Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Unintended user interface consequences

NASA released the report of the Columbia accident. The gruesome stuff was redacted, but there is plenty description of how things ended. But I was interested in the following user interface problem (I've italicized the interface problem, and ACES = Advanced Crew Escape Suit, i.e. pressure suit):
Deorbit burn occurred at GMT 13:15:30 (EI–1719/TIG+0). The burn was nominal, and Columbia began entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Per the checklist, a few tasks remain to be completed after the burn, including stowing the last laptop computer, which requires a crew member to be out of the seat. Crew equipment configuration items on the entry checklist (all crew members seated and strapped in, helmets and gloves donned, and suit pressure checked) were not entirely completed prior to EI. At least one crew member was not wearing the helmet and several were not wearing gloves. The flight deck video shows that conditions on the flight deck were nominal during the entire time of the video recording. The video shows the flight deck crew finishing most checklist tasks close to the planned times. However, one flight deck crew member did not yet have gloves in place in time for the ACES pressure check. One event of note occurred at GMT 13:36:04 (EI–485/TIG+1234) when the CDR bumped the rotational hand controller (RHC) accidentally. Movement of the RHC out of the centered position caused the digital autopilot (DAP) to “downmode” from the “Auto” mode to “Inertial” mode. When this occurred, a “DAP DOWNMODE RHC” caution and warning message was displayed, the INRTL button on the C3 panel was illuminated, and a tone, which can be heard in the recovered flight deck video, was annunciated. An immediate reactivation of the autopilot was performed by the CDR. The capsule communicator (CAPCOM) in the Mission Control Center (MCC) then requested the CDR to enter “another Item 27,” which is a command to fully recover the vehicle attitude from the bumped RHC. Bumping of the RHC is a relatively common occurrence by either the PLT or the CDR because the ACES is bulky and the area near the controls is confined. Such RHC bumps with prompt recovery represent a very low hazard to the crew. The original design specifications of the orbiters were for a shirtsleeve environment (i.e., no special clothing needed to be worn). Although pressure suits have been worn during launch and entry since the Challenger accident, no modifications were made to displays and controls to accommodate the ACES.
So as a result of the previous Challenger accident and the requirement to wear a pressure suit, bumping the controller is "relatively common".

The mention of the Digital Autopilot (DAP) caught my eye since back in the day we looked at reverse engineering formal specifications for a small portion as a demonstration. Also in the Columbia report is a discussion of the reaction control system (RCS) jets, that were firing continuously just before loss of control, trying to correct the flawed flight. That also reminded me that the bigger group we were associated with at NASA JPL was looking at formally specifying the RCS "jet select" system.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Office Space

We've previously talked about office space for knowledge workers, and Joel's post on the new Fog Creek offices (see slideshow) got me thinking about it again. Joel has some funny quotes
And I also knew that if I wasn’t intimately involved in every detail of the construction, we’d end up with the kind of life-sucking dreary cubicle hellhole made popular by the utopian workplace in “Office Space.”
Joel likes his Herman Miller and Arne Jacobsen chairs.

I like an Aeron chair and multiple big monitors as much as the next guy, but is it really worth it to have custom remodeled office in Manhattan? I've asked the same questions about ACM's NYC headquarters. How about puttin' it in Minot and saving us ACM members some money? :)

But seriously, I have no problem with providing a good environment to keep software people productive and satisfied. When I was at the Software Engineering Institute every office had a french door, and either a window or a view to the outside through the french door. The building was designed for the SEI (a description in architect-speak is here). One thing that didn't seem to work was from each office to the outside hall or lobby was a large but short conduit. I think the idea was to keep noise down by putting the computer outside in the hallway. I didn't see anyone actually do that :) Other things I seem to remember is people putting their MBTI diagram outside their office door so that you knew the personality you'd encounter, and a heuristic about office doors: closed and latched means don't bother me, closed but ajar means knock and come in if it's important, and open meant all visitors are welcome :)

Probably the nicest place I hung around was the short-lived Wang Institute of Graduate Studies, famous for its graduate software engineering program. It was a former seminary in the New England woods, and had its own pond. The key to the rowboat could be checked out from the receptionist; the boat was great for thinking. The library was the former chapel. Great place, but while we were there Dr. Wang announced he was closing the Institute.

In contrast, JPL and KSC tended to be DIlbertian cube farms for the most part, and unfortunately that's essentially what we have at Digital Campus now at Fresno State.

Bonus: the sad state of the Open Office (OO.o) project: "it should be clear that OO.o is a profoundly sick project, and worse one that doesn't appear to be improving with age."

Friday, December 26, 2008

Bill-Bill-Bill-Bill-Bill Nye the Science Guy

After his short lived marriage (or non-marriage) to the author of Mozart in the Jungle (a steamy look at the world of classical musicians) Bill Nye is back on the air with Stuff Happens.

I watched the "Where's the Beef" episode where Bill says that cows make more greenhouse gases than planes and cars combined, and that if you eat the US average amount of beef, it's like driving an extra 5000 miles/year. He also had some interesting things to say about organic wines vs wines from organic grapes, and cloth versus disposable diapers. As he points out, the latter question is not easy to answer, sort of like the disposable versus ceramic cup question.


Bob Sutton again

Another good post by Stanford business professor Bob Sutton. This one is "in praise of simple competence", and quotes someone who quotes someone: "Strategy is for amateurs; execution is for professionals".

Other ones you might remember:

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

MacHEADS, the next Trekkies?

MacHEADS The Movie: A documentary of Apple users, see the trailer and blog. Reminds me a little of Trekkies (and Trekkies 2).

Is that the one where Shatner tells a convention hall audience to "get a life"? No that was a Saturday Night Live skit. I can't find a legal copy of that, but you can watch John Belusi as Kirk, Chevy Chase as Spock, and Dan Aykroyd as McCoy. You though that was bad? The infamous Congress of Wonders on their 1970 album Revolting did an 11 minute parody infused with drug and sex references. You can listen to it by clicking on the picture of the two CoW guys to pop up a list of audio files (but you've been warned).

Speaking of Shatner, you can now watch episodes of his Biography channel Raw Nerve. So far I've learned that Valerie Bertinelli would be difficult to live with, and that Kelsey Grammer surfs.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sixty minutes

Interesting 60 Minutes tonight: A story on airport "security theater", with substantial clips of security expert Bruce Schneier (we've talked about him before), another on our governor and his vegetable oil powered Hummer, and a story on orphaned elephants.

Maybe elephants, like octopuses, prefer high def television. I know I do.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A pedestrian scramble

Three short things:
  • A funny little column about roadway terminology in Spectrum (we previous talked about traffic calming).
  • An article about my Ph.D. advisor's software safety group and what they've found out about electronic voting machines.
  • An American Airlines pilot details his last flight before retiring, including what those chimes mean during the flight.

Sugar and poinsettias

The LA Times reviews an end of the year issue of the British Medical Journal summarizing weird things (you can listen to the podcast here). Some things aren't too weird -- I though that poinsettias aren't poisonous is common knowledge. But kids and sugar? This shouldn't be too surprising:
Studies showed that children who consume large amounts of sugar are no more hyperactive than those who don't. But parents who think their kids have eaten sugar, even when they haven't, tend to rate them as being hyperactive.

Another thing in the news lately is a about workplace friendships. Actually, it is about workplace socializing (more about workplace friendships later):
Pentland and Waber found that the badge wearers with more social connections -- and more interactions with coworkers in their social network -- had the highest productivity, whether they were talking about work or, say, basketball. And people who spent the most time "in the groove," moving rhythmically as they went about their work, had higher productivity levels than others.
The badges
kept track of the wearers' location, direction, and voice inflections. When one badge wearer met another, the length and tone of the wearers' conversation was measured. The badges could even track subtle body shifts when wearers were sitting down. Then the researchers compared that data with the wearers' productivity.
You can read their paper from the April 2008 Journal of Information Processing and see data from one conversation among four people in Figure 1.

Does this offer anything to the long debate about workplace friendships?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Is there anything worse than a critic? :)

Michiko Kakutani's review in the NY Times of Malc's new book had one part that really makes me wince. Books like Gladwell's (and T-Fried's) can legitimately be criticized for pushing the stories or research too far, but I don't have too much of a problem with it. Part of being a critical reader would be tracking down the original research if something really bothers you. A lot of the social psych stuff that Gladwell cites is widely known (i.e., not stuff that is sitting off in the academic corner waiting to be discovered) and already debated. Similarly, Friedman has more formal training in middle east politics (B.A. in Mediterranean studies from Brandeis and Masters in Modern Middle East studies from Oxford), and on-the-ground experience, than I do so I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and check out things that don't seem right to me. I have more problems with Carl Sagan than with Malc or T-Fried :)

On the other hand, I've never been comfortable with the "10,000 hour" heuristic that Malc talks about, even if it is at least partially credited to Nobel-winner Herb Simon. [Herb Simon anecdote: When I was on sabbatical at the Software Engineering Institute at CMU I wanted to attend a seminar by Anita Borg (Mary Shaw was there also). There was a group in the room and the time for the seminar was close, so those of us in the hallway were getting antsy. Finally, one of us opened the door and asked if the current occupants were "about done". Eventually they left. Yes, it was Herb Simon and his graduate students. I felt a little bad about being part of that angry hallway mob. Actually we weren't angry, and we weren't a mob, but it is the only time I've seen a Nobel laureate kicked out of a room]

Back to Kakutani's review. This paragraph about the airline accident is frighteningly ignorant of the huge amounts of human factors research that has been done in this area.
Mr. Gladwell similarly raises the notion that cultural traditions may play a role in plane crashes, that the 1990 crash of Avianca Flight 52 over Long Island might have had something to do with the pilots’ being Colombian. He quotes Suren Ratwatte, a veteran pilot involved in “human factors” research, saying that “no American pilot would put up with” being held up by Air Traffic Control several times on its way to New York for more than an hour if he or she were running short of fuel. And drawing on the work of the psychologist Robert Helmreich, Mr. Gladwell argues that the pilots came from a culture with “a deep and abiding respect for authority” — which suggests that the first officer was reluctant to speak up when the exhausted captain failed to do so, and that both men failed to talk forcefully to the air traffic controllers, who were tough New Yorkers, unaccustomed to the pilots’ polite language.
The relatives of the 583 people who died on two 747's at Tenerife and those that died in a frozen Potomac river because of poor communication between first officer and captain might disagree with Kakutani. This phenomenon is so common that NASA Ames has studied the heck out of it.

Let's end this on a good note: A front-seat view of a landing at St. Maarten. Click on "more info" for probably the most informative explanation I've seen on YouTube :)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Malc at Pop!Tech

Another Malc video, this time he is talking at Pop!Tech 2008 about his book about genius, Outliers (there's also a Pop!Tech talk of his from 2004 discussing the Blink material).

In Outliers he talks about the "10,000 hour rule" for becoming an expert in just about anything, made famous in a 1993 article "The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance" by Ericsson, Krampe, Tesch-Römer (Fresno State people can click here).

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Tokeneer sounds like a fan of the Lord of the Rings books and movies (OK, that would be Tolkieneer) but it is the latest of a public example of a "fully" formal software development effort. You can read a few paragraphs about it in the most recent Dr. Dobb's here and peruse the official website. Software engineering students will be interested in some of the statistics, particularly about productivity
The Tokeneer ID Station system’s key statistics are:

lines of code: 9939
total effort (days): 260
productivity (lines of code per day, overall): 38
productivity (lines of code per day, coding phase): 203
defects discovered since delivery: 1
In some ways I find this a little depressing since I see some of thee same people who were doing FM when I was doing my PhD in this area in the late 1980s (Tony Hoare, for example) and the number of lines of code that are being verified (my PhD advisor formally specificed and proved a secure UNIX kernel in the late 1970s, now doing voting machines).

That said, this NASA formal methods workshop at Ames sounds encouraging, and I recognize some of the names from people I bumped into when working with the formal specification of the space shuttle jet select group at JPL.

Monday, November 03, 2008


I forgot to mention that cognitive scientist Steven Pinker (you remember him) was on BookTV this past weekend for, yes, three hours. He's an interesting guy, and there is at least one caller from Fresno.


Two things from the latest MIT Technology Review: and an article from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin about using an 800mm lens to take pictures from the stands at a UH football game, and from Scientific American, a sort of ridiculous article about using "malevolent logic to define the dark side of the human psyche". hmm.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I never thought I'd see this

Hodgman doing a video. I received his new book today, yay for Amazon.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Don't downsize the innovators

Bob Sutton has a great post about downsizing. Do you layoff employees, and if so, who goes? Or do you hang on and, since they aren't as busy, have the employees do more professional development in anticipation of an upturn? He also restates the common HR caution about not just hiring people who are like you, and especially, don't lay off the innovators
A downturn can be an opportunity to get rid of incompetent people and, of course, destructive assholes. But beware of the evils of using layoffs as a reason to expel everyone in your organization who does not act, think, and look like everyone else -- beware that most of us are prone to hold an overly narrow image of a "good employee." As I show in Weird Ideas that Work, since we human-beings have powerful and positive emotional reactions to people who are "just like us," and equally powerful negative reactions to people who are "different," the hiring process in most organizations acts to "bring in the clones."
Anyway, maybe it's not innovative, but I though the new PC-Mac "bean counter" ad was pretty good, but probably not a impressive as Hodgman's singing in a previous ad.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A clean cube is a happy cube?

A Money article is about "Audi's clean desk fetish". The clean desk versus clutter desk argument has been going on for a long time.
Some researchers, however, dispute the benefits of a spotless workplace. When Herman Miller (MLHR), an office furniture supplier, conducted an observational study of workplace organizational habits, they found that "filers" actually stored more useless information than their unkempt counterparts. The company identified a group of "work masters," or efficient employees, and reported that those staffers were more inclined towards piling than filing.

"When people place things on their desks, they're encoding information in the spatial connections and layers," says David Kirsh, a professor of cognitive science at UCSD. Kirsh, who studies workers in their natural settings, says many workers prefer to use a two dimensional surface. "If you disrupt that and force them to stack or file, you lose information."
Kirsch, that name sounds familiar doesn't it? Yes, he is the distributed cognition guy, along with Hutchins, whom I've talked about before. The famous paper (Fresno State people click here, everyone else here) is:
James Hollan, Edwin Hutchins, & David Kirsch (2000). Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction Research. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 7(2), pp. 174-196.
Sometimes the reason for a clean desk is a more about security (IBM used to be big on that) or safety, which is hard to argue against. But from a cognitive or productivity point of view, does a cluttered desk implies a cluttered mind?

Maybe not :)
"A clean desk isn't always the sign of a productive employee."


"In fact, a clean desk can hinder worker efficiency."

I love this guy.

The premise is that people use their desk space as an extension of their minds.

"The human mind, specifically short-term memory, has a limited capacity," Brand said. "It has seven, plus or minus two, 'chunks' available for storing things.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Deconstructing the airport

Pretty interesting talk by Paco Underhill about "how to remake air travel for the twenty-first century". Malcolm Gladwell hosts -- his final question to the speaker is whether the airport experience is inherently unpleasant :)

More Malc videos here.

Monday, October 06, 2008

When to do what

Jakob Nielsen's alertbox column does it again: a really nice description of "When to use which user experience research methods". It complements something I posted earlier about software engineering experimentation.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Forgot one

Another thing that got me thinking about evidence-based-medicine (and evidence-based-software-engineering) was Bob Sutton's post about "... Ten Commandments for Minimizing Medical Errors":
He [Michael Guiliano] also cited some more general research showing that diagnostic error occurs in 10 to 25 percent cases in medicine in general... He went through many causes of these errors, but one I found especially interesting (in light of our emphasis on parents earlier in the morning) was research cited in Jerome Groopman's How Doctors Think, which discussed how badly doctors interact with and listen to patients -- including one study that found that the average doctor only waits 18 SECONDS before interrupting a patient who has begin to describe his or her symptoms.

It not only costs a lot and is inconvenient, it's not as good as it should be :(

A recent interview with Evan Handler (the actor) about his health care experiences
In his books "It's Only Temporary," and "Time on Fire," Handler wrote that during his months in the hospital, he was given intravenous drugs that were supposed to go to another patient, that nurses tried to give him medications his doctors had forbidden for him and that staff members refused to follow the hospital's posted hygiene precautions for immunosuppressed patients like himself.
and an October article in FastCompany
For patients, of course, getting what's been proven to work is nothing more than we expect from a Jiffy Lube. But according to a 2003 New England Journal of Medicine paper, only 55% of American patients get all the treatment that is generally accepted as necessary for their problems. To make sure the number at Geisinger is near 100%, surgeons, pre- and post-operation, face a computer screen that asks a set of questions: Is the patient on a beta blocker? A statin? Were antibiotics given at least 60 minutes before surgery and discontinued after 48 hours? A staffer sends an email query if there's no response to any of the 40 steps.
and Harold Thimbleby's article in interactions "Ignorance of Interaction Programming is Killing People" (watch the YouTube video of a medical interface) reminded me of the National Safety Council's "Odds of dying from injury" data.

What is your lifetime probability of fatality caused by "Complications of medical and surgical care and sequelae"? Take a moment to think about that. It's probably much worse than you think: 1 in 1,308. Pretty unbelievable. Although not as bad as lifetime odds for a transportation accident: 1 in 80. At NASA KSC I remember a briefing where we were told that the best guess of a fatal space shuttle accident (at that time) was about 1 in 84. More than you ever wanted to know about the PRAN (probability risk analysis number) here, and a quote:
In fact, the Shuttle’s real-world track record provides a bleaker assessment: The number of shuttle catastrophes (2) over the number of shuttle launches (114), places the statistical, historical catastrophe odds around one in 57, or 1.7%. This number is misleading, say NASA officials, because it doesn’t take into account lessons learned, and safety measures implemented to prevent similar accidents in the future
Changing the subject, computer security expert Bruce Schneier has a very interesting column on "The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Terrorists" in Wired:
Terrorists, he [Max Abrahms] writes, (1) attack civilians, a policy that has a lousy track record of convincing those civilians to give the terrorists what they want; (2) treat terrorism as a first resort, not a last resort, failing to embrace nonviolent alternatives like elections; (3) don't compromise with their target country, even when those compromises are in their best interest politically; (4) have protean political platforms, which regularly, and sometimes radically, change; (5) often engage in anonymous attacks, which precludes the target countries making political concessions to them; (6) regularly attack other terrorist groups with the same political platform; and (7) resist disbanding, even when they consistently fail to achieve their political objectives or when their stated political objectives have been achieved.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

What is that?

Finally, a google maps application to answer the question "What can I see from here?" It actually accounts for the curvature of the earth, and refraction. Be sure to play around with the "visibility cloak" button. If you want to see how it's done, the FAQ is interesting.

Changing the subject, here are a couple of places for your next Fresno County vacation you can compare east side versus west side soaks: Mercey Hot Springs, and Mono Hot Springs. You might want to base the visits on which water appeals to you more: this or that.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

McConnell on agility, and far-out pictures

Earlier this week Steve McConnell had a webinar about agile software engineering, sponsored by the IEEE Computer Society. I usually can't stand webinars, but this one is good. McConnell knows his stuff (I've talked about him several times). The archive of the recent webinar is here.

Someone at is fascinated with pixels and took close-up pictures of HDTV screens. See the slide show here.

Finally, I am thinking about how to use Google's real-time analytics for YouTube videos. It might be useful for usability tests, but I'm not sure yet.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Fossils and Petrifications

I was looking for something online today and accidentally found Memorial and Biographical History of the counties of Fresno, Tulare and Kern, California originally published in 1892. This section on "Fossils and Petrifications" is bizarre, especially the part about the "wonderful 'find' of a human petrifaction".
The most interesting of fossil discoveries was the exhumation of the mammoth and of man - "proof positive of the existence of both at the same time," and that "both occupied this country together with saurians the remains of all three being found in the same gravel deposit and stratum." The above is quoted from a history made of Fresno County in 1882. It is somewhat surprising to the writer that the broad claim should be made "proof positive" by one who has seen the wonderful conformations of California, and note the laws of nature as applied to other regions being here set aside. The strata are here more disturbed and thrown out of order than in any other country. The remains of the mastodon might have been thrown up from a burial place of centuries, and again submerged with that of man at a time when he, too, was destroyed by the mighty throes of Mother Nature. Finding the remains of mastodons, saurians and man in one common sepulcher proves nothing more than that they are there together; it does not even tend to prove they lived at the same period in the same locality. It is said that the first mastodon remains were found on the Fresno river, some distance above what is known as the adobe bottom. It measured twenty-two feet in length; the tusks were eleven feet, and curving upward; at the base they were five feet apart. The legs were short, but very heavy. The whole structure was complete, but with all the care and wisdom of the discoverers, they were unable to put the bones together so as to reproduce the animal. ...

As has already been stated in the geological summary of the valley, the Coast Range mountains contain numerous petrifactions. There was a wonderful "find" of a human petrifaction in Cantua canon near the Coast Range, in December, 1890. S. L. Packwood and I. N. Barrett of Fresno City were working in said canon on December 12, where Packwood owned a timber claim. They were seeking a suitable site to construct a dam to divert the waters of the canon upon a piece of land which was to be brought into cultivation, when Mr. Barrett discovered a human foot protruding from the bank of the stream. Both men viewed the object with amazement, and were the more surprised on feeling the foot and finding it to resemble stone. Their curiosity led them to unearth the remains, and soon they decided to take them to Fresno. The weight was about 500 pounds. Arriving at Fresno, the petrifaction attracted all, and several of the medical profession made a thorough examination, and took measurements of the petrifaction and pronounced it genuine and not of a "Cardiff" nature. The general appearance of the body led to the conclusion that he was a fine specimen of the Castilian race. He measured six feet four and one-half inches in height, foot eleven and one-half inches in length, length of arm sixteen and one-half inches, and length of forearm, twelve inches, and length of legs thirty-six inches. This is the most wonderful petrifaction found in the county and preserved.
If you want to see lots of fossils, take a tour of the Fairmead landfill, in Madera county. It is possibly the largest Pleistocene fossil deposit in the country, and pretty impressive to see. It looks like the Madera Mammoths website is still under construction.

The story of Jim Savage is for another day :) In the meantime, you can read about our local train robbers who hid in the foothills around Pinehust, Badger, Eshom, and Redwood Canyon. Their hideouts would make good but treacherous geocaches :) This picture will remind you that "crime does not pay" :)

Libraries and cannons

The recent hurricane Ike exposed a civil war shipwreck (that was also exposed in 2006). That reminded me of a big storm from UCSB days. It was the only time I remember full size trees washed up on the Santa Barbara beaches, along with the terrible smell of dead seal lions and elephant seals. A lot of sand was ripped from the beaches, also unusual. But that exposed old cannons on the beach just south of campus. This fueled a controversy about whether they were from Sir Francis Drake's ("His exploits were legendary, making him a hero to the English but a simple pirate to the Spaniards.") ship in the late 1570s. There is a great write-up (but you have to scroll down to Goleta Cannon Site). Any city proving a visit by Drake would have coveted bragging rights :) More than you ever wanted to know about Drake and whether he got his latitudes correct here -- including a discussion of astrolabs :)

Speaking of more recent history, every time I hear about a Carnegie library I am amazed at how putting public libraries in cities large and small (Orosi, Exeter, and Dinuba, but not Reedley?) changed the United States. Fresno's was impressive
Funded by a 1901 Carnegie grant of $30,000, and completed in 1904, the Fresno Carnegie Library was one of the earliest and costliest of the Carnegies.
but was a victim of the tear-down fever of the late 1950s to mid 1960s. Another casualty was the Fresno Country courthouse from 1875, you can see the dome crashing down here (page 73).

One more thing: these photos from the VAB at KSC reminded me of the few (two?) times I was in the building with a shuttle in some state of integration with the external tank and SRBs. I remember going in a side door where we were given a brief safety briefing (like the one you get on a tour of Vandenberg before go into a room with a missle) and we had to put our ID badges in slots on the wall before we went into the main part of the VAB. Our guide said it was so that if something went wrong they would know who was in the building :)

Software engineering students please read :)

Elon Musk's (of PayPal and Tesla Motors fame) SpaceX successfully launched today. SpaceX is very open about what goes right and wrong with their launches. Video was live from the booster, including first stage separation, which was really cool. Musk was overwhelmed and couldn't get many words out during a post-launch interview.

August's launch worked, but the spacecraft was unusable because after first and second stages collided during separation -- caused by a single line of code:
“The fix was also very simple, requiring one line of code to be changed,” SpaceX officials said in a weekend update.
Read more here. You can see the first and second stage collision (and the resulting tumble) by skipping to about the 2:40 point of this video.

Earlier in September the space station astronauts had to update antivirus software. What?? (emphasis added)
The updates are aimed at ensuring the space station’s computers continue to quarantine viruses like W32.Gammima.AG, a Windows-based worm detected and properly quarantined in the outpost’s computers in late July. The low-risk virus, which is designed to steal passwords for online computer games, was first reported on July 25 after being detected by the station’s protection software. It did not infect the station’s command and control computers and posed no threat to the orbiting lab, though NASA engineers were hoping to find out exactly how the virus reached the station.
Should have got a Mac :)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Two kinds of fish

First, well known humanities and law scholar, and NY Times columnist, Stanley Fish was interviewed on NPR's Talk of the Nation this week about liberal education and his book Save the world on your own time. One of the ideas is that university professors should stick to the academic inquiry approach in class and leave opinions out of class. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, he says
the three-part mantra which organizes the book: Do your job, don’t try to do someone else’s job and don’t let anyone else do your job. And I think that if we as instructors ... would adhere to that mantra, we would be more responsible in the prosecution of our task and less vulnerable to the criticisms of those who would want to either undermine or control us
He's not a big fan of service learning.

Another thing that reminded me of fish was an letter to the editor of the newspaper recalling when fish would be dropped in to high sierra lakes. It's a pretty weird sight (seeing the bombers taking off today from the CalFire air attack base at FAT prompted me to write this). Planting fish from airplanes into lakes where they aren't native (and in fact into lakes that never had fish) went on for a long time (see this 1954 Popular Mechanics article), as has the controversy about non-native fish plants destroying native sierra amphibian populations. Which seems like a no-brainer, I've never really got the need to plant fish were they weren't in the first place. There is also the whole controversy of whether planted fish inbreed with native populations, something denied but apparently proved using DNA, but that is a topic for another day :)

Dave Barry even talks about the perils of fish bombs :)

Saturday, September 06, 2008

P.S. to T-Fried

I forgot to mention that at the very end of his 3.0 keynote, Friedman has some good lines about how the "green revolution" isn't really a revolution since no one is getting hurt, and that what we need to do is "change our leaders, not our lightbulbs" :)

Bono quotes him at the end of this short YouTube video.

I think, but I'm not sure, that he used the line first in a NY Times column in December 2007, excerpted below
People often ask: I want to get greener, what should I do? New light bulbs? A hybrid? A solar roof? Well, all of those things are helpful. But actually, the greenest thing you can do is this: Choose the right leaders. It is so much more important to change your leaders than change your light bulbs.

... when leaders change the rules, you get scale change across the whole marketplace. And the energy-climate challenge we face today is a huge scale problem. Without scale, all you have is a green hobby.

Have no illusions, everything George Bush wouldn’t do on energy after 9/11 — his resisting improved mileage for cars and actually trying to weaken air-conditioner standards — swamped any good works you did.

T-Fried 3.0

Thomas Friedman gave a keynote address at an MIT Open Courseware event, updating his previous talk on The World is Flat to verson 3.0

You can see it here on YouTube, but you can also download it in better quality mp4 format here.

Monday, September 01, 2008

You are not expected to understand this

I read a few pages of Digital Apollo every day. Interesting (even talks about the X-15 flight control systems) and thorough to the point of being ... very thorough :) But good discussions of the engineering trade offs made between pilot- or computer-in-control, and MTTF. The author also has some good quips (p.124):
It has become fashionable to denigrate the computers of the past with phrases like "we flew to the moon with less computing power than I have on my wristwatch," or "can you believe the entire Apollo program fit into a mere 36 k of memory?" Simply focusing on memory size, or the computer's speed, however, misses the important engineering accomplishments of the Apollo computer. For who among us would risk our lives on our desktop computers, with all their speed, accuracy, and memory, and rely on their working flawlessly for two straight weeks? The space shuttle flies with five redundant computers,. Any fully digital airliner has a minimum of three. Apollo had only one. It never failed in flight.
I have a little quibble with that. As we know from watching Apollo 13, there were actually two computers along for the ride (the astronauts moved the navigation data from the CM computer to the LM computer before shutting down the CM).

In any case, the author attributes the following to "Opening lines of Apollo software source code" (p. 145):
Quest oculus non vide, cor non delet
What the eye does not see, the heart does not regret
"A lot happens that we are not telling you about."
Which reminds me of the famous comment in the UNIX kernel code "You are not expected to understand this" (but the professor in our graduate level operating systems class insisted that we did for the exam :)

Dennis Ritchie explains what they meant by that famous comment on his Bell Labs website (scroll down about a screen). He mentions Lions commentary and source code, which were the textbook for our operating systems class. You can still buy it, or download it and all the source code (see end of the Wikipedia entry for Lions' book.

The famous quote is in the body of swtch() at line 2238. Lions explanation begins in Section 8.9 of his commentary with "The comment which begins here is not encouraging." It is an amazingly clever way to do process switching though.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Green campuses

Sierra magazine describes "Colleges large and small get their green on", but no mention of Fresno State's big solar project, which at the time it was turned on last year was the largest solar installation at a US university. Arizona State says their installation will be bigger when it's done in December.

Changing subjects, if you liked the Mitnick video you might like this: a disgruntled hacker was tired of the TSA rifling his baggage, so he implemented the bagcam. Yes, you can watch his luggage go through the whole process from check-in to baggage claim. The audio is here (scroll down to the Bagcam talk), and the slides and videos here.

Sting (or String) and monowheels

The local public radio station has a good program called In the Mode. The 24 August 2008 show was about Sting and his lute-playing friend singing 16c songs. You can listen to it on the KVPR website, but watch for the funny typo: String plays Dowland.

What does that have to do with monowheels? Nothing, except maybe Sting watched the Olympics closing ceremony and saw them. In about third grade I think a bunch of us invented them while doodling. But we never actually made one like these folks did.

Bonus: I think I originally saw this on Slashdot, but it reminded me of the Mythbuster's visit to campus last year. On this video, Adam talks about how they were out-lawyered when they wanted to do a show about RFID. Adam does sort of Lessig/Hardt style PowerPoint presentation in Part 1.

While you are on YouTube you might also want to catch Kevin Mitnick's "Life of a Computer Hacker Revealed".

Monday, August 25, 2008


While getting my syllabus ready for an HCI class I found a Don Norman video I'd been looking for: "Cautious Cars & Cantankerous Kitchens". The content of the talk is good, but the presentation on the website is also nice. You see the video and the Norman's slides synchronized to the video. You can also flip back and forth between big-slide-small-video and big-video-small-slides.

Norman gave the same talk as part of the free Stanford HCI seminar. I've been a fan of the seminar for years, but accessing the videos can be a nightmare since you had to go through the Stanford professional education site, register, click around, ... Now you can subscribe to the Stanford HCI podcast and the world is much simpler. If you want to see the same talk, look in the Winter 2007 tab for Don Norman. Unfortunately, the video and audio quality is not as good, nor are the slides synchronized, like the other version.

Speaking of video, I watched part of a documentary about JPL on one of the Comcast high def channels this weekend. had an entry today that you can download the video (even captioned!), including the high def version here.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

A kluge of a blog post

A bunch of things:
  • I saw Gary Marcus on Book TV about his recent book Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind. He did basically the same talk at Google.
  • Canadians are better than us: "The numbers are in. Compared to the U.S., we work less, live longer, enjoy better health and have more sex. And get this: now we're wealthier too."
  • "How To Fix the Poor Usability of Free Software" from Slashdot, and an essay "Why Free Software has poor usability, and how to improve it".
  • SpaceX failed again to get payload to orbit. I wonder if the engineer I sat next to on the plane to HNL is still as optimistic about the company.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The prodigal professor

Several years ago, Robert Redford produced a movie about a television game show that was rigged -- and a university professor (Charles Van Doren) as part of the deception. The situation was exposed, congress was involved, and the professor went on to be an editor at Encyclopedia Britanica :)

Van Doren recently wrote his side of the story for The New Yorker magazine, about 50 years after the fact. I thought it was interesting to hear his moral struggles with the rigged game show then, and offers to participate in the movie 40 years later.

Cell phones

Three things from the LA Times:
  • First, IRS rules are causing havoc for universities.
    The law requires employees to keep detailed records of all calls made on their work-issue cellphones, indicating whether they were business or personal. If they don’t, the phone and wireless service are deemed a perk that must be listed as taxable income to the employee...

    UCLA, for example, was hit with a $239,196 bill this year after IRS auditors found that employees with cellphones were not keeping logs. UC San Diego had to shell out $186,471 for the same reason.
  • Second, do you really expect cell phone service everywhere in national parks?
    That cottage in the mountains is charming enough until Day 3 without cellphone reception.
  • Finally, what about coverage in Los Angeles iteself?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

CNN air drops

Interesting article in the LA Times today about how fire-fighting air drops are commonly "for show" and the result of political pressure:
... aerial drops of water and retardant make good television. They're a highly visible way for political leaders to show they're doing everything possible to quell a wildfire, even if it entails overriding the judgment of incident commanders on the ground.

Firefighters have developed their own vernacular for such spectacles. They call them "CNN drops."
It's also really expensive:
It costs up to $14,000 a day to keep an air tanker on call and as much as $4,200 per hour to put it in the air. Heavy-duty helicopters, the workhorses of aerial firefighting, can cost $32,000 a day on standby, plus $6,300 per hour of flight time.
Speaking of the LA Times, a segment of yesterday's PBS News Hour was about the Times's dropping of its standalone book review section. The pro-web person is a Fresno State graduate (I think), and the newspaper guy I didn't find very credible. If you are interested in the affect of the web on traditional media, it is worth watching.

Changing subjects to software, the August issue of Crosstalk has an article by Alistair Cockburn, under his "Humans and Technology" rubric, about agile principles, past and present:
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the best-known writers in the software field have been advocating the same four recommendations written in the agile manifesto for decades (see The Agile Manifesto section).

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Probably the most interesting train trip I've taken was on a Grayline Tours railcar attached to the Alaska Railroad. After a conference I took the train from Anchorage to Denali, and then the next day from Denali to Fairbanks (see the stripmap here).

It was the weekend before Memorial Day, so Denali was sort of miserable, and we stood for hours outside after check-out time at the cabins before the train arrived, in a snowstorm. But the scenery was great. We were only allowed a small carry-on (no access to checked luggage) so we were freezing. Since it was early in the season, some things went wrong, so it wasn't for the inexperienced traveler.

In the last week or so I've seen this trip featured on travel shows and in newspapers, probably because this is prime time for the trip. Most of the shows and articles are real rah-rah, but the LA Times writer has an interesting take on Denali:
Every time I enter one of America's popular parks, I am reminded that we are primarily a nation of weenies, except for you and me, and I'm not so sure about you sometimes.
I agree with his recommendation ("End of the Line"): do the route in the opposite direction, starting at Fairbanks and going south to Anchorage.

You might see some celebs. Also you go near Clear, Alaska, famous in cold war novels for the huge radar installation, like the one at Beale AFB in California for early warning.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Design and Analysis in Software Engineering

This entry is mostly a sticky-note for me and grad students working with me. In general, computer science and software engineering folks don't know much about experimental design, surveys, or how to compare two things. Fortunately, way back in 1994, Sheri Pfleeger started a column, only a couple pages long, giving the essentials of what we need to do valid comparisons of tools, techniques, or processes. So if you are looking for help designing a study, scan the titles below for a column that could help.

Fresno State students: click on the link you are interested in. If you're on-campus, you'll be taken there immediately. If you are off campus, you'll be taken to a page showing the abstract and a DOI. You can still access the paper from off campus by going here, log in, then paste the numeric part of the DOI into the box.

For University of Hawaii students, go here, and click on Software Engineering Notes to log in and go to the archive.

Experimental design in Software Engineering

Pfleeger, S. (October 1994) Design and Analysis in Software Engineering, Part 1: The Language of Case Studies and Formal Experiments.

Pfleeger, S. (January 1995) Experimental Design and Analysis in Software Engineering, Part 2: How to Set Up an Experiment.

Pfleeger, S. (April 1995) Experimental Design and Analysis in Software Engineering, Part 3: Types of Experimental Design.

Pfleeger, S. (July 1995) Experimental Design and Analysis in Software Engineering, Part 4: Choosing an Experimental Design.

Pfleeger, S. (December 1995) Experimental Design and Analysis in Software Engineering, Part 5: Analyzing the Data.

Evaluating software engineering methods and tools

Kitchenham, B. (January 1996) Evaluating software engineering methods and tools part 1: The evaluation context and evaluation methods.

Kitchenham, B. (March 1996) Evaluating software engineering methods and tools part 2: selecting an appropriate evaluation method—technical criteria.

Kitchenham, B. (July 1996) Evaluating software engineering methods and tools part 3: selecting an appropriate evaluation method—practical issues.

Sadler, C. & Kitchenham, B. (September 1996) Evaluating software engineering methods and tools —part 4: the influence of human factors.

Jones, L. & Kitchenham, B. (January 1997) Evaluating software engineering methods and tools part 5: the influence of human factors.

Kitchenham, B. & Jones, L. (March 1997) Evaluating software engineering methods and tools part 6: identifying and scoring features.

Kitchenham, B. (July 1997) Evaluating software engineering methods and tools, part 7: planning feature analysis evaluation.

Kitchenham, B. & Jones, L. (September 1997) Evaluating SW Eng. methods and tools, part 8: analysing a feature analysis evaluation.

Kitchenham, B. & Pickard, L.M. (January 1998) Evaluating software engineering methods and tools: part 9: quantitative case study methodology.

Kitchenham, B. & Pickard, L.M. (May 1998) Evaluating software eng. methods and tools part 10: designing and running a quantitative case study.

Kitchenham, B. & Pickard, L.M. (July 1998) Evaluating software engineering methods and tools, part 11: analysing quantitative case studies.

Kitchenham, B. (September 1998) Evaluating software engineering methods and tools part 12: evaluating DESMET.

Principles of Survey Research

Pfleeger, S. & Kitchenham, B. (November 2001) Principles of survey research: part 1: turning lemons into lemonade.

Pfleeger, S. & Kitchenham, B. (January 2002) Principles of survey research part 2: designing a survey.

Pfleeger, S. & Kitchenham, B. (March 2002) Principles of survey research: part 3: constructing a survey instrument.

Pfleeger, S. & Kitchenham, B. (May 2002) Principles of survey research part 4: questionnaire evaluation.

Pfleeger, S. & Kitchenham, B. (September 2002) Principles of survey research: part 5: populations and samples.

Pfleeger, S. & Kitchenham, B. (March 2003) Principles of survey research part 6: data analysis.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Boo the crew?

A recent Miami-New York flight was canceled when the late-arriving crew felt threatened by a booing crowd. This created a long discussion thread at Flyertalk, but the articles in New York Magazine are funnier. First, from 8 July:
To which we say: Screw that. Air travel in this country is an unmitigated nightmare. If you're a real New Yorker, you'll raise hell if you are unfairly or stupidly delayed. When we read the headline on this story in the morning, we immediately knew it must be a flight headed to New York — and we couldn't have been more proud.
and an amusing fish out of water story of a New Yorker waiting for a table in a restaurant in San Francisco:
California, it turns out, has no sense of urgency. Our sandaled friends whom we visited on the trip assured us that it was because people there have their priorities all figured out. They know what's important, and that does not include getting impatient and frustrated over a few minutes of waiting. When I pointed out that I like to choose how I use my own time, not have to waste it on other people's being slow, they just observed that I was choosing to use my time on anger.
But seriously, where this started out was I was looking at the new ETOPS rules (nice summary here), particularly thinking about how the FAA's rule against "dual maintenance" (i.e., the same mechanic can't work on both engines) could relate to software development (yes I know about N-version programming). ETOPS also has rules about parts inventories. The point is to avoid CMF (common mode failure).

A single mechanic working out of the same parts bin is not a good idea. The story of a plane losing all engine and gliding to Miami has been going around for years. As far as I can tell, here is the real story, and some of the permutations in the Risks Digest: here (the airline is now United, not Eastern) and here (the restart altitude is much lower) and here (the aircraft is now a 727).

Monday, July 14, 2008


Dr. Dobb's Journal interviews Christos Papadimitriou about applying research results to the real world. I'm familiar with Papadimitriou through his visits to UCSB, and I TA'ed the UCSB theory class using his book.

He's a great example of a theory guy with broad interest in applying what he comes up with:
I would say that, quite generally, computer scientists are going to find themselves interacting more with other fields. I encourage my students to go completely wild in their curriculum, to go out and learn not only that which they think they should learn in order to be good computer scientists—usually mathematics and programming and engineering and so on—but learn about everything else, about psychology, economics, about business, about biology, about the humanities.

I think the future belongs to programmers who are well-rounded people who have diverse interests, who are flexible, who understand deeply other fields and are ready to transform them. Biotech is definitely part of the picture, but it's not unique.
In the interview he mentions Nash (the Beautiful mind guy), Feynman, and asserts that backgammon is more interesting than chess.

Ten great tech books

The July 2008 IEEE Spectrum has Steven Levy's list of ten great tech books (you might remember I've previously pointed to Discover magazine's late 2006 list of the 25 greatest science books of all time).

One of Levy's favorites is Don Norman's The design of everyday things:
... one of his big themes - creators should understand that their users are not necessarily the same as themselves. Writing at a time when such concepts were barely known to the general public, Norman, a world-class crank, instructively eviserates the product design of doors, telephones, air-traffic systems, and computers ...
But do you think Levy's wife actually threw out his MacBook Air with a pile of papers, and that Steve Jobs yelled at his son? :)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Brains and magnets

Seed magazine has a video (and text transcript) of a conversation between novelist Tom Wolff and neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga (who is now at UCSB, go gauchos). They talk about free will, among other things.

But you probably remember Ganzaniga's research from freshman psych class, his work with split brain subjects in particular. Amazing stuff, "a window into the non-conscious", and evidence that we have a bunch of agents in our heads.

You don't have to actually slice brains to do some interesting experiments. One of the strangest examples I saw was using a powerful magnetic field to temporarily turn off a part of a healthy subjects brain, making them aphasic or messing up motor control. In college we used to volunteer for psych experiments to make extra money, but I don't think I'd volunteer for TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation).

Here's an article (complete with a reference to The man who mistook his wife for a hat) from the NY Times where TMS transforms the author into a cat-drawing savant. It's scarier when TMS is used to induce five-minute "strokes".

Changing subjects, this O'Reilly interview about the software on the Mars Phoenix Lander (all in C, no Java on board, and no more Ada on JPL spacecraft) reminded me about what I liked about JPL (cool projects) and didn't like (how many times this guys says "that's right" or some variation) instead of just yes or no :)

Monday, July 07, 2008

More old stuff about Huntington Lake

To go along with some of the other old stuff I posted yesterday, here's the June 1925 calendar from the Big Creek theater (Tom Mix on Saturday the 13th must have been big).

A couple other things from the hydroelectric project engineers. The initial report from 1 January 1913 has an embossed paper cover and is bound with string.
Much of the engineering publications are to showcase their big projects, such as this one from Thebo and Starr Engineers and Constructors.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Another old map

I also like this one: "Route sketch of the march made by Troop "I" and "M", 9th Cavalry" to Sequoia national park and Grant Grove in 1903. You can read about it here.

I also have two versions (dated 1896 abd 1907) of the map "Sequoia and General Grant National Parks and the Sierra Forest Reserve" that look like the came out of a report, and a "Map showing wagon roads and trails in Territory embraced by Sequoia and General Grant Parks, etc." that looks like it came out of a department of the interior publication 53 2, whatever that means :)

Road rage, maps, Huntington Lake

In case you're not keeping up with your Bob Sutton, a recent post is about an experiment to determine when drivers honk their horns. The variable being manipulated was whether the slow vehicle (a pickup truck) had a gun rack or not, and the kind of bumper sticker. Very interesting.

That reminded me that recently my sister and I have scanned some of my old maps. Previously I talked about strip maps, and I was reminded of some that I have, such as Fresno to Huntington Lake (note the road stops at the Huntington Lake Lodge), and Visalia to Huntington Lake.

Speaking of Huntington, we also scanned some photos of the Fresno State summer school being held at the site of the current Camp Keola (before summer school moved across the lake): a physical education class from 1924, a drawing class from 1922, an American Indian class from 1924, and faculty cottages, among others.

There's getting to be more and more old information posted on the web about the south side of Huntington Lake. For example, Google has digitized the 1916 book Winter sports at Huntington Lake Lodge for your perusal, a picture of the Lodge and train, an interesting story about hiking up and down the penstocks, and the Huntington Lake Big Creek Historical Conservancy.

While you are in the area, you should also check out Lakeview Cottages, adjacent to Camp Keola :)

I also have a bunch of strip maps showing routes to Sequoia National Park and Grant Grove, like this one.

Friday, June 27, 2008


I don't remember it being this smoky from forest fires since about ... 1991? The news said there are 1000 fires burning, and besides here, the smoke is in the San Francisco bay area, Las Vegas, and Reno, and an advisory was issued.

NASA's released some great pictures with brief explanation, but the 250 meter resolution picture is really impressive.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A funny thing, and a strange thing

The funny thing is I was reminded of this cartoon that's been going around software engineering organizations for years (this version is from David Male's site). The caption is always something like the manager saying "You start coding, and I'll go see what they want."

The strange thing is a surgeon in Honolulu is experimenting using music in the operating room to calm patients. That's understandable. The weird this is the surgeon is actually playing a piano in the room.
A total of 203 patients underwent ophthalmologic procedures when the piano was in the operating room, but 88 had no music played. The result was "a statistically significant increase of their mean arterial blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate," the study found.
No complications were associated with the music, and patients "were very happy their doctor was playing the piano for them," Camara said in an interview.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Two non-bestselling books

I recently finished two books about high altitude (over 100,000 feet) ballooning (and jumping). Some really crazy stuff.

The pre-astronauts: Manned ballooning on the threshold of space includes Joe Kittinger's amazing jump from over 102,000 feet. The second book, Magnificent failure (also by Craig Ryan) is about Nicholas Piantanida who died during a high altitude balloon mission (summarized below in an excerpt from a Wired article):
Skydiver Nicholas Piantanida tried to break Kittinger's unofficial record three times, beginning in 1965. On the first attempt, a 6-knot wind decapitated his balloon at 22,700 feet. On his second attempt, Piantanida couldn't disconnect from his onboard oxygen.

The circumstances of Piantanida's third and fatal attempt remain baffling. He was still on his way up at 57,600 feet when ground control staff heard a scream and then a monstrous gush of air come through their monitors. Piantanida had lost pressure at 11 miles high. One theory is that he may not have prebreathed sufficiently before taking off, later causing him to struggle for breath, panic, and open his visor. If so, "it was basically suicide," speculates his daughter, Diane Shearin, "like crossing a desert with one canteen."
One of the high altitude pioneers profiled in The pre-astronauts is Jean Piccard. Wikipedia reinforced my suspicion that Star Trek's Jean-Luc Picard is his namesake.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Something in the State of California's report on EMF (electric and magnetic fields) executive summary reminded me of Tufte's work, particularly sparklines.

Here's the context of the EMF study:
On behalf of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), three scientists who work for the California Department of Health Services (DHS) were asked to review the studies about possible health problems from electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) from power lines, wiring in buildings, some jobs, and appliances. The CPUC request for review did not include radio frequency EMFs from cell phones and radio towers. ... All three have published original research in the EMF area and have followed the field for many years.
Here's the part that interested me from the executive summary. You can see that in general, Reviewer 1 thinks there is more risk than the other reviewers.

If you like that, you might want to "cook like an engineer". Alas, not everyone loves Tufte, in fact this person thinks he sounds like Gene Simmons from KISS :)

Friday, June 20, 2008

Perverse incentives

In his discussion of "perverse incentives" (reward systems that lead to the wrong behavior), Bob Sutton uses a Dilbert cartoon that I've been showing software engineering classes for over 10 years :)

The comments to his post seem to be fixated on rewarding developers for finding software defects, which is the point of the Dilbert cartoon, but Sutton is making a larger point :)

I also like the Dilbertian take on user interfaces (here, and here).

Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Singular Intellect

If you're interested in Artificial Intelligence, the June 2008 issue of IEEE Spectrum is about "the singularity". The "Who's who" grid refers to Jaron Lanier's "You can't argue with a zombie", and says
[Lanier] wrote an entertaining 1995 essay in the Journal of Consciousness Studies titled "You Can't Argue With a Zombie." It zinged Daniel Dennett, Daniel Dennett's critics, Dartmouth students, and philosopher David Chalmers, among others. Sample line: "Arrogance is always a bad strategy in science. In philosophy I suppose it's fine."
You can also watch a talk given at Google in May 2006 by Doug Lenat about "Computers versus common sense".

Speaking of the IEEE Computer Society, my nomination for "strangest article title" is from the Summer 2008 issue (Fresno State people can click here) of IEEE Technology and Society magazine: "The engineer, the dancer, and the severed head". Here's a quote:
Are we, as engineers, content to dance for the king’s entertainment, producing whatever we are paid to produce? Or are we willing to be prophets, speaking technological truth to power? If we aspire to prophesy, we should expect to occasionally get our metaphorical
heads handed to us on a platter. Personally, I think it is worth the risk.
Changing subjects, The July 2008 issue (Fresno State people here)of the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies issue emphasizes "Collaborative and social aspects of software development". If you're interested in agile/extreme programming,take a look at the table of contents.

Finally, some fortune cookie trivia: what is the relationship between the WWII internment camps, and fortune cookies? See the LA Times article. Here's a quote:
... Lee, a Chinese American, was not surprised that such a popular dessert originated in a country other than China: "Traditional Chinese desserts, any Chinese American child will tell you, are pretty bad. There is a reason Chinese cuisine has a worldwide reputation for won tons, and not for pastries."

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Carbon footprints and talismans

A recent Wired has an article about things you might think are true about reducing your carbon footprint, but probably aren't. Hint: air conditioning a house is better than heating it.

Related to that, the Brookings Institution published "Shrinking the carbon footprint of metropolitan America" Surprisingly, if you look at "Per captia carbon emissions from residential energy use, 2005". Bakersfield is best (!), and 10 of top 12 are in California (Fresno is 6).

Also unbelievable are some of the superstitions involved with spaceflight. "The losing hand: tradition and superstition in spaceflight" talks about pre-flight rituals. Maybe it's because it's really risky:
But perhaps it isn’t as incredible as it first appears. Consider the risk: of the 483 people who have been launched into space as of March 2008, 18 have died during the mission. This mortality rate of 3.74% makes it one of the most dangerous professions one could follow: compare with a 0.39% mortality rate among the US military in Iraq 2003–2006 and 2.18% in Vietnam in 1966–1972, and you see that the risks are much greater for astronauts than they are even for combat troops.

Given this danger, it is quite undertstandable that astronauts should reassure themselves with ritual actions and talismans. It is a natural human impulse to control fears of death and injury by recourse to superstition—we might think of the bullfighter praying to his madonna before the corrida, going through a series of rites and responses built up over the history of this deadly sport.
Two more things: Something that any professor can relate to: "In the basement of the ivory tower", and a picture I really didn't need to see. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and Dennis Rodman? Please tell me it's photoshopped :)

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Legos and Jimson weed

Someone really likes legos and Spinal Tap. Here is the famous "but this one goes to 11" scene, recreated in Legos in stop motion animation. Also recreated is a concert scene in Legos.

Just as weird, this afternoon we were talking about a chapter in Berton Roueche's The Medical Detectives about a family who grafted tomato plants to Jimson weed rootstock. Hint: this is not a good idea. You can read a little about it here.

If your are a House fan you probably will recognize some of the plots from Roueche's book:
The creator of the television show House, M.D. hasn't made it a secret that he was inspired in part by Mr Roueché's writing, but I wasn't aware of the degree to which the show's writers mined the articles in this book for inspiration. In the first season of House, episode 5 ("Damned if You Do") is related to what happens in the article "Antipathies"; episode 6 ("The Socratic Method") is related to what happens in the article "Live and Let Live"; episode 8 ("Poison") is related to the article "The Dead Mosquitos"; and episode 13 ("Cursed") is related to "A Man Named Hoffman".
Besides the Tomato/Jimson weed chapter, there is one about why hospitals don't have aerators on their water faucets ("Three sick babies") and about surplus denim jeans making people sick in Fresno ("The dead mosquitoes"). Pretty interesting book :)