Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Complete and incomplete covers in engineering

I confess I have been irritated my whole life about car dashboard controls for heating and cooling because they are an incomplete cover for the complexity that is going on inside. It has been a rough few decades for user interface enthusiasts!

What is a complete cover? It is a layer or shell over some machine complexity that completely hides it and does not let any of the complexity out. A cover is incomplete if it forces you to understand what is going on underneath, or if it is confusing when you do not understand, or if the cover is insufficient to operate all aspects of the machine. A cover can be thick or thin – the thicker the cover, the more it changes the paradigm of the machine interaction. A cover is optimal when it is complete, regardless of whether it is thick, thin, or absent. Sometimes it is optimal to have no cover.

I will explain this with some of examples, starting with a mechanical mercury thermostat. There are three kinds of people in relation to these devices: (1) Those with a gut fear reaction when they look at dials and numbers; (2) those who understand the two exposed dials – measured temperature and set point – but do not know or care how it works inside; and (3) those who understand that the rotation of the temperature-sensitive coil which is superimposed on the rotation of the set point tips a mercury switch, that the bi-stable 2-lobed shape of the mercury chamber affects the temperature swing, and why mercury is used in the first place. It is a lovely thing, but not really the scope of this paper. I am mainly concerned with the middle category of people who are functional operators of the cover and what kind of cover it is.

thermostat

The thermostat is a complete cover because you can operate every aspect of the heater with it, without needing to know how it works. It is also a fairly thick cover in the sense that it translates one paradigm to another. The actual heater requires an on/off switch to work, thus the only language it understands is on/off. But the thermostat exposes a set point to the user. It translates the language of on/off to the language of set points. Someone could replace the whole heater and wiring with a different inside paradigm but leave the exposed paradigm there, and the user would not need to know that anything changed, because the operation stays the same. In many systems – especially software systems, the replaceability of layers is an important design point, and complete coverage is one of the factors that makes it possible. Read the rest of this entry »

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North Gulch Mystery

“North Gulch Mystery” is a role playing mystery game for exactly eight players. It should take 1 or 2 hours. All you need is some envelopes and scissors and the printout of the game sheets.

North Gulch Mystery game sheets (PDF)

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Pie

Olivia Lipkin appreciates pie the way a fish appreciates water. The enigmatic explorer does not usually meet with journalists, but something I said on the morning of the interview must have given her an opening, or maybe it was the August breeze that stills the heart with its reassurance that the most oppressive part of summer is over, and that the day will be long enough for all things. We sat on the shaded veranda of town’s only cafe, her berry-stained white blouse fluttering as she revealed, always close to tears, her story.

Star: So, tell me about your last pie.

Olivia: Oh I can still taste it now! I hardly know how to describe it except to say it was magic. It brought me face to face with the essence, as if time stopped and I melted with the first bite into a dream. You know when you’re full of doubt and then you taste pie and everything settles? You go to this special place, your whole world self-organizes, then you come out in peace. That was that pie.

S: Wow, what kind of pie was it?

O: It was the kind that holds all of summer, and speaks quietly but reveals adventures if you listen carefully. It was not a simple pie, quite complex actually.

S: But I mean what was in it?

O: There was a certain panic or maybe heartbreak from the experience making it, but love of course, full of love. Sorry I think I’m going to cry thinking about it. I can’t even believe it’s gone. I ate it all!

S: You certainly loved that pie. But, was it a cherry pie or what?

O: No, blackberries! There’s a patch I had known about and last month I couldn’t wait any longer and I just needed to go pick them.

S: Tell me about how you made the pie.

O: Well, I got all my gear together and made the trip. There I was, facing these thorns all alone – millions of thorns. I started around the edges, tentative at first. All that was going just fine, but I felt this intense calling.

S: Not to go inside?

O: Yes, I had to.

S: What equipment did you use?

O: I had brought my bowl, but I didn’t think to bring food and water, can you imagine? Luckily as a girl I used to devour survival literature, so I remembered to bring rice.

S: Rice?

O: Yes, I put the grains of rice in a line so I could find my way out. I had picked almost the whole bowl full, and was getting deeper and deeper in. There were thorns everywhere and I just remember things started swirling and I couldn’t distinguish berry juice from blood. I was actually inside the beast! – the beast that intoxicated me, and I couldn’t find my way out.

S: Oh no! What about the trail of rice?

O: I guess Gretel’s technique was not actually so effective now that I think of it. No one heard my cries of pain, and I thought I was going to die there. But on the third day I had a startling epiphany that would ultimately save my life: I could eat the blackberries themselves in order to survive.

S: Good thinking!

O: That definitely gave me strength. What probably kept me going the most though was the love of that future pie that was already being conceived through this harrowing experience. And I never gave up hope that there would be uncharted waterways that would make rescue by boat possible.

S: Did you get rescued in the end?

O: No I just kept going, being stabbed endlessly from all directions, wishing I had remembered to bring shoes, and finally when I was close to giving up, I saw light.

S: A testament to perseverance. How long was the journey?

O: It’s anyone’s guess – but I’ll always insist it was at least 18 feet.

S: And now that you have recovered, do you have more adventures planned?

O: Not til the pie calls me. I’m just the servant.

 

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“Solstice”: a card game invented on the 2013 winter solstice

This game builds in intensity and has lots of opportunities for vengeance, laughing, and monkey noises.

  • 2 or 3 players, 2 decks shuffled together
  • Setup: Place the deck face down in the middle, or in several piles. These are the draw piles. Make room for a single discard pile. Players start with no cards.
  • Object: To get a perfect hand and go out first, or have a near perfect hand when some other player goes out. A perfect hand consists of a straight of six to thirteen cards of the same suit (any suit, wrap-arounds not permitted, Aces are high), plus an optional number of pairs, and no other cards. A pair may only be opposite color to the straight’s color. For example, a perfect hand with a spades straight may contain no clubs, and may contain any number of red pairs (pair of 2s, 3s, etc). A perfect hand with a red straight may contain only black pairs and vice versa. However, a perfect hand cannot have more than one pair of the same number (cannot have two pairs of 3s for example).
  • To begin, when the dealer says “go”, everyone take as many cards as they wish from any draw pile.
  • To play, any player may do any of these actions, at any time, without taking turns:
    • (1) Discard a single card face up using one hand onto the discard pile. The first card to be discarded can be any card from any player. The subsequent cards must be one higher or one lower than the top card showing. For example, if a 10 is showing, only a J or 9 may be discarded next, regardless of suit. Aces are both high and low for discarding only, so the sequence may wrap around.
    • (2) Draw one card at a time from any draw pile.
    • (3) Draw any number of cards from the top of the discard pile. (not out of the middle of the pile though)
    • (4) Wait
  • To go out, the first player to achieve a perfect hand covers the discard pile and says “done”.
  • Additional notes
    • “No lefties” – right-handed players must discard with the right hand throughout the game (and lefties with left)
    • “Forced draw” – If no player wishes to draw and the game comes to a stop, any player may say “draw” to force all players to draw.
    • Reshuffle – When the draw piles are exhausted, play stops while the discard pile, except its top card, is shuffled and returned to become the draw piles.
    • “Leafing” – Splaying out the discard pile to view cards is acceptable, but picking up any part of the pile requires the player to take the lifted cards.
  • Scoring
    • Every player gets one point for each card in their longest straight and one point for each card in legal pairs, and loses one point for all other cards (deadweight).
    • The player to go out gets an additional point for every other players’ deadweight cards.
    • The player to go out gets no points if they have gone out illegally, i.e. their hand is not perfect.
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Mindspace

I haven’t posted in a while, so here’s a poem:

You easily invited me into the singing meadow of your autistic mindspace.
There was never a smiling campaign to win you over – just an opening.
There were never weapons greeting me at the border – just a hello.
There was never an invasion to either block or surrender to – just a full yes.
Now remembering your sunshine from up here, I ask
If I unclutch this rock anchor
If I unhold this mountainside identity
If I stop going up this constrained ledge
If I no longer comply with this safe deceit of climbing to the future
If I discover a blue and white continuously blooming opening from this moment
and my grasp fails and I step off and let the air beside me have me
Will the unfolding present hold me?

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Autistic Greetings (poem)

I sat at her table because I saw a little into her.
She looked up and let me know I was allowed in. She could not conceal or reveal.
That was back then in the early moments when the speckled design of the table top had significance and we were holding our breath.
Earlier in my life my guideposts has blown over and I had gotten covered in paint, and she had gotten struck so many times.

I climbed a mountain and said hi
and by that I meant let’s skip the first time and go to the second. Will you grant me that privilege?
A risk with complex misgivings was plainly spilled on the table.
Her reflection in the wreakage tenderly illuminated my old struggles; the napkin dispenser lost its stature.

Now it is her turn to climb her mountain to look for a word, and possibly even say it.
She is determined to complete this greeting under the impossibly competing demands of full disclosure (her only option)
and ritual (a shield? a weapon?)

She chooses a different word: she says hi and by that she means yes.
Outside, two halting tractors, one older than the other, collide in a place with no road.
With such coarse controls, the unpracticed drivers cannot follow the simplest choreography.
In the aftermath, we exhale for the first time; objects previously suspended return to dust.

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Fluff mia

Fluff mia, mi gato,

cuando tu miau, quieres decir que tienes problemas?

Tienes muchos problemas?

Son problemas grandes y eterna?

Son profundos y trágicos?

Son horribles, dolororos, y muy grandes?

De verdad tienes problemas muy grandes, eterna, profundos, doloroses y trágicos?

 

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Mary Dyer, a quaker sunday school play

A play in 6 scenes, suitable for Middle School age kids.

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Keshet Ducks

I photoshopped this after a dance performance I was in. The director was pointing out how the girls like to watch themselves in the mirror more than listen to direction, and later my mind turned them into ducks….

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Piano music

Here’s some piano and choral music I wrote over the space of a couple months. I never wrote any before so it was a sudden surge of creativity.  My favorite is Water; in fact it felt enough and I stopped composing after that. Also Serenade for Modern Distances is pretty lovely.

  • Summer in Shunk – This is where we spent summers when I was little, in Pennsylvania.
  • Too Long Walk – This song was for a Quaker gathering where I forced a group of Jr High kids on a too long walk.
  • Village Dreams – Like everyone else, I wanted to live in an intentional community in the country and milk cows, and this dream didn’t happen (yet). So I wrote about it.
  • Serenade for Modern Distances – Relationships over long distances – sound familiar?
  • Quieted Hunter (intro and vocal score) – SATB song about hunting for my true self. No one seems to get this, because my psychic life is unique. Emily is my cousin, and it is not about love or relationships.
  • Water (intro and vocal score) – SATB, This one is also complicated to get, but it’s about the drone. (Note from 2009: also read my other personal blog posts to get a sense of the meaning of this.)
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