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« The Wave | Main | Finally, a mini-pump that actually works. »

If Necessity is the Mother of Invention, who is the Father?

Have you noticed how simplest things in life have become high tech when they don’t really need to? For example the paper towel dispenser.

What was wrong with just pulling on the paper, or operating a simple lever at the side?

Every one of these devices is different, so you stand there like an idiot with your hands dripping wet, trying to figure out where the “electronic eye” is.

Is it on the front, is it underneath. Shouldn’t there be a little red light somewhere? You wave your hands all around this abominable black plastic box. How about one that delivers paper towel when you punch it? Dry your hands and relieve your frustrations at the same time.

Invariably someone will come to your rescue and show you how it operates, making you feel like a total retard. (That used to be a politically incorrect term, but no one ever uses it to refer to a mentally challenged person anymore, it is only used when referring the type of person who can’t operate a stupid paper towel dispenser.)

Why make the simple things in life high tech, when there is no good reason other than we can? Or because we have the technology. The makers of these “Black Box” towel dispensers will argue that by eliminating the handle, they eliminate a source of germs that could re-contaminate our clean hands.

Now wait a minute, every person using the towel dispenser has clean hands. They have just washed them, that’s why they need a paper towel. And, anyway after sterilizing our hands thoroughly, we grab the filthy door handle as we leave. 

Why do we need electric can openers? One of the times we really need a can opener is during an emergency when the power is out. And the bicycle, one of the simplest and most efficient machines man has ever invented, is being made more and more complicated.

To be honest, it took me many years to get over index shifting in the late 1980s. At the time, I was in step with the European cycling community who scoffed at the idea, as did Campagnolo. This was tantamount to a violinist needing marks on the neck of the fiddle to show where to place your fingers.

Of course, the engineers at Shimano knew better. They knew that in America there were people who actually did not know how to operate a friction shift lever. Maybe they had great foresight and could see this same nation of people, who in the future, would not be able to operate a paper towel dispenser.

I always felt that index shifting was developed to cater to the “Instant Gratification” element. Nothing that requires a degree of skill, gives instant gratification. Muffing gear changes on a hill is no fun, but then neither is learning to play a musical instrument. However, the rewards are far greater once you master the skill. The satisfaction of doing something other people cannot, for a start. 

In the case of indexed shifting, Shimano was proved to be right, and Campagnolo spent years playing catch up. I will agree that indexed shifting has developed into something that is useful to all cyclists, including the pros. No one wants to go back to friction shifting, even old farts purists like me.

When I started cycling in the 1950s, racing bikes were the exact same machines as those ridden by the Pros in the Tour de France. It was like that up into the 1980s. What the professionals used, dictated what was sold on the open market. If you were a newbie and wanted to ride a racing bike, you had to deal with friction shifting. There was nothing else.

The mountain bike changed all that. Here was a whole new animal, and a whole new breed of cyclist. They were not trying to emulate the pros in the TDF, and they didn’t want to learn friction shifting. So indexed or click shifting came first to the mountain bike, then the road bike. This lead to more and more gears. This was not necessarily a bad thing, although I think they should have stopped at 10 gears, no one really needed 11.

Today, it is no longer what the pros ride and want, but rather what the corporations that sponsor the pros want them to ride. And that is, new stuff they can sell to the American leisure rider.

A prime example is Disc Brakes. The pros don’t really want it but it will be forced on them. I have never used disc brakes, so I can’t speak from experience. I understand they work better than caliper rim brakes in wet conditions. But I do know enough about bikes, to know that the last thing I need in the wet is more stopping power when the real problem is the tires gripping the road.

If it is raining I can lock my wheels up without even trying, with my old tech caliper brake. I don’t need a brake that will lock my wheels up a split second faster.

There is an old saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I always wondered who the Father was. Today I know the father is the one who takes something simple that works, and fucks with it to make something that is more complicated, costs more, and doesn’t work any better.


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Reader Comments (28)


Nice rant.


November 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJack Gabus

Hear, hear! Don't forget the Point of Purchase credit card terminals, where again every single chain seems to use a different system - now exacerbated by the US adopting a half-a*sed "Chip & Signature" system (which no doubt will soon move on to chip & PIN).

And yes, is 11 rear cogs better than ten? I don't think so. I could live with a friction front shift for a double crank, the inherent trim options are handy and much simpler than setting up a SRAM "Yaw" or others.

Disc brakes? Nice on MTBs and touring bikes. Unnecessary, I think, on road bikes but no doubt some interesting developments yet to come

November 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteveP

How could you miss electronic shifting in this (otherwise excellent) rant?

It's not enough that you have to pull off your headlight and tail light to recharge them, but now you have to pull off all the shifter batteries to charge them every few days.

Or maybe this is part of a devious plot to force everyone to install a dyno hub to recharge the shifter batteries while you ride?

November 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPat Lamb

When I built up my "daily driver" bike from the frame up, I chose a disc fork and brake. This was on the leading edge, well before more sophisticated mechanical designs, never mind hydraulics. As such, it is lacking in the power and modulation people speak of. I can feel the difference on my road bike with quality calipers.

That said, I'm not going back. If brakes make skidding one's way to ineffective braking and premature tire wear seem mad, trashing one's rim makes no more sense. "My rim is the rotor" is following "my legs are the brakes" into the dumpster of cycling history.

Disc brakes are effective when wet. Disc brakes are not compromised when a wheel is out of true. Only discs properly separate the function of tires, brake blocks, rotors, and rims. One of those is neither cheap nor easy to service…

November 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterChamps

i'm just waiting to see what happens in the Giro and TDF to those disk brakes on those long mountain descents...

Oh, and to watch a race mechanic trying to quick-change out a punctured front wheel with a through axle.

November 24, 2015 | Unregistered Commentermike w.

Disc brakes are needed in the pro peloton because caliper brakes on carbon rims totally suck in the rain, never mind needing special caliper brake pads. Also, disc brakes will eliminate the problem with carbon clincher rims and exploding tires because carbon rims dissipate heat so poorly.

None of these problems and the Rube Goldberg solution are necessary when using aluminum rims.

November 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeter W. Polack

Dave, you are right on!
I sent a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year relating to two articles published in that newspaper on the same day that seemed absurd to me.
One item was about a man who had his house re-wired in an attempt to stop his "smart" Nest smoke detectors from going off for no reason. it didn't fix the problem.
In the second piece, we learned about a hi-tech water bottle that prompts the drinker when to take a swig. Presumably a sensation of thirst is not reliable.
I ended my letter thus:
"The Emperor has no clothes, but presumably he can get an App to deal with that."
The letter wasn't published, but I did get an emailed reply stating I was certainly not the only one who thinks that tech has jumped the shark.
In my opinion a lot of modern technology offers a solution when there is no problem.

November 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMartin W


The bicycle business is so focused on selling overpriced stuff, one follows the other - disc brakes on road racing bikes seems to be to compensate for carbon rims that don't work well with rim brakes. So they add weight on the brakes to allow the weight savings from the wheel. Everything becomes overcomplicated.
I have eight bikes, from various eras of my life, and I still ride every them from time to time - steel to aluminum to titanium (bot not carbon, probably ever). My oldest is my first race bike, a 1978 Bianchi with Super Record derailleurs, 7-speed freewheel and friction shifting. I still get great pleasure riding that bike, and servicing it is a no-brainer. Compare that to my finicky 11 speed Campags which seem to need adjustment weekly.

November 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEd

A friend purchased a new BMW super duper and he was more impressed with the fact he could kick under the trunk (BOOT)to open it. a $60-70k car and you have to kick the bloody car to get the trunk open Progress?

November 25, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjohn crump

And how many corporations are racing to develop a "Driverless Car"?
What a way to burn money, printed by the Fed, given almost free to Investors who pile it into stocks, giving more money to Corporations that spend it on useless Ideas. All while accumulating vast sums of debt.
Next up, riderless bikes?
…kind of takes the heart, the soul and passion out of being a person.

November 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Other than paper, the Dyson hand dryer is the most effective.

So do you think we will see a return to AL rims and calipers or is the overall performance better with carbon rims and disk brakes?

For average user, not having to replace rims due to worn out brake surfaces is a plus. What is the overall maintenance cost of a disk brake system over a caliper like system?

November 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSJX426

It isn't just towel dispensers. Touchless faucets and soap also, as well as stupid self checkout machines. Each is different and it isn't obvious how they are neant to be used. That is called lazy design.

When it comes to my bikes, no index, no brifters, no disc brakes, I am still in the 70's. And I can jump from one bike to another without having to figure out how each one works.
Though the other day I rode a bike with an 11sp rear and single chainring, and it had hydraulic rim brakes. I am in love with the brakes, they have a light touch and modulate very nicely.
Mine will probably have an Alfine internal 11sp.

November 25, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteredstainless

You've really hit on one of my pet peeves Dave. My philosophy is simple. It's a bike, it's meant to be simple. Quit trying to turn it into a goddamn Formula 1 car! I really don't begrudge the techno-dweebs their plastic fantastic beauties. The only problem is that good serviceable gear continues to go off the market only to be replaced by silly high tech crap that is guaranteed to be obsolete within three years. I suppose that makes it easier to sell you new worthless crap. This whole situation is why I love my fixed gear bikes so much. They're butt simple. They are my way of telling the bigwigs at Shimpagnolram to suck it. End of Rant Thanks for letting me vent.

November 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPhilco

Life was easier when cycling was a blue collar sport and all the big shots were playing golf.

Great quote, thank you. Dave

November 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTony

I have to add that when in England in September we rented a car from Hertz. We wanted a real small car due to the narrow roads. Well of course they where out of them so they upgraded us to a Nissan Murano type suv Gave no instructions on the car and off we went. Well it was a diesel and every time I stopped it died! PLUS it had the warning system that beeped every time, which due to the size of the bloody thing was often. Drove me bonkers and made even more nervous with driving on the other side of the road to boot. PROGRESS?

November 25, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjohn crump

Hi Dave,

read your post and was nattering about it at the local bike shop where the tech. was telling me about $30.00 specific inner gear cables for different versions of mechanical 11 speed, If you have the ptfe covered cables then care must be taken in holding the cables and adjustments in case of the ptfe coating being damaged.

The manufacturers it seems to me are using the strategy of the electronics industry focus groups and psychologists and selling the next almost the same as the previous latest and greatest gizmos to people with bikes and dodgy positions, with the same mentality of those folks that sit outside a store all night for the next phone.

One problem that arises with the constant latest and greatest is the staff in the stores can't keep up with every possible nuance, compatibility etc. etc. A consequence of which is in Vancouver Canada one of the top shops has a labour rate of Can. $95.00 per hour, plus taxes. Not only do they have to have the specialized parts or access to them, but having to spend so much time researching how to, before actually repairing some of this stuff.

Want more gears than you need or will ever use with a successful change every time without thinking? , fill yer boots.

November 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKeith.


The bulk of my daily riders are 3 speed Sturmey-Archer hubs, some have been upgraded to alloy rims. One still has rod brakes on steel. Yes I live dangerously.

As a former racer from the 70's I am still baffled by all of the so called "improvements". Want to improve? Learn to ride properly and efficiently it will do more for you than any gadgets. I have one tour bike that indexed shifting, as soon as I get around to it I will be converting it back to non-indexed bar end shifters. I prefer to be able to "trim" my shifts. I can see some uses for disc brakes, but they don't have to be on everything.


November 25, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter2whls3spds

hi Dave!

you say:
"the last thing I need in the wet is more stopping power when the real problem is the tires gripping the road.
if it is raining I can lock my wheels up without even trying, with my old tech caliper brake."

it's not about Power but about Modulation.
this is what they say about disc brakes being better.

interesting article!
best regards,

November 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMircea Andrei Ghinea

Disc Brakes on a Road Bikes: So just how are you going to keep the fork blades from twisting? A huge factor, as Dave knows, that changes a bikes geometry and handling, just when you don’t need surprises!
There is no modulation problem with today's calipers. We have Swiss Stop (and other) pads for every purpose. And just how many people bother to put rain tyres on before riding, which would make way more difference than disc brakes.
Do these Corporations listen to themselves before coming up with the Latest, Greatest thing since the chain and sprocket drive (guess how old that is; still the most efficient)?

November 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteve F

Too true, the father is Mr Money. But the upgrade bug bites and I too have gone from 6 to 9 with grifters on a few bikes - I still have a few with friction shifters. I have always constructed my sons' bikes with friction shifting. They were rewarded with grifters/9 speed cassette after a few years.

Eleven speed cassette + electric shifting + disc brakes is too much for me although I see a use for discs on mtn bikes, but I have never used them.

November 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Self driving cars. How about self riding BIKES! Jump on and they go where you tell them to? What next?

November 29, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjohn crump

Hey Dave as always great article, I almost always agree with you but on this one, I don't. I have a 1980s Condor that rides like a dream with standard road calipers, a mid-90s Ibis Hakkalugi with cantis, also such a pleasure to ride. Where my newest cross bike outshines them both is discs. The only reason it has taken so long for discs to make it to near-mainstream cycling is weight. Motorcycles have had discs for a looooooong time, and when was the last time you saw a new car roll off the assembly line with drum brakes? Discs just work better in all conditions (yes including frozen mud) and instead of trashing an otherwise true (and pricey) rim, you just need to swap out the $15 pads. No other "invention" since index shifting and suspension will make such a large impact on cycling everywhere.

November 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMajor VVald

I really like hydraulic brakes. My first mountain bike had 15 non indexed gear choices and cantilever brakes. I rode that bike many miles and was quite happy. Over the years I’ve done quite a few miles on cantis, v-brakes, mechanical discs and Hydraulics as technology has progressed. The new hydraulics allows me to go very fast downhill while using just one finger on the brake lever for all the power and modulation I need. I no longer have to try and maintain a firm grip on the handlebar while also having 2+ fingers on the brake lever. I pick my progress “upgrades” based on what provides me with the greatest pleasure in riding, not on gee whiz factor. I have very little carbon, no electric shifting, lots of 8 speed parts and really the bike I ride the most has one gear and no suspension….but it does have awesome brakes and that’s a good thing.

November 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

When prompted, anyone can rattle off why something new is better. That’s why you bought it. Or, bought into it. Companies count on you.
I guess it comes down to how, and whether, you enjoy something. Read a book: Kindle or Hardcover. See a movie: 65mm Film or iPad download.
Just don’t think you are safer, faster or better off with the newest whatever. That only happens when the thing you bought was never good to begin with.

November 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Of course, the majority of new "films" are shot digitally and almost all distributed digitally (to cinemas) now. It's a superior mass-distribution method (allows essentially unlimited same-day openings). And of course originally, films were B&W and silent. Was that perfection? There is IMAX, with its huge horizontal projectors, but it's niche.

Derailleurs (IMHO) brought real progress to bicycles, as did the pneumatic tire. Not sure what else falls into those categories - indexed shifting is nice-to-have, clipless pedals, stainless steel bits, dual-pivot calipers, quick releases....

Tubeless tires show promise (pretty much standard on other vehicles), possibly disc brakes in some applications. There has been no "film-to-digital" paradigm shift in cycling. E-bikes are more accurately compared to motorcycles and scooters (and will continue to grow as a segment). It's damn hard to improve on the bicycle we know, so mostly we just get "something different" and a lot of marketing

November 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteveP

Indexed shifting dates to 1937, my Osgear Super Champion is 3 speeds indexed,
you can upgrade to 4 speeds by drilling an extra hole in the shift
quadrant. Qsgear also has a chain De tensioner, to fight evil power
robbing chain tension.

November 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterScott G.

SJX426, I wash my face and the Dyson AirBlade is useless. And it spatters water droplets IN YOUR EYES! And the crud that builds up at the bottom is disgusting.

It isn't that great overall. It had good points, but I just want to splash my face and dry it!

December 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterChumley

Electronic towel dispensers are cheaper to manufacture, or rather they have become less expensive cf. the older mechanical kind.

January 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJ
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