island life – three weeks in

It was three weeks yesterday when we moved here to Tiree and slowly getting into the pace of island life.  Steve, our first visitor, left on Thursday, on the ‘big’ plane (about 30 seats).  Had a great time working with Steve on the Physicality book that we are writing as an outcome of the DEPtH project.  We managed the odd walk on the beach together, albeit rather windy, and Steve, brave soul, cycled several times from his hotel in Scarinish to our house, not far and flat all the way, but with a 30 knot wind in your face!

Otherwise have had our first fuel shortage when we needed petrol for the car and found there was none on the island for several days (incidentally the garage must have one of the best views in the country), had our first takeaway (fish and chip van 100 yards from the house … we are well positioned), lit our first fires (ah the smell of coal smoke reminds me of my childhood), registered at the doctors to get vaccinations ready for India (not in regimented 10 minute slots!), and of course lots of paddling in the sea … but think I might be developing my first every chilblains … well I know my own fault, but how can I resist when there is sea and foaming waves to dip my toes in.

It still feels like a holiday …  of course holiday for me tends to mean working with a nice view … so not sitting around the whole day watching the wind blow foam back in clouds from the breaking wave crests and the patterns of dark and light constantly shift with the moving clouds.  Getting lots done, for once clearing the to-do list faster than it grows (although it does still grow, some things don’t change), but for the first time for years free of that ever present feeling of heavy heavy weight on my shoulders.

… and on Monday I’ll be experiencing the flight to Glasgow myself as travelling to Dublin to give the SIGCHI Ireland inaugural lecture.  Managed to work out flights without needing a stay-over in Glasgow, but I have a feeling I will get to know the Holiday Inn Express at Glasgow airport quite well over the coming year.

Steve’s bin

This is Steve‘s bin that I mentioned in my last post.

Glasdon UK: Plaza® Litter Bin

Glasdon UK: Plaza® Litter Bin

Had to be drunk proof, dustman proof, and bomb proof.  Also has to be emptied without needing a key, but be difficult to open if you don’t know how (to prevent Saturday night vandalism).  To top it all had to be designed to be able to be replaced after emptying so that it self locks, and yet is made by a moulding process that means there may be up to a couple of centimetres movement from the design spec.  I am very impressed.

strength in weakness – Judo design

Steve Gill is visiting so that we can work together on a new book on physicality.  Last night, over dinner, Steve was telling us about a litter-bin lock that he once designed.  The full story linked creative design, the structural qualities of materials, and the social setting in which it was placed … a story well worth hearing, but I’ll leave that to Steve.

One of the critical things about the design was that while earlier designs used steel, his design needed to be made out of plastic.  Steel is an obvious material for a lock: strong unyielding; however the plastic lock worked because the lock and the bin around it were designed to yield, to give a little, and is so doing to absorb the shock if kicked by a drunken passer-by.

This is a sort of Judo principle of design: rather than trying to be the strongest or toughest, instead by  yielding in the right way using the strength of your opponent.

This reminded me of trees that bend in the wind and stand the toughest storms (the wind howling down the chimney maybe helps the image), whereas those that are stiffer may break.  Also old wooden pit-props that would moan and screech when they grew weak and gave slightly under the strain of rock; whereas the stronger steel replacements would stand firm and unbending until the day they catastrophically broke.

Years ago I also read about a programme to strengthen bridges as lorries got heavier.  The old arch bridges had an infill of loose rubble, so the engineers simply replaced this with concrete.  In a short time the bridges began to fall down.  When analysed more deeply  the reason become clear.  When an area of the loose infill looses strength, it gives a little, so the strain on it is relieved and the areas around take the strain instead.  However, the concrete is unyielding and instead the weakest point takes more and more strain until eventually cracks form and the bridge collapses.  Twisted ropes work on the same principle.  Although now an old book, “The New Science of Strong Materials” opened my eyes to the wonderful way many natural materials, such as bone, make use of the relative strengths, and weaknesses, of their constituents, and how this is emulated in many composite materials such as glass fibre or carbon fibre.

In contrast both software and bureaucratic procedures are more like chains – if any link breaks the whole thing fails.

Steve’s lock design shows that it is possible to use the principle of strength in weakness when using modern materials, not only in organic elements like wood, or traditional bridge design.  For software also, one of the things I often try to teach is to design for failure – to make sure things work when they go wrong.  In particular, for intelligent user interfaces the idea of appropriate intelligence – making sure that when intelligent algorithms get things wrong, the user experience does not suffer.  It is easy to want to design the cleverest algotithms, the most complex systems – to design for everything, to make it all perfect. While it is of course right to seek the best, often it is the knowledge that what we produce will not be ‘perfect’ that in fact enables us to make it better.