Reflections on Maintenance
This is a rough draft of a post. I'm still writing and revising it. It probably reads terribly. Proceed at will.
Maintenance is beautiful. I’d never really considered how widespread it is, and how much it’s a sign of life, until reading this blog post (TODO: link). Recently, I’ve realized how pervasive this idea is.
- [ ] house (and car) ability to do maintenance yourself based on construction: materials design and understanding. Related iPhone repair etc
In a Castle
The head groundskeeper at Balmoral Castle (where the British royalty go and hang out every summer) describes the immense task of keeping the place maintained.
Not only do they have a huge estate (TODO: size) filled with a wide variety of old infrastructure—it is a (TODO: date) castle after all—but because it’s Scotland, and a bit remote, you’ll have incidents like pipes bursting in the middle of the night in the dead of winter. Specialist plumbers might be far hours away given the road conditions. So, they have to learn a bit of everything to keep stuff running. Plus—just guessing here–the royalty are probably quite fussy about things working and being “nice.”
You can see maintenance as making things work physically, like above with Balmoral Castle. Plumbing, appliances, lights, etc.
The most obvious aspect of maintenance in a hotel is cleaning. There is an immense amount of cleaning. First of all, they clean your entire room every day. And in any public area, like a lounge or restaurant or even hallway, you will see people cleaning the floors and surfaces every single day.
But you’ve also got the veneer of everything, like paint chips and scuffs. This is second level maintenance, because it’s more expensive. A great place we stayed recently had the cleaning nailed, but was behind on the veneer. This hits you subcnsciously.
TODO: Footnote: I don’t want this to come across as snobby but it’s hard not to. Let me just say we stay in a lot of really crappy places while traveling, and are genuinely happy. This is just about noticing. After enough time, you notice.
Then, the third level of hotel maintenance: do things work well? E.g., same place that had cleaning nailed (level 1) but wasn’t up on veneer (level 2) also missed level 3.
- The water temperature was nearly impossible to get right. A solid minute or two every shower to alternate between scalding and freezing to find something bearable
- The faucets would lose water pressure and stop running if you didn’t get them blasting when you first turned them on
- The seating for the restaurants were big deep cozy couches and chairs. This looked great, but when you needed to eat, you had to lean way forward and hunch, squishing your gut and spilling fod everywhere
- They had eclectic music absolutely blasting right next to tables, requiring shouting level speaking
- The lights were so comically dim there were whole sections you couldn’t see your food, menu, anything
This is like “design level” maintenance. It would require extreme humility to admit that your design isn’t working in practice and change it
This one is more subtle.
I think you can see guests as requiring maintenance. The time they spend in the restaurant is an experience, and the experience requires upkeep via someone checking in to see whether they need things. Recommendations, ordering, new rounds of drinks or food, adjustments, the bill.
Everyone talks about American service, and I think I finally figured out how to characterize it: in addition to minor details (e.g., fake smiles) American service does way more maintenance on each guest experience by hiring way more staff. If you’re somewhere with “worse” service (TODO: footnote: Just quotes here to try to keep fighting the losing battle at not seeming horribly snobby), even relatively nice places are just way understaffed for what you expect from American service.
In American restaurants, you’re checked in on so much that even explicitly making eye contact with a server feels a little bit aggressive.
But in a lot of Europe, e.g., each waiter is handling many times the guest volume an American waiter would. You need to grab their attention to get anything, and this can take a long time. It becomes a “pull” rather than a “push” model of service. So kind of, you’re doing your own maintenance. And, at least if you’re me, this means you’ll skip some.
TODO: link to recent New York’s MTA article and say something about it I guess
Disneyland is continuously being repainted (TODO: cite and details).
TODO: quote from DFW
A city’s maintenance is annoying: construction is loud and causes stuff to be closed and blocked and clogged.
It’s also vital. I never really noticed this until seeing cities that lacked maintenance. Not just that they hadn’t been built up, but hadn’t been maintained.
(TODO: picture) E.g., this park in Belgrade, clearly it was nice when it was made. But things happen. The difference between a park starting nice and staying nice repairing things when they break.
You also notice this with sidewalks in two ways:
- sidewalks that have been destroyed (e.g., by trees’ roots growing under them)
- sidewalks that have become impossible to use because cars park all over them
Corollary to the above: without city maintenance, wheelchair access is the first to go.
The second one is interesting because it speaks to a deeper layer of maintenance: maintaining the balance of infrastructure in a city.
If there isn’t enough parking, but people need cars to get around, cars will start being parked all sorts of wacky places. The sidewalks become broken not because they don’t work, but because the city isn’t able to account for the flow of people.
I have forever tried to plan my open-ended schedule in big spurts: spending 3–8 hours writing out my goals, inventing time partitioning schemes, setting up task and calendar software, and laying out a master plan.
I follow this plan for two days, then miss a day, get halfway back on for day four, and then it’s completely gone. I do things on autopilot until the next big planning session in a few months.
Only recently when I introduced a daily writing time in the morning did I realize what was missing: maintenance.
For me at least, a schedule needs upkeep every day. I wake up a bit late, or have random obligations, or there’s a big trip or event, or something new has come up. Barring all that, it’s as simple as reaffirming the commitment to the plan. Simple, but vital.
Our time is precious, but I never thought it worth of explicit maintenance. That always felt like a waste of time. I could be doing other things. But the payoff is that I can actually stick to something.
Another sneaky aspect of maintaining the schedule is keeping it balanced. This means taking time off.
Most people, it seems, just throw clothes away.
Clothes can be repaired. I sew buttons back on shirts myself, but for worn out patches or holes in fabric, or worn out soles in shoes, I take them to a pro. I’d like to do it myself, but I have neither the equipment nor expertise.
This has breathed years of life into jeans, boots, shirts, shorts, sandals, and even sweatpants.
Unfortunately, I’ve found there are practical limits here. After patching the same pair of jeans each three times, the cost for repair where I lived (Seattle; $30 for any repair) had already outstripped the price. But the nail in the coffin was really the rate at which new holes were appearing. Eventually the fabric was so thin in so many places that it was a losing battle.
OK, really just homes.
Maintenance is where you can really feel if a place is someone’s home or just an investment property.
In someone’s home, they’ve fixed what’s literally broken, like windows that won’t close, hooks that fall off, or electronics that don’t work.
But they’ve also made improvements on the usability of their place because they underwent a period of living maintenance when they spent time in it. They made curtains and blinds that actually block light. They have a system for making sure water doesn’t get everywhere when you shower. They stocked the kitchen with actual essentials for cooking (oil, salt, cutting board, chef knife, working pans). If you can’t flush TP, they’ll have a garbage can with a lid that seals tight.
(TODO: footnote: All of these are lived recent examples.)
The best word to sum this up is “giving a shit.” If you actually live somewhere, you’re forced to give a shit, and you do the maintenance.
(TODO: Footnote: This may be what makes college guy houses horrifying to parents’ they don’t notice the small stuff, so they seem to be living in squalor. Their ability to do everyday maintenance appears malfunctional. It will probably blossom in their 20s.)
Straight up software maintenance is fixing bugs. With the Internet, and the depth of dependencies, new security problems crop up even in stable well-functioning software. (TODO: heartbleed, openSSL (same thing?), log4j)
But I think the spirit of “maintenance” extends beyond just fixing problems:
- incorporating feedback from users
- visual redesigns as styles change
- improving features based on modern tastes
An example of modern tastes is easily seen in video games. In new games, we have high standards:
- we want auto-saving rather than manually having to save
- we want mechanics to be forgiving rather than quarter-munching
- we want controls to have a level of finesse that they feel fluid and intuitive rather than awkward, jerky, stilted or stiff
- in practice, this requires an immense level of complexity to anticipate intent and forgive mistakes
- example: in Celeste (TODO: great to find exact quote), they record jump presses before (?) and after (?) you are truly able to jump, and let you jump even if you missed the window. This is detecting intent rather than precision. The most impressive thing is that they have balanced this so well that the intent detection doesn’t get in the way of the controls being super tight for serious players (speedrunners).
I don’t think video games are often long-living enough to evolve into containing better modern mechanics. MMOs may be the exception, but I don’t know how much their mechanics change through their life. (TODO: footnote: someone who plays WoW or FF14, comment on this?) Perhaps a good example of this is software that gets released in early access or beta and then becomes incredible (TODO: link hades) after, e.g., a year of maintenance.
When Maintenance is Impossible
Though we may not realize the pervasiveness of maintenance, I think we intuitively know it’s required. That’s why projects where maintenance is impossible are so impressive:
- old video games that were printed to a cartridge, like Pokemon Blue
- stuff in space, like the Mars Rover
We also find engineering impressive when it minimizes maintenance:
- Japanese cars are famous for requiring less repair
- Apple products, in general, work for an incredibly long time, both hardware and software.
- (TODO: cite study that apple laptop costs lower)
- this is why people are so mad about their phone batteries or mac keyboards; they violate this expectation. while the keyboards did suck, I’m reminded of years spent running Windows and Linux computers and just how much unbelievably more annoying they are re: maintenance required. Easy orders of magnituide more than Apple products.
(TODO: footnote) A funny aside here: for Linux nerds, maintenance is like gardening. They like doing it. The constant random problems, custom drivers, working around bugs in open-source alternatives to mainstream software—this is all part of the fun the way people find it satisfying to grow their own tomatoes. If they don’t like maintenance, they won’t last as a Linux nerd, and it drives them off the platform.
What is Maintenance?
Maintenance is what happens when your design is exposed to the real world. You discover points of wear and tear. You discover what doesn’t work like you wanted it to. You fix what’s broken, and improve what works badly.
This is maybe why a business that’s been around for decades or centuries has a beauty to it when you walk in. They’ve done so much maintenance over the years to keep running.