Saturday, July 20, 2013

Still Life With Robin: SAP BUTFSTADP

Photo by Cawpwoa through Wikimedia Commons
by Peggy Robin

The acronym in the title, SAP BUTFSTADP, stands for "Solving a Problem By Using The Failed Solution To A Different Problem." I had to reduce it to initials to make it fit as the subject line of this column, and once I'd done that, I realized it could be read off as two somewhat Germanic-sounding words, which might well be the sounds of frustration that one would make while trying many different solutions to a tricky problem and mostly failing in the attempt.

Perhaps the best-know example of SAP BUTFSTADP is the invention of the Post-It Note. The story is often told of the chemical engineer, Spencer Silver from 3-M, who was aiming to produce a better, stronger glue but in the end came up with a glue so weak it could just barely stick two pieces of paper together. One day Silver took a piece of this weakly adhesive paper with him to the church where he sang in the choir. It occurred to him to mark his place in the hymnal with the sticky-backed paper that he was carrying around. Other bookmarks just fluttered to the floor if he happened to drop the hymnal the wrong way. This bookmark stayed in place -- and the Post-It Note was born.

I have my own SAP BUTFSTADP story. For many years I have been swimming laps with a waterproof music player. It uses waterproof earbuds, but there's a problem with them. As I swim, the water rushes past my ears, often causing the earbuds to get slightly out of position, so that the sound is diminished, and at some point I must to stop swimming to readjust them in order to hear the podcast. But even with the earbuds ideally placed I can still hear the sound of rushing water over the program --  and I'm not that fast a swimmer!

Over the years I have tried every make, size, and shape of waterproof earbuds and still haven't managed to solve the problem of how to keep the earbuds securely in my ears while swimming. The frustration of this problem has almost been enough to make me give up swimming. It is way too boring an exercise to do without being able to listen to something. On the other hand, it's the only exercise I'm good at.

Then I saw an ad for a different type of underwater player. The Finis Neptune player ( doesn't use earbuds to deliver the sound but has small disks that rest against the cheekbones and conduct the sound directly to your inner ear. The disks attach by clips to the sides of the your goggles and they stay firmly in place during a swim, delivering good sound quality the whole time. However, the Finis has its own separate problem. It works best only while you're underwater. And to hear the sound even faintly, you need to keep the disks in contact with your cheekbones, which means you need to keep them clipped to your goggles strap, and you need to keep the goggles over your eyes (not pushed up to the top of your head), so that the disks are positioned correctly.

All this creates a new problem: How do you listen to music or podcasts while not actually swimming? I realize now that there's a whole lot of time when I'm walking around getting ready to swim, or have just finished swimming, or am in the shower, when I want to keep on listening to whatever I started listening to in the pool; but I can't, because I'm no longer wearing the goggles that held the disks in place.

To solve that problem, I bought a $5 swimming headband, which lets me clip on the Finis disks without wearing goggles. Still, the sound quality transmitted by the Finis disks through the bone when not underwater is far inferior to the sound produced by earbuds that actually sit inside my ears. Then the realization hit me -- that $5 headband would also work to hold the waterproof earbuds in place. I could go back to my old system of swimming with earbuds in my ears, and put the headband on after the earbuds were in, and no matter how fast I swam, the headband would keep the earbuds from slippng out of position. And it also helps to block the noise of the rushing water. I tried it and it worked just as I'd hoped. The headband may have been a poor solution to the problem posed by the Finis Neptune Player but it's the right solution to the slipping earbuds problem of all the other underwater music players I've ever owned.

It's not exactly a Post-It Note -- call it an Earbud Hold-It, and call it Problem Solved!


Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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