20 February 2016

The spider and its saints

A cellar spider picked its way cautiously up the wall, testing each foothold. With eight legs, it’s no wonder the testing took a while. Every now and then the skinny little spider stopped and touched the tip of its abdomen to the wall as it anchored its silken lifeline. The movement looked like a ritual, some kind of benediction, as if the spider had paused to pray to the patron saint of wall climbers, or maybe travellers, or just to St Francis who I’m sure loved cellar spiders as much as any other animal, although you don’t hear about that from the stories that focus on the fluffy animals and little birds. Those saint-marketers knew what they were doing. Who would pray to a saint who loved animals that most people fear?

On the other hand, St Francis did apparently have a fondness for human-eating wolves (so the legend goes), and who wouldn't fear those? Remarkably, too, the saint-marketers decided to recognise a patron saint of spiders, so maybe the little spider's arse-bending benediction was directed to St Felix? More implausible events happen all the time.

This spider was a male, which might have explained his wandering. I could tell he was a male by his long, roughly cylindrical abdomen and the shape of the front of his body: I couldn’t see well enough to make out the detail, but I knew that shape at the front would have been his swollen pedipalps, drawn up close to his head.

I watched the spider’s shadow as the little animal made its slow way up and across the wall. He was thin and long and stringy, but the shadow looked even thinner and longer and stringier — and distorted, too. It looked like the sort of shadow that appears in horror films, except the film version’s invariably enormous and accompanied by screaming.

I like these spiders, not just because we share similar physiques, and they're one of the few I don't instinctively recoil from (jumping spiders are the other exception). Even though I appreciate all spiders, even though I find them fascinating, and even though I know a reasonable amount about them and will seek them out because I consider them ..., well ..., awesome, I still get a mild fright if I encounter one close and unexpectedly. I have no fear of handling cellar spiders or jumping spiders (although I prefer not to disturb them), but to handle any other kind of spider is probably more than I could manage.

I think this fear is (mostly) learned[1], though, and it's learned when you're very young. That's why, when three small friends visited a few days ago and wanted to know what the spider was that was lying under the hammock next door, I went over and picked it up and put it on the palm of my hand and showed it to them without showing any trace of fear or squeamishness.

It helped that I knew the spider had been paralysed and abandoned by a mason wasp, and I explained this to my small friends, but they seemed unimpressed by the thought that the spider had been destined to be eaten alive by a mason wasp grub. Still, I hope they picked up on the way I picked up the spider, and maybe if they'd begun to learn the too-common fear of spiders, seeing what I'd done might have helped them unlearn it a little. I hope so.

[Update: I've replaced the first photograph with one that looks less similar to the second.]

1. For another interesting discussion about whether fear of spiders is innate, inherited, or learned, see: Buddle, C. (2014, May 8). Explainer: why are we afraid of spiders? Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/explainer-why-are-we-afraid-of-spiders-26405

Photos: Another male cellar spider, photographed a few days later. It's possible it could be the same one, but, if so, he'd undertaken an impressive journey through the house, with only limited opportunities to negotiate a closed door. Maybe he had help from his saint.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

12 February 2016

Designer disasters

Ever since the first upright ape sharpened a stick to spear another animal, humans have been designing things. You'd think after all these millennia we'd get it right — and the photographs of this beautiful guitar show that we often do — but after encountering some egregious examples of bad design recently, I've begun to wonder how much we've really learned.

Take the flowing soap I'm currently using, for example. One would reasonably assume this had been through a rigorous process of development that included evaluation by testing panels. Surely, someone at some stage would have squeezed a blob of this soap onto the palm of their hand, looked at the colour — somewhere between beige and bleached yellow — and said, 'Ooh, yuk. This looks like pus.'

Apparently not. The soap's still on sale, so I suppose enough people don't mind washing their hands with pus. More probably, like me, they didn't know it looked like pus until they got it home, because the container's opaque: another example of bad — or possibly wilfully devious — design.

Another example: I bought some laundry pegs and, as usual, chose the cheapest. The first time I used one, I squeezed it between thumb and forefinger to pin a sock to the line and it instantly shot like a melon pip from my fingers and rocketed across the verandah into the paddock. The peg was lined with small ridges, but instead of running across the grip, they ran along it. Instead of increasing friction, they reduced it. That's like designing running shoes with a tread comprising longitudinal grooves — try running on a slippery surface in a shoe with a tread like that.

Surely someone must have tried using one of those pegs?

Perhaps the profit on laundry pegs is so low the manufacturer couldn't justify paying a competent designer and certainly couldn't entertain adequate product testing.

  'Just design me something that opens and closes and can hold a sock on a line,' the manufacturer says.

The designer goes away and returns ten minutes later with a CAD diagram that shows two short lengths of plastic joined with a spring. At least he's thought to put a few semi-circular notches in the jaws to hold socks more securely on the line.

But no one produces a prototype — doing that would cost extra. No one tries pegging socks on a line with the first batch of pegs, because the manufacturer doesn't want to know about any problems. That would require costly retooling in addition to the expense of redesigning (although surely ten minutes of trainee designer time can't be that expensive).

So, the stupidly-designed pegs go into production, and by the time the complaints come in — if they ever do, because who would bother complaining about a few cheap laundry pegs? —the production run has finished and the manufacturer's shifted to some other product. Soles for running shoes, perhaps — no doubt patterned with longitudinal grooves?

How do these incompetent designs arise? Perhaps the designer comes from a culture where people dry laundry in some other way than pinning it on a line — tossing it into a dryer, for example, or spreading it on riverbank rocks in the baking sun, or simply draping it over a balcony railing? Perhaps he grew up in a household where pinning wet socks on a line was exclusively work for women, so he'd never in his life had a peg shoot twenty feet from his fingers?

Other reasons abound, but one that seems important is simply that much good design must be learned. It's not innate; it relies heavily on the experience of predecessors, and even if careful thinking can compensate for knowledge that hasn't yet been learned, thinking has two major shortcomings: sometimes you overlook crucially important things, and sometimes you just get it wrong. (Both are possible, even likely, in this blog post.)

That's why relying on a single designer seems risky. That's one reason why a group of ordinary mortals can sometimes provide a better answer than a genius. The genius might come up with a dozen great ideas; the crowd of fifty might only come up with thirteen, but that additional idea might be the one that makes the difference — the one that realises this soap looks like pus, or that positioning the ridges longitudinally on a laundry peg will sooner or later see you sued because someone's retina was detached by one of those speeding pegs.

1, 2. Although this post focuses on bad design, it's easy to find innumerable examples of wonderful design. This gorgeous guitar was handmade by Christchurch (NZ) luthier Nick Oliver. 
3. Update: Added at Dylan's request via Zhoen. The photograph distorts the headstock a bit, but it's the only photograph I have that shows it, and the guitar's in Christchurch — a long way from me.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor