Saturday, July 27, 2013

Revenge of the Engineers

One of the functions of writing is to rid oneself of the burden of frustration.  One of the functions of reasoning is the same.  In my case, this post is one of my innumerable efforts to sublimate my naturally contentious and accusatory tone into something reasonable.  Please note I have avoided the f word.  Barely.

The reader may remember Ockam’s Razor, the rule that says that “among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected. In other words, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.”

Similar to this is Robert Heinlein’s own Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which can be reasonably explained by stupidity.”  Like Occam's Razor, this is a good rule to follow, I'm sure.  If you can.  We all remember Warren Burger as Chief Justice when the common question was, "Is he evil or is he stupid?"  Note that this is not a question applied to the current Chief Justice.  So Heinlein's Razor can at times be violated.

The case at hand is the typical state of consumer electronics instructions, which can be rightly understood to be "incomprehensible."  Heinlein is probably correct, but nonetheless, I have my own hypothesis.

This comes up for me today because  I am buying a new Toshiba machine to dub my old family VCR tapes onto DVD.  If you had no prior experience with electronics, you would think that the instructions would be straightforward.  Given our common experience, however, one's fondest hope is that we can put in the DVD, put in the VHS tape, push something that says “dub VHS onto DVD” and it will work, without need for instructions.  One knows, however, that it will not be so easy.  Certainly it will be nearly impossible to label the DVD’s except by physically writing on them with a Sharpie, a la Tyrell Owens. But that could be acceptable, not using all the machine's capabilities, if we can just get the basics to work.

Is it too fatalistic to think that the instructions will be useless or worse?  Here is a comment on this Toshiba from a customer in Amazon, when another customer wrote in to detail the advice he had gotten from Toshiba customer service: “Your instructions were about 100% more helpful than the 100 page instruction manual in about 10 easy steps. Thank You!!”

So the question is, trying to sublimate anger to understanding, why does this happen??  Heinlein would say, because the companies are stupid.  My wife would say, because they are translated from the original Japanese.  I find these explanations wanting.

Look at the market. One would think that, since the machines are all so similar, a company would figure out that writing excellent instructions would give them a market advantage.  But we have here, over many decades, a stable phenomenon of shitty instructions.  Something more must be at work.

Shenkin’s Theory of the Revenge of the Engineers violates Heinlein’s Razor in favor of an unspoken conspiracy.  Who are the engineers?  My general way of understanding the world is to reflect back to high school.  Remember our fellow students who are now engineers, who in high school (and college) could sometimes put a sentence together, but who could not put paragraphs together, and whose work for English or Social Studies was generally unreadable?  They might try, or not, but as good as they were in math and science, their frustration with the English language, or any other language, mounted and mounted until they gave up on the enterprise all together.  They thought, “It’s not me!  Why don’t the stupid English majors read what I write and understand and admire it?  It’s perfectly logical.”

Now turn these guys loose on the modern world of electronics.  They design them, and they are great.  Usually.  Steve Jobs looked at them and often said, "I can't make this thing work!  I can't understand it!"  That is what made Apple the company it is today.  The engineers can't put themselves in other people's shoes.  "It's their fault if they are stupid!" think the engineers.  Why can’t someone just look at machines and see intuitively how they should wor?.  Ask the engineer to explain it, and they are caught without words.  They just want to say, “Look!”  Given the incomprehension of non-engineers, why would they turn to the English language that has tortured them so much?  Why would they make things easy for people who actually understood word order, and who probably laughed at the engineers’ incomprehension of language?  Instead, it is the Revenge of the Engineers.  We have a great machine here that does incredible things.  Knock your heads against them and see what happens, while we laugh!

You have seen them laughing at us, haven’t you, as we struggle with this machine or that?  Sweet revenge, that’s all it is.

Of course, I also believe in conspiracies for the Kennedy assassinations.

Budd Shenkin

Saturday, July 6, 2013

My Body, My App

I don’t have many apps; I’m not an app kind of guy, I think.  Or maybe just not yet. 

But one app I do have is called MyFitnessPal.  Chooo-boy!  What an app!  What a pal!  Even here in Europe where my phone isn’t working – thanks, Verizon, for the stellar advice that all I had to do was take my iPhone with me and there would be no problem, where do they get these moron advisors? – I’m still using my iPhone for MyFitnessPal. 

After every meal, every snack, every exercise session, every long walk, I’m on MyFitnessPal to record what I ate and what I did.  Good thing they don’t have a section for fart-recording, or I’d be on it 27 times a day (I haven’t monitored that, I just saw it as a “fact” brought up by iGoogle, asserting that men and women fart equally, which I can’t believe.)

And what a food inventory it has!  Probably everything Trader Joe’s has to offer seems to be stored in MyFitnessPal.  Plus you get to record your own favorite dishes – Eggs Budd is now in there, two fried eggs sunny side up, sliced bell pepper, green onions, and a couple of Kalamata olives, or do I have to record them separately?  I forget.  220 calories, I estimate.  I was amazed that frozen yoghurt is only 165 calories, so I’m eating it every day.  Could that be right?

I put in my current weight, 190 pounds, my desired weight,180 pounds, and MyFitnessPal figured out I could consume 1,510 calories each day and reach my goal in five weeks.  If I exercise more, I can eat more.  Each day I get the message, if each day were like this one, you would weigh x pounds in 5 weeks.  I’m usually getting a message of 181 pounds – from my app to God’s ears!

If I recorded my weight -- which I can’t because I can’t weigh myself on this ship, and in fact I can hardly do it at home because the Claremont men’s locker room scale can under-weigh you or over-weigh you, whichever you wish, such is the virtue of flexible incompetence.  Talk about being everything to everybody.  But in fact if I did record my weight, MyFitnessPal would give me a running commentary on my progress.  Until I get home, I assessing my progress by fingering the roll of fat I have accumulated in my midriff.  By that assessment, I have a long way to go and progress is not being recorded as is implied by MyFitnessPal.

Basically, MyFitnessPal is a good thing.  I have to partially hide my entries because my wife accuses me of OCD, but I like having something to continually record, and I like to be achieving something.  Can a little OCD be a bad thing?  I’m hoping not, if properly channeled, to health and self-improvement.  But that’s a side issue, no?

Most importantly, it makes each move have palpable consequences.  I had herring for breakfast the other day – 220 calories, right there in front of me, on MyFitnessPal!  None of this, well it was fish, it must be OK.  Hey, I have 480 calories for breakfast!  Today, I didn’t reach for a banana after lunch – hey, it’s fruit, isn’t that a good thing? – because I saw the 100 calorie consequences looming.  And I get credit for my exercise.  400 calories expended and I have some wiggle room for dinner.

Like many things, MyFitnessPal represents the transfer of science from the lab to the people.  The great Roger Bannister was a medical student who saw what physiology was like.  I know, I saw it, too.  It was incredibly analogical.  In our lab we hooked up little animal beating hearts to little strings, had little pens dropping down from the strings, a running paper beneath the pen, and there was our tracing.  Leonardo could have done better, and that was in the 16th century.  (Indeed, he did do better, I read about it.)

So medical student Roger hooked himself up to physiology machines that measured components of his endurance, measured his improvement, got his buddy Chris Chataway to pace him, and 3:59.4 for the mile was the result.  But for months prior he was stuck in the lab, breathing into gas containers and measuring his lactic acid, I guess – I read about it.  Roger didn’t have an app like MyFitnessPal.

Somewhat like Roger, there I was with my medical student pals at Harvard, measuring each other for practice.  My partner John Wesley and I passed gastroesophageal tubes down each other’s noses – “OK, Shenkin, that’s enough!”  John cried, or was that when I was trying to get blood from his antecubital vein? – and measured each other’s gastric pH, probably, and found out what it was like to get a tube passed down your nose and throat and work for a while at a lab bench with it in place spewing out bile.

And then later I was paired with Jesse “Killer” Kahn as we did rectal exams on each other.  “Yeah, there’s the prostate,” observed Jesse.  “OK, Jesse, that’s enough!” came out of my mouth, wishing for his finger to leave my rectum promptly.

You have to say that a non-invasive iPhone app like MyFitnessPal is a big improvement.  Of course, you still have to type it in, and there’s a lot of estimating going on.  Was that a cup of pineapple?  How much would a cup be?  How much moussaka?  Which dolma, the 90 calorie or the 220 calorie kind?  Was I really walking a 2 miles an hour for 3 hours in Venice; is shopping exercise?  Is the exercise machine telling me the truth about calories?

Actually, it’s kind of like going through customs, because you have to decide how much to declare.  Not that I wouldn’t declare everything, Mr. NSA, are you there?  Never, not at all.  But I do know some people who wouldn’t declare everything, in fact, I’m pretty sure someone I know didn’t declare everything last time they passed through customs.  In fact, I’m quite willing to give you their names, NSA, really, I am.  But I declare everything, seriously.

So, I don’t know how I got onto that sidetrack, but I have to say, MyFitnessPal is really a fine tool, probably much finer than the scale at the Claremont, I have to hope.  I guess the next step would be for the app to take a picture of what I’m eating and judge the weight and calories just from the picture, and route it to MyFitnessPal directly, or at least directly from the NSA satellite.  In fact, doesn’t this give you a great idea about how to solve the great obesity epidemic problem?  Just pair it with an iPhone with electroshock capacity. 

Please don’t mention that idea to anyone.  I hear apps are where the money is these days.  Maybe I really am an app kind of guy.

Budd Shenkin