Complicating the Obvious: An Engineer Responds


The mad scientist persona on my Facebook author page (shown above) is somewhat appropriate because, besides being a full-time radical malcontent, my “day job” is an an engineer. A recent article by Thomas Sowell  prompted me to respond from an engineer’s perspective.

I’m a great admirer of Mr. Sowell; he’s a brilliant thinker and a great writer. To be a black conservative in this country takes a special kind of courage, and he was on the right before it was fashionable. His recent article, which appeared on January 5th on numerous websites, about the deficiencies in modern product engineering.

In general, I agree with his comments. Many if not most electronic products are over-complicated. In my defense, it’s not just a software problem. Even the labels on an over-the-counter medicine bottles are too complex. The critical information on dosage and frequency is lost in a thousand words of fine-print warnings and disclosures. Why should I have to dig out my reading glasses to find out how long I can go between doses? A similar issue applies to appliance manuals. They’re printed in three to ten languages with at least a dozen pages of warnings that no one but an imbecile should need. I’m not sure it’s due to government or to multi-cultural correctness, but this so-called “internationalization” is the impetus behind the babel of languages and the widespread use of non-textual hieroglyphic’s that Sowell detests so much.

Safety regulations make for some especially idiotic designs. You can’t buy a simple gasoline container any more, there are locks on the caps and baffles in the spout. Environmental rules can be even worse. A few months ago, when Arlys and I bought a new washing machine, we discovered that government “water conservation” regulations had rendered it almost unusable. You’re no longer allowed to choose your own water level. The machine figures that out, adding time to the cycle, and if it screws up, your clothes don’t get clean. We returned the new machine and had our old one repaired.

Though government is, as usual, our biggest nemesis, it’s not our only one. One of my mantras as a software engineer has been that a properly designed interface should be so intuitive that it shouldn’t require one. Sadly, that seldom happens. Creating a good interface costs money, something the folks in accounting don’t always appreciate. Being tangible, the hardware usually gets more attention. Yet it’s a mistake to neglect the software to save a few bucks. Ease of use can make or break a product.

Another temptation for manufacturers is to save design effort by relying on the Internet. Even if the product’s interface is too difficult for the average person to figure out, some 15-year old genius will do it, and publish how-to instructions on You-tube for free. Though streaming video is a powerful tool, I really don’t want to watch a 20-minute video by some pimply faced kid so I can work my toaster. We should save that option for more complicated products, like the cell phones Sowell complains about.

Though corporate stinginess is a problem, it’s also possible to make a bad interface by going overboard on the design. One company that puts a lot of resources into the interface design is Apple, which explains the popularity of its products. At the very least, they’re pretty, but that doesn’t guarantee ease of use. The philosophy of simplicity for its own sake can sacrifice usability. (Why a one-button mouse?) For the product to look slim and elegant in the ad is everything. In particular, the ability to repair, maintain or upgrade Apple devices (consider the I-Phone’s non-removable battery) goes out the window.

By the way, I share Sowell’s frustration with needlessly complex cell phone interfaces. Perhaps if the author gig doesn’t work out I’ll create my own Android distribution, and it will actually make sense. Any suggestions?


Heavy Thoughts on Holly Golightly

One of the hazards of being a sci-fi fanatic is that in the quest to read every space opera and see every time travel movie, a person inevitably misses some of the classics. For this reason, my girlfriend has taken it upon herself to make sure I am properly educated in classic cinema. Recently we watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s on Netflix, which I had never seen before. I’m not usually a big fan of romantic comedy, but I must admit I enjoyed it. However, I’m not a person who can simply enjoy something, I’m obsessed with analysis. So naturally, I have some comments and observations I’d like to share.

Like most romantic comedies, I found I fairly predictable, though quite well-written. I was not aware that it was based on a novel by the great Truman Capote. It’s no wonder these characters have captivated people for so long, especially Audrey Hepburn’s irrepressible Holly Golightly. This movie is a perfect example of the “show don’t tell” dictum. Her friend Paul Varjak (played by George Peppard) says nothing romantic to Holly for most of the movie, but his feelings for her are obvious.

Another thing I loved about the movie was its period feel, which was of course contemporary when it was made. It’s the same reason I like foreign movies, for the window they provide into another culture. Likewise, Breakfast is a window into another time, though I’m old enough to remember many of the elements in the story. One of the movie’s most jarring elements is the pervasiveness of smoking. Although the nasty habit is still with us, it’s sad that the social aspect is gone, along with accoutrements like Holly’s amazing two-foot-long cigarette holder. (Recently I saw an Audrey Hepburn calendar featuring the iconic Tiffany’s photo in which the cigarette had been air-brushed out. Heresy!) Other nostalgic items include rotary phones, men and women wearing classy hats, and the automobile as an exhaust-spewing seat-belt-less land yacht. Humor was different in those times, too, as exemplified by Mickey Rooney’s hilariously offensive Japanese character Mr. Yunioshi.

But the thing that impressed me most was how civilized the people were. Though Holly’s neighbor Yunioshi repeatedly scolds her for her inconsiderate behavior, he tolerates her antics with Asian detachment until he finally calls the cops on her noisy party. When the police arrive, there’s no SWAT team, just guys in blue uniforms armed with nothing more deadly than billy clubs. On other occasions, Holly’s drunken suitors bang on her apartment door at all hours of the night, but they skedaddle the moment Yunioshi yells at them. Likewise, when Holly’s ex (Buddy Ebsen) shows up wanting to take her home to Arkansas, he accepts her refusal sadly but graciously. Through all this, does Holly get angry and defensive when her schemes to land a rich man fail? No, she remains optimistic, though at times a bit clueless.

As I reflected on the changes in American behavior since that time, a powerful sadness came over me. Admittedly, romantic comedies like Breakfast gloss over issues like poverty and racism, and the few blacks that appeared in the background looked respectably middle-class. Yet despite Jim Crow, “the ‘hood” was much safer in those days, with most black men home with their families rather than languishing in prison, as Thomas Sowell would tell us. In 1961, our country had recently finished two brutal wars, but there was still more neighborly idealism than angry jingoism. People believed in kindness and charity, and gave to the poor of their own accord, rather than being forced by the tax man. It’s not like they were all angels; Holly is a low-grade grifter, and Paul is the ‘kept man’ of a rich married woman. But for the most part, the system worked. Breakups led mostly to broken hearts, not broken bones, and bar brawls tended to end with black eyes rather than gut shots.

So how did we get from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Breaking Bad? I’m not one to blame the decline of religion and traditional morality. I don’t mind if two men can get married, and I don’t care about the divorce rate, abortion, or illegal immigration. But I do care about peace and freedom, which have been in short supply lately. My own theory is that Holly’s generation is partly to blame. They were too polite, and too trusting, and allowed the government and the ultra-wealthy to promulgate numerous wars and financial frauds. By the time the country passed to the Baby Boomers, the Military Industrial Complex, which Eisenhower warned us about right around the time Breakfast was being filmed, was firmly in control.

Since then, we’ve had the Cold War,the War on Poverty the Vietnam War, two Gulf Wars, the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Nowadays America spends more on weaponry and incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth. What we gained in sophistication, we lost in civility. Characters like Paul, the cynical aspiring novelist, and Holly, the social climber with the banned cigarette holder, are far more civilized than most of us will ever be.