Category Archives: Simple isn’t Easy

Simple vows for singletons

Today I found out something interesting about individuality, which seems a useful thing to explore a couple of weeks before I marry.
My fiance and I spent this morning sitting outside a cafe working out what wedding vows we want to use. We are having a humanist ceremony and are enjoyong the freedom that gives us. However, many of the people who suggest vows and readings for weddings combine a tin ear for language and a sweetly romantic view of love, producing the verbal equivalent of a Thomas Kinkaid painting. (Look for the positive in each other? For sure, but not in those terms). We’ve had to trim and shape much of what we found.
It’s a truism that the newer the word, the more weasily it will be. Shakespeare and Chaucer could handle the big stuff like love and life and death and taxes so we were pruning out jargon, psychobabble and bullcrap.
However, we struggled with one idea.  We respect each others’ individuality and are pretty good at not projecting our own nuroses on to each other and we do at least know we shouldn’t burden each other with expectations. But could we find simple language for it?  Could we ever.
In the end we realised that it’s because the idea of the individual, in particular the rights of the individual, comes from the Reformation and the Enlightenment.  It’s not an idea that is easy to express in simple non-latinate English.
Interesting, huh?

Today I confirmed something about individuality, which is that it hasn’t been around that long.  An interesting thing to remind myself of less than three weeks before I marry.

My fiancé and I sat outside a cafe this morning working out what wedding vows we want. (It will be a humanist ceremony and we are enjoying the freedom it gives us). However, many of the suggested vows and readings were written by people who combine a tin ear for language and a sweetly romantic view of love, producing the verbal equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting. (Look for the positive in each other? For sure, but not in those terms). We had to trim and shape much of what we found.

It’s a truism that the newer the word, the more weasily it is. Shakespeare and Chaucer handled the big stuff like love and life and death and taxes just fine, so words that were good enough for them were good enough for us.  We happily pruned away the jargon, psychobabble and bullcrap, drank tea and coffee and watched the world go by.

However, we struggled with one idea.  We value each others’ individuality and are pretty good at not projecting our own neuroses on to each other, and we do at least know we shouldn’t lay expectations on each other. But could we find simple language for it?  Could we ever.

In the end we realised that it’s because the idea of the individual, in particular respecting the rights of the individual, comes from the Reformation and the Enlightenment.  Chaucer and Shakespeare lived in a world where people were subjects not citizens, where god was in his heaven and every now and again divinely appointed a king.  So respecting the individual is not an idea that is easy to express in simple non-latinate English.  Before Luther, no-one needed or used the words.

Interesting, huh?

Orthogonally parked in a parallel universe – not so Smart after all

I learned a new word in a workshop the other week: Orthogonal.  It means “at a right angle to”  in the same way that “diagonal” doesn’t.  X and Y axes are “orthogonals”, so are longitude and latitude.

Words like that make me shiver with pleasure.  The problem is that though I find them exciting and sexy, other people can find them really off-putting. (I guess it depends on whether you found reading an exciting escape from the humdrum as a child or whether it was what you were forced to do when it was too wet to play football). Anyway, I held up the meeting and said “back up a minute, what does that mean?” But you can’t do that when you are reading a document.  

Ultimately words are there to communicate, so although “orthogonal” is undeniably funky, it makes more sense to use “in another dimension” to put the point across.  Shame though.  It’s an oddly satisfying word.  

Almost worth buying a Smart car to do some orthogonal parking.

Couldn’t have put it better myself:

The simplest solutions are often the cleverest. They are also usually wrong.

The simplest solutions are often the cleverest. They are also usually wrong.

If not duffers, won’t drown

Better drowned than duffers 
if not duffers won’t drown

The young teenagers in Swallows and Amazons spend their entire summer camping and sailing around Lake Coniston.  When their father gives them permission by telegram, he explicitly states that he trusts their common sense and sense of self-preservation to keep them out of danger, and he puts in a  rider about the Darwinian consequences of stupidity.  

This may seem a long way from good Business Analysis, but it’s too easy to let caution drive out common sense and pragmatism when you are in the world of risk avoidance and business rules.  I’d forgotten what it was like to live in a world where I’m trusted not to be stupid.  Shetland is a delight because it is just such a world.  Let me give you three examples:

The Broch at Mousa is an archaeological site of international importance.  Brochs were large cooling-tower shaped buildings built by the Picts in the last few centuries BC.  They were only ever built in Shetland, Orkney and Northern Scotland and little is known about them because the Picts seem to have been wiped out by the Norse in the first millenium AD.  The Broch at Mousa stands 13 meters tall (about 4 storeys) and is the most complete.  

The Broch at Mousa

The Broch at Mousa

Compare it in your mind with Stonehenge, the Pyramids at Giza or the Taj Mahal in terms of unique cultural importance.  The building isn’t particularly fragile but it’s a dry-stone building so it is vulnerable to souvenir hunters.  

Get this: there is a cupboard containing torches to help you climb the staircase spiraling around the broch inside its double-skinned walls.  

Inside the broch at Mousa

Inside the broch at Mousa

The underlying assumption here is that they can’t stop you, so they might as well make it safer.  They assume that you’re bright enough to realise that it’s risky particularly so in the wet or the winter, and that you have enough imagination to work out the consequences of breaking a leg on an uninhabited island. If not duffers, won’t fall.

Sign on the door of the Broch at Mousa

Sign on the door of the Broch at Mousa

Second example:  we had a long chat about shipwrecks with the chap who was manning the Croft House Museum.  He had a practical interest in the subject because he’d been the last man to sound the foghorn at the light-house where we were staying.   We talked about the ferry that ran aground at Blackpool.  

The Blackpool Ferry - originally came to rest tilted at an angle but has now settled on to its side

The Blackpool Ferry - originally came to rest tilted at an angle but has now sunk on to its side

He simply could not understand why there were security guards around it.  If not duffers, won’t be crushed.  

Final example: the coolest level crossing in the world is where the road crosses the runway at Sumburgh airport.  There are lights, there is a bloke and a barrier but there’s nothing to stop you hanging a left and drag-racing.  If not duffers won’t burn up and down the runway as fast as your souped up Purgeot 206 will take you.

It would be easy to distract myself with a Daily Mail style rant about ‘elf an’ safety gorn mad, and it would be equally easy to speculate romantically that life on Shetland was so hard for so long that common sense is ingrained (the duffers presumably having been darwined out of the population) but that’s not really the point I’m making.

I am just going to note that if part of the role of the Business Analyst is to design lean systems that do just enough and no more, systems that are as simple as possible but no simpler, then Shetland is a living case study in how to do it.

Besides being a superb place for a holiday.

Note to self:

Make everything as simple as possible –

but no simpler.

Albert Einstein

Make everything as simple as possible - but no simpler

Speeding up the Internet, with fins and stripes and Chrome

Being a good geekette, I’ve just downloaded Chrome.  In fact I’m using it to type this right now.  And very cool it is too, but you know that already because you’ve read the reviews.  

Chrome runs separate processes in separate tabs.  One result of this is a leaner, fitter, faster browser.  It gives memory back when it’s finished with it and for that reason alone it took about 15 minutes to become my browser of choice.   

But as the Google dudes say:

“Google Chrome is a massive, complicated product that will need to load billions of different web pages so testing is critical.

“Fortunately here at Google we have an equally massive infrastructure for crawling web pages”.

That actually made me laugh out loud. 

In the meantime, I have to ask myself what is it about Google that makes it cool like Apple is cool and like Microsoft isn’t?  It’s tempting to think it’s the minimalism.  Certainly the video ‘If Microsoft made the iPod’ is a classic …

… and the most expensive and classiest piece of online real estate is all that white space on the original Google home page which I still prefer to the iGoogle version, arty though that is.

Google’s minimalist look has an interesting history.  It sounds kinda cute that the Google home page looks the way it does because that is what Marissa Mayer‘s mom would like.  But Marissa Mayer’s mom isn’t a sweet old lady making apple pies; she’s an artist.   Marissa’s an engineer, among many other things, and it’s an inescapable conclusion that part of what makes Google great is that it’s a place where there’s a strong and clean engineering aesthetic as well as a strong clean visual aesthetic.  

In other words, that Google is great because the engineers believe that simple is cool, even though they know that simple is really hard.

Maybe.