Whether we like them or not, the codes and standards that govern human behavior tend to be good things that benefit most people. It's good, for instance, that most of us stop at red lights and wait in lines at the DMV without going postal. It's good that we all try to speak the same language, multiply using the same math (except for engineers), play music along the same musical scales and build things using the same scales of measurement (again, engineers the exception — and anyone else who finally bought into the metric system).
Standards tend to improve our lot. That is, except when we become complacent with tired old tried-and-true standards after better standards come along. That's why it's good that the National Electrical Code is updated every three years. That's why electrical codes cover everything from wiring a light switch to lighting a swimming pool to terminating fiber-optic cable. The electrical industry alone has NEMA, UL, IEC, ANSI and OSHA codes. These industry codes and standards are living things that morph with technology advances.
In last month's second installment of the home-networking correspondence course, contributing editor Paul Rosenberg talked about the importance of home networking standards: “Because residential networks connect such precise and complicated machines as computers, the networks that connect them must be built to exact standards…. Otherwise, the network will not work.”
Like precise technology, the precise language that makes technology possible is an ever-evolving vehicle that needs its own code to work precisely. Noah Webster, the patriot best known for his dictionary, set the standard for American vocabulary. He thought that all Americans should speak and spell the same way — and not speak and spell just like the English. He added American words that weren't in English dictionaries like “skunk” and “squash” and shortened “musick” to “music” and “colour” to “color.” Some of Webster's spelling revisions never caught on — women to wimmen, for instance — but most simplified and standardized American communication. He was a genius of the common sense.
A modern-day genius of everyman common sense is octogenarian Andy Rooney. (He probably hates being called all those things.) On a recent “60 Minutes,” Rooney took a hard look at consumer electrical products and saw the need for wiring standards to reduce the rat's nest of wires behind desks, etc. Plugs should all be the same size, says Rooney. Lamps should have standards switches. Ten years ago he took issue with the automotive industry, urging standard heights for all car bumpers to reduce unequal accidents between different sized vehicles — such as a Ford Festiva and a Chevy Suburban. The standards never happened, but it's still a great idea.
If you'll indulge me I'd like make a few of my own “Rooneyesque” observations about standards to complete this column: How about auto airbags? They didn't become standard in U.S. cars until Japanese competition forced U.S. carmaker's hands. How about hotel rooms? I've had it with fumbling with gimmicky switches to turn on the hotel-room lamps and playing Russian Roulette with the water-temperature controls in the hotel showers. Sometimes it takes me three days to learn how to turn on the lights — and by then it's time to go home. Why don't hotels standardize room fixtures for sake of convenience — and safety?
Culprits to consumer inconvenience include corporate greed or laziness and a self-indulgent designer's need to complicate a simple product or process. For example, Time Warner, in its rush to provide subscribers with digital cable television, lowered the quality of its service here in Kansas City, while managing to once again raise prices, thanks to deregulation. With little noticeable improvement in resolution, each channel's picture takes three seconds to compose — about 10,000% slower than it used to be. (Alright, I made the 10,000% up — but flipping to a channel used to seem instantaneous; now it looks like a Polaroid's developing.)
Sometimes old time tried-and-true standards are best. For instance, my new $58 microwave oven features an old-style dial rather than a digital push panel. The appliance saves me two steps, a series of annoying beeps and about 500% in time every time I turn it on. I know 500% doesn't sound like a big savings, but the three to four seconds the dial saves me each use adds up over time — time better spent eating than cooking. And if I were a chef in a fancy French restaurant, pushing those buttons hundreds of times daily, I'd save myself from a sure case of carpal tunnel syndrome.
How about you? Which products push your buttons? What procedures waste your time? Where would standards save you time? Send your comments, concerns and complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Send your electrical essays to Mike Harrington, Managing Editor, at 9800 Metcalf Ave. Overland Park, KS 66212.