Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On Caffeine, Cycles, And Complexity

While my blurb over there to the right cites my crippling addiction to coffee, it's not often that my sickness makes its way over here to the meat of the page. However, this recent addition to the test kitchen here at The Cycle has me pondering:
That, dear readers, is a coffee cup which (thanks to the little spinner thing in the bottom driven by a motor and a couple batteries in the base) actually stirs your coffee for you at the push of a button. Yes, you heard that right. And if you order today, you get a second Ronco Self-Stirring Mug FREE! Just send $19.95 plus shipping and handling to...

Sorry, got off track there. I'm happy to say that we did not actually PURCHASE this device for the test kitchen -- dear spouse/Genius of All Things Graphically Designed got it as work-schwag. And while I'm usually a sucker for all things gadget-y and coffee-related, this one leaves me as cold as an iced latte. Here's why:
  • Was stirring a cup of coffee that big of a challenge in the first place? I mean, stick something in the cup (spoon, stick, pinky) and swirl it around. Task accomplished.
  • In exchange for the magic of self-stirring, I get one more thing in my house that needs batteries. Awesome.
  • Thanks to the batteries and the motor, this thing has to be hand-washed, which -- if the other hand-wash-only items in the test kitchen are any indication -- means it will get used once and sit dirty in the sink for several weeks until someone gets annoyed enough to wash it.

The two people who come here for bike-related ranting have probably dozed off by now, but I do actually have a bikey point to make with all this. I see this slightly-silly coffee indulgence device as a metaphor for some of the more annoying tendencies of the bike business these days. The cheap and easy target, of course, is electronic shifting (which I have never used, but hey, when has that stopped me from spouting off?)

The supposed perks of electronic shifting include:
  • No more cables to stretch, break, or get gunked up.
  • Improved ergonomics, since you can stick a shift button just about anywhere. 
  • Quicker and easier shifts since the button is easier to reach and doesn't require you to push against the derailleur springs.
  • Uh, what else? Anybody?

To the first point -- I'll grant that the mechanical cable system has its drawbacks. Still, a good cable will work through all its stretch in the first few shifts. Tweak that once with the barrel adjuster and you're good for years. The ergonomic possibilities are interesting, only insofar as they would address my clamp diameter rant. Quicker shifting? Red herring. Your fancy electronic system still has to move a mechanical derailleur that has to move a chain across cogs, so how much quicker can it be? And when I'm too tired to push a mechanical shifter with my finger, well, it's time for me to pull over and take a nap.

In exchange for these snazzy features, you get the added complexity of an electrical system overlaid on the mechanical one... and if electrical systems were 100% foolproof, pal Steve K. would be out of a job. Plus, just like the coffee cup, you get one more thing in your house that needs a battery, and one more battery that can fail on you, leaving you with either a) unstirred coffee, or b) a singlespeed-by-default. If my coffee cup fails, I can stick my finger in there and get the job done. Not so sure with an electronic shifter.

I'm not so Luddite as to suggest that all advances in shifting technology are stupid and -- like stirring coffee -- you can get by with your finger or a stick (I'll leave finger/stick shifting to Grant Petersen). I like indexing, for example. And cogs/chains shaped to help shifts. But at what point does a convenience become an inconvenience? When does the system get too complex for its own good? If my mechanical shifter fails, I can get it going again with some basic knowledge and a couple cheap parts. If my electronic shifter failed, it would probably languish in the garage for a few weeks (like a hand-wash coffee cup) until I got annoyed and took it to a factory-trained technician. And where's the enjoyment in that?


Lindsey said...

"OMG" I won one of those things at a networking event - although yours looks nicer. Lordy.

Scott Loveless said...

Add this to the "Campy goes to 11!" column. More solutions in need of a problem.

I have a problem in need of a solution, and I have the answer for the folks who are capable of manufacturing the solution. Hydraulic brakes for any brake lever you want to use. Put the master cylinder anywhere on the bike. Run a regular brake cable from your regular levers to the master cylinder. Have a couple of attachment points for levers with different amounts of cable pull. Why hasn't Problem Solvers started selling this?

Pondero said...

Loved the post! Yes, I hope everyone will draw the line where they want it. Put me in the friction shifter-on-the-down tube camp. Like stirring, I find it a delightful experience.

Jason T. Nunemaker said...

Scott -- Although I don't want to mess with hydraulics on my bikes, I can see the need. Wonder if the old Magura HS66 drop-bar levers (now vaporware, unfortunately) would work with modern hydraulic discs? Of course, that would require Magura to start making 'em again.

I have to think that with the UCI approving disc brakes for 'cross, somebody's going to come out with a drop-bar hydraulic lever (or your idea of a remote, cable-activated master cylinder for the STI crowd) sooner or later. Of course, I've predicted MANY things that didn't come to pass...

SteveKurt said...

some blogger said "and if electrical systems were 100% foolproof, pal Steve K. would be out of a job."

Not entirely true! While my job duties have changed over the years, there are no end of the ways that things can go wrong. Most of these involve humans, to tell the truth.

Anyway... I don't think electronics themselves are the issue. The bigger issues are perceived complexity, reliability, and need for maintenance. Nobody complains about the good old days of soup cans and string because our wired phones are incredibly reliable! Not many folks miss the days of carburators because ECU's in our cars have been very reliable and allow the reduction of emissions (and who misses the days of clogged needle valves and floats that start to sink, etc?).

'Tronic shifting has the potential to be less complex than some of the brifters that I've seen. The biggest issue might be the battery, which could be replaced (google the phrase "energy harvesting"). The next issue could be the mechanical switches in the shifters (could be replaced by hall cells, which are becoming very standard in the world of big earthmoving equipment).

So, I'd say that it's very possible that 'tronic shifting will be like aluminum and carbon bike frames. Lots of folks saying that it's the work of the devil and we'll all be killed by it, but we may just fall in love and forget that we ever had any misgivings (like indexed shifting??)

as always...

Steve "soup cans 'n string" Kurt
somewhere in central Illinois