Category Archives: Problem Practices

Communication behavior or analysis that is often counter-productive

The Problem of “Complications”

Every refinement of software also creates more decision points. And with so many to choose from, its easy to get lost in the weeds, forfeiting the task it was originally designed to facilitate. 

Apparently, some people collect new and extraordinary watches that are mostly cherished for their finish and uniqueness. A small cadre of watchmakers cater to this unusual and expensive form of collecting, building timepieces that are especially valuable for including a “complication” that increases their uniqueness.  For example, a watch that shows something less obvious than moon phases might be prized.

Collecting these rare pieces is clearly a hobby for the rich, but it is also and useful analogy for the evolution of a lot of modern data and communication systems that we all use.

The arc of software development seems irrevocable:  from practical and simple to complex and esoteric. The compulsion for complications supposedly gives users more power.  Everything from Android Auto to the latest version of Windows “does more” by adding refinements and that require relearning features once easily mastered. Surely there is now a wristwatch that can be set to periodically extend a little hammer than will tap its owner on the wrist. What an ingenious complication, and how useless. I tend to have that reaction for version 10.3 of software that was far more focused and user-friendly when it was just version 2.3.

Microsoft’s ubiquitous Word is a good example. I have used it for years.  But each new iteration seems to move it just a bit further from being an efficient writer’s tool. After eight books I still can’t claim that I’ve mastered the “auto” functions, page layout options, and probably a hundred other complications. The blue ribbon above this Word page that I am writing will let add diagrams, charts, SmartArt, icons, 3D models, pictures, word art, add-ins, cross references, equations, watermarks, and so on.  But, of course, all of these features have to be formatted as well. I’ve easily spent a day formatting a single picture for a book. If putting together a bespoke magazine is in your future, Word has you covered. It has evolved a long way from being a blank slate to conveniently lay down and edit language. The assumption seems to be that somebody somewhere must clearly be waiting for the chance to drop in emojis, crossed out words, color charts, “wingdings”–whatever they are–not to mention five different shades of pink for the text.

Here’s the point.  It’s worth remembering that every refinement of a software function also creates more decision points. And with so many additions, its easy to get lost in the weeds of formatting and forget the core necessity of focusing on language use. Technical choices can move the sideshow of software settings into the spotlight as the main event, making the invention of creative sentences just an ancillary act.  I’ve seen this a lot with my students: submissions elaborately designed and badly written.

What we may need is a new theory of devolutionary development in the study of organizations to account for what is happening. Our tools don’t necessarily get better over time; many complications make them more difficult to efficiently use. I’ve heard more than a few say its easier to hop in their old truck to run a quick errand  than the family’s new car, whose two computers are said now to hold 100 million lines of code. Again, it’s the idea that the car’s displays give us too many decision points. Who has time to keep eyes on the road when there are screens with scores of settings that invite adjustment?

There’s an older theory of “media convergence” that predicts the merging of old media forms into hybrids:  radio programming based on recordings, or the merging of video and film production, or films that play like video games, or the modern smart phone that functions as a computer. But sometimes the early iteration of something is best.  One way to account for the small renaissance in vinyl records is that they were made to do one thing pretty well. They play two audio tracks sitting on the nineteenth century tool of a record turntable.  Sometimes we want the purity of the simpler thing.

A Different Kind of Seasonal Storm

Add to our year of bad weather yet another seasonal problem that can obliterate the quieter sounds of fall.

In the scheme of things, some of our problems are more dire than others. Allow me to raise one that may not be on everyone’s radar, but has real negative effects.  Leaf blowers are getting to be a nuisance and a threat to the health of those who are even yards away from them.

A lot of inventions have the unfortunate side effect of producing massive waves of air pressure that assault fragile ears. Think of helicopters, which mercilessly beat the air to fight against the forces of gravity. Planes fly with their fixed wings, providing lift by powering forward. But a helicopter’s utility of being able to hover in one place comes at the considerable cost of greater continuous noise.  It’s not unusual to hear the pumping sound of one that is still miles away.

Fortunately, it is usually only the wealthy in the most exclusive of neighborhoods that have to hear private helicopters on a daily basis. But the rest of us must deal a smaller version of the same effect of thrashing air that attacks the cochlea in the inner ear. Suburbia and campuses of all sorts are awash with the sounds of ubiquitous leaf blowers that move nearly weightless leaves and particles of dust, all for the sake of monocolor lawns or unbroken expanses of asphalt. In spite of the advice of horticulturists and public health officials to leave well enough alone, leaves and dust are seen as elements that must be blown to adjacent properties.  What ever happened to rakes?

In one sense, gas powered leaf blowers are air guns that fire continuously, producing airport levels of noise at pitches where the ear is especially sensitive: usually between 250 to 3000 Hz.  Even worse, the carbon monoxide that is also thrown into the air is as bad for the lungs as the sounds of blowers are for the ears. No wonder more communities especially on the west and east coasts are beginning to ban them.  The list includes Burlington Vermont; New Rochelle, Oyster Bay, Sleepy Hollow, and Tarrytown in New York, Montclair and Maplewood in New Jersey; Evanston, Glencoe and Highland Park in Illinois; Colorado’s Aspen, Carbondale, and the Denver suburb of Westminster; and a large number of cities in California, including Los Angeles, Malibu, Manhattan Beach, Menlo Park, Mill Valley, Newport Beach, Ojai, Palo Alto, Piedmont and Santa Barbara.

The noise a neighbor creates in pursuit of a minor landscaping objective is a form of environmental disruption: in some ways the equivalent of lighting the exterior of a house with the kinds of bright sodium lamps found in parking lots, or spreading lawn chemicals with odors and toxins that migrate across property lines. We don’t think of excessive sound as pollution.  But it is.  As I noted in my study, The Sonic Imperative: Sound in the Age of Screens, it makes sense to think of noise as aural refuse. It’s another kind of tangible junk that degrades a space.

Granted, blowers can tidy up a property in short order.  Full disclosure: I have one as well that gets limited use for just a few minutes at a time. A “short duration” rule doesn’t completely take me off the hook, but one practical issue with these devices is the long lengths of time that these noisy two cycle engines are allowed to run. At work I’ve had students try to hear above four “backpack” leaf blowers outside the windows of my classroom.  It’s always a lost cause; their presentations lose out to the machines used to comb acres of groomed lawn. In several instances the fracas resulted in some heated exchanges with members of the landscape crew in what should have been a tranquil environment. Those guys were just following orders. But like the rest of us, they probably didn’t think much about how a manufactured racket can deprive others of their right to be left undisturbed.