Friction

I keep a small desktop computer next to the TV in our family room, primarily to use the TV as a big monitor for showing the digital photos and videos that were taken before camera phones, cloud storage and Chromecasts. I recently ordered a new wireless keyboard with a built-in trackpad to simplify controlling the computer from my lap while I sit in the chair across the room.

When the keyboard arrived and I started to plug it in, I realized that the primary hard drive on the computer had died. This wasn’t really a big deal because all of that was on the hard drive was the operating system (the photos and videos are on an external USB hard drive) and the computer was really old. I think I bought 4 that were just alike in about 2007. (They came with Windows Vista.) I knew I had at least one more just like it in storage somewhere.

A couple of weeks later, I caught a bit of the spring cleaning bug (which is very unlike me) and wiped the old hard drive and threw away the old computer. (Usually I leave stuff like that sitting around in the basement for months before dealing with it.) The next day, I got one of the identical computers out of storage and was about to plug the new keyboard in when it hit me – I had left the small wireless dongle plugged into the USB port of the old computer and hadn’t retrieved it before throwing the old computer away. All of a sudden I had a flashback to when the keyboard had arrived and I had unpacked it from the box before realizing the hard drive was dead. I remember thinking that the USB port of the old computer was the best place to leave that little piece because if I just left it sitting on the counter, it would get lost.

After yelling some, the thought that popped into my head was “no good deed goes unpunished.” If I had only been my normal procrastinating self – the old computer would still be in the basement and I could just go get it and everything would be fine. Instead – I had a brand new, utterly worthless keyboard. (My next thought was that I if threw the keyboard away – the missing piece would turn up immediately proving that I hadn’t left it in the old computer, but that if I hung on to the keyboard, it would sit around for months waiting for me to decide that the piece was, in fact, plugged into the old computer and gone.)

I think the keyboard cost around $30, so it wasn’t exactly an economic catastrophe – but it was frustrating on principle. Maybe I did need to keep old computers around to ensure that I never threw away something that I was actually going to need later.

In the field of dynamics (the physics of motion), friction is always something that has to be accounted for. Friction makes processes less efficient than they might be. Friction is why we can’t have perpetual motion machines.

For an engineer trying to improve efficiency, friction can be frustrating. It can be reduced, but never completely eliminated. Engineers have accepted that there will always be some friction. Trying to completely eliminate friction would be a quixotic quest, and would just suck up time that could be spent actually getting things done.

It occurred to me that my brand new, worthless keyboard was friction. Stuff like this is going to happen. It’s a cost of doing business. I could spend a lot of time trying to figure out “how can I make sure this never happens again” or I could throw the keyboard away and move on to try to do something productive.

Friction exists in life. Try to reduce it, but don’t waste time trying to eliminate it. Once you accept that – you can move on and get something done.

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