't even need the silver; so the story has a happy ending, I guess, and it did get me a blog post.

But the larger point is this. One of the ways that governments can make our lives easier and better is through the promulgation of standards. This is one of the main reasons for the success of the Internet are the rules for domain names, the ubiquity of html and, to a lesser extent, the utility of USB chargers. Maybe there is a good reason why float tubes no longer have the same valves as bike tires, and why camp beds are different than float tubes. But I don't know what it is, and I have had a hard time on two different occasions trying to make remarkably similar devices work with equipment that purports to get the job done. I know that I could be more vigilant in making sure that I use surge protectors and purchase compatible products, but I also think that the value of sacrificing some choice for the sake of a more interconnected ecosystem is underappreciated, and that government can play a role in its improvement. The market helps, as well, of course (as I write this on my Google account using a Microsoft operating system and post it on the Internet) but monopolies can be problematic too, and sometimes require intervention to protect the consumer. Sometimes, things are not as easy as they ought to be.


  1. I needed a new heel for my shoe, so, I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on 'em. Give me five bees for a quarter, you'd say.

    Now where were we? Oh yeah: the important thing was I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time. They didn't have white onions because of the war. The only thing you could get was those big yellow ones...

  2. Are you making some kind of comparison?

  3. Just a little bit. I enjoyed the post, I just wasn't sure where it was going. I kept waiting for you to circle back to the bit about the onion in your belt.

  4. I guess I wanted to make it about how an imposed framework can make things better overall, even if it limits choice and increases time to market. But then I got to ranting...

  5. What is a blog for if not ranting?

  6. Seriously, don't get me started on Apple's refusal to use standard USB chargers for their iDevices.

  7. You got me thinking about bicycle pumps. If they really don't pump any air, is there any other use for them? Maybe to hit robbers over the head, but beyond that....

  8. I suspect that some pumps work sometimes for some people. They are also a form of insurance against flat tires. You buy them so you won't have to use them.