Older blog entries for steve (starting at number 235)

Building the Hexagonal Junk Array

The Hexagonal Repurposed Junk Array #1

I finally got around to writing an article on the construction of the Hexagonal Repurposed Junk Array #1, my art piece for RZN8, this year’s Art Conspiracy SEED auction. The piece was made from surplus electronics and laser-cut salvaged acrylic. It functioned as a combination speaker dock and retro-style light organ for MP3 players. And for those who were about to ask: my audio player is a Sansa Clip+ running Rockbox, the open source audio player firmware that runs on some iPods and other players.

My write-up includes lots of photos and some video shot during construction and after completion. There are links to more photos of the piece and of the ArtCon RZN8 auction. I included all the SVG drawings used to laser cut the parts. I provided a brief description of the LED driver circuit but didn’t bother including a schematic since it only has four components and is pretty trivial. The speaker pods would probably have to be modified to fit another pair of speakers but, otherwise, I think there’s enough info in the article to allow you to build your own unit. If you build one, send me a photo.

Syndicated 2012-10-13 00:42:29 from Steevithak of the Internet

Books I’m Reading

If anybody out there is a long-time reader of this blog, you may recall that at one time in the distant past, I used to mention what books I was reading. I haven’t done that in a long time and it occurred to me today that it would be really trivial to do now that I’m using WordPress. So I’ve added a new little box over in the right sidebar where you can find out what I’m currently reading. It’s usually several books at once. Susan and I always have a book we’re reading aloud to each other. We take turns picking the next book. Often it’s a book that at least one of us has read before. I also have at least one book on the headboard at all times for that night time urge to read as the brain winds down for sleep. And I have a variety of transient books that come and go quickly just because I’m interested in the topic at the moment and want to read (or re-read) them.

So what about you? Do you read multiple books at once or do you read them one at time? If you have any recommendations for books to read, I’d love to hear them.

Syndicated 2012-10-10 00:25:33 from Steevithak of the Internet

At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past

Moonlit Landscape with a View of the New Amstel River and Castle Kostverloren by Aert van der Neer

Is it time for another book review? I think so. I recently read A. Roger Ekirch’s book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. The book is a collection of historical facts and anecdotes that illuminate the western world’s relationship to night.

It’s hard to appreciate the fear that was once associated with the night. Reading this book makes clear the range of terrors that must be faced each night in the pre-industrial world; real threats such as crime, accidental injury, fires, wild animals; imagined threats such as evil spirits and night vapors.

Abundant historical anecdotes are provided to explain the very real night time threats. The rule of law largely came to halt at night, so crime was rampant. If you needed light or heat, you needed fire, which frequently got out of control when everyone was a asleep. The darkness cut off each family from the rest of the world, leaving them surrounded by the unknown.

The range of dangerous night creatures dreamed up by superstitious minds and encouraged by pre-industrial churches is truly amazing: duergars, kelpies, ghosts, boggles, boggarts, demons, fallen angels, dobbies, trolls, wafts, elves, foliots, pixies, fairies, and werewolves to name just a few. The most feared creatures of the night were witches and Satan himself, who appears to have spent quite a bit of his time wandering the streets of pre-industrial Europe making odd noises and tripping drunks on their way home from the tavern.

Throughout most of the western world, being out at night was frowned upon or even illegal. But there were exceptions: night watchmen, prostitutes, workers at kilns and glassmakers who kept fires burning, nightmen cleaning cesspools and dumping the waste into the streets, gravediggers, known as vespillons, who worked in the cemeteries. Sometimes the poor went out during the night to scavenge horse manure from the streets.

Early scientists and inventors dreamed of putting an end to the horrors of night by various means. First they built city walls, then they added systems of ringing bells and shouting watchmen to inform residents that all was well, and eventually they struck on the idea of city-wide artificial illumination. It was not hard to convince governments that it was worth the expense to spread the rule of law into the night, allowing citizens to carry on business and industry with less risk. New street lighting technology invented by Edmund Heming and Jan van der Heyden used reflectors to amplify the light of oil lamps.

The Church had other ideas of course, as fear of night was good for their business. Both Catholic and Protestant Churches fought artificial illumination for public safety (despite using it themselves to illuminate religious festivals). “God does not agree with the use of lanterns”, wrote a Genevan Catholic. “We ought not turn day into night, nor night into day”, warned a London pastor in 1662. Over time reason won out and nations started lighting their cities, usually beginning with the capitals. Paris was illuminated by 1667, Amsterdam in 1669, Berlin in 1682, London in 1683, and Vienna in 1688.

There are also chapters on dreams, on sexual intrigues, on the mundane details of securing a common household against the dangers of the night, on nocturnal visits to taverns, on the terror of those forced to travel at night. The book even posits, based on anecdotal evidence, that prior to the industrial age, it was common for humans to sleep twice each night; first sleep and second sleep, with a short period of wakefulness between. Much of what I read in this book was surprising and new. It’s hard to believe no one has written about this subject before! The book is well-illustrated with historical paintings and other period art.

The book is not perfect, however. It’s a bit less readable than similar historical non-fiction I’ve read. It lacks a cohesive narrative or even a clearly defined reason for the particular progression of topics in the chapters. The book is not chronological but seemingly a random collection of notes grouped roughly into arbitrary, night-related topics. It feels almost like you’re reading research notes for what could be a really great book, instead of the book itself. But, in the end, the information imparted is so fascinating that it makes up for the less than stellar writing.

Syndicated 2012-10-01 00:19:45 from Steevithak of the Internet

A Boy and His Robots

I often get asked how my interest in robots started. Usually I demur, changing the topic or avoiding the question with an answer like, “I don’t know, I’ve just always been interested”. Recent events made me ponder the question a little more seriously and I’m going to try to answer it today.

I believe three early experiences were responsible. The first occurred in third grade when I read a book from the school library called ”Andy Buckram’s Tin Men” by famed children’s author Carol Ryrie Brink. It’s marginally a science fiction story about a boy who builds robots out of old metal cans and surplus motors. At some point, the story derails into fantasy when lightening strikes the robots, giving them the “spark of life” and consciousness. I was old enough to realize the spark of life business was nonsense but it got me wondering about how and why humans are conscious and how we could make other conscious machines.

The second experience that influenced my interest was a series of robot sightings on TV and later in books over a period of several years. The earliest TV robots I remember seeing were the B9 robot from Lost in Space and the robot Omega from a German film called First Spaceship on Venus. Robot B9 was clearly a conscious, intentional being despite being constructed from metal and silicon rather than meat like us. Omega was much more primitive than B9 but seemed a more plausible starting point for building a real robot. Before long, I had discovered hard science fiction at the city library and started reading Isaac Asimov’s robot short stories and novels. I often had to be sneaky about it because science fiction made my very religious mother uncomfortable. From my contraband Asimov books, I learned about the three laws (yes, there were only three law of robotics back then, kids; this was long before R. Daneel Olivaw and R. Giskard Reventlov deduced the existence of the zeroth law in Robots and Empire). By this time I had no doubt robots could and would be built. I still had no idea how one might actually go about it; not until the third thing happened.

In 1976, I discovered a strange little TAB book called Build Your Own Working Robot by David L. Heiserman. I’d never seen anything like this before and it made me realize I wasn’t the only person around who thought about building real robots.

Heiserman described building a robot called Buster. The robot’s design reminded me of robot Omega from the movies: small, wheeled, and with intelligence more like an insect than a human. This was before the era of ubiquitous microprocessors. Buster’s brain was a mass of TTL logic chips implementing surprisingly complex behaviours. I began filling the margins of my spiral notebooks at school with Boolean logic gate diagrams that I imagined were subtle improvements on the designs in the book. With no money to spend on parts, I never managed to build the Buster robot but the endless tinkering with logic designs led to a life-long interest in electronics, computers, artificial intelligence and cognitive science.

So what made me think of these robot influences from youth? I recently got the chance to interview Dave Heiserman for robots.net. As I put together the interview questions a lot of these memories came rolling back into my mind and what better use for those memories than to write them down here my blog to entertain my numerous readers; most of whom are probably search engine bots who will appreciate the stories of their distant relatives.

Syndicated 2012-08-28 05:47:51 from Steevithak of the Internet

Higgs Boson, doing the things a particle can

You probably know by now that the Higgs Boson has very likely been detected at CERN using the Large Hadron Collider (LCH). How could you not, it’s been all over the news for days and the big annoucement coincided with the American July 4th holiday. Still, I know a lot of people seem to have missed it or didn’t understand what it was all about. I was sure all my relatives would be talking about it July 4th and somehow, I thought I’d probably be asked to explain it, so I spent a while brushing up on various analogies to explain the Higgs field.

There’s the snow analogy: the Higgs Boson is like a snowflake, the Higgs field like a field of snow, a photon like a skier who slides across the surface with no resistance, heavier particles are like a man trying to walk in the snow, his feet sinking into it with each step, slowing him down. Or the Hollywood party analogy: The Higgs field is like an Oscar after-party, a photon is like an average nobody who can pass through the party-goers quickly drawing no attention to himself, heavier particles are like a Hollywood star trying to walk through the party with party-goers accumulating around him and slowing his progress.

As it turned out, no one asked. Thinking about it afterwards, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. The relatives you see at holidays seldom talk about topics like physics or cosmology (at least in my family). More likely, the talk is about sports or the latest movies.

Well anyway, this Higgs Boson thing is big news, probably the biggest science news that will happen in our lifetime. People in the future will look back at this the way we do at Einstein’s paper on Special Relativity. Like relativity, even though we’re pretty sure it’s correct, it still has to be tested and retested. Already it seems a sure enough thing that Stephen Hawking has conceded a $100 bet that the Higgs Boson would not be discovered. It’s almost certain there will be Nobel Prizes for this.

So what’s the big deal about this Higgs Boson thing?

If there’s any downside or disappointment here, it’s that the discovery had to wait so long to be made when it could have been made a decade ago, right here in Texas. We were building the biggest particle accelerator in history in Texas back in the 1990s, the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC). The SSC had a circumference of 87 kilometers and an energy of 20 to 40 TeV per proton, compared to the LHC’s modest 27 kilometers and 4 to 7 TeV. What happened? Politics. Faced with budget increases leading to a projected cost of 12 Billion dollars, Democrat Jim Slattery successfully campaigned for legislation that evetually killed the project. President Clinton signed the bill killing the SSC even though he acknowledged that “abandoning the SSC at this point would signal that the United States is compromising its position of leadership in basic science”.

That’s exactly what happened and, as in so many areas of science and culture, the US began falling behind the rest of the world. I suspect if this ever leads to really crazy cool inventions like faster than light travel or anti-gravity transports, they won’t be flying a US flag. But hopefully they’ll let us hitch a ride.

Syndicated 2012-07-08 04:01:29 from Steevithak of the Internet

Chronopolis

Chronopolis

Chronopolis is a 1971 anothology of science fiction short stories by J. G. Ballard. I’ve not read much by this author but I’m definitely looking forward to another Ballard book after reading this one. His stories have a certain uniqueness that’s hard to describe; so much so that the adjective Ballardian was coined and according to the Collins English Dictionary, means “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J. G. Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.”

Many of the stories in the book are indeed dystopian and bleak but they also seem like a bridge from the traditional science fiction of the 1950′s to the new wave and Cyberpunk SF that emerged in the 70s and 80s. Some of the stories don’t really feel connected to anything in historical science fiction; they have a dream-like or nightmare-like quality that’s, well, Ballardian.

The book starts out with The Voices of Time, not where I’d recommend anyone start if they’ve never read Ballard before. I almost didn’t go on to the next story. It’s not badly written or anything like that. Quite the opposite. It’s a bleak, depressing tale whose goal seems to be finding the reader’s tolerance level for bad news. It’s the story of a scientist named Powers who is becoming a Sleeper, a condition which affects a growing number of people. Over time, it reduces one’s ability to stay awake; each day one spends slightly more time in a coma-like sleep until sleep eventually becomes continuous.

Powers theorizes that the Sleeper phenomena is an attempt by life to adapt to a world poisoned by radiation from atomic weapons tests. Powers’ friend and colleague, Whitby, now in permanent sleep, studied animal biology. He learned that every species is evolving into nightmarish, violent creatures; to be followed by extinction. Whitby believed the cure for Sleepers was in understanding why animals were changing. With Whitby gone, Powers realizes any hope for a cure has gone with him.

Power’s nemesis, Kaldren, has so far escaped the Sleep and has been busy deciphering a numerical signal flooding the world’s radio telescopes. Kaldren concludes it’s a countdown to the end of the universe, being broadcast to any remaining life forms so they can get their affairs in order. He recounts to Powers the story of astronauts who recently made first contact with aliens. The message they received is that we left the Earth too late; the Universe is old and dying, all the interesting races are long gone, there’s nothing left to see, no one to meet, nothing left to do but wait for the quickly approaching end of our planet.

I could go on but you get the idea; anyway, things really take a turn for the worse at this point. It’s not a spoiler to say the story has no happy ending.

Fortunately, I didn’t stop with The Voices of Time. I read on and found some truly amazing stories. It’s no wonder the book is named for the story Chronopolis. This was one of the most enjoyable in the anthology. It’s set in a dystopian future, but in a good way. We get an early mention of “time police” but this is no time-travel story. The time police are on the look out for illegal clocks. Clocks, watches, time keeping technology of almost every kind is forbidden. The story concerns a boy growing up in this timeless world who dares to wonder about clocks. The turning point is a chance encounter that leaves him in possession of a working and very illegal wrist watch.

His secret knowledge of time changes life for the better but when a school teacher discovers his watch, he is taken to visit Chronopolis, the time city, a huge ghost town that was the center of the world in the era of clocks. He’s peppered with propaganda about Chronopolis and what its clocks were used for, how they ruled everyone’s lives. The intent is to show him the horror and evil of clocks but, instead, it feeds his fascination. The question is whether he can escape the time police and fulfill the destiny he sees unwinding before him.

Billenium concerns the adventures of John Ward and his friend, Henry, in an over-populated future where personal living quarters have a maximum size set by law. After Ward is evicted from his cubicle and hears rumors the space quota is being reduced to 3 square meters per person, he and Henry go hunting for a new cubicle they can share.

While looking at a cubicle in a very old building, Ward punches the wall in a moment of frustration. A hole is created revealing a large 15 x 15 foot room, an unimaginably huge space that even the wealthiest person couldn’t afford to possess. It was walled over during some long forgotten repartitioning. Without hesitation, they sign a lease for the cubicle and build a secret door into the hidden room.

At first they take turns sleeping alone in the vastness but guilt gets the better of them. One by one they begin letting others in on their secret; first inviting two female friends to live with them, then relatives. Along the way things get complicated. The story has more humor than most in the book, even if it’s a dark humor. I also found it reminiscent of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (which became the film Soylent Green) and Logan’s Run.

What would the world of Billenium look like hundreds of years down the line; a world where buildings covered every square foot of the Earth? Such a world is imagined in Build-Up. Civilization has long since collapsed and is now rebuilding. The old high-speed trains are running again, education of sorts is returning. But knowledge of the Earth and how people came to live the way they do is long lost. There is nothing to the world beyond level after level of corridors and rooms. Any talk of a “top” level or “bottom” level or of what could lie beyond them is considered superstitious nonsense.

Franz, a university student, has imagined a flying machine. In attempting to describe it to his friend, it’s evident that such a machine would be pointless without a very large room to fly it in. The largest room anyone has seen is the district’s stadium but even in so large a room what purpose could it serve to fly across it? Franz speculates about whether there could be “completely free space” – an area that has no walls, no floors above or below. His friends find the concept ludicrous but Franz becomes obsessed. He begins to question how the world came into existence – who built the first walls and floors, what was there before them?

He decides to find answers and starts by asking the local transit authority how far the trains go. They don’t know. Their trains go a few districts in each direction but the tracks go on and there are other trains. No one ever had a reason to travel more than a district or two away; why would they? Franz knows what he has to do. He takes all is money and buys transit tickets, determined to ride the trains continually in one direction until he find his answer. What he finds instead though, is so much stranger than free space that he begins to doubt his sanity. This story was later retitled to The Concentration City in later Ballard collections.

There are a total of sixteen stories in this anthology and every one of them is well written, readable, and addicting. I found even the ones I didn’t entirely like were too compelling to put down, I had to find out what happened. I’m fairly sure it’s out of print (no suprise there, what good science fiction book isn’t out of print?) but if you can find a copy, buy it and read it! Oh, and my edition has more of that classic Richard Powers artwork on the cover.

Syndicated 2012-06-18 20:30:00 from Steevithak of the Internet

Do I Detect a Cultural Regression?

I’ve noticed an increasing number people suggesting that conservatives are being replaced by “regressives”. By definition, conservatives advocate keeping things the same or “conserving” the status quo. To them, any problems we have are caused by change. Preventing change prevents problems. Progressives believe problems are inevitable and their solution requires us to change or “progress”. We used to have a third group, almost extinct, called moderates who believed we needed to use both approaches in moderation. Lately, a new group seems to be evolving. It started out as a small faction on the far religious right but it’s rapidly assimilating much of the right, maybe the entire Republican political party. For this new group, everything about the modern world is a problem that must be solved by regressing to ideas discarded in the past. The name “regressive” has been suggested to describe members of this group. In a Nov, 2011 blog post, Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkley, described some differences between regressives and the conservatives they’re replacing.

What sort of regressions are we talking about? They want to take science out of education and replace it with religion. They want to roll back religious freedoms and replace them with a Christian theocracy. They want to turn back civil rights for women to days when women couldn’t vote and were property to be owned and used by men. They want to roll back regulations that protect the economy and the environment from the abuses of corporations. They want to roll back awareness of our place in the natural world, the importance of the environment, and any belief that the human race should work conserve natural resources. To quote Ann Coulter, “God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it.” They want a world where they can pollute the air and water, sell toxic foods and drugs with impunity. When they talk about deregulation, that’s what they’re after; rolling back any and all restrictions on business. At the same time, they advocate an authoritarian government that restricts freedoms, liberties, and privacy of individuals. They advocate government mandated, unnecessary medical procedures and other draconian measures to enforce their religion’s moral code on all citizens.

The regressives also want to roll back public education. They target education and science as “elitist” and frequently demean books, scientists, schools and teachers. If they really want to insult someone, they call them “professorial” or “academic”! They have already personally regressed to a time when the concepts of “believing” and “knowing” are conflated. In their view, science and facts are just sets of beliefs, like religion. This leads to a phenomenon known as denialism that seems to go hand-in-hand with regressionism. Because facts are no different than beliefs, there’s no reason to accept them if you don’t want to. Don’t like the latest theory of climatology? Deny it. Have pesky geologists and cosmologists determined the Earth is older than the 5,000 years you’d like it to be? Deny it. Don’t like that theory of Evolution that biology is based on? Deny it.

They deny medical facts like the efficacy of vaccines and the existence of AIDS; historical facts as big as the Holocaust or as small as Obama’s birthplace. I can think of no field of science or history immune to denialism. Instead of truth, they now see truthiness. And having lost their grip on reality, they seem to easily succumb to belief in every form of superstition, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theory. From Tea Party claims that electric utility Smart Meters emit “spy rays” to a resurgence in belief that the Earth is flat, I don’t remember any time in the past when so many people fall victim so easily to so many forms of quackery and nonsense. If you can choose what’s a fact on a whim, it’s easy to choose “facts” that reinforce your existing views and deny those than don’t. This creates a feedback loop, constantly pushing you to further extremes.

Ironically, denialism among fundamentalists has taken them so far to the right that they now see “liberal bias” in the Bibles that needs to be denied. They’ve started the “Conservative Bible Project” to rewrite the Bible without the dangerous “liberal ideas” that have “crept in”. Their new-and-improved Bible will be anti-science, anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-women’s-rights, anti-communism (apparently the word “comrade” is used too frequently in modern translations!). It will leave out “liberal falsehoods” such as Jesus defending a prostitute from stoning by telling the crowd that whoever is without sin should cast the first stone. Also to be dropped is Jesus saying “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Obviously, if God and Jesus were good conservatives they’d stick to the party line as understood by the modern right.

No better example of denialism exists than North Carolina’s bizarre new law that restricts the rate of sea level rise and limits the methods scientists may legally use to study it. It also forbids them from discovering that the ocean may rise at an accelerated rate in the future! Perhaps next they’ll make a law requiring the Earth to be flat or legislate gravity out of existence?

What’s the reason for this growing group of regressionists and their denialism? Is it just a chance coalition of religious fundamentalists and far-right facists? Is it our equivalent of the Taliban? Is something in the water making people stupid?

Perhaps regressionism is an over-reaction to the increasing pace of scientific and cultural change in the world; change that can erode traditional beliefs. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by change, especially when we hold on to a too-rigid world view that can’t adapt to new facts. Maybe it’s something else. I honestly don’t know. I hope we can find a way to fight it. If not, well, when the Regressive Inquisition kicks down your door and hauls you off to be burned as a witch for having too many books or “believing in” science, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Syndicated 2012-06-07 02:58:31 from Steevithak of the Internet

Waiting for the Plane

I’m at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, Terminal C, gate 14, waiting to board a flight to Santa Ana, California. I’m headed to the VEX Robotics World Championship event in Anaheim where I’ll be shooting photos. It’s also the first time I’ve flown in nearly a year.

As usual, I forgot to eat breakfast this morning. There’s a Wendy’s directly across from gate 14, so I walk over and order a breakfast sausage biscuit; Wendys’ version of an Egg McMuffin. The Wendys is chaotic. There’s a guy dissasembling a deep fryer, pulling out a grunge-encrusted pump. There are several people running around behind the counter preparing orders. A manager is training someone at the register. Orders are taking a long time.

I finally get my Wendy’s McBreakfast thing and hunt down an unoccupied seat at a row of tables. Like the Wendy’s itself, the sausage biscuit is suprisingly random. McDonalds Egg McMuffins are precisely shaped, each identical to the one before and the one after. But this looks like someone literally fried an egg in a pan and plopped it onto a randomly shaped biscuit. I drink my tiny plastic cup of orange juice to cut through the greasy fast food taste left from the biscuit.

There’s no recycle bin. Nobody recycles at airports. Everything is trash; the paper bag, the plastic cup. Maybe they sort out the recyclables later? I doubt it. I pick up my laptop bag and the new camera bag I’m trying out. I bought it at Fry’s last night. It’s a backpack style bag. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll return it when I get back to Dallas.

I’m assuming I’ll get back of course. I think about statistics. The odds against winning the lottery are millions to one but when the prize is big enough, we buy a ticket and hope to be that one in a million. The odds of dying in a plane crash are also millions to one but, when we fly, we hope we’re not the one. Being lucky doesn’t always mean beating the odds. Just to be safe, I buy one of those inexpensive travelers insurance policies.

On the way back to gate 14, I see a newstand and decide to check out the books. I usually take a book or two along on flights but didn’t have one handy this morning. It’s been a while since I’ve been in an airport bookstore. I’m disappointed to see there’s no science fiction. There are lots of supernatural/fantasy books about witches, wizards, and vampires. The only thing that’s even close to science fiction is The Hunger Games. I saw the movie a couple of weeks ago, so it doesn’t interest me much. I make my way back to the gate without a book. The plane should be here soon.

Syndicated 2012-04-20 07:16:17 from Steevithak of the Internet

The Monster From Earth’s End

The Monster From Earth's End

The Monster From Earth's End

The Monster From Earth’s End by Murray Leinster is another recent estate sale find. Murry Leinster isn’t my favorite author but always writes an entertaining story. Leinster was a pseudonym. His real name is William F. Jenkins, under which he’s better known as the inventor of the front-projection process used in movie special effects during the 1960s and 1970s. In the SF world, he’s known as the inventor of the parallel universe story, the originator of the term “First Contact”, and the idea of a Universal Translator, a handy device that later became common in SF and even beyond, thanks to its use on Star Trek.

 

The Monster from Earth’s End is not a groundbreaking novel. It’s billed as a science fiction “horror” story but fans of Stephen King or Dean Koontz aren’t likely to be very horrified. Despite the back cover blurb about bloody deaths and mysterious disappearances, and despite the front cover artwork of a beautiful nude woman being hoisted into the air by strands of green slime, the novel is pretty tame. It focuses much more on the characters and the science fiction aspects of the story than on the horror.

The plot is something of a cross between Gilligan’s Island, Who Goes There? and Day of the Triffids. Our protagonists operate a small military base on remote Gow Island, used as a refueling stop and storage depot for military and scientific planes doing research in the Antarctic.

“The island was a pile of dark rocks in an ocean which reached out endlessly from its shores. The winds of all the world blew around it, and seas marched three-quarters of the way around the globe to hurl themselves thunderously against its cliffs.”

Actually the island is not entirely dark rocks. It has a variety of wooded areas convenient as hiding places for spooky monsters and even an extra-spooky swampy area heated by underground hot springs. But the island has no animal life larger than harmless snakes and sea birds. There is a dock near the rocky shore for cargo ships. The inland base has a runway, some warehouses, a mess hall, radio shack, and a few other buildings.

The primary characters are Drake, the administrative officer; Nora, the executive assistant Drake would like to notice him; and Beecham, a research biologist. There 20 people on the island including quite a few supporting characters. There’s Spaulding, an officer who’s been stuck on the island too long and through overwork has become a bit irrational and paranoid. Hollister, the island’s chief mechanic, who can improvise a solution to any problem that crops up. Tom Beldon is a younger military man who’s made it his job to protect Drake from harm. There’s Sparks the radio guy, the cook and his assistant, and assorted other stock characters who seem to inhabit every remote base. Leinster does a great of job of giving every character a backstory and role to play as the plot unfolds.

As the story opens, an unscheduled cargo plane has stirred up excitement. It’s a research plane carrying scientists and crates of plant specimens from a newly discovered area in the Antarctic, an oasis of life heated by underground hot springs where life has evolved isolated from the rest of the world for untold years. As the plane approaches, something goes wrong. Over the radio, they hear shouts for a gun, shots fired, and then silence. The plane manages a crash landing. There’s no one aboard but the pilot, who shoots himself before they can reach him to find out what happened. All the passengers are missing and one of the crates of botanical specimens is scattered inside the plane.

The wrecked plane is blocking the runway, so the only way to get on or off the island now is by sea. After reporting the incident, base personal are asked to preserve the botanical specimens as best they can. Beecham takes the tree-like specimens from the broken crate and plants them near the island’s swampy hot spring area. The undamaged crates of specimens he moves into a warehouse for storage. Hollistor is set on the task of moving the wrecked plane from the runway.

That night the horrors begin. The dead pilot’s body vanishes. A dog dies mysteriously. Within a day, people start disappearing. Strange venomous insects turn up on the island. Evidence accumulates that some type of beast is loose on the island; something strong enough to kill a man and bend rifles in half. It comes and goes without being seen. Spaulding jumps to more and more irrational explanations, from prehistoric birds to invisible monsters. Drake does his best to keep the base from panicking. And, like any good leading man in a science fiction novel, he insists on reason.

“In the real world, everything follows natural laws. Impossible things do not happen. There is an explanation for everything that does happen. The explanation links it to other things. There are no isolated phenomena. There are only isolated observations, and sometimes there are false observations. But everything real is rational. There was a rational reason for everything that had taken place on Gow Island. The problem was to find it.”

He’s helped out here by Beecham, the biologist who spends most of the book gathering evidence and testing theories. How many horror novels these days have protagonists who fight unseen horrors using the scientific method? When the answer Beecham’s research leads him to an extraordinary conclusion, he asks Drake to double-check his evidence and come up with his own theory:

“I’ve been guessing at things, Drake, and I’ve got some evidence. Pitiably little, but evidence. Will you look at it? I think that just possibly there’s a very simple explanation for everything that’s happened. I want to show you the evidence and have you come to your own opinion. If it’s the same as mine, we’ll know what to do. What I suspect is perfectly reasonable. There’ve been legends about it. People have believed it for centuries. Nothing superstitious, Drake! I’m not talking about an actual discovery of werewolves, or anything like that. It’s quite natural. It’s even inevitable from a biologist’s standpoint. But I want somebody to look at the evidence with an open mind.”

But Beecham’s theory may be too late. Bad weather has cut off the base from sea rescue and Hollister needs more time to clear the runway — time they may not have. They’re forced to retreat to the buildings for safety when they learn they’re facing not one impossible creature but a multitude. Can they hold out until help arrives? Do they dare go outside to finish clearing the runway? Or should they try to hold out until the weather allows help from the Navy. Even if help arrives, can they chance a run for the docks? Who will die next? Will Drake ever get a chance to be alone with Nora? Will Beecham find a way to stop the invisible killers? The answers to all these questions await in this compact 175-page novel. Even if it’s not scary it is a fun read.

I’ve since discovered the book was the basis of an apparently awful 1966 Roger Corman film titled The Navy vs the Night Monsters, staring Mamie van Doren and Anthony Eisley. I haven’t seen it yet, but I found the trailer on YouTube.

Syndicated 2012-03-19 05:35:02 from Steevithak of the Internet

Fedora 16 and GNOME 3: First Impressions

I’ve been holding out on Fedora 14 for as long as I can, trying to avoid moving to GNOME 3. I’ve read too many bad reviews and horror stories. But I finally decided it was time to try it. I backed up my laptop and did a clean install of Fedora 16 and thought I’d offer my impressions.

GNOME 3 seems to be the result of a well-intentioned user interface design that largely misses the mark. The results could have been greatly improved by proper use of time-motion studies and consideration of common use-cases. Unfortunately, it feels like the design was done without the input of users. The result is that GNOME 3 makes almost everything I commonly do on my computer less intuitive and slower. By slower I mean three things: more keystrokes, more mouse clicks, more waiting while the UI presents unnecessary eye-candy in a task-blocking way. Here’s a simple example you’ll run into right away:

Shut down your computer in GNOME 2 – click ‘system’ menu, select ‘shutdown’, click ‘shutdown’ (or suspend, hibernate, or restart) on the shutdown dialog. Done.

Shut down your computer in GNOME 3 – click the name of the current user in the upper right hand corner. Select ‘logout’. Wait several seconds while the desktop cycles and brings up the desktop login screen, click ‘shutdown’.

Sure it looks really cool with all the animations, boxes, and stuff sliding up and down. And you could argue that it’s the same number of clicks but it really does take significantly longer. And there’s the added non-intuitiveness that a user will have to overcome to discover that clicking their user name and then logging out is required to find the ‘shutdown’ option. Compare that a user guessing that a click on a ‘system’ menu might present system-related functions like ‘shutdown’.

Use GNOME 3 for a couple of hours and you’ll find a dozen similar cases where common tasks are slightly slower and slightly less intuitive.

There are other, more drastic and baffling UI changes. One thing I noted throughout GNOME 3 is that there is a general move away from multi-tasking towards something more akin to a primitive task-switcher. Using GNOME 3 feels like a cross between a 1980s DOS task switcher and a badly designed phone UI.

For example, in GNOME 2, suppose you’re running several terminals to monitor real time data on a remote system. Now you want to open a word processor document to make some notes about the data your monitoring. You’d probably click the ‘Applications’ menu, select ‘Office’ and then ‘OO Writer’. And it would start without interrupting you other activities.

That simple, everyday scenario is completely impossible in GNOME 3 because it can only do one thing at a time visually. In order to start a word processor program you have no choice but to stop watching your terminals because the UI literally can’t do both things at once. Viewing the desktop and the ‘Activities’ menu simultaneously is not possible. So the thing to be aware of is that if you need multiple programs and are doing something critical, start them all before hand or you’ll be interrupted by the UI’s inability to multi-task.

So how do you start a new program anyway? Basically the same as always, except the applications menu is now called ‘Activities’ and takes up the entire desktop instead of a small area on the upper left. The first step is to click ‘Activities’. Then you wait while you’re shown a 2 or 3 second eye candy animation of windows zooming all over the place. Once the animation is over, the entire desktop is replaced with a combination of the old applications menu and a sort of crude taskbar that shows what’s running.

Not only does the ‘Activities’ menu takes up the entire desktop, but each level of the menu is in a different visual form and location. The first level is a horizontal text menu on the upper left, the second level is text-based again but vertically on the far right side of the screen, and the third level is a jumble of gigantic icons that fill the center of the screen. You’ll waste a lot of time and effort pushing the mouse pointer the full width and height of your screen several times to start one program. Need to start two programs? Sorry, can’t do it. Once you’ve started one, you’re taken away from the ‘Activities’ menu and back to the desktop, where you’ll have to click ‘Activities’ again and start all over for each program. Starting up a dozen or so things can be incredibly time consuming. The apparent design goal here is to slow productivity while speeding development of carpal tunnel syndrome.

As you’ve probably heard if you’ve read any reviews of GNOME 3, they’ve removed the maximize and minimize buttons from the windows. It makes you wonder if they set to out make GNOME 3 the most frustrating user interface ever. Think how many times a day you minimize windows. In GNOME 3 you’ll quickly end up with a disorganized mess of overlapping windows. Need to get a window out of the way for a few seconds and then bring it back? Sorry can’t do it anymore. Need to keep a certain program minimized and at the ready so you can pop it up briefly and hide it again? Sorry can’t do it. If a window becomes completely covered up, there’s no obvious way to reach it. The only way to get it back to the top is to drag and resize other windows until you can see enough of the desired window to click on it.

Why not just click on it in the task bar, you ask? Well, there isn’t one any more. At least there’s not one that’s visible on the desktop where you need it. So even though I found a hack to get the minimize button back on the windows, if I click the minimize button, I’m pretty much screwed.

Where does the minimized window go? Non-intuitivily, it ends up on the ‘Activities’ menu. Remember I mentioned when you first arrive on the ‘Activities’ menu there’s a crude replacement for the task bar? That’s where you’ll find your minimized window. Only you’ll have to identify it by squinting at little screen captures. There is some tiny text with the window title but it’s significantly smaller than the text in the GNOME 2 task bar. So if you had say, 10 browsers or terminals open and minimized a few, it becomes non-trivial to tell which is which among the screen captures on the ‘Activities’ menu. But you can always click them at random until you find the right one.

And between each of those random clicks you have to “task switch” back and forth between the desktop and the ‘Activities’ menu, watching the eye-candy animation of windows flying around between each transition. I think the goal here was generating something akin to road rage in the computer user.

Is there more bad news? You bet! Context menus have been removed. You remember context menus? The menus you get by right-clicking on things to find meta-functionality. Traditionally, left-clicks affect a thing itself (e.g. left clicking an program icon starts the program). Right clicks on the other hand traditionally bring up a menu of properties (e.g. a right click might give lead to settings or version information).

Well throw a couple of decades of usability research out the window because GNOME has a better way of doing it! Let’s get rid of that right-click menu by – wait for it – taking away all the functionality that it accessed. In GNOME 3 a right click duplicates exactly the functionality of a left click. Any function you used to access from a right-click is gone, with a few exceptions where they’ve shoe-horned the functionality in a left click menu. So, no, your mouse isn’t broken, it’s just being used half as efficiently now.

Typical example: left click the Network Manager icon in the task bar of GNOME 2. You get a list of available networks. Now right-click. You get a list of options that affect how Network Manager behaves, like turning notifications on or off, editing connections, or version information. Okay, what about in GNOME 3? Left click is pretty much the same, a list of network you can log on to. Right click is – yikes! – it’s the same as left click. How do you turn notifications on and off? Sorry, can’t do it. How do you edit connections? Left click again and look at the bottom – they’ve shoved a new option in there: “Network Settings”. Where’s “about”? Gone. I’ve noticed that menus like ‘help’, ‘about’, and ‘version’ are hard to find in GNOME 3. Even finding out what version of Fedora you’re running (two clicks in GNOME 2) is now a complex task that a new user is unable to discover without help.

To give a more commonly used example, how do you change your desktop background? In GNOME 2 you right click on the desktop and select ‘change desktop background’. In GNOME 3 it’s a bit harder to find. Click your user name, then ‘System Settings’, then ‘Background’. As with a lot of the changes, it’s only slightly harder and slightly less intuitive but the cumulative effect will make you want to throw your computer out the window.

It took nearly an hour to get a common network printer working with Fedora 16. This is a process that was intuitive and took only a few seconds on Fedora 14. GNOME 3 kept complaining that I needed to change the settings in a firewall daemon (firewalld), a message that would be meaningless to new users (and may represent a new firewall mechanism – the name isn’t familiar to me from previous versions of Fedora). Where is the firewall UI? Never found it. Not in ‘user name’ -> ‘system settings’ which would be the obvious first choice. Also not in ‘Activities’ -> ‘system tools’ or ‘Activities’ -> ‘internet’. Apparently there’s not a firewall UI component in GNOME 3.

After a little Googling, I discovered the GNOME 3 printer setup UI is completely broken anyway, Recommendation online was to ignore it and use the old version from GNOME 2, which is possible by going to the command line and typing ‘system-config-printer’. You may need to install it if it’s not there already. Once I did this I was able to get the printer working in under a minute.

There are too many similar annoyances and my rant is getting way too long so I’ll just list a few others I’ve run into without expounding on them:

  • You can’t run multiple instances of a terminal any more. Trying to start a second terminal just takes you back to the one you already started. This is a deal-breaker for me as I often have as many as dozen terminals open at once.
  • No more applets on the tool bar. Forget that weather applet that tells you the temperature outside, or the little CPU temperature monitors, and bandwidth monitors, all gone.
  • There is a clock on the tool bar but it’s completely unconfigurable aside 24 hour vs 12 hour time. No date, no seconds. And worst of all, it’s centered and displays in a proportional font, so it jiggles back and forth every time it updates.
  • The only difference between the active desktop window and inactive windows is a slight variation in the text color: dark gray on light gray for active compared to slightly less dark gray on light gray for inactive.
  • There are lots of violations of the principle of least surprise. For example, typing something in the “search” field of the ‘Activities’ menu doesn’t search the ‘Activities’ menu, it starts a web browser and does a wikipedia search (forget about finding the firewall configuration that way).
  • One of the most surprising changes is that the update notification in the status bar is gone. There’s no way to know when software updates are available now unless you manually start the software update program, another thing that won’t be intuitive for newbie users.
  • The concept of multiple desktops is gone as is the desktop pager on the lower task bar. Maybe the theory is that since window management is a mess now, one messy desktop is better than several?

So to sum it up, there are two fundamental problems here: 1) GNOME 3 is buggy and unfinished 2) GNOME 3 is fundamentally a non-intuitive UI design that’s inefficient and slow to use. I suspect that by Fedora 17 or 18, problem #1 will be rectified and it will be a lot less buggy and have features that are missing from the current version. Problem #2 I’m not so sure about. There are a lot basic UI design mistakes in GNOME 3 and I’m not sure they can be easily fixed.

A good start to improving GNOME 3 would be:

  • Add a better, smaller applications menu to the top toolbar so programs can be started without leaving the desktop.
  • Add a bottom task bar, or at least a task area to the top tool bar so it’s easy to find out what’s running without leaving the desktop.
  • Add max/min butttons back to windows to simplify windows management
  • Add right-click context menus to speed up access to frequently used properties of desktop objects.

Those four changes would make GNOME 3 ten times faster and easier for new users. It wouldn’t completely fix things but it would be a good start.

Syndicated 2012-03-09 00:43:12 from Steevithak of the Internet

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