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?