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Rethinking Traditions

2010-07-16 6 min read Electronics Anonymous marco

A confession: I don’t like signing emails. I find it stupid. You know the message is from me, after all your email client tells you that before you open it. What’s the point of salutation and signing? What does, Sincerely, Cinserely tell you that you didn’t already know?

Turns out there was a good reason for the signing. That’s from the days of snail mail and before there was such a thing as a typewriter: the presence of a signature was the only certain way to know who wrote you a letter. I remember the days when you’d get one, and you’d turn it over to read who sent it. If I had known I would feel old just for admitting I had ever read a hand-written letter, I would have believed everything science fiction told me.

But now I write emails, and I got used to doing a lot of things that you couldn’t really do with paper. For instance, I reply inline – breaking up long messages and replying to a question right beneath it. Or I make creative use of the Subject: header. Of BCC: myself to have a record of sending the message.

More often than not, I won’t sign an email. It’s not that I forget, and it’s not that I am too lazy. It’s that I find that a truly pointless activity. I will typically close my message with a friendly greeting to the family or coworkers, or a wish for something fun, but rarely sign. It’s a tradition we keep on, just because we don’t think about it.
Since not thinking is not my forte, I checked what else I can re-think. Then I realized there are quite a few things we do that are just plain stupid and dangerous – but we keep on going because switching would be dangerous. My favorite example, since it hit me once, are cars. In particular, the location of the steering wheel.

You see, the steering wheel is located on the left in right-driving countries. Which means that whenever people get into a car, at least one person has to get in on the left side, the traffic side. That’s extremely dangerous, both for the driver and traffic. My accident happened in San Francisco, on Ocean Boulevard, when a driver slammed open his truck door while I was next to him, wedged between parking cars and flowing traffic on one of those bike lanes of death. The door was heavy enough that it threw me into traffic. I could have been easily dead, but got “lucky” enough to just not be able to walk for a while.

There were multiple culprits for my accident, in particular bike lane design. The problem of car doors, though, is acute regardless of my personal history. Every day, people get injured by car doors opened at the wrong moment, or by having to stand in traffic while getting into the car. Why did we do something stupid like that?

Turns out the reason is chivalry. When cars came out, they were exceedingly rare and typically not used by a single person. Typically, the whole family would drive around, father at the steering wheel and mother on the passenger side. When cars (automobiles) became more common, there was a sense that the father should do the “right” thing and sit on the dangerous side. The mother, on the other hand, shouldn’t be forced to walk on the dirty street with her skirt and should be able to get out in comfort and without risk.

To this day, it is considered polite in the Old World for a man to walk on the street side of a sidewalk, keeping the lady on the far side. Just as it is considered polite to walk behind a lady going up a staircase, but in front when going down. That’s from the days ladies fainted a lot – the aim was to always be down the stairs to catch a falling lady.

Fast forward hundred years. Cars are everywhere, women are no more likely to sit on the passenger side than men, they are probably even less likely than men to wear a skirt. Most people, indeed, drive their own car by themselves, unless they are dropping off kids somewhere. In 2010, it is plain stupid to have the only person to get into and out of a car do so on the traffic side.

We don’t change that for multiple reasons. First, it’s always dangerous to change something that people have grown accustomed to (as any place that switches driving direction finds out). Second, it’s expensive to change that (as any car manufacturer finds out when selling to a country with different direction). Third, there is no awareness of the problem (as I found out researching this post). Fourth, we are effing lazy, people!

But, really, it’s all over the place. Wherever we do something out of unthinking tradition, we should really go back and look again. Computer people and writers, for instance, should seriously look at Dvorak keyboards. As many know, the current keyboard was designed with the specific purpose of slowing down typers (which it does very efficiently). Switching to a Dvorak keyboard designed for maximum speed and accuracy in typing would be good.

The world is full of examples of tradition that went haywire. The Internet, of all places, is a veritable collection of weird habits, despite being so young. SPAM, for instance, is an artifact of the days when there were few computers and everybody trusted everyone else. It would be dead easy to fix, but we don’t.

HTTP and HTML are a horrible combination for today’s needs. They were wonderful when they were invented, but we don’t have the problems they were trying to solve, and they couldn’t possibly address the issues we have now. As an example of the former, the stateless nature of HTTP is excellent in systems that have unreliable connections, a problem that only mobile phones have these days, and not for long anymore. As an example of the latter, the original HTML spec didn’t include any specific way to embed videos, which were quite a stretch back then (think dial-up speed and YouTube), but are some of the heaviest use today.

Share your ideas! What are some of your favorite examples of tradition gone wrong, and how would you fix them?

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