Is Simple, Good? – Complex, Bad?

As set out in Part I of this series, the “technologies” that the Curmudgeon classifies as “good” and “useful” for his own purposes seem mostly to have a set of common characteristics, while those that are considered “bad” and “annoying” often have characteristics opposite from the first set.  These characteristics seem almost self-evident, but most people probably have not given much thought to classifying them.

The Good

The overriding characteristics for the good set, represented by six personal technology items described in Part I, seem to be simplicity and directness.  The items each do one task, do it simply and well, and don’t seem to have any pretensions to be otherwise.  The following is a non-exhaustive list of these characteristics.

1.  Optimized to do a single task
2.  Straightforward, simple, almost self-evident operating requirements
3.  Little or no set-up required before using
4.  Small, short “learning curve”
5.  Few, if any, maintenance requirements
6.  High degree of reliability
7.  Ability to remain unassertive and unobtrusive while operating
8.  Few, if any, requirements for “updates”

Thus the blood pressure cuff and the pedometer each do just one thing, both require a “one time” simple provision of a few parameters which are then retained in permanent memory, the cuff is stored away in a drawer when not in use while the pedometer hides in a pants pocket.  Both operate from standard replaceable batteries.  (Since almost every other electronic device today also operates from batteries, occasional battery replacement or recharging isn’t really “counted” as a significant maintenance requirement.)

The battery-operated “atomic clocks” possess almost the same characteristics.  They have a visual indicator that confirms signal reception from the NIST Ft. Collins, CO transmitter, although even without synchronization from a recent received signal the time drift is very small over the course of several days.  NIST even automatically provides the correction for Daylight Saving Time transitions. [GPS-based personal time keeping would provide an even higher, laboratory-quality time-keeping accuracy level, but at the cost of considerably more complexity.]

pocket cacluators
Simple, but effective – the “pocket” calculator.

The pocket digital calculators have become extremely adapted to purpose, and they provide routine calculation capabilities undreamt of during the Curmudgeon’s student days.  This is one area of technology where machines are so clearly superior to human abilities that there is no longer any point in having humans attempt to compete operationally.  Of course humans still remain responsible for understanding the mechanics and logic behind the mathematics, but we have probably already seen the last human generation that will attempt to operate as biological calculators.

Telephone network automatic number identification is both a naturally obvious function and one which requires no user effort or involvement.  On suitably-equipped networks, it is just “present” with each arriving call.  And it markedly decreases annoyances by letting its users make their own informed decisions in advance of taking a call.  Invaluable during the Campaign of 2012!

The desktop ex-automotive radio is simplicity itself, and it fills an obvious need/desire.  A quick reach across the desktop, one swift push of a button to apply power, a second button push to change the station (if needed), and the effort is met with instant program reception.  There no longer is a requirement to walk somewhere to turn on a radio and no need to wait for the “warm-up delay.”

The Bad

These above devices are all successful because they can be depended upon to do what needs to be done and then get out of the way, and they don’t distract the user from more important events and activities.  But now let’s look at the (opposite) characteristics of the “bad” technologies.

Microprocessor-based consumer entertainment devices (radios, televisions, and players) create annoyance in part because they are unusable and uncontrollable during their “warm-up period.”  They become, in a sense, “a dog who won’t obey his master!”  Furthermore, even after warm-up some of these devices (especially the televisions) have very complex command/control sequences that frustrate users’ attempts to make simple choices and easy, rapid changes, and they also include the kinds of surplus, little-used functions characteristic of “creeping featuritis.”

Remote controls
So many remotes, so little time!

The selling-point behind “cloud computing” is that, after storing your data “in the cloud,” you can get to your stuff from anywhere in the world via the ubiquitous “Web.”  The flaw in the concept is that, if you can get to your remotely-stored data from anywhere in the world, potentially so can any other skilled and motivated person!  Almost every Internet node of any importance has already been hacked, so why would anyone want to store his personal and sensitive data someplace whose location is unknown and which is potentially hackable?  Cloud-based computing is, ipso facto, a huge security risk, and really should (but probably won’t) be rejected on that basis alone.  It is, potentially, one large very large annoyance factor, especially if your data are compromised and, if the data are somehow lost within the cloud, there may be no back-up for them

Some major virtues will always remain in storing sensitive data in physical locations that have never seen an Internet-originated IP packet!  Local data storage devices are now so inexpensive that anyone who needs to keep huge data banks should be able to afford his own storage.  Even “data back-up technology” is now simple and inexpensive, and thus there is little need to ship things up to the anonymous “cloud” for storage.  Meanwhile the Curmudgeon has a portable 1 Gbyte hard drive that fits easily into a briefcase.  Similarly to the POTUS’s nuclear weapons release codes, the data travels with its owner.  Not a perfect solution, of course, but a “better” one.

Amateur radio manufactured gear, as mentioned in an earlier Curmudgeon post, now competes in a consumer-driven market, not an engineering-driven one.  “Features” sell hardware, and so there will undoubtedly be a steady progression of “new” features well into the future.  Hardware will remain “confusing to operate” for many inexperienced hams, although complexity by itself should not necessarily be considered a negative for experienced operators.  If a new radio needs a “portable, plastic-laminated user’s guide” for its routine daily operation, there’s certainly room for simplification, leading to improved operating ease and enjoyment.

The reality is, though, that fundamental radio technology is now well worked out, and any future technological developments should be incremental rather than revolutionary in nature.  Only “new and improved features!” can now sell hardware.  That is why twenty-year old radio hardware still meets most user needs, save for “bragging rights!”

Complex computer application packages for major computing requirements are the software analog of the creeping featuritis of the Amateur radio world.  Realistically, basic functionality has already been advanced to the point where any further development would be marginal.  PC operating systems, word processor packages, spreadsheets and databases already are more than sufficiently capable for all but the most demanding professional users.  Tossing in even more “features” in order to resell the current packages to existing users adds even more unused functions.  It also increases the operating complexity of applications that are already probably too complex.  Simplicity, reliability, unobtrusiveness are not present here!

By way of contrast, the Curmudgeon has a very small, DOS-based, menu-driven engineering program for calculating RF transmission path values.  It was probably written (but not by him!) in the late 1980s.  And it still runs quite well, has never required any “updates,” and can provide results as quickly as the data can be loaded from the keyboard and the <F10> key depressed.

Smartphone ap capabilities and features
Smartphone capabilities and features are staggering!

Smartphones are the ultimate technology distraction and the prime demonstration of the corrosive effects of virtuality-based technology.  To an adult living during the 1960s, the idea of a distracted user of a portable data processing device involuntarily stumbling into an open manhole in the street would have been beyond comprehension!  No one then had shifted that far away from the physical into the virtual world, but today many of us have!

A smartphone is the antipode to the Curmudgeon’s pedometer and his desktop radio.  The smartphone distracts constantly, raises anxiety levels, requires continuing care and attention, and arguably does a large number of tasks that do not really need to be performed “on the spot.”  Aldous Huxley got it wrong in his novel “Brave New World:” his “Soma” soporific for the masses ultimately proved to be electronic, not chemical in nature!

Whence, From Here

In the next posting, we’ll look more deeply at this matter of the adoption of new technology and how it is changing our lives, not always for the better.

What do you think?

“Let’s save the universe for RF!”

The Old RF Curmudgeon

Since 1963, LBA has been providing RF equipment, engineering consulting services and safety training for radio/television broadcast, wireless communications, and industrial RF.

About The Author

The Old RF Curmudgeon

The Old RF Curmudgeon has been poking his beak into the RF world for very close to fifty years. With both commercial and amateur radio experience, close contacts in broadcast engineering, radio site management experience, lots of paper pushed into the FCC, an immense curiosity about “how things work,” and a “real gud college education,” the RF Curmudgeon has seen a lot of telecom evolution. And he remembers almost all of it, can relate historical items to “modern developments,” and has a sharp sense of “what’s proper….and what’s not!”

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