Wednesday 07 Dec 2016

Streamlining the World
Sjef Frenken

"You drive a Honda Civic, right?" asked Jack as we sat down for our usual Bayshore Shopping Center working man's

I said I did: "A 2004 model I bought in December of 2003. A fine machine; 144,000 kilometers on it and it's still in excellent shape."

"No need for the commercial," said Jack, "I'm not in the market for a car."

I said I wasn't selling, just explaining. "But why did you ask?"

Jack said "Have you seen the new Civic?"

I said "I pay little attention to cars these days, as long as they don't get in the way of my driving."

"Well," said Jack, "they've really gone to town on the streamlining. Are you sure you haven't noticed?"

I reaffirmed that I hadn't. "Besides, I remember someone once pointing out that to really appreciate a car's streamlining, you had to think of it travelling on its back. So much for streamlining!"

"You're missing the point," said Jack.

I said "So set me straight."

Jack said "By sloping the windows more, Honda's designers probably thought the new Civic would have less wind-resistance, and therefore get better gas mileage."

I said "So, what's wrong with that?"

Jack said "Do you remember the Pacer?"

I said I didn't.

Jack said "American Motors built it in the late seventies. It was small and round-looking and it had lots of glass."

I said I thought I remembered after all.

"The car had several problems - one being that it didn't sell very well; another that it had too much glass.

I said "What's wrong with that?"

Jack said "It depends on how the glass is angled. If it's vertical, no problem as far as the sun is concerned, but the closer the glass gets to horizontal, the more sunlight it catches, the more it heats up the interior, the more power you need to work the air conditioner. In winter, it doesn't matter whether the glass is slanted or not; the more glass you have to greater the heat loss, the more power you waste on the heater. So one way or the other, glass is a drain on your power."

I said "So..."

Jack said "I wonder whether the increased economy in the streamlining of the new Civic is equal or greater than the loss of economy due to the increased surface area and slant of the front and rear windows."

I said "And this is keeping you up at nights, is it?"

Jack said "No, but it does make you wonder whether there is such a thing as real progress. I mean without any regress along the way."

I said "Like Newton's third law or Barry Commoner's fourth law."

Jack said "I know Newton's action-reaction law, but who is this Commoner, and what business does he have making laws?"

I explained: "Barry Commoner is an American biologist and ecologist. He set out four laws relating to ecology. I'm not sure I have the first three in the right order, but they are, roughly: Mother Nature knows best, everything is connected, and everything has to go somewhere. The fourth one -- the one that I remember most clearly is 'There's no such thing as a free lunch'. The way I see it, any time we make what we perceive as a positive change to nature, it also entails a negative consequence. We may make the world more complex, but not better overall. We may make things a lot better for some individuals, but we make it a little worse for everyone else."

"So you're saying there's no progress in Medicine, in Science, what have you...?"

I said "Not without a commensurate regressive effect along the way."

"Cheese!" said Jack. "That's one hell of a negative attitude."

I said that I'd prefer to think of it as a realistic one.

Jack said "I have to catch a bus into town. Maybe we can pick up on this topic next time."

I said that was fine with me. "In the meantime, think of the negative aspect of the progress that has made disposable plastic plates, spoons, knives and forks, and paper napkins possible."

Jack said "You want to save them?"

I guess it's easier to preach than to practice. We dumped our utensils into the big garbage bin.

I hoped at least they would be recycled.

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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