Stephen Hawking and Me

Eddie Redmayne’s Best Actor win at Sunday’s Oscars for portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything has reminded me of a footnote to the story.

I segued to computer science from linguistics and math. In my application to graduate school, I painted an I-meant-to-do-that portrait of my academic path. How I wanted to use computers for natural language understanding. So when I started my master’s at Michigan State in 1979, the department assigned John Eulenberg as my advisor. He was director of the Artificial Language Laboratory.

Dr. Eulenberg’s passion is inventing ways that computers could bring speech to those who couldn’t speak. Starting with designing the system that in 1974 yielded the first use of a speech prosthetic.

My mother, as editor of Physics Today, was always telling me stories from the physics world. Through her, I first learned of Stephen Hawking. And how the only way he had to speak was through his wife and graduate assistants, who could interpret his incoherent speech for the rest of us. Continue reading

Talk to users

When I am talking to someone who is using software in a customer-facing context—a librarian, a pharmacist, a customer service rep, a cashier—I like to ask them about it. Are there tasks you need to do every day that are hard to do in the software, that you’ve learned a cumbersome hack around?

Every time the answer is yes. Every time.

Today it was a rep who needed to reschedule an appointment for me. She had to write down all the particulars from the existing appointment, cancel it, and then book the appointment all over.

Where a sane design recognizes that customers reschedule appointments a lot. Add a reschedule command. And support direct manipulation for the many cases when the change is simple. Show the appointment on a calendar that gives visual cues to what openings are available. Use the mouse to drag the appointment to a new date.

My library is using new software for circulation. If a book’s barcode is scanned twice, the second scan is treated by the program as a renewal of the book.

Librarians get distracted. They will forget if they’d scanned a book. A sensible engineer anticipates this and does the right thing, which is to ignore the second scan altogether. Don’t try to check it out again. Don’t report an error. Just ignore it.

I suspect that the problem is that no one thinks about what the people who use the software will actually do with it in a typical day, sits down with them and asks, or watches them doing their job.

This is not hard to do. It is not expensive or time-consuming. And it can make everyone along the way happier and more effective.

All in the Family – Samuel Becker

In telling you about the many engineers and scientists in my family, my father’s father, Samuel Lubkin, would be an obvious person to start with. But I think that one who was neither is a better choice.

My mother’s father, Samuel Becker, had wanted to be an engineer. He had to quit school early to help support the family. Still, he always loved gadgets and science.

My uncle and my mother discovered chemistry in the darkroom of Sam’s portrait studio. He grew up to become a chemical engineer. His kid sister went into nuclear physics before taking a job at Physics Today, where she reported on physics for 45 years.

I, too, learned to develop pictures. And watched Star Trek with him, which we both loved.

I’m proud to be in Sam Lubkin’s profession. But it was Sam Becker who planted the seed.

Quotations about engineering, part 1

I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer. And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.
—Neil Armstrong, “Engineering in the 20th Century”, National Press Club,

It seemed to me that, in this business, someone was continually making me face up to facts, instead of letting me dodge unpleasant facts the way most people manage to do throughout their lives.
—Robert A. Heinlein, “If This Goes On—”, Astounding Science Fiction, -

If you’re not being rejected regularly, maybe you’re not trying hard enough.
—Kathy Ireland, The Talk,

Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.
—Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack,

“Can you and your people do it, Captain Tyrosian?” he asked at the end. “I know this is a very difficult engineering challenge with a very short time line, and I’m told it’s the sort of thing only the best weapons engineers can handle.” He could scarcely be more blatant, but it didn’t seem to be a good time for subtlety. Besides, he was dealing with an engineer, so subtlety might well be wasted anyway.
—Jack Campbell, The Lost Fleet: Valiant,