The Bullet and The Foot: Nov 04, 2009

Quote of the Day
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." --Albert Einstein
Apple TV has an update
Well at some point in the recent past I was all aflutter about my new AppleTV. Well I woke it up this morning and there was an update waiting for me. They have added a new "Internet Radio" feature, and the menu is a bit tidier, but nothing radical.

Of course, when I first got the device I did everything I could to extend it with third party hacks. I added Boxee, and Nitro TV, (and in the process accidentally nuked my external hard drive with all of my archived iTunes content...).

What I found that none of those new features did me a lick of good. Sure there was a hulu feed, when it worked. I could stream the Daily Show... when it worked. (And it never worked.) And with a flip of the wrist I could throw on some educational human anatomy content*. When it worked. There was content from the Discovery Channel, and video podcasts. But all in all, everything on Boxee required the bulk of my internet connection. And by in large I could "start" a video. 5 minutes later it would "start" playing. 30 seconds in I would exceed the buffer, and have to wait another 5 minutes. So to watch some...thing... with... out... interruption... I... could... pause... a... 20... minute... show... and... it.... might... be... fin...ished... down...load...ing... 2... hours... later....

That, by itself would have been tolerable. However, the hacks were utterly obnoxious about replacing parts of the Apple TV operating system. The startup logo looked terrible after the hack. It inserted a pile of pointless menu items. The screen saver stopped working. I ended up with a cluttered device that worked worse than when I started playing with it. After about a week, I did a factory reflash of the Apple TV.

I've never really looked back. Largely because all of those hacks also lock you out of further improvements to the Apple TV.

The niche of the Apple TV is to be a giant iPod for your big screen TV. It syncs with your computer. It can do some downloading and purchasing on it's own. Because it's integrated in with the iTunes on your computer there are so many things it doesn't have to do. I can give my daughter the remote control, and she can find her favorite shows. Her technophobic grandmother figured out the controls.

It's so simple it's brilliant.

About Today's Quote
If you remember from Yesterday, I was talking about how ethics is a balancing act. Wisdom is too. Our world is made of chaos and contradictions, and the quickest way to get ourselves stuck is to follow "hard fast rules."

In all matters of life, following rules incurs a certain amount of effort. Above and beyond the personal rewards that one is seemingly denied by following rules. Rules require mental effort. You have to a) keep track of them, b) know when to apply them, and c) know how to apply them. Even before you act on them, there's effort.

One principle in Engineering is that the product with the fewest parts, wins. What makes computers so much cheaper is that as chips get more complex, we need fewer and fewer of them. If you look at an old computer, there are expansion cards for sound, expansion cards for video, your network card was...a card. Back in the bad old days you had a processors, and a math co-processor. And RAM chips were so ridiculously small you needed banks and banks of them. You would open up a computer and there would be hundreds of those little black chips, and thousands of wire traces.

Today, most computers have a network chip. Another chip handles the USB. (Which replaced how many different types of peripherals?) We are getting several "computers" on a single chip with multi-core processors. And you'd be hard pressed to find more than 8 or so DRAM chips. Now, internally these chips are monstrously complex. But it doesn't cost anything extra to manufacture a monstrously complex chip. (They are "developed" like one would copy a photograph.)

Pop open your computer case some time. Modern computers are ridiculously simple on the inside these days. The result is that computers are so cheap to manufacture, our biggest problem is how to dispose of outmoded ones.

I could give you a pile of further examples in technology where simple wins. But honestly, you could find them on google in less time than it would take me to index them here.

My major "take home" for the day is that simple also works in everyday life. Elaborate vacation plans fall apart when a plane arrives late, and the timetable has to be completely re-adjusted. Bizarre financial schemes tend to fall apart do to the law of unintended consequences.

While I am harping on the virtues of simplicity, let us not forget the second part of todays quote: and not simpler. Making things overly simple can be more disastrous than making things overly complex.

Take Walmart's Sick Leave Policy. It fails to take into account they have humans working for them. And humans tend to pass on communicable diseases, like, oh, the flu. They just want something strict and enforceable, and who cares if they are shooting themselves in the foot of productivity by forcing sick people to work who will make everyone else ill.

Zero-Tolerance is another one of those areas where intellectual laziness passes for policy. It leads to children expelled for aspirin, having a marching band prop in their car, or trading another child for a peanut butter sandwich. No thought is given to measuring harm before doling out punishment. And the results are people victimized by the very system that is supposed to protect them.

There are also plenty of cases from our religiously zealous friends. I could list them for days. But by in large they are a simple principle, that doesn't work in practice, but that doesn't keep them from trying to force it on the rest of us. Because life would be so simple if we all just acted that way...

To wrap up, simplicity is something good. But you can't make anything simpler than reality.

* - Not that anybody uses the internet for pr0n...

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