Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Range of Solutions

Engineering progress is typically a gradual thing. Usually the most dramatic advances are still stepwise, like moving the pieces of a sliding puzzle slowly into place. A new material or process is discovered, which allows previous design limits to be pushed back, which tips the balance in favor of different solutions than were previously infeasible or impractical. These are advances like the advent of molded plastics, which let us create cheap products of almost arbitrary shape rather than being constrained by the limits of sheet metal.

Every once in a while though -- usually in time of war, sadly -- rather than taking measured, safe steps forward, engineering goes for the standing long jump. New technologies must be invented whole, with the advancements in materials, processes and design techniques to fall in behind, like ripping the tiles from the sliding puzzle and putting them back without the benefit of knowing the final picture. To me, these are the times when the nature of human ingenuity is thrown most strongly into relief. When we don't have the luxury of taking the next logical step, how do we intuitively fill in the inevitable gaps of uncertainty?

Take the space race of the 50s and 60s, when brash yankees and cunning russkies believed that their way of life depended on hurling as much technology as far from the earth as possible -- and they did it in near complete isolation from each other. When the intuitive leaps were that broad, we had pretty different solutions to essentially the same enormous problem.

Just getting off the ground, we had different approaches to building something with a design spec as simple as: a big cylindrical fuel tank with rockets strapped to it:

Titan II and Vostok

On left, the American Titan II rocket was simple, with a pair of high-efficiency rocket motors; on right, the Russian Vostok used a mass of motors housed in dramatically spreading nacelles.

Then once we got to orbit, things were even more interesting:

Apollo and Soyuz docking

Here we have the Apollo capsule on the left, docking with the Russian Soyuz on right, on a mission seemingly designed to point out the vast differences in our approaches to space flight.

And finally, once we got to the moon:

LRV and Lunokhod

We Americans manage to send up an efficient wheeled platform capable of moving a farm of instruments and a human driver. The Russians? A stout robotic rover with curiously shaped measurement appendages -- ahead of its time and a bit alien looking.

The Soviet stuff always seems somewhat more organic, more elaborate. Whether or not it's literally true, the technology of us Americans seems designed for space travel of precision and efficiency, while the Russians were building machines to challenge the mysterious cosmos. Certainly there were practical differences in available technology, materials and even goals, but there are thematic differences in designs here that to me speak to something deeper.

I always find that when engineers make the intuitive leaps in design (even the small ones), they subconsciously draw upon assumptions of how things should be. Did differences in Russian and American science fiction put different visions of the future in the heads of engineers-to-be? Or do the smooth forms of Russian designs speak to a greater cultural willingness to take risks rather than stick to the platonic solid shapes of American designs that are more confidently predictable with slide-rule calculation? Or maybe there are simply differing aesthetic sensibilities at play -- Shostakovich vs. Bernstein.

When we have to make the intuitive leaps, perhaps it is then that our dreams are given form.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Trouble with Trade Associations

I've never really found trade associations to be worthwhile, whether engineering, design, or whatever.  And yet many people seem to take them very seriously, pay a lot of money to join, and attend all sorts of conferences put on by them.

I think I've decided that they often end up working like a sort of credibility ponzi scheme (not that this is the intention of any association's founders).  It works like this:

  1. A trade association claims to be an important organization of minds in a field where new ideas are shared to the benefit of all involved.
  2. People in the industry join so they are seen as staying in touch with the latest developments.  They can put it on their resumes, display the magazine in their offices, and reference the conferences they've been to.  This lends them credibility.
  3. Other people write papers for the magazine or do presentations at the conferences.  They are seen -- at their companies and by their customers -- as experts, increasing credibility and career prospects.
  4. Dues are paid for access to this credibility, giving the association a pool of money with which to create the magazine, put on the conference, spam me mercilessly and other activities that increase the credibility of the association as a source of credibility, which allows them to pull in more members and higher-power speakers.
  5. Repeat
Nowhere in here, however, is there much motivation for anybody to bring quality information -- information that they truly care about -- to the table.  Presenters generally are there for the credibility of having done it, and present information that won't get them in trouble with their employer.  And members, just by paying their dues and attending the conferences, are already getting the  perceived credibility they want out of the bargain, so it's not as if they'll stop coming if the talks are weak or unsubscribe from the magazine if the articles aren't top-notch.  So you end up with an expensive magazine nobody reads and expensive conferences people grudgingly attend.

If I really cared here, I could look into why certain organizations actually do seem to bring a lot of quality information, like TED.  I suspect, however, that these organizations resist being a club;  you can't simply join up and reap the benefits of additional credibility.  The organization is the information, nothing more, so people only pay attention to TED so far as the information remains solid.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Casual Gamer's Curse

As an increasingly old person, I have less time for games than I used to.  And yet, games continue to really appeal to me, especially as the narratives have gotten more adult (pretty much, I'm sure, as a result of my increasingly old Nintendo-kid contemporaries in the game industry).  Stuff like Mass Effect, Bioshock, and Fallout 3 makes my wallet come forth -- I want to play in those worlds and experience those stories.

There's the obvious problem that if I have, say, one solid 3-hour gaming session I can get a week, then a 30-hour game will take me 10 weeks.  Annoying, since it kind of breaks up the story continuity a bit.  More so, though, this problem is getting to me:

Difficulty vs. Gameplay Hours

After each 3-hour chunk of play, I let the game sit for a week or two (maybe trying to play another game one week) and when I come back, I've lost the muscle memory and reflexes from the last session.  This repeats several times and pretty soon I have a stack of $50 games that I've played a fraction of. The last game I actually finished was Portal.

Right now I'm playing through Assassin's Creed 2, which is incredibly fun.  It feels like you are playing in something like the real-world Italy of the Renaissance -- cities just like the real things, characters taken from history, involved in a storyline that is plausibly Machiavellian.  I'm also bed-ridden after a surgery, so I'm able to play for many hours a day and so I'm tearing through the game, at a level of difficulty that's allowing me to enjoy the story and experience rather than getting frustrated with the mechanics. It's great finally being able to play on the red line in that chart again, like I was 15.

So my plea to developers is this:  make mature games that are shorter, but no less rich.  Movies are no more than 3 hours; I can enjoy one at one sitting and have a rich experience.  Why can't games be like that?  I like an iPhone puzzle game as much as the next dude, but it's as if I had to choose between watching sitcoms and watching the complete 10-DVD Ken Burns Jazz documentary set.

I still want all of the elaborate world design, latest graphics advances, refined complex gameplay, and entirely the complexity of story.  I just want it in less than 10 hours of complete experience rather than stretching it out over 30 hours with intricate development trees, equipment upgrades, and filler missions.  I'll still pay $50 for it, I promise, and if you want to use all that game structure you've built to release additional paid download episodes, I am all for that as well.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Don't Say Usable if You Don't Mean It

I'm pretty sure Helveticards, a deck of playing cards with a trendy sort of functional Swiss design, is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but one phrase in their description made me clench a bit:
Helveticards are the beautiful, usable alternative to the traditional deck of cards...
That, it must be said, is a bold assertion, as if it's a wonder anyone can get through a game of solitaire with the woefully unusable traditional pack.

Dudes, the usability of the playing card has, due to the economics involved, been refined for centuries and has been pretty well standardized since the 19th century or so.  Check the comparison with a card from a generic China Airlines pack:

HelveticardChina Airlines playing card

Okay, the Helveticard admittedly looks cooler, but more usable?

While the Helveticard has a tasteful small indication of number and suit surrounded by artful whitespace in the corner, the standard card packs it large and clear all the way into the corner -- suit below number so you can see exactly what you have with minimum fanning.  The Helveticard at least keeps the upper-left/lower-right symmetry, but if you happen to flip it upside-down, the card indicator is color-inverted for chrissakes.  In fact the Helveticard shows a disturbing lack of commitment to symmetry, with the big 5 and suit indicators off to the side with a definite opinion on "up".  I'm imagining a group of designers picking up their hands, fastidiously rotating their cards to be right-way-up.

Also, do we really need a textual "Five of Clubs"?  It's not currency, it's a playing card;  half the games played with it were probably invented by illiterate people.

Trendy styling, poor design.  Vignelli and Brunson would be displeased.

A Logical Conclusion of Abbreviation

Attention internet users:  I am about to improve your life by up to 33%.  I understand the need for brevity in your communication;  why type the awkward "laughing out loud" when a simple LOL will suffice?  But why stop there?

In that spirit, I am now announcing the deprecation of LOL in favor of LA, which I shall use exclusively henceforth.  When next your chat buddy amuses you, Laugh Aloud with confidence that not a moment of your time has been wasted thereby.

You're welcome.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Review: Braun AW60 Chronograph

I have a complete obsession for objects that combine design and mechanical function, and the wristwatch may be the platonic ideal of such an object (with the automobile close behind).  I've built up a little design-focused collection of watches -- so far nothing over $350 or so -- that I'm planning to post reviews of over time.  It turns out there are some really great, well-built designs out there that aren't frivolity status indicators.  So to begin...

Braun AW60 Chronograph
I had a bunch of watches growing up (from the still-awesome Casio calculator watch to a variety of Swatches), but the Braun AW60 chronograph was the first that I thought of as "grown-up" watch.  I bought this in college, and for $300 from a Danish mail-order retailer it was my most expensive watch for a long time; I blew months of CD money on it because I couldn't imagine a more perfect watch:  a small, light-weight magnesium chronograph with a design focused on the beauty of function.  If I can make any claim to status, it's that I bought this a decade before Dieter Rams became an ID geek idol.

It's cliché to say a watch looks like an instrument (aviation, nautical, scientific, etc.), but to my eye Braun makes virtually the only watches that are designed like pure time-keeping instruments.  Most "instrument" watches have a design that only references the surface aesthetics -- the styling -- of an instrument for another purpose.  That isn't to say that I'm not into a nice altimeter-looking watch, but I still have more engineer's respect for the Braun than just about anything.

To violate my own point a bit, I'd like to draw a comparison to another instrument that I use somewhat anachronistically:

Mitutoyo Caliper

This is a caliper that was passed to me from my dad.  The ones you get today are really similar, except the readout is a little LCD instead of a mechanical dial directly connected to the mechanism of the caliper like this has.  The LCD lets me switch between metric and SAE units and re-zero my scale digitally, but, much like most digital watches (or reading the time from your cellphone for that matter), it loses the elegance and simplicity of the dial.

I love that the design of the "face" of the caliper is so similar to that of the Braun.  Both were designed to be easy to read at less than arm's length on an inch-wide gauge, with a similar granularity of "measurement".  Dieter discovered the same simplicity that the designer of the caliper did, and wrapped it in just the right styling details to make a great looking watch.

Friday, March 19, 2010

How I Accidentally Stopped Hating Work

I've always heard two schools of thought on how to choose your line of work, if you're lucky enough to have the economic breathing room to choose:
  1. Do what you love.
  2. Do what gives you the income to do what you love in your free time.
The former always sounds appealing, but it has the tendency to turn your love for what-have-you sour.  This happens around the third time that you have a deadline, no inspiration or energy, and you'd really rather be reading a comic book.

The latter is the practical man's solution, and I have respect for that.  You have to put up with daily, nagging ambivalence, if not real hatred, but bills are paid and you continue to have that thing that makes you feel worthwhile.

I wonder though if there isn't a third option that doesn't get the attention it deserves:

Do what you can't stop yourself from doing anyway.

What I mean is that there is probably something that, when given the opportunity, you'll always be the one saying, "I'll get this."


Imagine yourself in a room of people sitting around a table.  On the table are pieces of paper that have tasks on them, just enough for each person in the room.  Everybody has to pick one of these up, and that will be their thing for the day; whoever picks it up first does it.  But if somebody sucks at doing what they picked up, it will go badly for all of you.

I wager there's something you can imagine on the table that will cause you think, "I better get that one because everybody else will just screw it up."  Hopefully there's some situation you've been in that's caused that reaction, because my advice is:  that's the thing that will get you through the day consistently with minimal self-hatred, a decent paycheck, and maybe better chances of advancement.

For me, I realized, it's figuring out how to go about engineering good things.  That sounds really ill defined, but it is definitely my thing.  If there's a need that can be solved by coming up with some logically engineered thing that will do what the intended user really wants to do, then I will fall over myself trying to architect the solution, every time.  Other people do this too where I work, but I think they do it for category-2 reasons -- for a paycheck.  Again, no disrespect for that.  But I walk out of the same meetings with a little engineer's adrenaline buzz because I got that bizness done.

I got lucky falling into a job where this comes up frequently, and where people let me do that thing I have to do.  Previously, I had bounced from job to job, not really understanding what I didn't like about each.  I can't say my days now are all thrilling excitement, but I have some pretty good ones.  Plus when I go home, I can play with photography (or not) and not have to care if it's any good.  Or I can just read a comic book.