Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Adding Them All Up

My wife and I recently celebrated our third wedding anniversary with a day of delusion, starting with our own episode of House Hunters. While wandering a craft show at the mall feigning interest in a variety of items we couldn’t afford, we found a flyer for a local Parade of Homes, which was nothing like what the title suggested (an actual parade of homes down the street would have been entertaining) but did allow us to wander through six area houses - three that were actually for sale and three that were serving as demos for the builders - pretending we could afford to buy if we found one to our liking. They all had pros and cons as expected, but the house we liked best wasn’t part of the event, but a modular home we looked at on the way home. It was almost exactly what we would want if we were seriously in the market.

We finished off the fantasy day by eating at a local restaurant we normally wouldn’t patronize because we couldn’t afford it. I had lamb chops, mostly because I don’t recall ever having them. The verdict? Well, now I can say I’ve tried them. Actually they were perfectly fine, but somehow the whole experience was a bit of a letdown. I can’t say why; I have no specific complaints about any particular aspect. It is a very nice place, easily the classiest in town. The service was good, the prices a bit high but not unexpectedly so, and we both ate well. Perhaps I’m just not cut out for fine dining.

As the anniversary approached, it occurred to me that I was reaching another personal milestone; twenty years of marriage, in segments of 14, 3, and 3 years. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Is it something of which to be proud? Are we talking about perseverance, or a learning disorder? The fact that I eventually got it right leads me to flatter myself that it’s the former in my case, but there are a lot of people for whom it seems to be the latter; they never seem to consider the possibility that they’re not the marrying kind. Those people rarely reach a large total of years, either because they can’t stay married to anyone long enough (it’s tough to get there a year or two at a time) or their history eventually makes potential partners leery. Four divorces seems to be the point after which people start to really wonder about someone.

What intrigued me was that I couldn’t recall anyone else ever bringing up that type of statistic, and none of the remarried people to whom I’ve mentioned this had thought about it, which upon further reflection isn’t too surprising. For most people a new relationship brings with it a desire to start as fresh as possible; a running total creates a connection to the past that may not be comfortable. In addition, culturally marriage is treated like a winning streak; it’s the current consecutive number that matters. When someone asks how long you’ve been married they mean to your current spouse; if you gave a total rundown you would be regarded suspiciously. There simply isn’t a context in which total married years is meaningful to anyone.

The long unbroken strings will always get the accolades, which is fine given their continued rarity, with increased divorce offsetting increased life spans. Still, the general dismissal of reaching big numbers in smaller chunks is something that may be worth reconsidering as more people who have done it recall its unique aspects. Flying non-stop is generally preferred, but having to change planes, while usually inconvenient and sometimes worse, doesn’t make the trip less worthwhile.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Some Things Just Can't Break

I've been pondering the recent Toyota woes, but once again had to be motivated by someone else to actually type something up. In this case it was a column by Matt DeLorenzo in the latest issue of Road and Track, in which he cites both Toyota's growth and a slight flaw in the Deming quality control philosophy Toyota follows.

He believed that it was better to establish an acceptable level of quality variation rather than waste resources on trying to reach zero-defect levels. While this concept works well when manufacturers are building hundreds of thousands of vehicles, it works less well when those numbers reach into the millions. Even if a manufacturer hits 99.9-percent effectiveness, that 0.1 percent translates into 1 car per thousand. Multiply that by millions and pretty soon it adds up to a large number.

This isn't really a flaw, just an acceptance of reality. No manufacturing process is perfect. Matt is quite right to note that quality gets harder to maintain at mass-production levels; ask anyone who has to cook for large numbers of people. He also makes a valid point that given today's increased demands and pressures perhaps trying for perfection is worth considering. But he leaves out something I believe is important, which is the need for different standards for different parts.

The reasons Toyota's troubles have been such a big deal are which component is failing and the nature of that failure. Accepting a small failure rate for power window motors or air conditioning compressors is fine. But throttle control is mission-critical. Not only should the goal be zero failures, but more importantly, given the ultimate inability to achieve that goal, allowances for failure need to be actively designed into the system to deal with as many potential consequences as possible In this case, the throttle needs to be designed to not stick open no matter what.

I also can't help but notice that this is part of an electronic throttle system, which is something relatively new to cars, especially at the large-volume lower-priced portion of the market. Companies test parts obsessively, but it's tough to duplicate the ravages of time and varying conditions, and difficult to spot impending trouble with inscrutable electronics. We may start seeing new and unexpected failures as the more recent automotive innovations begin to age.

Matt's mention of schadenfreude at other car companies over Toyota's troubles also interested me. I would hope there's also a a feeling of "there but for the grace of God go I." After all, most parts suppliers, like the company that made those throttle controls, make parts for many companies. There's always the chance that one of them could get that next batch of statistical inevitability.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Relax and Watch the Show

If you struggled through my previous post (I apologize for not being able to give you back that portion of your life) you probably noticed, as I did, that my contemplation of church attendance was limited to childhood, which is probably insufficient. It has been 30 years since then, and while my churchgoing frequency as an adult classifies me somewhere between (as described by Williams and Ree) a "C and E Christian" (Christmas and Easter) and a "sprinkle Christian" (when sprinkled with water, rice, or dirt), my consideration of philosophical and religious matters has increased considerably. As it should; any such subject considered settled by childhood’s end probably wasn’t decided by the child.

I would describe my relationship with churchgoing as an adult as largely purpose-driven; I rarely go unless I have a reason. Most frequently the reason is domestic tranquility; someone in my family wants to go, so I tag along. My daughter also had to attend as part of her confirmation classes (I figured I’d get her the background and let her decide what to do with it). I’ve been married in a church twice, and there has been the usual assortment of baptisms, funerals, and other people’s weddings. A church building is a nice facility for such ceremonies, even if you don’t care much about the theology that built it.

How I behave depends on the context. If it’s a service with which I’m familiar I tend to treat it as performance art with audience participation and not pay that much attention, although I do keep an ear open during the sermon for a good anecdote or the occasional thoughtful nugget to ponder. Ceremonies I see less frequently (most recently a Catholic wedding) I treat as a learning experience. I didn’t actually attend the most novel and entertaining one I’ve seen. When my brother got married to a Korean Buddhist they had two ceremonies; a Buddhist one in Korea and a Lutheran one here. We saw a tape of the Buddhist ceremony, which of course was in Korean. My brother confessed that he didn’t know what was going on any more than we did; he just bowed when he was told, which is actually a pretty good rehearsal for marriage.

My wife’s statement that we should start going to church is itself a bit intriguing. So often I hear that phrase uttered in a tone similar to someone discussing getting a prostate exam or cleaning gutters. The feeling seems to be irritation and guilt at not fulfilling a disagreeable obligation rather than pleasure, which I guess isn’t too surprising; I suppose if they considered it enjoyable they wouldn’t have stopped. Still, I can’t help but wonder why they want to start again. I imagine it’s that ingrained belief that church attendance is necessary for salvation, even if you get nothing from it. Fortunately I usually manage to derive some benefit, even if it isn't what the church intends.