Category Archives: Life

Disintegrated again

Having once again zapped myself, rather than the garage door, with the garage door opener, I have concluded I would not have lasted long in Starfleet. My garage door opener looks very like a traditional phaser,the little flattened box, with no built in indicator as to which is the business end. I would therefore, at some point in my brief and ignominious career, have vanished in an orange matte outline while attempting to zap something that was trying to eat/dissolve/absorb me. No doubt I would be wearing a red shirt.

We SF writers assume that the future will be, if not better managed, better designed. There might be holocaust, dystopia, or global McDonaldization, but at least all the doors which are meant to be pushed will have a flat push plate rather than a pull bar, so you’re not yanking on the door with your eyes right level with the little sign saying “push” because the cues contradict each other and the design cue takes precedence over the written one in that small portion of your brain not occupied with working out what kind of envoy mission Horth would send Erien on to get him into trouble. The future should be dramatically interesting – when bad things happen, they should happen for interesting reasons, out of conspiracy, malice, or grand incompetence, rather than lousy interfaces. Then again, the signs are not encouraging. Consider video recorders and mobile phones, both of which are a user-challenge. Both of which have interfaces which are completely unrevealing of function. Certainly mobile phones are still operating with a phone interface laid over functionality that has nothing to do with digit-dialling. That may be why the web has caught people’s imagination: web interfaces can be custom designed (within the capricious constraints of browserdom and cross-platform hell) to actually reflect the underlying information structure.

It’s a matter of life and death, design. Until anaesthesia equipment was redesigned, there were always a small number of deaths from mix-ups of the oxygen and the nitrous oxide – tubes plugged into the wrong socket. No matter how many times people were reminded, trained, exhorted to vigilance or punished, the error continued to happen. Then the machines were redesigned so that it was not physically possible to hook up the wrong connections, and eliminated deaths from that cause. I’ve just finished a freelance project on errors concerning medicines administration, and the consensus of people in the field is that the safest possible system is one that is designed on the assumption that humans will make mistakes, so that there are built-in safeguards against human failure, but also one that allows recovery from mistakes, which involves allowing human experts to use their expertise. Overconstraining people may improve safety, but it will not improve safety as much as allowing initiative in recovering from error. It’s a delicate balance. The British Medical Journal dedicated a whole issue to Reducing error, improving safety.

So with regard to the disintegrating-Alison problem, the first and most robust solution would be the pistol-phaser: design it so it cannot be pointed at the user. A more sophisticated solution would be design so it detects that it is pointed at the same warm body that is holding the trigger and will not fire. Although in the time taken for that feedback to occur, and the realization to sink in that you need to point the other end at whatever is trying to eat you you already might have got et. And then that depends on the software working 100% of the time. So I’d tend to prefer the pistol-phaser. But make it too cumbersome and I’d leave it at home, or put it in my backpack where it would get buried under notebooks, and while I wouldn’t get disintegrated, I’d still get et.

The undomesticated female

Revealed I was a drop out from Woman 101 again last night. Went out running with two workmates (great fun and plan to do again), but along the way the other two got to discussing past christmas presents. One said that her mother had given her some [Name]* knives. I’d never heard of that kind of knife, and I was envisioning carving, linocutting and throwing knives, or some martial art. It took a good few yards – panting along, with energetic Border Collie keeping the pace – for it to be established that these were a particular, and reasonably famous, make of kitchen knives. Never occurred to me that kitchen knives might be known by their makes. Thought any adjective attached would donate function.
*Can’t recall name.