Categories
society

Why Space Matters

Sometimes people question the value of science, like whether it matters we now have confirmation of liquid water on Mars. I often question the value of celebrity gossip, so it’s not a sufficient answer to simply reply, ‘Because, science.’ What would a possible future benefit from knowing more about space and other planets look like?

To answer the celebrity issue, maybe if you learn about a celebrity’s allergies you could stop them from eating something they shouldn’t and going into anaphylactic shock. But good luck with that.

In the case of water on Mars, it helps with planning for future missions to Mars, but can also let us learn about the types of worlds that can exist. Down the long road of the future, we might be quicker to figure out a similar planet is similar if we know more about Mars, just like if you know a lot about one actor, you might extrapolate information about another.

But more than that, a lot of the science and engineering from studying space are in figuring out “how do we figure out X?” We have some scientific question and we can’t just scratch off a lottery ticket and see what the answer is. We have to feel our way to the answer through a lot of obstacles.

In the case of water on Mars, we could have just sent a giant bomb full of color-changing-when-wet tablets to mars and blown it up, dispersing them all over the planet. But that would have put a bunch of those chemicals all over the planet, potentially ruining future explorations, and it might still not have given us the real answer, depending on when and how the water flows.

Instead, they sent a vehicle with a decent number of tools and sensors, including cameras, to look around, feel around. That meant doing a lot of work, including designing and building the rovers, which includes how to power them, how to get them to Mars, and how to get them onto the surface. A lot of those issues being solved helps build the next one better, and it also tells us where we need better technology.

Okay, okay, a lot of boring science stuff. Who cares? People on earth have other stuff to worry about.

But if and when we find out a big rock is on a collision course with earth, you’ll probably care, right? They’ve hit us before, and sooner or later we will probably have to deal with the prospect of an impact coming our way. Space exploration is an insurance policy. The more we know about space and getting up there and working up there, the better our chances at dealing with something that could make us all have a really, really bad time.

Categories
design

Improved Discovery of Functions via Socialization

You have probably seen a comment on a website do something like:

Hello, world!
I am a block quote.

One common, simple styling of blockquotes is to throw a left border on them, maybe some indent, and call it a day. Even some rich-text-esque e-mail programs do that for quoting in replies.

Now you may have seen a comment on a website do something like:

| Hey, answer my question: what?

The answer is mu.

That use of the vertical bar (|; a.k.a. pipe; see Wikipedia: Vertical bar) is an example of cargo culting. People reading comments see the left-bordered replies and say, “okay, good, a distinctive way to quote exists,” but they fail to guess that the quote character is > (a.k.a. greater-than).

Still, if you see users cargo culting something, it tells you a couple of things:

  1. They think the behavior they’re trying to mimic is valuable for some reason.
  2. It isn’t easy enough for them to discover how to do it.

I nearly wrote “the right way” for [2] there, but if it were the right way, then it would be discoverable.

There are options:

  1. Adopt the cargo-cult attempt as the new way (or an alternative way).
  2. Implement a rich editor (e.g., with a shiny “quote” button).
  3. Make it easier to “view-source” of existing comments so users can see the secret sauce.

Something like [3] is the way to go in this instance. Let people learn from each other without explicitly needing to ask, “how?” If a user sees another with a fancy comment, they might dig into the source (when available) to see how it works.

This is the way we traditionally learn: observation. That’s how we learned to speak, and to a lesser extent how we learned to write and read.

In general, if you see mistakes being made with a piece of software that’s an opportunity for improved design. One source of inspiration should be video games. If you watch the commentaries from Valve Software’s games, they have a common pattern for learning game mechanics.

  1. Show the user the mechanic in action.
  2. Let them try it in a simple example.
  3. Trap them until they show they’ve got it down pat.

The games Portal and Portal 2 are chock-full of this pattern. You start out not even holding the portal gun, only learning you can move through portals. Then you only control one portal. Finally you learn to control both.

In more advanced puzzles you learn about conserving momentum to fling yourself, or in the second game how to paint with and make use of the gels.

Only after you have completed what amounts to a whole set of portal classes do you get to the part of the games where you are apparently fighting to win, but the whole experience (classes and all) are kept enjoyable.

We don’t currently approach general software in that manner. The first time you fire up Firefox, you aren’t presented with a puzzle of how to open a webpage, for example.

But maybe you should be.