06 December 2011

Bartleby, the Coffee Maker

I always bring my own coffee to work in a Thermos, so the malfunction of the brand new office coffee machine does not affect me personally. However, as an engineer, I cannot help but notice that some very important principle about product design is missing when a machine that is supposed to do something as simple as making coffee politely declines to do so. "Please call operator. (Report error 399)," it suggests--as if that serves as an acceptable apology for refusing to pour hot water through ground coffee.

Perhaps the next generation of such machines will be so advanced they will simply declare, having been asked to produce a cup of coffee, "I prefer not to (Error 401)."

03 December 2011

The Thrilling Perils of Shaving Like Your Grandfather

Shaving used to be an annoying chore for me. I regarded the task as a dreary necessity, a thrice-weekly loss of three to five minutes of my life that could have been spent far more fruitfully than in Sisyphean torment, eternally condemned to roll back the persistent incursion of facial hair. In fact, the only thing that permitted me to summon the energy to shave at all is that after about two or three days of itchy, uncomfortable beard growth, my own face dependably reminded me that my dislike of beards actually exceeds my dislike of shaving.

About a year or so ago, I discovered the pleasures of "shaving like my grandpa," as one article aptly put it.[1] I spent about a hundred bucks on the accoutrements: a Merkur Model 178 classic safety razor, a Tweezerman badger hair shaving brush (don't settle for the inferior boar hair brush!), a nice-looking wooden shave soap dish, a chrome stand, and of course, some double-edged razors and Colonel Conk shave soap. A hundred dollars might seem like a lot of money, but it's really not when compared to the crappy canned shave soap and high-tech multi-blade disposable razors (more than $25 for eight cartridges) that I used to use. It's true that I was stingy enough to use the disposable cartridges until they were as dull as butter knives, but I would bet that my investment in good equipment has already broken even. And even if it hasn't, it is completely worth the cost.

The real benefit to my new shaving habits is not monetary but psychological. It certainly takes more time to shave than it used to--it has increased to about eight or nine minutes--but somehow it's much more pleasurable. It's no longer a chore. To take a minute to whip up a lather in the bowl; to feel the vigorous caress of badger-hair bristles on the cheek and neck; to pause, lean toward the mirror and then back away, to contemplate, examine, and proceed; and, not least of all, to maintain control while being at every moment thrillingly and perilously close to a momentary lapse of discipline; to risk--nay, to invite--the consequences of diverging one's hand even the slightest amount from a direction precisely orthogonal to the cutting edge, which lapse results in a wound that will bleed off and on for the rest of the day--all of these considerations, plus others I have not even thought of (or are too personal to divulge), have made shaving a private celebration. A dreary duty has become a selfish ritual, an indulgence. For a few minutes, the close, humid fog of dissipating shower steam and a clean, invigorating, soapy scent transport me to another time and place, one in which men wear hats, hold the door open for ladies, and speak quickly, wittily, and sparingly. In essence, I am carried away into a black-and-white movie starring Humphrey Bogart.

To all my male friends out there who are, perhaps by default or inertia, currently using the latest triple-bladed gizmos advertised during football games (or worse, using electric shavers), I certainly recommend rethinking the shaving process and considering some older technology. As motivation, I'll leave off with a link to a video demonstrating that the breathtaking perils of shaving are not limited to bloody slips of the hand. 


1. Brett and Kate McKay, "How to Shave Like Your Grandpa," The Art of Manliness, http://artofmanliness.com/2008/01/04/how-to-shave-like-your-grandpa/.