Saturday, December 12, 2015

A Tweak Too Far

When we talk whether we've made progress in the world, we usually talk in big sweeping concepts. Equality. Technology. Diversity. Without a doubt we've advanced in all these areas beyond where we were 100 or 50 or even 5 years ago. But when you get down to the details, you sometimes have to concede that perhaps the case isn't so clear cut. Indeed, we're sometimes forced to admit that perhaps we may have pushed the envelope too far, and what we view as groundbreaking actually takes us backward.

Such is the case with the lowly three-ring binder.

I know, I know. This sounds perilously close to an Andy Rooney moment. Rooney, who had a long and distinguished reporting career going back to World War II, was perhaps best known for his postscripts on "60 Minutes." From his very first television rant in 1964 entitled "An Essay on Doors," he became famous for his three or four minute monologues musing about such everyday things as bottled water or shoes or paper clips. It's not that he didn't tackle the bigger issues of the world. But ask anyone who remembers his end-of-show grumblings, and they will more likely recall him saying something like "Did ya ever wonder about cat food? I have, and I don't even have a cat."

And so it was when I went to get a notebook from the store. I wasn't looking for anything special, just one to match the 20 others I had on my shelf holding past editions of this column. They max out when filled with about 26 plastic sleeves, each of which holds 2 columns, which works out to a year's worth per binder. And having just passed into the 21st edition, it was time to spend the couple of bucks to protect these valuable jottings for the ages. No, it's not the Gutenberg bible, but it's what I got.

Looking at my shelf, in one sense you can see an example of the progress of civilization over the last two decades in these most pedestrian of office supplies. When I started, they were made up of two vinyl-covered cardboard covers and a half inch central spine, with round rings attached to the inside center. Simple, effective and utilitarian. About 15 years ago they flattened the round rings a bit, enabling you to more easily have all the pages lay flat when a full binder was opened. A small step, to be sure, but a meaningful advance in organizational technology.

Then about nine years ago, a significant change: they moved the ring assembly from the center spine to the back cover. Even more than the flattening of the rings, this helped the binder to lie flat when open, and the pages not to bunch up. Just like Apple inventing the iPod when no one even knew they needed a music player, this was truly progress ahead of public sentiment. Then building on this momentum, about 6 years ago they changed the shape of the rings even further to a flattened "D." If it was possible to make pages lie flatter, they achieved that holy grail.

Which brings us to this year's model. Once again, "they" must have stayed up late in the lab, and came up with the concept of extending one side of the ring a little further, to better align the pages. I'm sure they thought that this binder goes where no binder had gone before. And it does. But not in a good way. You see, the binder is a comfortable smidge larger than your standard 8 ½ by 11-inch piece of paper. But this offset ring pushes the paper beyond that border. And so now my carefully curated clippings aren't completely protected, but hang off the edge. I might just as well burn them or use them as flooring for a hamster cage. Well, maybe that's a bit much, but you get the idea: the edges are subject to bending.

The point is regardless of whether we're talking about nuclear power or super computers or legislation, sometimes you can go too far: you can blow right past perfection in your quest to be even more perfect. How many times have you decided that your new phone or software update has actually been a step backwards? Sometimes you need to appreciate where you are, and that going further doesn't really help.

And a little binder shall teach them.


Marc Wollin of Bedford like to be organized. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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