Stupid Machine Tricks

It’s been a mantra since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution­—machines produce goods and services more cheaply, more efficiently, and of higher quality. They also do things that people don’t want to do. That’s so true that it’s become an article of faith that’s never questioned. Too bad, because it’s not always the case.

How many machines doe it take to fix a sidewalk?
As I was strolling through town a few days ago, I saw four examples of how we’ve become so tied to industrial gear that we’ve made simple tasks expensive, inefficient, and environmentally unsound. The first and second of these involved the use of a riding mower. I take it as a given that no power mower is energy efficient but, in the same way that I think a rancher or plumber might actually have a need for a low-mileage pick-up truck, so too do I think that people who live in the country, grounds crews, and lawn maintenance companies make their jobs much easier by using such machines. I have to say, though, when you use a rider mower in spaces so small that you have to reverse out of them, efficiency bleeds into stupidity.

I saw that. There is a row of three down-market apartment buildings on West Street in Northampton whose frontage is devoted to macadam parking lots. The buildings are separated from each other by strips of land about the width of a desk and a depth of about twenty-five feet. There’s no lawn; not much grows in the shadows. Still, leaves blow into the spaces, which was what the mower was picking up. The space was so narrow and required so many reversals that it took about three times as long as it would have taken with a rake.

Speaking of rakes, it’s a shame about the rake shortage, isn’t it?  Of all the inventions of the late 20th century, leaf blowers may be among the dumbest. They are loud, smoke-belching fuel hogs, but my main beef with them is that they’re very inefficient unless one is seeking to dislodge leaves from bushes, gutters, or garden beds. Here’s what I observed on the Smith campus—grounds crew personnel walking up and down blowing leafs into central piles. First, they could have done all of this with rakes and gotten some aerobic benefit that wouldn’t have made all that noise at 7 in the morning. Second, those piles took a half hour to make but only 10 minutes to rake. Third, another machine—a riding mower with a bag—came by to collect the piles. If you’re going to run the mower/bagger anyhow, why bother with the stupid blowers? Insofar as I can see the main purpose of leaf blowers is to scatter all the mulch that was carefully put down in the spring.

Still, those two projects were practically models of economy compared with a small project on a town road. Crews needed to get into a section of the water lines via an entry point (which we used to call manhole covers). In the old days, this would have meant some burly person with a jackhammer chiseled away the macadam enough so the cover could be prised up. After the job was done, another one or two people would have come by to restore a hot tar sealant to the cover. Not anymore! No! It now requires a mammoth vehicle that’s about the size of a water driller to pulverize the road surface so that one guy can open the cover. The drill takes out about four feet of the road. When the job is done, another truck arrives and several people throw some crushed stone into the hole and place a red cone over it until it can be resurfaced. That, of course, requires a paving machine, and then a steamroller. Good grief! No wonder the average road cost is now a million bucks a mile!

Don’t get me started on how inefficient and overly expensive it was to replace a section of a downtown cracked sidewalk. My dad used to do this with a sledge, 2 x 4 forms, some fresh gravel, Sakrete that he and another guy mixed in a wheelbarrow, and a pair of trowels. Now we’re talking one machine to break the pavement, another with gravel, a small backhoe  to level the gravel, and a cement mixer. They’ve not yet figured out how to replace the trowels. They have figured out how to write huge invoices.

Maybe a good way to restore health to the US economy and rebuild its infrastructure is to stop spending so much money on toys and more on labor. I’m no Luddite—machines can do wonderful things. But they don’t always make sense.   

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