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Letter to the Editor: Complex things

I have been hard at work getting my sister-in-law’s 1933 Ford Flathead up and running. It had been sitting for years with a frozen motor. At the same time I have been working on my new to me 2000 BMW Z3. The contrast is stunning.  

The Flathead is dead simple. Everything is barebones. I rewired the car in less than a day. There are a few places that it is hard to work because the V8 is sort of jammed into the frame but it takes no special tools to work on the thing. Regular wrenches are all you need.

The 2000 BMW Z3 is an old car by today’s standards but it takes a ton of special tools to even change a wheel bearing. The electrics are beyond mortal man. A computer runs the whole show and the motor is covered up in sensors. You need fingers with 10 joints and they need to be about 12 inches long to try and get to places you need to reach. 

The Flathead does not have air conditioning. It does not even have a heater. The BMW Z3 has all the creature comforts including heated seats. The Flathead has mechanical brakes with no power assist. And the steering is all human arm strength.

A child of about five is strong enough to operate the Z. Everything in that BMW is powered, including the convertible top.

So what are we to make of these two approaches. My guess is that in 100 years from now there will be Flatheads still running.  All the BMW Z3s will be gone to the junk yard because no one will have the electronics to keep them going. All the plastic in the Z will outgas and be little piles of broken grains.

In everything in life, we are adding complex systems to complex systems. The next big thing is supposed to be self-driving cars. We are going to reach a point where nothing will ever work or can never be repaired because we are trading robustness for complexity.  

Here is Gary’s Law of Complexity: If you add fallible systems together in strings your total failure time will continue to increase until nothing ever works.

The Corollary to Gary’s Law is: There are only two people in the world who can repair your new complex thing. One is sick and the other one is on extended vacation.

My new bread toaster has a control microchip in it. When it breaks, and it will, the whole thing will have to go to the dump. If it lasts long enough I will have to borrow my sister-in-law’s 1933 Ford to take it there. The BMW will be long junked out.


Gary Pichon

Marble Hill