Undo: One of the Greatest Innovations in Computing

The Undo function — a life-saver.

From “Behavioral issues in the use of interactive systems,” Lance A. Miller and John C. Thomas, International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, Sept. 1977:

A more complex situation, however, occurs … when a user wishes to “undo” the effects of some number of prior commands — as, for example, when a user inadvertently deletes all personal files. Recovery from such situations is handled by most systems by providing “back-up” copies of (all) users’ files, from which a user can get restored the personal files as they were some days previous. While this is perhaps acceptable for catastrophic errors, it would be quite useful to permit users to “take back” at least the immediately preceding command (by issuing some special “undo” command).

Now if they would only invent an Undo button for one’s personal life.

AB — 15 April 2011

Gulf Disaster: Sparking an Explosion of Innovation in Oil Cleanup?

Sickening as it is, the unfolding oil disaster due to the runaway gusher in the Gulf of Mexico (the terms “leak” and “spill” hardly seem adequate) is giving rise to a flurry of innovations in oil cleanup that should result in more effective responses to such crises in the future.

Watching BP and the federal government flounder around these first several weeks of the disaster, many individuals, small businesses, and local officials in the Gulf region have stepped forward with cleanup solutions, some sophisticated and well-thought-out, some not so much (see “Battling oil with ‘Cajun ingenuity.’” But the point I’m making is that it’s interesting to see how a crisis like this is useful as a stimulus for innovation.

I’ve been able to dig up a few CNN reports that show examples.

Dragonfly floating triage center for cleaning oiled birdsI was particularly struck by a report just today about two boatmakers who have quickly generated a kind of floating “M*A*S*H” facility for cleaning up oiled birds. The unit is based on the design of shallow-draft fishing boats that can easily maneuver in coastal waters and marshlands. Birds can be picked up, cleaned, and released right from the boat, without the time-consuming process of taking them into land-based facilities. (See “Boatmakers: Oil officials ignoring bird-saving boats“)

As is often experienced by innovators within large companies and organizations, the two Alabama boatmakers, Mark Castlow and Jimbo Meador, have run into problems getting uptake of their innovation by the large bureaucratic entities running cleanup efforts.

CNN made calls to find out why the solution has not been exploited by BP and the government. The CNN journalist says that, “The unified command center admitted that juggling all the offers of help has been a problem.”

One of the boatmakers says, “It’s one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever been involved in.” So far, they have been able to produce a prototype boat with funds from private donors, including musician Jimmy Buffet. From here on out, they plan to produce a new boat every seven days.

When I heard that actor Kevin Costner was getting involved in cleanup efforts, my first reaction was, “Oh, ha-ha, he should get together with Brad Pitt and George Clooney, ha-ha!” But thanks again to CNN, I have learned that, in reality, Costner and his colleagues at their company, Ocean Therapy Solutions, are actually selling BP a cleanup device that he and his brother, a scientist, developed during the early 1990s.

Costner’s machine is a device for separating oil from water. His largest machine has about a 5′ x 5′ footprint, weighs about 4,000 pounds, and can separate 200 gallons of liquid a minute, separating oil and water at 99.9 percent purity on either side.

Costner brought the machine to market over a decade ago, but couldn’t raise any interest until the current crisis. “I guess people just thought spills were over,” he tells Anderson Cooper of CNN. But to the contrary, he says, “Spills occur on a daily basis. Someone said enough oil spills on a daily basis that every seven months we’re having an Exxon Valdez out there. It’s just, out-of-mind, out-of-sight. It takes something like this to happen, where now we’re all pointed at it.”

Costner took his product for years to government agencies and private industry with no success, but now BP has ordered 32 of the devices. Costner tells CNN, “I’ve had to be kind of silent the past few weeks as this machine was put through a lot of hoops, and it just passed everything that BP could throw at it.” (See Cooper’s video interview with Costner, “Kevin Costner’s solution to oil spill.” See also Ocean Therapy’s news release, “BP to Proceed With Costner Centrifuge Devices to Cleanup Gulf Oil Spill.”)

AB — 23 June 2010

Hollerin’ — one thing we know how to do in North Carolina

The announcement of the winner of the National Hollerin’ Contest held over the past weekend in Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina, USA, reminded me of this time-honored southern tradition. I first became aware of it when a rock festival I attended about 40 years ago included a marvelous performance by the winner of the contest, who hollered a fantastic version of “Old Time Religion.”

This year, Tony Peacock of Siler City, NC, won the contest with a rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” hollered in just under four minutes. See the announcement today in the News & Observer: “N.C. hollerer wins with ‘Summertime.'”

There are some things that can happen only in North Carolina, and this is one of them. (Other examples are Benson’s Mule Days, the town of Lizard Lick, and the correct understanding of what constitutes barbecue — but we can discuss those another day.)

It’s a crime that there is no video of Peacock’s performance on YouTube, but this video from a few years ago has some nice examples of hollerin’, ending with a version of “Amazing Grace”:

In this video, the hollerer does a little lecturing about the practice:

AB — 22 June 2010

1947 Texas City Disaster and Its Effect on Industrial Safety

What should companies be doing to prevent disasters such as the ongoing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, with its tragic loss of life and environmental devastation? Granted, some disasters are just ‘Black Swans’ (see Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s writings on this topic) and can’t be predicted. But company safety procedures can go a long way toward mitigating the risks of accidents and their potential effects.

Having served as a company safety officer and having written about industrial safety some years ago, I was very interested in the experience published today by Robert X. Cringely on his I, Cringely blog — see “Doing the Right Thing.”

Cringely republishes a comment from one of his readers, a Monsanto engineer, who recounts how Monsanto learned from the calamitous April 16, 1947, industrial accident at Texas City harbor. That accident was caused by a fire on a ship, not by Monsanto. However, the resulting explosion destroyed Monsanto’s plant, along with other facilities at the port and thousands of homes. Almost 600 people were killed. (See the Wikipedia article on the Texas City Disaster and the series of photos at the Portal to Texas History.) Here’s an aerial view of the Monsanto plant and the port after the accident:

Monsanto plant and Texas City port after 1947 disaster

As a result of Texas City, Monsanto developed a stronger culture of safety, says Cringely’s reader:

They developed technology to better control chemical process. They developed standards to built safer facilities. They didn’t do this alone. They worked closely with other chemical companies. The whole industry invested in best practices and shared what they learned. When I started my job [in the 1970s] I was given a set of “standards” consisting of 3 binders, each 6 inches thick — serious reading.

Union Carbide’s terrible accident in Bhobal, India, in 1984 also became a crucial lesson for industry players. Soon after Bhopal, Monsanto officials had “reverse-engineered” the disaster and reiterated company policy, emphasizing that “all plants are to be built to USA or local country safety standards, whichever is better.”

Further studies within Monsanto after Bhopal had a profound effect on the company’s business:

The result of the study was sweeping changes in how much material was stored in each facility. Many processes and lines of business were deemed too risky to continue and were shut down. Monsanto walked away from tens of millions in business to reduce risk and improve safety.

Monsanto also instituted new programs to train and equip local first-responders where its plants are and to reduce emissions “far exceeding EPA rules.”

These comments emphasize the value of adopting the stance of a “learning organization.” What kinds of company policies and practices can go the furthest in preventing accidents, loss of life, and environmental damage — and in minimizing the effects when accidents do occur?

AB — 17 June 2010

One Reason Youtube Is a Great Resource: Khan Academy’s 1,200 Educational Videos

Many people think of YouTube as a big time-waster with nothing but videos of animals dancing and guys getting whacked in their privates.

But as time goes on, I become more and more conscious YouTube as a great resource in many respects. For example, in my work as a writer and analyst, I’ve been making good use of corporate videos on YouTube, where it’s possible now to access in-depth presentations by company executives, scientists, and other experts.

Thanks to a mention yesterday in Boing Boing, I’ve learned about Khan Academy, which now has over 1,200 educational videos on YouTube. Using a very simple “chalk talk” format, Salman Khan, an engineer and manager, provides 10-20-minute video presentations on a huge variety of topics, including science, history, math, finance, economics, and more.

These videos would be useful as quick reviews or knowledge fill-ins for students, both adult and child, or for parents who are trying to help their kids with their studies. I also find them useful as a writer who needs to be able to get up-to-speed quickly on economics and finance topics.

Khan creates his videos on a tablet computer with pen input. Here’s an example of a video explaining the basics of banking:

AB — 8 June 2010

Where the Big Green Copier Button Came From

Big green copier buttonRecently I’ve been studying the use of ethnography in large companies for product design and market strategy, which relates to some of the work I’ve done in usability and user experience.

In process of the research, I ran across an interesting anecdote about how the “big green button” on printers came out. I think it illustrates the value of video ethnography in product design, but, on an even more basic level, the value of simply watching how people live and work and use your product.

In a 1999 presentation for WPT Fest, Xerox PARC anthropologist Lucy Suchman described how she helped Xerox engineers understand how hard copiers were to use:

Around this time [1979] a project began at PARC to develop an intelligent, interactive expert system that would provide instructions to users in the operation of a particular photocopier, just put on the market and reported by its intended users to be “too complicated.” With Austin Henderson, I initiated a series of studies aimed first at understanding what made the existing machine difficult to use, and later at seeing just what happened when people engaged in “interactions” with my colleagues’ prototype expert advisor.

Scientists struggling with copierIn order to explore these questions in detail we got a machine ourselves and installed it in our workplace. I then invited others of my co-workers, including some extremely eminent computer scientists, to try using the machine to copy their own papers for colleagues, with the understanding that a video camera would be rolling while they did so. This resulted among other things in what has become something of a cult video that I produced for John Seely Brown for a keynote address to CHI in 1983, titled “When User Hits Machine.” This image, taken from a 3/4″ reel-to-reel video recording made in 1982, shows two of my colleagues using the machine to make two-sided copies of a research paper. The CHI audience would recognize Allen Newell, one of the founding fathers of AI. His PARC colleague is a brilliant computational linguist named Ron Kaplan.

Video ethnographer Susan Faulkner of Intel relates one of the interesting results of Suchman’s video:

The film was shown to researchers and engineers at Xerox, and it led to significant changes in interface design, including the addition of the now ubiquitous large green button that allows users to quickly and easily make a copy.

AB — 2 June 2010

Coming Soon: Tom Cruise’s Computer Interface From ‘Minority Report’

My favorite computer interface has to be the fictional one used by Tom Cruise in the 2002 Steven Spielberg movie Minority Report (based on a 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick). In the movie, Cruise plays a time cop who is part of a team that prevents murders by predicting them in advance and arresting the future perpetrators.

What has always fascinated me about the movie is the computer interface the cops use to do their investigations — it’s a huge holographic screen that hangs in the air in front of the user, who interacts with it using virtual-reality gloves. Here’s a screen shot from the movie that will give you an idea:

Computer interface from Minority Report

The exciting news for me comes from a TED Talks video from February 2010 showing a lecture by John Underkoffler of the MIT Tangible Media Group (“John Underkoffler points to the future of UI“), who was science advisor for Minority Report. He and colleagues designed the interfaces that appeared in the film.

Underkoffler has some fascinating things to say about how interfaces are evolving. He tells how the design work was done for Minority Report — the design for the computer interfaces was done as a real R&D project.

But most exciting is that Underkoffler and colleagues are actually developing the real thing — the “spatial operating environment” as he calls it — and he was able to demonstrate it during his talk. Here’s a still of his demo from the video:

John Underkoffler demonstrates UI

During his talk he says:

Much of what we want computers to help us with in the first place is inherently spatial, and the part that isn’t spatial can often be ‘spatialized’ to allow our wetware to make better sense of it.

A spatialized interaction model, he believes, improves our computing experience, as it aligns better with the way our brains work.

During the talk, Underkoffler demonstrates a logistics application his team is developing that combines structured data with 3D geographical mapping. He also shows how a spatial operating environment might be used for media manipulation and editing.

Very soon, Underkoffler says, “this stuff will be built into the bezel of every display, it’ll be built into architecture.”

At the end of the presentation, the host asks the big question: “When? … In your mind, five years’ time, someone can buy this as part of a standard computer interface?”

Underkoffler replies, “I think in five years’ time, when you buy a computer, you’ll get this.”

The fist “killer app” for the spatial operating environment? “At the moment, our early adopter customers — and these systems are deployed out in the real world — do all the big data-heavy, data-intensive problems with it. So, if it’s logistics in supply chain management, or natural gas and resource extraction, financial services, pharmaceuticals, bioinformatics — those are the topics right now. But that’s not the killer app!”

He leaves us hanging at that point, recognizing perhaps that the most interesting applications are impossible to foresee.

Here’s the video in its entirety, with lots of fascinating demonstration footage:

AB — 1 June 2010