Simple And Terrible Machines

As an artifact of industrial engineering, it is very hard to beat the Fender Telecaster: durability, repairability, usability, fitness for purpose (sound), and low cost are all hallmarks of its design. Take a moment to admire a particularly fine specimen.

In a sure sign of quality, the Tele patinates well. People try to fake patination, which is the nadir of cringe yet the expression of a yearning to replicate the outward signs of timeless quality.

The Tele is at the top of an uncanny peak: like a Dutch bicycle, it is possible to improve on the design, but only by incurring severe trade-offs.

The key, and perhaps sole, trade-off-free improvement available in the design is in the usability of the controls. The traditional Tele has a 3-way pickup selector switch, with the volume knob behind it, and the tone (treble attenuator) behind that. The pickup selector switch is a bit too close to the volume knob when it’s set all the way ‘back’ (toward the bridge). And it’s nice to be able to adjust the volume with your pinkie while picking — but the Tele’s volume knob is too far away to make that easy.

It is easy to improve the usability of the controls by reversing the control plate, and many players do this.

Fender resolved the switch and knob issues entirely with the Stratocaster, and made further reductions in the cost of manufacture and repair as well. The Ibanez Talman is a Telecaster with the Stratocaster controls solution.

The Tele is also very efficient in its use of materials (which are plentiful, non-endangered, and cheap: maple for the neck, and ash or alder for the body). Little of the wood is thrown away when sculpting the neck and the body, relative to the manufacturing techniques used in other instrument designs. For example, in hand-carved archtop guitars, the top begins life as a 1”-thick chunk of wood. By the end, no part of it is more than 0.15” thick. As beautiful works of art as they undeniably are, they are not parsimonious. Another popular guitar design calls for a CNC machine to sculpt a neck that is at most 1” thick, out of a 3”-thick block.

Unlike almost all other musical instrument designs, the Telecaster is incredibly hardy. It is 0% fragile — and yet also readily repairable and modifiable.

There are implementation (not design) improvements possible in the Telecaster. Noiseless single-coil pickups, a tapered neck joint, chambered body, and locking tuners are standard for most manufacturers now (except Fender). The changes increase the cost a little, but increase usability a lot.

The Tele, like Lisp and Algol, represents the very best that could have been done with the technology of the (roughly same) time, and remains very hard to improve on. For example, modern languages like Python and JavaScript are basically Lisp, but without the macro/DSL wonderland that Lisp’s trivial syntax affords. You get better everyday UX, but at a significant cost in functionality.

I’m fascinated by this uncanny quality peak, in whatever type of engineering object, in which further improvements are few and far between. I wonder what peaks we could be climbing now but aren’t. Is there a better systems language than Rust, which we should be running on... what? RISC-V? Could we get the benefits of Rust, but with a more gradual learning curve? Could we get the performance of x64 without the cruft?

It might be easier to get to the uncanny peak with simple machines like musical instruments and bicycles — there are perhaps fewer decision points and trade-offs and things that can break. But I’m reminded of this Twitter exchange:

@taber@woof.group @cakesandcourage Nov 18, 2021
a popular myth is that people who are Very Computer have computers that work. nothing could be further from the truth. the Very Computer are capable of generating much more novel and fascinating ways to make computers not fucking work and exercise this capability wantonly

celphase @celphase Nov 18, 2021

A graph of
y = “amount of tech issues” and x = “technical proficiency” that shows “no
computer” at the origin; “poweruser” at y = 50%, x = 25%; “blessed valley of
mild proficiency” at y = 25%, x = 50%; and then a steep upward slope with
varying levels of self-inflicted Linux: “Maybe I should try Arch”, “Maybe I
should try Gentoo”, “I recompiled the Linux kernel on my smart-fridge and now my
printer no longer works on any of my devices.
The Blessed Valley Of Mild Proficiency, by @celphase.

Maybe, for Terrible Machines like computers and programming languages, the Blessed Valley Of Mild Proficiency is the uncanny peak.