my recent reads..

Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters; From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima
Power Sources and Supplies: World Class Designs
Red Storm Rising
Locked On
Analog Circuits Cookbook
The Teeth Of The Tiger
Sharpe's Gold
Without Remorse
Practical Oscillator Handbook
Red Rabbit

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A380 - how to spend €billions and still get simple things wrong picks up on a Telegraph article asking "why are there still ashtrays in the Airbus A380?"

Good question, but not the only example of seemingly stupid "missed opportunities" to innovate in the A380.

One of the first I noticed was the new positioning of the inflight entertainment controller in the seat back. At first it seems perfect, since it avoids the accidental activation which is a real problem when the controller is built into the armrest (which is the case in most other cabin fitouts I've seen).

But then consider the way it is oriented - mounted on the side. This results in a classic failure to "get the mappings right" (one of Norman's design rules in "The Psychology of Everyday Things"). If you use the controller without removing it from its holder (which turns out to be a very handy usage), then you need to transpose the controls 90°. Up means right, down means left etc. Ironically, when the controller is mounted in the armrest, the horizontal layout tends to "get the mappings right" if you use it in-situ because of the way the hand is positioned.

It could have been so perfect if the controller designers were collaborating with the seat designers, with a clear focus on usability. The controller could be mounted vertically, or redesigned for a side-side layout.

As it is, a missed opportunity to produce the very best design. And a very, very minor usability problem is one of my lasting impressions of my first A380 flight, overshadowing all the billions of euros invested in the plane.

What else? Well, I'm surprised they persist in using the special 2-prong audio jack. I'm sure there's some weird logic about discouraging passengers from nicking the headsets (even though policing headset issue and collection still seems to rate as one of the cabin staffs' most important duties!)

But as I look around the cabin more and more people are using their own earphones. The ones that aren't probably forget to bring the special adapter. For planes like the A380 starting their service life in the 21st century, I'd expect it would be the norm for most air travellers to be carry a headset of some description, and it would make sense for cabin designers to take advantage of the fact and use standard audio sockets, and provide headsets "by exception". Win-win: passengers get to use their own familiar headsets without needing an adapter, and cabin crew get to save time for more important things.

See, I can get cranky about the smallest details;-)

Brain Rules

Geoffrey Grosenbach took a diversion on the Ruby on Rails podcast recently, with a fascinating two-part interview with John Medina (part 1, part 2).

Medina is a very engaging speaker, with some controversial but well researched ideas on how the brain works, and why so many of our social conventions in school and the workplace actually conspire against optimal brain performance. I gather its a discussion of many of the ideas from his book Brain Rules.

Well worth a listen.

Earthcore & Infected

Scott Sigler has the book launch of Infected coming up on 1-Apr. No joke, you can pre-order on Amazon already.
..a cinematic, relentlessly paced novel that mixes and matches genres, combining horror, technothriller, and suspense..

Sigler's been one of the stars of the free podcast-audiobook scene, and its great to see him on the mainstream bookshelves. In fact, you can still get Infected as a podcast download here at podiobooks. Sigler reads his own works, and he's got the voice for it too. See the Infected promo page at podiobooks for more info.

Earthcore was the first Sigler novel I came across, also highly recommended. I found it some time ago, before I started blogging about books actually, which is why you are only seeing a post about it now.

I listened to Earthcore as a podcast available here at podiobooks. In fact I think it was my very first podiobook download, and got me hooked on the whole podiobooks idea (from which I've since discovered other great authors like Terry Fallis and Nathan Lowell).

These authors are all making podcast versions of their works freely available. It is a fantastic way to discover new authors and enjoy their books in audio. They deserve our support if you like what they do. Podiobooks takes donations directly. And for authors like Sigler we can buy their books in print too!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton has a penchant for popping up in literature. Take Greg Keyes' Age of Unreason historical fantasy series for example, which starts with Newton's Cannon. Or Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, the first book of Baroque Cycle. Even in popular fiction like The Da Vinci Code.

It soon becomes hard to separate fact from fiction. Was Newton an alchemist? [Yes] A member of The Priory of Sion? [No] A little bit mad? [Probably. And not helped by his experiments with mercury].

Needing a fix in reality, I picked up James Gleick's Isaac Newton. It is a wonderfully written account of Newton's life and accomplishments.

The picture is of a complex character. Extremely private and absorbed in his research into any and all questions relating to understanding the system of the world. He tended to keep his ideas from the public to avoid controversy, yet when his views are debated he is perhaps as bad as the worst for letting his ego get out of hand. He is famous for his feuds with the likes of Robert Hooke for primacy in optical theory, and Leibniz over the invention of calculus (Newton and Leibniz are generally agreed to have developed calculus independently, but that didn't prevent them both from scrapping over the issue to no end).

Newton's Wikipedia entry provides a good overview of the amazing range of his work. To understand more, James Gleick's book is an excellent place to start.

The Psychology of Everyday Things

POET - the familiar name that Donald A. Norman gave his 1988 classic "The Psychology of Everyday Things" which I recently picked up in the library. It has since been updated a little and reissued as The Design of Everyday Things. But I like POET.

There is, after all, great poetry to be found in the workings of even the simplest device. And when things are not so artfully conceived: great tragedy and boon for cranky geeks everywhere.

How can one not enjoy, for example, subjecting alarm clocks that have identical "snooze" and "reset" buttons to exemplary castigation? Or lambasting the purveyor of inappropriate door handles: those that are designed to "pull", but require a label that says "push" because that is the way the door swings?

Norman's approach is refreshing.
Humans do not always behave clumsily. Humans do not always err. But they do when the things they use are badly conceived and designed. Nonetheless, we still see human error blamed for all that befalls society.

Despite being published in 1988 and primarily drawing its examples from the world of simple electro-mechanical devices, the book's philosophy and advice is remarkably enduring.

It is all about user-centered design, and as relevant today as it was in Internet Prehistory. Norman posits Seven Principles of Design:
  1. Use both knowledge in the world and knowledge in the head
  2. simplify the structure of tasks
  3. Make things visible: bridge the gulfs of Execution and Evaluation
  4. Get the mappings right
  5. Exploit the power of contraints, both natural and artificial
  6. Design for error
  7. When all else fails, standardize

The Lego Heresy

I do take issue with one example however. Norman presents the case of a Lego police motorcycle model as an example of excellent design.

Why? The design cleverly exploits physical, semantic and cultural constraints so that there is basically only one construction solution.

Which is great if the objective is to make construction quick, easy and repeatable with a high degree of quality.

Great! Its teaching kids how to be highly productive assembly line workers.

And that is where I think Lego started to go badly wrong. New Lego, personified by custom molded pieces and kits that could only make one design, may win design awards.

But it does not serve it's purpose and it's users. The beauty and enjoyment in Classic Lego came from the very fact of its flexibility and lack of constraints. With a little squinting, it was possible to believe you could build anything. As Norman himself argues, there are situations where it is useful to pervert the design principles (such as with safety features).

Classic Lego is a perfect study in the appropriate application of Norman's principles in reverse, whereas New Lego is just a great way to waste money.

To mangle a famous quote..
Give a child a Lego Police Motorcycle Kit, and you have bought a few hours of peace.
Give a child a Lego Basic Bulk Set, and they are set for a lifetime.

Which would you prefer?

Sunday, March 16, 2008


I've had my head in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon for the past few weeks. Seriously, at a thousand-over pages, its not one to knock over in an evening.

But it is a fantastic tale. Actually more like three tales in one.

It makes me wonder how he does it. The writing is like stream of consciousness, and I guess it would need to be judging how prolific he is (I haven't even started on the baroque cycle). Yet if mere mortals like you or I would try this, I am pretty sure the result would be pure tripe.

Cryptonomicon is anything but.

I am dazzled and intrigued by the miscellaneous tangential twists and turns of the narrative, and the incredibly inventive detail that scatter the way, like breadcrumbs leading to a safe haven.

Little things such as his similes.
.. dead-monitor-screen grey..
Now isn't that brilliant? Surely deserves a named place in the CSS Color Palette if I were the judge!

And subtle digs that flit by if you are not paying attention.
"You know what that is? It's one of those men-are-from-venus, women-are-from-mars things"
"I have not heard this phrase but I understand immediately what you are saying."
"It's one of those American books where once you've heard the title you don't even need to read it," Randy says.
Oh so true.
"Then I won't."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Half Share, Full Share and beyond...

After enjoying Quarter Share so much, I quickly listened to the sequels Half Share and Full Share. They continue Ishmael Wang's career aboard the Space Clipper Lois McKendrick in rollicking fashion. Honest to goodness ripping yarns!

I was sad to complete the trilogy, buoyed only by the hope that the author, Nathan Lowell, would continue the series.

Well, this post is coming quite a while after I listened to the three stories, and it seems Mr Lowell has been busy. I was reminded to checkout the latest when I saw Podiobooks report that Nathan Lowell has taken a break from his own stories to narrate Time Crime by H. Beam Piper (iTunes downloading...)

So of course I checked out Nathan's site - The Trader’s Diary - to discover Nathan has already completed another in the Golden Age series: South Coast. And its already #3 in the Podiobooks Top Overall Ratings chart. iTunes is running hot now!

Sunday, March 09, 2008


Longitude by Dava Sobel is the very readable tale of John Harrison's astonishing, life-long quest to build timepieces that were suitable for maritime use in the determination of longitude.

Self-educated and living far from the madding crowd in Barrow, his first clocks were largely wooden. Harrison's earliest surviving clock movement, dated 1713, can be found at the The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers of London.

He first set his mind to the challenge of maritime timekeeping in 1727. The Board of Longitude had been established in Britain by Act of Parliament and offered a prize of ₤20,000 for a method that could determine longitude within 30 nautical miles (56 km).

The problem of longitude had long plagued sailors, sending many crashing to their deaths on unexpected landfall, or dying from thirst and scurvy lost at sea. It was the subject of much public discourse, as global warming is for example today. It even makes a cameo in William Hogarth's engravings of A Rake's Progress (note a man scribbling a dim-witted solution to the longitude problem on the wall, centre).
In the centre, a lunatic scribbling a dim-witted solution to the longitude problem
The method for determining longitude by comparing local time with the time at a known origin relies on very accurate time keeping. Beyond the capabilities of clocks of the age, even on land. At sea, the combined effects of motion, temperature and gravity made the approach seemingly impossible.
Let's say that the sun is directly overhead and your chronometer, which was set to noon when you were at 0 degrees, says it's 3 o'clock. This means that three hours ago the sun was overhead at this latitude at 0 degrees longitude. In those three hours, the sun moved 15 degrees 3 times, or 45 degrees. So you're at 45 degrees West.
Despite support from the Royal Society, the Board of Longitude was well stacked with those who favoured an astronomical approach, relying on measurements of the passage of the moon. Nevil Maskelyne proved to be Harrison's arch-nemesis and main proponent of the lunar distance method. Although the chronometer eventually won over seafarers (and King George III) through its simplicity and reliability, Nevil's Nautical Almanac became his enduring legacy and is still published today (minus the lunar distance tables).

After producing five timepieces (H-1 through H5), John Harrison was finally recognised in 1773 by Parliament to have proven his claim, although he was never to officially be awarded the full prize by the recalcitrant Board of Longitude. The National Maritime Museum of Britain has a comprehensive time Gallery which features H-1 to H-4. H-5 is at The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers of London.

It was Harrison's successors, like Thomas Earnshaw, to fully commercialise the maritime chronometer. Yet they all owe their successs to the many innovations that Harrison pioneered.
The machine used for measuring time at sea is here named a chronometer, [as] so valuable a machine deserves to be known by a name instead of a definition.
-ALEXANDER DALRYMPLE in his pamphlet 'Some Notes useful to those who have Chronometers at Sea'

Harrison's Chronometer H1
Harrison's Chronometer H5

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Beginning Rails

Beginning Rails: From Novice to Professional by Jeffrey Hardy and Cloves Carneiro is one of the most approachable "learning rails" books I have found to date.

The writing is clear, and concepts are presented in a very readable way. I really appreciate the organisation of the book - they've done a great job of presenting key topic areas in a logical sequence that guides you up the learning curve without losing sight of the big picture.

Working through the examples right now...

The Chancellor Manuscript

Poking around my bookshelves the other day, I stumbled upon my very old copy of Robert Ludlum's The Chancellor Manuscript. I've mentioned before that this was the first Ludlum I ever read. That was a very long time ago, and I'd forgotten all but the basic plot outline.

Fingering the pages, it took no time to draw me in again. This really is classic Ludlum. The pace is frenetic, the words raw energy. The story twists and turns, and then twists within itself again.

If you have only experienced "new" Ludlum - the Covert-One series, or the estate-produce posthumous novels - you really should go back and check out the classics.

In rediscovering The Chancellor Manuscript, it suddenly struck me what I was missing in the newer novels. Old Ludlum pulled no punches. Love-making was sex. Bad guys were not just simple terrorists, and their actions complex, ambiguous. Characters could be MCPs, and now law said they had to act politically correct. While I still enjoy "new" Ludlum, in comparison it does come off as over-engineered to modern sensibilities. Designed for a middle-American video-game generation, where headshots with shotguns are OK, but fade to black when things get intimate.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Vulcan 607

Vulcan 607 is the story of the incredible raid on Stanley airfield by the RAF's aging V-Force that signaled the start of the 'shooting war' with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. This was Operation Black Buck.

Rowland White does a very good job of telling the story in immense detail, giving equal weight to the technicalities and personalities involved.

It's a rollicking read, especially if you enjoy reading the real stories behind military history. And the point is well made: considering the age of the Vulcan bombers and supporting Victor air-air tankers, the distances involved it is amazing that Vulcan 607 managed to take out the Stanley runway on the first flight. To put the single Vulcan 607 on target, it took: 1 Nimrod, 2 Vulcans, 14 Victors, 40 take-offs and landings, 42 1000lb bombs, 90 aircrew.