Thursday Throughput: Polio Eradication Edition

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Michael Siegel

Michael Siegel is an astronomer living in Pennsylvania. He is on Twitter, blogs at his own site, and has written a novel.

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  1. Avatar Oscar Gordon
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    ThTh5: I’m not a fan of regulation, but one I could support is a requirement for any company bringing a new product to market, be it a kitchen widget, a kids toy, or some massive industrial machinery, needs to provide to the public a disposal plan that could be achieved using the state of the art. The plan might be, “Dump it into a landfill”, or “park it in the desert”, but a smart company would explain, in detail, how it could be broken down and recycled at the end of life of the product.

    Consumers have very little visibility regarding just how recyclable a given product is, beyond the stupid little icon on some plastics. I may not really care how to break down and recycle parts of, say, a hose nozzle, but maybe I would, and it would be nice to know what can and can not be recycled.Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to Oscar Gordon
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      My husband, who as I’ve mentioned before is in waste management and is also no fan of regulation, believes that a lot of waste could be avoided if companies were encouraged by force of law to make things that were repairable over the course of a reasonable lifespan instead of designed to break and be replaced. A LOT of the waste he processes is things like household appliances and such, and the versions from the 40’s and 50’s often still work (people replace them for energy efficiency or appearance) while the newer ones are junk after only a few years. Companies obviously do this by design to be able to cheapen up the stuff they sell and also ensure we have to buy another one, but it wasn’t always that way.Report

      • fillyjonk fillyjonk in reply to Kristin Devine
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        Your husband is right. It is infuriating how easily stuff – even stuff that doesn’t get hard use – breaks. I had the water heater in my house replaced in 2007, the plumber who did it commented it had been installed in 1983, so it was more than 20 years old. That water heater, the 2007 model? Lasted just over 10 years. My air conditioning unit was over 20 years old when replaced and the guy who did it warned me I would not get that long a life out of the replacement.

        My fridge is almost 20 years old and I look nervously at it some times but I also know if I bought a new fridge now it probably wouldn’t last that long.

        Surely it’s more conservationist to make stuff right the first time so people only have to buy one every 25 years instead of four? Even with the “energy star” improvements and stuff?

        Related: this is also why I try to make some of my own clothes; I have dresses I made that are more than 20 years old and as long as I am careful in laundering them they will last that long, not so with something from the Kohl’s or somewhereReport

        • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to fillyjonk
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          YES! I mean, even just the environmental toll of building and shipping this stuff (and all the parts that go IN this stuff) has to be substantial. And unlike a lot of legislation that seems unenforceable, it seems POSSIBLE that a clever lawmaker could draft some reasonable legislation that encouraged making products with longer lives.

          I suspect the problem is the juxtaposition of the words clever and lawmaker.Report

      • Avatar Michael Siegel in reply to Kristin Devine
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        Oh, God. I could go on about this for a while. We moved into a house that had most of its 1987 appliances still intact. The 80’s oven works like a dream, unlike the two ovens we had to replace in the old house. The fridge and HVAC were on their last legs. But the water heater they replaced in 2015, after 28 years, died after five.

        I have been told, but can not confirm, that one reason for this is energy efficiency. It requires components to be built with tinier wiring which breaks easier. But maybe someone with more expertise can weigh in on whether that’s a load of dingo’s kidneys.Report

        • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Michael Siegel
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          says:

          Cheap wiring could be part of the problem, but there are a whole host of issues that can come up; gearing that is made of plastic, lighter gauge sheet metal for housing, thinner or less insulation, etc. And it is usually a combination of all the above that makes the “cheapness” of the product. Both cost-wise and quality-wise.

          As someone raised to fix things such as appliances or cars, what infuriates me is the inability to constructively take something apart. Far too much of the assembly process is snap-together and that does not lend itself to being repairable.

          Then again, my wife tends to be insanely hard on things, so I have that to fight also.Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Aaron David
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            Modern design principle #1: All appliances are a computer board with specialized peripherals.

            When my appliances fail, it is almost invariably the computer board. I make the repair person show me the board, and have friends who do the same. When we put our notes together over dinner once, we had all had to replace appliances because a big electrolytic capacitor in the 5-volt DC power supply failed. In a power supply with multiple big electrolytics, you expect a failure after seven or eight years.

            The manufacturers know this. It’s why they all quit manufacturing a particular board after five years, so the inventory is exhausted after seven, and when the failures start happening frequently the only option is to replace the whole appliance. I would like to see the manufacturers required to put the computer board spec, including firmware, in escrow with the provision that if the manufacturer stopped producing the board the spec was released into the public domain.

            If the specs were available and I started sending out e-mails this morning, by next week I could probably have a group of retirees with the necessary knowledge/skills, and seed capital, to start a little business producing such boards.Report

            • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Michael Cain
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              says:

              Side note… Why do LED light bulbs made with LEDs that are good for a minimum of 25,000 hours fail much sooner than that? No one knows how to build a DC power supply that fits in a light bulb form factor that will last anywhere close to 25,000 hours.Report

            • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Michael Cain
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              Well, I would be one to buy such a board, but I am not one of many. Part of this is due to people wanting the latest features and newest conveniences. Some of which are useful in a few cases. For example, I have an electric toothbrush, my dentist recommends it. But, it has Bluetooth! Now, I don’t need or care about that in the slightest, but if you have little kids, and you want to check on how much or how often they are brushing, it is not a bad idea. But, it is another point of failure.

              All of that to say that there are people who actively want things like Bluetooth in their appliances, for whatever reason, and introducing those items does make the obsolescence of older items important for innovation. Think anti-lock brakes in a car. Or GUI vs. DOS systems. Some of that innovation seems pointless or frivolous, but each step gets us farther along a road, a road that could end in driverless cars. My point is that there are, as you in particular know, a lot of technological dead ends, and they are only dead ends due to timing, not cost or efficiency.

              I am actually reading a pretty good book that covers a lot of this ground right now, Why We Drive by Mathew Crawford.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Aaron David
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                says:

                I got hearing aids three weeks ago. They have Bluetooth and are paired to my phone. The clinician who fitted them thought that I would love the app that lets me fine-tune all sorts of operating parameters. I haven’t bothered with that (other than to check the rechargeable battery levels), but the Bluetooth headset function has quickly become my preferred way to use the phone.

                I must say about the hearing aids that it’s astounding what can be done with a billion operations per second per ear of digital signal processing.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Oscar Gordon
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      says:

      Couple of converging points here:

      Durability: Things lasted longer back in the day because they were over-engineered to hell and gone. That stand mixer your mom had, that was your grandma’s, the motor on that could probably loosen the lug nuts on your car, and plastics back then were crappy, brittle plastics, or far too ductile to be useful, so it was all metal. You could use it as a boat anchor, it weighed so much. If it was built like that today, you’d probably be looking at a vastly more expensive stand mixer.

      Part of the affordability equation is lower cost parts. And part is what Michael gets at below, planned obsolescence of repair parts. Relatedly, last year, my fridge compressor quit. Fridge was just about 5 years old. I went online to see about getting it fixed, and lo and behold, my warranty for that model just got a generous 5 year extension! Seems that compressor was failing a little too quick, and the company had to do something.

      As to Michael’s point, I wonder how long before we have benchtop board printers? Something that could print out the board tracing and place the components… oh, wait. Michael, I agree, once a company decides to stop producing a part, they should either be obligated to make the design spec public domain, or license it to 3rd party manufacturers (yes, more than one, competition is a good thing, right?). We really need to stop letting IP law be all about control, and more about the right to profit. If you decline to profit, you decline the IP protection.

      Which get’s to Aaron’s point, that things are not user serviceable, often times legally enforced, if not technically so. Seems to be a thing that runs counter to our vaunted ‘Can Do!’ and DIY/individualist creed we as a nation like to project.

      Finally, back to recycling and life span, I often look at the manufacturer warranty as an indication of how long I can expect things to last. For most things, I will double or triple the warranty period as when I can expect serious failures to start happening. The more I pay for something, and the more positive the reviews are for a brand & it’s historic durability, the higher the scaling factor, but 2x-3x is a good basis. If my fridge has a 5 year warranty, is it worth it to me to replace the thing in 10-15 years for the given price point? Likewise, if I buy a Blu-Ray player at Wal-Mart, and it has a 90 day warranty, I’m betting it’ll become useless in less than a year.

      As for recycling, my proposal has less to do with durability (although expected EOL is a good item to include in the public disclosure; if your fridge is supposed to last 20 years and it starts failing at 10 for most owners…) and more to do with companies having a reason to think about what happens to their product when it’s done. Ideally, a manufacturer would care a lot more about how to deal with the waste they are putting out into the world beyond their manufacturing process, but forcing that would be a lot more involved and probably significantly increase the price of most items (not that it’s a bad thing, necessarily…), but I’d be content with consumers at least being able to get an idea as to what kind of impact such a thing will have in the future. I mean, the company that made it might not be around when your item is EOL, but that public record of how to dispose of something would. Someday we’ll hopefully have NanoForges that can be set next to an old landfill and we could come back in a few years to find neatly stacked metal ingots and plastic pellets, but until that day…Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        The durability exception, of course, is cars. Even the contemporary equivalent of the traditional short-lived “econobox” is likely to last 20 years. Lots of that, directly and indirectly, is due to the rise of microprocessors. Directly in the form of ECUs that simply don’t let the driver do the things most harmful to the engine and transmission. Indirectly in the form of things like the computer-controlled welding that makes unibody construction consistently excellent.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain
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          says:

          Yes.Report

        • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Michael Cain
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          says:

          Over the years there have been various schemes to remove “older” cars from our road system, often for an aesthetic reason more than anything. Because you are right, at this point the manufacturing of durable goods is at such a uniformly high level that we see the automobile as something other than pure transportation. But, as we have ever-increasing pollution controls, safety systems, fuel management, and such, we have an increased desire to remove the unsightly older vehicles, the dented and scratched, from our eyes. They just look and feel unsafe and dirty.

          In other words, cars are built to last longer than minor systems are deemed appropriate. It used to be taken as a given that a car was good for around 100k miles and at that point, it was time for a new one, or at least a new engine and a major rebuild. But that is no longer the case with even the most rudimentary maintenance. But, people want things such as lane control, anti-lock brakes, Bluetooth connectivity and so on. And this goes for other rapidly developing objects, such as cell phones or computers. A very good friend has Macs going back decades, and while they still work and there are zero physical issues with them, they don’t have the ability to run much of the modern software that we take for granted at this point. So, that begs the question of what is the correct level of build quality for the modern world?Report

  2. Avatar Kristin Devine
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    says:

    Thanks for sharing my piece!! I really appreciate it! Obvs not appropriate for this site but it’s important and I hope at least a couple people take the time to read it – I promise you’ll learn something. 🙂Report

  3. Avatar Chip Daniels
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    says:

    ” Unfortunately, our efforts to bring down the virus’s last redoubts has been frustrated by war, religion and bad faith actions…”

    Sounds familiar.Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    ThTh3: I am somewhat upset about the coverage I initially saw about the re-infection. “MAN GETS COVID TWICE!” was the general theme of the Headlines.

    It was down in the story that you got to “it was an exceptionally mild case to the point where it was asymptomatic”. Well, jeez. That’s the goal for us all, ain’t it?Report

  5. Avatar North
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    says:

    ThTh1 If the eradication of smallpox was physical it’d be a shining cathedral to humanism and science be unparalleled in human history past or present. May polio share smallpox’s fate, and soon.

    ThTh5 agreed. There just is no free lunch for energy. Nuclear could be one of the better options if we sorted out the regulatory questions, modernized the designs and came to an agreement on the waste. My understanding is that reprocessing can enormously reduce the amount of waste that is produced. Carter outlawed reprocessing because it can create plutonium but I don’t see why we couldn’t have a number of designated and tightly controlled reprocessing plants.Report

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