Efficiency – You Have to Know the Purpose First!

Over the Holidays, I sought to catch up on some long-deferred reading. One book, Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins was on that list and I made a bit of headway. Early in the book, there’s an interesting discussion of how one might distinguish between a designed and an accidental product. He uses the example of a “container” — something that can contain a liquid. He notes that he has on his desk a “geode” — a mineral formation that contains a bubble. When split, that mineral formation creates a “natural” cup. However, he suggests a measure of efficiency — the ratio of the “container material” to the liquid that can be contained. His stone occupies 130 cubic centimeters and can contain 87.5 cubic centimeters of liquid — an “efficiency rating” of .673! In contrast, one of his wine glasses has a ratio of 3.5 and silver cup a ratio of 12.5. This ratio, he suggests, argues that we suspect that the latter objects have been “designed” — the geode is a fortunate accident.

But then he notes that one “pot” in his kitchen has a ratio of only .475 — even lower than the geode. An apparent contradiction! But, this “pot” is actually a “mortar” used to grind seeds and other hard objects into a paste. The nature of that task demands a much higher strength container and, therefore, his “efficiency ratio” is not relevant to the purpose of the mortar.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if those rushing about discussing the inefficiency of American homes, cars and appliances would consider the differential services provided those items compared to the minimalist homes, cars and appliances used for comparison. A car, for example, is far more than a means of moving an individual from one spot to another. It is also (today) an entertainment center, a communication hub, a safety device, a delivery vehicle, and often a hauling unit. All of these tasks require a different design — and a different measure of efficiency to rank. But to our modern energy-efficiency fetishists, there is but one dimension to all products. They would condemn the mortar as an inefficient means of containing a liquid and never delve any further into the question.