Sunday, November 22, 2009

Spirits & Simple Tech

Earlier this week I was with a group of young to older aged friends, all seated around a table, turn-taking reading aloud as we listened to each individual’s original written prose, poetry, and plays. During that experience we share the broad spectrum of feelings associated with accounts of real life experiences, and fictionalized stories. The reading content ranges from serious drama through ridiculous farce, satire with the humor bringing forth subtle chuckles, broad smiles, and deep stomach-aching laughter.

This particular evening we began to notice a periodic brief faint chiming sound. This erratically repeating tone interspersed with long pauses between the chimes eventually caused us to begin focusing on determining the source. One of our number commented this could be a communication directed to her from a loved one who she discerned entered a different dimension long ago, but has followed her about during the ensuing years.

A small grand piano situated 10to12 feet away from us in an open adjoining room was suggested by another friend to possibly be the communicator’s instrument. We all maintained an open curious mind in deference to anyone present who readily attributes these sort of unusual immediately unexplainable events to more mysterious ethereal causes. We continued our activity with one ear attuned to listening for another chime. Not long after we heard that chime and just as we thought there would be no more an additional faint chime was heard.

Noticing a four-legged furry creature suddenly scurrying about the room there was some speculation this elegant resident and active cat might have ventured into the piano’s interior, possibly flipping it’s tail or using a paw in such a manner as to strum one of the strings. We all agreed the cat could cause the musical sound with that scenario.

This prompted story-telling time as some began relating tales of cat accomplishments including felines learning to use a commode, and actually being able to flush the unit, skills usually reserved for humans. I recalled a delightfully funny video a musician friend sent of a cat perched on a piano stool, reaching out with a paw to play individual white and black piano keys, cocking its head from one side to the other, very aware of cause and effect, quite intrigued with the differing musical sounds being produced.

A short time passed during which the cat in our midst was also in our sight, no where near the piano, and we were aware of exactly what he was doing – throwing his toy into the air and making a flying leap capturing it in flight. Suddenly, the magical tone chimed exonerating the cat, but leaving some of us who were seeking logical scientific explanations even more perplexed. A couple others seemed quite satisfied there likely wasn’t any such explanation.

Our increasing interest in locating the chiming sound source escalated as this mysterious tone persisted. In an afterthought I reached for my purse sitting on the floor by my chair situated closest to the piano room and next to the person who believed her other worldly relative probably was trying to communicate with her. Simultaneously, as I was extracting my relatively new, unfamiliar cell phone from my purses exterior side pocket the little black rectangle cried out a now familiar chime signaling the battery was low. We all experienced and “Aha!” moment, perhaps feeling a mixture of relief, reassurance and maybe even a little disappointment there actually had been a logical explanation accounting for this mysterious sound.

I cradled my dear little possession in my hands, promised I would reinvigorate it’s life when we returned home if only it would quiet. I gently handed it across the table to the middle aged male tech-employed expert who took one short look, punched a key or two, handed the crying phone back saying he didn’t know how to turn it off. Once again in my grasp, I just kept pushing that “End” button and suddenly with one loud musical gasp the screen went black, the musical spirit to temporary sleep.

I guess I’m long overdue to take time to read the complex operational “quick” book and even the much longer master guide. I always used to religiously read operational books and instructions for everything I purchased. In the beginning with the advent of digital I continued to do so with clocks, radios, portable phones, answering machines, coffeemakers, microwave ovens, CD players, VCR and DVD players.

I wonder if the day will ever come when there will be more standardization in the digital tech world, or maybe we’ll all prefer there not be and we’ll each have a broad choice of same but different items from which we can select.

In recent years I’ve been challenged by our old sprinkler watering systems -- two-same-but-different ones. Then I’ve begun to notice with the washing machine, dryer, regular/convection oven, digital camera, old cell phone and even more so this new cell phone, the greater complexity and size of these “how to use” instructional books. They come close to being epistle length, are often not that clearly written, are either too concise or not specific enough, and skip some of the very basic basics for newbie users like me. Some may have contradictory directions and use language often subject to different interpretations, much like that about which many groups argue over politics, religion and philosophy.

My approach to using some of this technology has frequently become one of resorting to personal operational trial and error. I combine my actions with referencing these technical bibles for a specific answer needed at the time, instead of trying to understand and be able perform every function before I use the item. Integrating the myriad functions gradually into my knowledge base seems to work best for my “how to” retention.

Soon after I began using the computer a few years ago and shortly after my husband’s death a tech friend of his/ours recommended to me a book titled “The Laws of Simplicity.” He had come in contact with the author described in this Harvard Book Store “Scholarly Highlights” interview feature “…John Maeda is a world-renowned graphic designer, visual artist, and computer scientist at the MIT Media Lab, and is a founding voice for "simplicity" in the digital age.”

I enthusiastically purchased a copy and even had one sent to a technology-interested friend. Disappointingly, I never learned of that person’s reaction or opinion of the book’s contents but I never pressed when I didn’t receive a response. I have on rare occasion sent relatively inexpensive books to select friends, but have concluded in recent years to discontinue that practice, or, at least to be more selective about to whom they’re sent.

After I read this thin short book which incorporates the authors wonder, recognition, and descriptive accounting when he notices the simplicity associated with the behaviors of his young child, I have been particularly interested in a reaction to the book’s contents from some other person I know with a background other than my own.

The reason I say that is, my therapy intervention training is steeped in simplification, breaking down actions, behaviors into the most basic steps and then simplifying them even more, if possible. Educators also would likely note effective teaching methods, acquiring new skills in any profession or job setting are most successful when they approach new information building from the simple to the complex. Certainly that has been the case in all other employment business settings I’ve experienced or in which others I’ve known have engaged.

So, when I read this book primarily directed at a variety of technically oriented professions I was intrigued that they required prodding to simplify, that such an admonition from one of their own within their circle of expertise was reportedly regarded as having enlightened them with such a profoundly new insight, or maybe he was just reminding them of something they already knew, or should know.

These impressionable readers are the highly intelligent engineers I respect who design all of this equipment that continues to become prevalent in ever-expanding areas of our lives. The readers also include many of the graphic artists, computer scientists such as this author John Maeda and other creators, professionally related technicians from whom we seek technical answers when our complex machines, tools, soft and hardware programs breakdown, malfunction, or just go kaflooey (or as the Spanish say, kontera.)

I was quite surprised to read accounts this book had such a significant impact on their thinking. I have labored under the false perception most of my life that simplicity was just the nature of things, guiding most of us in just about everything. I can only hope all those who continue to create the future technical innovations we’re all going to be using at least remember John Maeda’s message and follow his laws of simplicity.

Better yet, maybe they should remember how a patient, former career military man, once paraphrased my genteel carefully worded instructions to him for producing more intelligible speech:
He said, “Oh, you mean KISS!”
My puzzled response was: “What?”
He replied, “You know! Keep It Simple Stupid.” :


  1. I too wish operating manuals of all types would provide simple directions. Some people enjoy complexity and when they write manuals-- well we struggle with the result. You have now added a book to read to my ever expanding list. Thanks for a most interesting post.

  2. Your story reminds me of the time one of the ring tones on my iPhone somehow got changed to a barking dog for my neighbor's calls. I wandered around my house for two or three days trying to figure out why I could hear a barking dog so well with all the doors and windows closed. Her ring tone no longer barks, and I manage to answer her calls regularly now.

  3. Mysteries are so fun until you figure out they are not so mysterious and yes then you end up feeling disappointed thinking it had to be the unknown that would have been so Cool....

    And KISS oh how I wait for those days as I still find myself confused even with our cable television remote..isn't that embarrassing?

    Dorothy from grammology

  4. Bob: Does seem as though some of the manual writing reflects a job for composing complexity. Be interested in your comments about the book if you read it as the content seemed to me to demonstrate the title.

    Virginia: That's funny! Can imagine your perplexity about the barking dog.

    Dorothy: Understand the cable remote issues. I don't have cable, but my children do, each different, of course. When I visit them each has to re-educate me to how their system works. Takes me some time to get the hang of it usually, and then just the basics.

  5. Well, what’s not to enjoy about that ‘cat’ story….

    You have to love moments like that and they are moments that, in a funny sort of way, make this life a little more bearable it would seem. I’ve certainly had my close encounters with such moments. You may recall my story about chasing a buzzing fly which turned out to be the neighbor across the street trimming his hedges. And then there was the day I put my portable phone down for a moment and then picked up my remote control and started talking on that.

    You just happened to mention my “handyman” nemesis when you mentioned sprinkler systems. I have tried three times over the years to replace a sprinkler head and understanding the directions for setting the sprinkler head coverage continues to elude me. In all three cases I surely spent hours trying to master the little things only to end up having to call the repairman anyway.

    With regard to those instruction manuals, in all honesty part of the problem with a lot of those is that the item you are trying to master was manufactured overseas and non-English speaking folks tried to write the manual – further complicating the issue since many of their tech writers would seem to have a limited command of the English language.

    Having some experience as a technical writer, it has been my observation that many user manuals seem to have been published with imposed cost restrictions. “Short” seems to be the operative word in lieu of “simple” when it come to most of those manuals. Sometimes making something simple to understand requires the use of more words.

    I remember a nightmare with my first cell phone when I was trying to put in some name and numbers into my ‘contact’ list. The manual went to great lengths to tell you how to input names and numbers. What they neglected to inform you about was how to erase an error!

  6. Some days I want to go back to the time when you could actually understand the manuals. They are so long and complicated that I just give up. My attention span is much less now and I am easily frustrated.

    Somehow when I reset the clock on my TV Dish network I enabled the clock to be constantly visible on the RV screen. I can't get rid of it and can't find out how to do so.

    I am having a similar problem with my PC. I enabled a slide show as a screen saver. It keeps going to that function if I pause to read an article or don't use the keyboard or mouse every few minutes. I have spent the entire morning trying to figure out how to get rid of it, to no avail.

    I am not tech savvy and need all of my instructions to be written for dummies. How I long for simplicity.

  7. Alan G.: Yes, I remember that funny hedge trimming fly! Oh dear! You've reminded me I have a broken sprinkler head, but haven't yet located a handyman knowledgeable about such things. Have actually been thinking about trying to repair it myself, now, I question the wisdom of that plan. I'm sure you're correct that language differences do play havoc with these manuals. Have some older portable phones my husband always programmed that need re-programming with new numbers, but I can't find the manuals. How does life get so complicated? I want stuff I can just plug in, turn on and then forget about it knowing it will work.

    Darlene: I can picture your frustration having to look at that clock all the time. Then there's your PC slide show constantly popping up keeping you in perpetual motion. I can only wish for you an eventual solution before you come unraveled.

  8. Simplicity is all we want...but it certainly isn't what we get. You should see all the little notes I have to myself to help remind me how to get in and out of things when I'm working....just in case I forget or lose it altogether. It's a running joke in my house when I get a gift or purchase anything that has a tech manual and needs to be set up, my son or daughter just take it and do it because they know how much I hate reading those complicated things.

  9. Simplicity is all we want...but it certainly isn't what we get. You should see all the little notes I have to myself to help remind me how to get in and out of things when I'm working....just in case I forget or lose it altogether. It's a running joke in my house when I get a gift or purchase anything that has a tech manual and needs to be set up, my son or daughter just take it and do it because they know how much I hate reading those complicated things.

  10. Thoreau said, "Simplify! Simplify" I think he saw the techies coming!

    Happy Thanksgiving!!!!