Thursday, October 6, 2011

A bicycle for the mind

When Steve Jobs and Apple set out to design machines for us, what were they thinking of?

In Jobs' own words, Apple sought to make what he called "a bicycle for the mind."

Apple aimed to create machines of extraordinary efficiency: machines that get you where your mind wants to go fast, in the same way that bicycles get you where you want to go fast, and do it without requiring gas, oil, maintenance, parking, insurance, licenses, and a thousand pounds of metal.

It's notable that Jobs, speaking a decade before global warming, holds up efficiency as his ideal. But how does this make sense? Why worry about efficiency in a world of limitless energy?

All racing cyclists, in the end, search for efficiency. We don't just maximize power ouput (watts); we also minimize power requirements (by losing weight). That's why Coggan's key stat is watts/kilograms, not just watts.

Efficiency has been the way of all living things, the shaping force of evolution not only of species, but even our tools. This is of necessity--every expenditure has a price. A penny saved is a penny earned.

These days efficiency is so disregarded that buying up pennies might be the best kind of investment. In fact, a hedge fund manager, Kyle Bass recently did something just like that, although with nickels, not pennies.

This, from Michael Lewis' latest book:



[Kyle Bass] still owned stacks of gold and platinum bars that had roughly doubled in value, but he remained on the lookout for hard stores of wealth as a hedge against what he assumed was the coming debasement of fiat currency. Nickels, for instance.
"The value of the metal in a nickel is worth six point eight cents," he said. "Did you know that?"
I didn't.
"I just bought a million dollars' worth of them," he said, and then, perhaps sensing I couldn't do the math: "twenty million nickels."
"You bought twenty million nickels?"
"Uh-huh."
"How do you buy twenty million nickels?"
"Actually, it's very difficult," he said, and then explained that he had to call his bank and talk them into ordering him twenty million nickels. The bank had finally done it, but the Federal Reserve had its own questions. "The Fed apparently called my guy at the bank," he says. "They asked him, 'Why do you want all these nickels?' So he called me and asked, 'Why do you want all these nickels?' And I said, 'I just like nickels.'"

He pulled up a photograph of his nickels and handed it to me. There they were, piled up on giant wooden pallets in a Brink's vault in downtown Dallas.

Everyone is going on about Jobs and his creativity, his salesmanship, and so on. They can't find the word they're looking for to describe him, maybe because these days, when the metal used for nickels costs more than nickels themselves, the notion of efficiency is almost exotic.

Almost as exotic as this bike made of popsicle sticks:

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