Efficiency and Bad Mental Models

Back when I was growing up we kept the boxes on all electronics. Up in our attic there was a box for each PC, each TV, our stereo, and anything else of similar worth. You kept the box because these items were valuable and you might want to return them, and if you moved (in and out of college, or between apartments), the boxes might minimize damage to these important goods in transit.

Recently I bought a new printer, an Epson all-in-one Workforce 545. I bought this printer specifically because it had “iPrint” which allows for immediate printing with no drivers or other installation on all Apple devices, including iPads, iPhones, and my Mac. For your iPad or iPhone if you upgraded to IOS 6 you can see it immediately when you click on the icon. It works great. I have it directly connected to one of our Windows PC’s and it works great as a traditional printer, as well.

But what do we do with the box nowadays? I keep it around for a couple of days to make sure everything runs reasonably well, and then I throw it out. Why? Because that printer, which has capabilities that would have seemed like science fiction a few years ago in a home device (remotely print across all devices without drivers) cost me about $130. That printer is essentially disposable. This printer, which includes a scanner and actually relatively advanced networking functions, has plummeted in price from what it WOULD have cost to do the same functions (if it were even possible) a decade ago.

To see the opposite of efficiency, go out for dinner and drinks on a Friday or Saturday night in River North. Entrees, an appetizer salad, a couple of drinks each, and a dessert will definitely cost you north of $100 and likely closer to $200. Every time I go out on the weekend I essentially purchase one of those printers and throw it away anyways.

This difference between manufactured goods and services (or “crafty” items, like designer lighting or tile) has grown immense. I understand why it is expensive to buy a meal in River North – real estate is punishingly expensive, food is expensive, labor is expensive, you have to pay a raft of fees and taxes of all sorts (likely under and over the table) to run your business, union labor has to be used to build everything (unless you want a giant rat installed in front of your business, which I see a lot in River North). There is little or no efficiency inherent in any of the above items (except for food production), and few incentives to change the business model when you can just pass on these rising costs to people like me who go out on the weekend as long as they are willing to pay for it.

I still fall for the “mental trap” and sweat over paying a few dollars more for an electronic device buying from one location or another and whether or not to pay more for an upgrade or advanced features. Meanwhile I go out on the weekend and end up paying $200 for a meal for two and that is business as usual (in River North, at least). This is because I haven’t yet shed my upbringing to “keep the box”.

Cross posted at LITGM

16 thoughts on “Efficiency and Bad Mental Models”

  1. The arrival of plastic/metal material vat 3-Dimensional printing is going to blur the difference between craft and manufacture quite a bit.

    Eapecially when you can now buy a voice & movement (think Wii technology) trainable $20,000 assembly robot that works for the equivilant of $3.65 an hour over its uable lifetime.

    “mass production craft” is arriving.

  2. I’m big on vintage hifi equipment – buying, selling, trading, using – and it is not unusual to be offered a 50 year old Fisher tube tuner with its original cardboard box included. Even more strange is that the people will pay a premium of a component when it has the original packaging.

    I always marvel at people who will store and preserve a cardboard box for half a century!

  3. half a century? I think we’ve got older than that, having inherited boxes whose contents (if any) we have yet to explore. We have already found some lovely Egyptian cotton sheets, unused, which are probably prewar.

  4. Oldest electronics I have with box is a Knight Kit electronics ‘lab’ or trainer, likely dating to 1959. Hmm, I guess it is over 50. Back then, a replacement transistor for the one I somehow ruined was several dollars, and I didn’t have several dollars. Today, 13 cents if you want a specific performance.

  5. I always kept the boxes for my stereo, and electronics because of being in the military and having to ship and/or store things. They would be better off in the original packing … so, I think the oldest boxes I have are for the Technics stereo setup that I bought in 1980. Still out in the garage, of course.

    And Tomw’s comment reminds me of one of the pieces of broadcast gear that we had at one detachment in the 1990s; a nice little portable amp, which we used now and again for remote broadcasts. It was all neatly self-contained in a metal carry-case, and we knew it was vintage just by looking at it. But it worked fine … and then our senior engineer did some research. That little amp was from the 1950s, which made it older than just about all of us save the station manager. We wondered if we ought to donate it to the Smithsonian, or something.

  6. A side benefit of the box keeping is that if you are burglarized you have a tangible item of proof for the insurance company.
    And then you can throw it away.
    It ain’t much but it’s something.

  7. A little monologue about the disconnection of cost-behaviour across categories of goods I came up with five or ten years ago:
    (man looking at restaurant menu): “Hmm, well, the scallopini is $13.45, but the pizza is $12.95; could get a burger with cheese and bacon for $12.95 … Hmmm? Oh, yes, certainly, another beer please.”

  8. Baumol’s Cost Disease. Anything labor-intensive will increase in relative cost as capital becomes cheaper, and capital-intensive items become cheaper (and much of the gain goes to labor).

    River North fine dining = labor intensive
    Epson printer = capital intensive

  9. I note that the antique experts on the NPR program “Antiques Roadshow” claim that what-nots sold at auction are always more prized if original packing is included.

  10. I’ve found that the boxes take too much space. Last year got a 40′ LCD TV and the box was sitting around for 6 months – on the chance there might be a problem. The box was a good 5′ long and 3′ high. After 6 months, I tore it up and put it in the recycle bin.

    So many consumer goods have become disposable,. I used to know a crusty old Englishman who was a master mechanic of the old school. He took pride in his ability to fix parts rather than just replace them. He fixed my fuel pump relay by opening the case, and seeing a crack in a solder joint.

    So Bob with a magnifying glass patiently re solders the crack, and it has been fine for 10 years. I’ll bet he spent an hour on it.

    But in a professional environment with labor at $100+ per hour, a new relay at $100-150 – and the worst thing a Professional mechanic can have is a come-back for the same problem, it is far more cost-effective to just use a new part. One could easily spend 45-60 minutes re soldering an old one. And then it is still an old part.

    And I suspect a lot of electronic parts are like that – just a simple crack in some solder.

    I suspect for a lot of those who lived through the Great Depression – or WW2 rationing – one really learned to fix old parts.

    So it all depends on the circumstances.

    Sgt Mom – I am trying to picture all these 30-40 year old TEAC, Kenwood and Panasonic boxes in your garage – the stuff GIs liked at the PX ;-)

  11. On the SF Bay Area Craigslist there’s a card board packing box (empty) for a Marantz 1060 integrated amp circa 1974 on sale for $10.

    Grab it while you can.

  12. Marantz! Now there is a name from the past! As I recall they were a step above the Japanese stuff at the time but not at the MacIntosh level. There’s audiophiles who still swear by their 40-50 year old Macintosh.

    Until a few years ago still had the JBL speakers I got in Frankfurt.

  13. Bill,

    Take a look at AudioKarma.org if you’re curious about Marantz and McIntosh (no “a”).

    I’ve a McIntosh tube tuner that’s 50 years old and Marantz amp that’s 40, amongst other vintage pieces – they sound great, especially when refurbished with new electrolytic capacitors (they go bad over time) and realignments.

    Far cheaper to pickup a well used vintage piece, have it fixed up by a good technician, than to buy much of the new stuff at much higher prices for similar performance. Other than digital sources like SACD, the performance hasn’t advanced in hifi much at all.

    With or without boxes….

  14. I swear, when I get some money ahead with my books – I will have my 30-year old stereo fixed and refurbished. It was high-end, in the day; Technics receiver, turntable and cassette player, and a pair of Sansui speakers. Daughter came home from her tour of duty, and wanted her newer set in the place where I had mine…. But it’s still packed up in the original boxes in the garage!

  15. Sgt – those items – stereo gear bought overseas – seem to be a service man/woman’s rite of passage!

    I got overseas a Harmon-Kardon 630 receiver, JBL L26 speakers, trying to remember the German turntable – wasn’t Dual – All gone now – Got a Pentax SLR that the customs had a minor fit over – here Honeywell had the right to sell Pentax.

    Remember those monster Sansui receivers with a dozen blinking lights?Those were from the 70s –

    You have held on to those so long you might have what’s called retro-chic!

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