Time had not been good to the tree-lined street. Once, tradespeople had walked from the neat row of small cottages to their jobs in town. Housewives had walked their children along the sidewalk tiled with hexagonal concrete blocks. But now the tree roots had cracked and buckled the sidewalk, and no one was left to sweep the sidewalk clear of leaves, seeds, and other debris. One by one, the now-decaying cottages had been replaced by squat and ugly shop buildings, the tiny yards replaced by slabs of concrete. Their brick walls were buried under uncounted layers of white paint, now grey and peeling. On the corner, the juke box in the dark bar blared country music. Across the street, the diner served hamburgers and chili on oilcloth-covered tables. The atmosphere was one of stale beer, cooking oil, auto exhausts, and hints of other, less acceptable things.
In midblock stood yet another drab, gray building. The sign proclaimed “Montgomery Bike Shop.” Through the window, you could see a few new and used Schwinns. The Wright Brothers would have felt at home here. Heck, for all I know, they could have been here.
This shop was different, though. I owned it. Well, I owned half of it. Well, I owned half of 10% of it. The bank owned the rest.
The shop had been run by Verlon, a grizzled old man whose gruff exterior went clean to the bone. He was the owner, salesman, and bike mechanic. His wife ran the cash register. They eked out a living selling and repairing bicycles. But in 1949, their life took a turn for the better. The Triumph 650 Thunderbird came to town, and Verlon had the exclusive dealership. In short order, the rows of bicycles got shoved to one end of the showroom to make room for Triumphs. Life was good.
Verlon didn't really like working on those dirty, smelly motorcycles, so he hired my pal Hurtis. Hurtis was a wizard with a motorcycle engine and could turn the snarling, 100-mph T-bird into a screaming, tire-smoking crotch rocket. Kids and men, young and old, flocked to the shop to have their bikes breathed on by Hurtis. I don't think there was a single stock Triumph in town.
Around 1958 Verlon decided to semi-retire. He offered the shop to Hurtis. With a lot of help, Hurtis and I managed to buy it together. Eventually, we hired a couple more motorcycle mechanics. Verlon stayed on as the bicycle repairman. He kept a small workbench area for that purpose.
One day, we were all in the shop, doing our things. As the rest of us puttered on various Triumphs, Verlon was changing the rear tire on a Schwinn.
In the time-honored fashion, he loosened the rear axle nuts, removed the brake clamp, and tapped on the axle with a hammer to ease the wheel out of the frame. The wheel moved a bit, but then jammed. “Tap, tap” goes Verlon. The axle doesn't move. “TAP, TAP, TAP,” goes Verlon. Still no joy.
Soon the taps became bangs, then harder bangs, then something else entirely. Picture this grizzled old man, on his knees on the concrete floor, wailing away at the poor customer's bike with all his might. “WHAM, BAM, @#@#R%$#, CRASH, @(*^!” goes Verlon. The air was turning blue, ionized by the intensity of his curses. By this time, the bike was half destroyed. The axle nuts were flattened. The axle was bent. The frame was full of dents. The customer was going to get a new bike.
Verlon didn't care. At this point, the battle was no longer about changing a tire. It was a matter of principle, and a battle of wills. That *(&@#% wheel was coming out of that @#%@#% frame, or he was going to know the reason why.
Finally, we couldn't stand it anymore. In unison, we cried “Verlon, what are you DOING???”
There followed this exchange.
Verlon: “Trying to get this @#@# wheel of this @#@# bike!”
Hurtis: “Loosen the nuts!”
“Loosen them more.”
“I don't have the wrench.”
“Where is it?”
“It's up on the workbench.”
“Well, GET UP AND GET IT!”
To which Verlon replies, “It's too much trouble.”
Now that I'm over 65, I can appreciate Verlon's relunctance to get off the floor and stand up. But surely his judgement and common sense had been seriously impaired by his focus on the immediate problem. To the immediate task — getting a wheel off a bike — he had added a few unstated constraints: Get it off with this hammer, on this floor, without loosening the nuts any further. In time, the importance of these constraints had elevated to the point where reason had gone out the window.
We can all laugh at Verlon, as we did at the time. But how often do we let ourselves do equally stupid things, because doing them right is “too much trouble.”As I sit here typing this, my Microsoft Word 97 seems to have gone berserk. After a decade of working a certain way, it has unilaterally decided to work a different way. I don't know why. I'm sure I could find out. Or I could simply install the copy of Office 2007, sitting here within arm's reach.
But I'm not. I need to finish this column, so I'm struggling along, cursing Word just like Verlon cursed the axle. Doing it right is too much trouble.
For my columns, I often need illustrations to make my point. I used to rely on Corel Draw, which met my needs admirably. But over time, the newer versions of Corel Draw seemed to become harder and harder to use, and less stable. I've been looking for a good graphics tool ever since.
I bought Adobe Illustrator, but felt its learning curve was too severe. At work, I used Microsoft Visio, but found it too confining. I resisted buying Visio at home, thanks to one of my own self-imposed constraints: I hate helping Bill Gates get richer yet.
The last figure I did for my column, I found myself reduced to Microsoft Paint. Bad idea.
Given enough time and effort, I'm sure I could learn to be a virtuoso with any of these tools (except Paint). All it takes is a commitment to read the manual, follow the tutorials, and practice.
But I don't. It's too much trouble.
Many years ago, I was experimenting with digital circuitry, using the old Fairchild RTL logic chips. I set out to build a circuit that could display digits on an oscilloscope, using cursive generation of the seven-segment display. I got the logic part all worked out, built and populated the boards, and had everything working. Then I had a Verlon moment.
For the last step, I needed to integrate waveforms using operational amplifiers (op amps). But I chose to add the unnecessary, and wholly self-imposed, constraint: I would build my own analog op amps, using the inherently digital circuitry in the RTL gates. It didn't work, and the circuit never got finished.
How often, I wonder, do we all fall victim to the Verlon effect? Faced with tight schedules and knotty problems, we struggle along using the same old tools in the same old ways, following the same old methods. Then, on top of that, we add self-imposed constraints that don't help, but only hinder. We become emotionally fixated on a certain solution, to the exclusion of all others. Like Verlon, we get a bigger hammer.
We could do it right. We could take the time to learn the new tool, the new technique, the new approach. We could do a little planning rather than hammering. We could use a little finesse.
But we don't. It's too much trouble.
Jack Crenshaw is a systems engineer and the author of Math Toolkit for Real-Time Programming. He holds a PhD in physics from Auburn University. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Jack click here
Hurtis Carr is a real person, and one of my true heroes. From high school in WWII, he went straight into the Army Air Corps. He scored the highest grade to date on his entrance exams. Rejected from flight school because of color blindness, he taught himself to fly — sans instructor — in a Stearman PT-19 biplane. He was a waist gunner in a B-17. Shot down over France, he was whisked back to England by the French Resistance, in time for the next raid.
Hurtis was the best rider I've ever known. I remember riding double behind him, whizzing through a pine forest like the speeder scene in Star Wars, Return of the Jedi . Tree trunks whizzed by, so close that I had to tuck my legs in to keep from being kneecapped.
Hurtis won the grueling, two-day Jack Pine Enduro, lightweight class. He won the unique Montgomery 24-hour marathon race, three years running. He led by so many laps, people lost count.
But Hurtis's true calling was as a mechanic. In his hands, the durable Triumph vertical twin engine — or its 200 cc single counterpart — became an awe-inspiring work of art. In the early '50s, he was the Triumph team mechanic at Daytona. They finished second, the best finish to that time. Riding his own 200 cc bike in the FIM road race at Daytona, he was last place on the first lap, first place on the second.
At the time, we were looking for an engine to power a motorcyle-engined midget racer. Hurtis suggested the Triumph 200. I was skeptical. The class called for 250 cc overhead valve, or 375 cc flathead, and that seemed a big size advantage. I had seen the Triumph lightweight around town, but was unimpressed by its put-put nature and quiet exhaust. To convince me, Hurtis took his Jack Pine bike out for a demonstration.
He could have done without the roaring, wheel-standing takeoff, throwing dirt and grass in a 100-foot roostertail. He had me at the time the engine started.
At the 1960 AMA National Championship Scrambles, I watched from a hill as some 100 200 cc bikes raced across a plowed field to the first turn of the track. Three of the bikes pulled away from the pack, and led the first lap. Those were the three built by Hurtis. He had a talent that few race mechanics have, of building engines that are both astonishingly fast and durable enough to stand being flogged, hour after hour.
Some people, I believe, are true supermen. Though they walk and talk much like us humans, they are different. They are smarter, stronger, faster, more courageous, with quicker reflexes, and seemingly endless endurance.
Racing driver Stirling Moss was tested to have reflexes twice as fast as most of us. He has more densely packed muscle fibers, and more rods and cones in his retina. So does jet ace Chuck Yeager. By every measure, they are supermen.
Hurtis Carr is like that.
Though Hurtis is still alive, he has Alzheimer's. That brilliant mind brain is pretty much gone. Consider this piece a premature elegy.