Saturday, July 27, 2013

Oversimplifying Simplicity

The Way to Eden.
I'm reading Ken Segall's thoughts and experiences while working with Steve Jobs. He's had so much interaction with Steve while at Apple and NeXT that he's a cornucopia of best design and marketing practices.

Segall talks about how "one" is the simplest of concepts. It's an intriguing philosophy – there was even an entire episode of Star Trek dedicate to this concept and its followers.

This belief in "one" is why Apple's mice, track pads, iPhones, etc., from the beginning, have only one button. One is where it all begins.

What's the simplest numeral system? It's certainly not base 10 (decimal) since you have to memorize 10 different digits. Is it base 2 (binary)? After all, computers and human DNA work in binary (ones and zeros or A-T and C-G combinations) for storing information. Certainly binary is the simplest? Au contraire; how many people can convert 1010 from binary to base 10? Not simple... not simple at all.

The simplest numeral system.
It turns out that unary is the simplest numeral system for representing natural numbers – in other words, unary uses just ones. Before there was written or spoken language this is how a cave man would keep track of "How many?" things he owed. Take a pile of rocks and for each one of something, you move a rock to another pile. Do the reverse when taking inventory.

This is how a bouncer counts people at the door or how the simplest of card counters tries to beat the house at blackjack. We've all used unary to keep track of things when we tally items with four slashes and then a diagonal.

Something Simpler?
Where I disagree with Segall's thinking is when he points out "zero is the only number that's simpler than one." Ironically, this not the case as I learned from my assembly language professor, Mr. Lee. If you think back to when we learned Roman numerals in grade school (I, II, III, IV...) you'll quickly realize that there was no numeral for zero. This is also true in other ancient civilizations' numeral systems such as Chinese and Arabic. As simple as zero seems, it's a fairly complex concept to have nothing of something – just try to ask any handheld calculator to divide by zero and you'll see that it does not compute.

Trying to be simpler than the simplest makes things more complex.

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