Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Taste of Success

Sisters, listen! Follow the honey suckle scent trail. 

Sisters, listen! Follow the dandelion scent trail.

Sisters, listen! Follow the food scent trail.

Daughter, what is this food? It is new, and we have not tasted it before. 

My mother, it is food that I found in the middle of a desert of no food at all. 


Yes, my mother. Shall we follow the honey suckle scent trail? Shall we follow the dandelion scent trail?

Yes, you may follow those trails, but only those trails. Meanwhile, call back all other explorers. We must plan what to do next.
All my daughters, divide up into your patterned groups. I shall feed you, and you shall feed me. Here is your first meal. When it has passed through all of you, bring it back to me.

Here, mother, the meal has been passed through all of us.

Very good. Let me taste the result. 
No, we will have to try a different plan. Here is your next meal. We shall do this until we get a good result.
Finally, we have a good result. This plan tastes good. 

Mother, we're ready to eat our plan. 

Then go on, and may the result taste good!
"Damn, look at the little buggers go!"

Safely outside the experimental area, Rob and Justin watched the ants clump at the ceiling over the prisoner's bed. When they had formed a ball of almost ten centimeters diameter, the ants holding on to the ceiling could no longer support their weight, and the entire swarm fell on the sleeping man's face. He woke, screaming and choking, but before he was even fully awake, the ants were swarming into his nose. The prisoner broke into fits of coughing and sneezing, ever more violently. His coughing turned to vomiting, and still the ants persisted. Blinded by stings and bites, the prisoner flailed his way to his sink, but the ants wouldn't let him wash them off.

"Should we call it a success?"

"No, we're supposed to let the experiment run its course. This guy is on death row, in any event."

"Sure, but... Oh, jeez, I think I'm going to be having nightmares for weeks. Are they seriously thinking this is a good idea? I mean, teaching ants how to make plans and kill people?"

Jason turned away as the prisoner was writhing on the floor of his cell, beating his face with his hands, and gasping for breath through his swelling throat. Ten minutes after the attack had started, the ants had finished their job.

"Log it?"

"Done. Do we gas the room now?"

"I think the docs will want to review the results before we do that."

"It just gives me the creeps to think these buggers are in the same building with me."

"Relax, they're sealed in tight."
All my daughters, the first part of our plan has tasted good. Now we must eat the second part of our plan.

Yes, mother. We are ready to eat the second part.
By the time the ants started to emerge into the dead prisoner's cell, climb the sink, and descend through the drain, Rob and Justin had turned off the lights, so they didn't see how the ant queen was carefully carried along doubled rows of powerful workers, who helped her swollen body up the wall, down the slick sides of the white painted metal sink, and down into the darkness of the drain.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Talented Dogs and Steve Jobs

So it's been getting cold here in Utah. Daytime highs aren't going to hit seventy again for another few months, and Elysa asked me to check on the furnace. I knew the pilot light was out, but I'd lit it plenty of times in the past. Piece of cake. Armed with a flashlight and a trusty BBQ lighter I descended to the lair of the beast and proceeded to follow instructions.

"1. Turn knob to off position and wait five minutes." The off label is not actually visible, hidden as it is behind the knob in a position where you have to work to find it. Without a flashlight I'd be out of luck. But I'd done this before, as I said, so I knew what to look for.

"2. Turn knob to pilot position and depress. 3. Light pilot light. Hold knob down until pilot light stays lit." This is why they tell you to read all of the instructions before following the individual steps, because without step 2, step 3 doesn't work, and without step 3, you don't actually know how to do step 2. Anyway, last night the pilot light wouldn't start. I tried various permutations of the "summer switch" (the heck does that mean, and is it supposed to be on or off for winter?) and I noticed that the gas supply valve for the furnace might be off , so I tried that, too. Nothing.

I was already resigned to having to call a furnace guy to come out and light my dang pilot light. This morning, though, I thought, that five minute waiting in the off position: I always assumed that was to allow things to cool down. What if it's to allow the gas to start flowing? If the gas supply was in fact off when I waited five minutes the first time, I ought to try it again with the gas supply in the other position, and wait five minutes. So I got the pilot light lit.

What does that have to do with dogs and Jobs?

Samuel Johnson is credited with the quip, " like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." (I'll go into the rest of Sam's quip some other time.) In other words, it's not like applauding a 10 year old singing a pitch perfect rendition of Gounod's Ave Maria on AGT, but more a case of applauding grandpa doing the Macarena during karaoke.

So the question is, why the applause? Why do we think it's amazing when someone does something that, seriously, should be a commonplace?

On to Steve Jobs. Dead now for more than a few days, though according to one Buddhist group he's currently residing in an invisible palace floating in space above the Apple campus, getting ready for his rebirth as a celestial warrior-philosopher. But while he was alive he had this reputation for designing stuff. See, that's what I mean about grandpa doing the Macarena: What do you mean, that's special? Shouldn't everyone be designing stuff?

My furnace has an instruction label on the front, and the control knob does have labels. That's the dog. That's grandpa. Nice, but why can't I get Jackie Evancho? Why can't I get proper design? I want a set of instructions that doesn't reduce furnace operations to a mystic ritual, and gas valves and "summer switches" with clearly understandable labels. And my furnace is just a start.

Do you own an electric steam iron? Does it tell you when it's reached the temperature that you set? Mine does have a little backlit LCD display with little blinking LCD arrows while it's heating up or cooling down. It also makes a supersonic beep noise that might be audible if I were a bat, and not a fellow with hearing aids. Thing is, I'm actually grateful for that much. Look through the selection of irons in your small appliance section. At least at the time I bought the one I have these features were not standard on an electric steam iron. But, look, grandpa is doing the Macarena. Wow!

Our fireplace is another example of horrible design. The flue damper is operated with a lever that protrudes down into the fire place. It's got two positions: back and front. Neither position is labeled, and the only way to tell if the flue is open or closed is to try one of the two positions and light a fire. If the smoke comes into the room, then try the other position. Hopefully there aren't any dead birds stuck in the chimney. That's an example where I couldn't even get grandpa to shuffle around the room with his zimmerframe, nevermind do the Macarena.

We are forced to deal with bad design or no design in common everyday things all the time. From cereal bowls that don't stack to soup spoons that will cut you if you try to eat with them, from dishwasher racks that can't hold glasses without having them tip over and break, to mechanical pencils that don't actually manage to hold the lead so you can write, to vacuum cleaners that hit you in the head with the handle when you try to use the hand tool, these undesigned objects of frustration range from the fairly innocuous (cellphones with a USB port as well as a charger socket) to the seriously hazardous (multifunction switches on the steering wheel column which let you honk the horn, signal a left turn, and smear your window with mud all in one, and often at the same time).

So when Steve Jobs sells a product that appears to have design involved, it's not surprising that people sat up and paid attention. Hey, grandpa is doing the Macarena! Lookit the dog, walking on its hind legs! How adorable!

It's not as if Apple products are universally well designed. The iPhone 4 had a problem antenna which made it pretty much unusable unless you bought it a case so you could hold it without disrupting its reception. Apple keyboards and mice are ergonomic crime zones, and the less said about the transparent case iMac, trendily industrial for maybe one shopping season, the better. But, hey, someone is at least occasionally thinking about design.

I don't think it'll change any time soon. Grandpa spends most of his time drooling in front of the TV which is set to Fox Cable News, with the volume too low to hear, and grandpa can't really read the ticker, either, even with his glasses. Every now and then you can get him to do the Macarena, but then he slumps back into his well worn chair, where you can be sure to find him anytime you want someone to tell you how folks used to do things. But it would be nice if the next furnace I buy will have clearly marked controls, with instructions that rise to some level above a kabbalistic ritual. Hope springs eternal.

Meanwhile I'll see if I can teach my cats to stay off the kitchen table.