The Free Universal Construction Kit

The F.A.T. Lab and Sy-Lab hackerspaces have combined forces to develop the Free Universal Construction Kit (don’t worry, they drop “Free” for the acronym: UCK). The kit consists of 3D printer design files for 80 adapters that provide interconnections and interoperability between ten popular children’s construction toys including Lego, Duplo, K’Nex, Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys, Zome, and other less well known kits. They even have one adapter brick that has all ten connectors on it! All of the part designs are released under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Lots of robot builders use one or more of these construction kits, so I expect these will be a boon to roboticists. The group has anticipated negative reaction from the corporations who control the “intellectual property” (doing the right thing is seldom profitable). So the groups also see this project as a “transgressive architecture” that promotes civic activity.

Most market leaders regard interoperability as an anti-competitive nuisance, a regulatory check on their ambition, or a concession to the whining of lesser players. Quite simply, interoperability is the request of the disenfranchised. And which end-user, in so many ways, is less enfranchised than a preliterate child?

You can download individual adapters from The entire kit of designs is expected to be available via bittorrent from The Pirate Bay’s physibles channel soon (which should protect it from any legal threats). Hit the ‘read more’ link to see videos explaining the problem and UCK as the solution.

The Monster From Earth’s End

The Monster From Earth's End

The Monster From Earth's End

The Monster From Earth’s End by Murray Leinster is another recent estate sale find. Murry Leinster isn’t my favorite author but always writes an entertaining story. Leinster was a pseudonym. His real name is William F. Jenkins, under which he’s better known as the inventor of the front-projection process used in movie special effects during the 1960s and 1970s. In the SF world, he’s known as an early explorer of the parallel universe story, the originator of the term “First Contact”, and the idea of a Universal Translator, a handy device that later became common in SF and even beyond, thanks to its use on Star Trek.


The Monster from Earth’s End is not a groundbreaking novel. It’s billed as a science fiction “horror” story but fans of Stephen King or Dean Koontz aren’t likely to be very horrified. Despite the back cover blurb about bloody deaths and mysterious disappearances, and despite the front cover artwork of a beautiful nude woman being hoisted into the air by strands of green slime, the novel is pretty tame. It focuses much more on the characters and the science fiction aspects of the story than on the horror.

The plot is something of a cross between Gilligan’s Island, Who Goes There? and Day of the Triffids. Our protagonists operate a small military base on remote Gow Island, used as a refueling stop and storage depot for military and scientific planes doing research in the Antarctic.

“The island was a pile of dark rocks in an ocean which reached out endlessly from its shores. The winds of all the world blew around it, and seas marched three-quarters of the way around the globe to hurl themselves thunderously against its cliffs.”

Actually the island is not entirely dark rocks. It has a variety of wooded areas convenient as hiding places for spooky monsters and even an extra-spooky swampy area heated by underground hot springs. But the island has no animal life larger than harmless snakes and sea birds. There is a dock near the rocky shore for cargo ships. The inland base has a runway, some warehouses, a mess hall, radio shack, and a few other buildings.

The primary characters are Drake, the administrative officer; Nora, the executive assistant Drake would like to notice him; and Beecham, a research biologist. There are 20 people on the island including quite a few supporting characters. There’s Spaulding, an officer who’s been stuck on the island too long and through overwork has become a bit irrational and paranoid. Hollister, the island’s chief mechanic, who can improvise a solution to any problem that crops up. Tom Beldon is a younger military man who’s made it his job to protect Drake from harm. There’s Sparks the radio guy, the cook and his assistant, and assorted other stock characters who seem to inhabit every remote base. Leinster does a great of job of giving every character a backstory and role to play as the plot unfolds.

As the story opens, an unscheduled cargo plane has stirred up excitement. It’s a research plane carrying scientists and crates of plant specimens from a newly discovered area in the Antarctic, an oasis of life heated by underground hot springs where life has evolved isolated from the rest of the world for untold years. As the plane approaches, something goes wrong. Over the radio, they hear shouts for a gun, shots fired, and then silence. The plane manages a crash landing. There’s no one aboard but the pilot, who shoots himself before they can reach him to find out what happened. All the passengers are missing and one of the crates of botanical specimens is scattered inside the plane.

The wrecked plane is blocking the runway, so the only way to get on or off the island now is by sea. After reporting the incident, base personal are asked to preserve the botanical specimens as best they can. Beecham takes the tree-like specimens from the broken crate and plants them near the island’s swampy hot spring area. The undamaged crates of specimens he moves into a warehouse for storage. Hollistor is set on the task of moving the wrecked plane from the runway.

That night the horrors begin. The dead pilot’s body vanishes. A dog dies mysteriously. Within a day, people start disappearing. Strange venomous insects turn up on the island. Evidence accumulates that some type of beast is loose on the island; something strong enough to kill a man and bend rifles in half. It comes and goes without being seen. Spaulding jumps to more and more irrational explanations, from prehistoric birds to invisible monsters. Drake does his best to keep the base from panicking. And, like any good leading man in a science fiction novel, he insists on reason.

“In the real world, everything follows natural laws. Impossible things do not happen. There is an explanation for everything that does happen. The explanation links it to other things. There are no isolated phenomena. There are only isolated observations, and sometimes there are false observations. But everything real is rational. There was a rational reason for everything that had taken place on Gow Island. The problem was to find it.”

He’s helped out here by Beecham, the biologist who spends most of the book gathering evidence and testing theories. How many horror novels these days have protagonists who fight unseen horrors using the scientific method? When Beecham’s research leads him to an extraordinary conclusion, he asks Drake to double-check his evidence and come up with his own theory:

“I’ve been guessing at things, Drake, and I’ve got some evidence. Pitiably little, but evidence. Will you look at it? I think that just possibly there’s a very simple explanation for everything that’s happened. I want to show you the evidence and have you come to your own opinion. If it’s the same as mine, we’ll know what to do. What I suspect is perfectly reasonable. There’ve been legends about it. People have believed it for centuries. Nothing superstitious, Drake! I’m not talking about an actual discovery of werewolves, or anything like that. It’s quite natural. It’s even inevitable from a biologist’s standpoint. But I want somebody to look at the evidence with an open mind.”

But Beecham’s theory may be too late. Bad weather has cut off the base from sea rescue and Hollister needs more time to clear the runway — time they may not have. They’re forced to retreat to the buildings for safety when they learn they’re facing not one impossible creature but a multitude. Can they hold out until help arrives? Do they dare go outside to finish clearing the runway? Or should they try to hold out until the weather allows help from the Navy. Even if help arrives, can they chance a run for the docks? Who will die next? Will Drake ever get a chance to be alone with Nora? Will Beecham find a way to stop the invisible killers? The answers to all these questions await in this compact 175-page novel. Even if it’s not scary it is a fun read.

I’ve since discovered the book was the basis of an apparently awful 1966 Roger Corman film titled The Navy vs the Night Monsters, staring Mamie van Doren and Anthony Eisley. I haven’t seen it yet, but I found the trailer on YouTube.

Fedora 16 and GNOME 3: First Impressions

I’ve been holding out on Fedora 14 for as long as I can, trying to avoid moving to GNOME 3. I’ve read too many bad reviews and horror stories. But I finally decided it was time to try it. I backed up my laptop and did a clean install of Fedora 16 and thought I’d offer my impressions.

GNOME 3 seems to be the result of a well-intentioned user interface design that largely misses the mark. The results could have been greatly improved by proper use of time-motion studies and consideration of common use-cases. Unfortunately, it feels like the design was done without the input of users. The result is that GNOME 3 makes almost everything I commonly do on my computer less intuitive and slower. By slower I mean three things: more keystrokes, more mouse clicks, more waiting while the UI presents unnecessary eye-candy in a task-blocking way. Here’s a simple example you’ll run into right away:

Shut down your computer in GNOME 2 – click ‘system’ menu, select ‘shutdown’, click ‘shutdown’ (or suspend, hibernate, or restart) on the shutdown dialog. Done.

Shut down your computer in GNOME 3 – click the name of the current user in the upper right hand corner. Select ‘logout’. Wait several seconds while the desktop cycles and brings up the desktop login screen, click ‘shutdown’.

Sure it looks really cool with all the animations, boxes, and stuff sliding up and down. And you could argue that it’s the same number of clicks but it really does take significantly longer. And there’s the added non-intuitiveness that a user will have to overcome to discover that clicking their user name and then logging out is required to find the ‘shutdown’ option. Compare that to a user guessing that a click on a ‘system’ menu might present system-related functions like ‘shutdown’.

Use GNOME 3 for a couple of hours and you’ll find a dozen similar cases where common tasks are slightly slower and slightly less intuitive.

There are other, more drastic and baffling UI changes. One thing I noted throughout GNOME 3 is that there is a general move away from multi-tasking towards something more akin to a primitive task-switcher. Using GNOME 3 feels like a cross between a 1980s DOS task switcher and a badly designed phone UI.

For example, in GNOME 2, suppose you’re running several terminals to monitor real time data on a remote system. Now you want to open a word processor document to make some notes about the data you’re monitoring. You’d probably click the ‘Applications’ menu, select ‘Office’ and then ‘OO Writer’. And it would start without interrupting your other activities.

That simple, everyday scenario is completely impossible in GNOME 3 because it can only do one thing at a time visually. In order to start a word processor program you have no choice but to stop watching your terminals because the UI literally can’t do both things at once. Viewing the desktop and the ‘Activities’ menu simultaneously is not possible. So the thing to be aware of is that if you need multiple programs and are doing something critical, start them all before hand or you’ll be interrupted by the UI’s inability to multi-task.

So how do you start a new program anyway? Basically the same as always, except the applications menu is now called ‘Activities’ and takes up the entire desktop instead of a small area on the upper left. The first step is to click ‘Activities’. Then you wait while you’re shown a 2 or 3 second eye candy animation of windows zooming all over the place. Once the animation is over, the entire desktop is replaced with a combination of the old applications menu and a sort of crude taskbar that shows what’s running.

Not only does the ‘Activities’ menu take up the entire desktop, but each level of the menu is in a different visual form and location. The first level is a horizontal text menu on the upper left, the second level is text-based again but vertically on the far right side of the screen, and the third level is a jumble of gigantic icons that fill the center of the screen. You’ll waste a lot of time and effort pushing the mouse pointer the full width and height of your screen several times to start one program. Need to start two programs? Sorry, can’t do it. Once you’ve started one, you’re taken away from the ‘Activities’ menu and back to the desktop, where you’ll have to click ‘Activities’ again and start all over for each program. Starting up a dozen or so things can be incredibly time consuming. The apparent design goal here is to slow productivity while speeding development of carpal tunnel syndrome.

As you’ve probably heard if you’ve read any reviews of GNOME 3, they’ve removed the maximize and minimize buttons from the windows. It makes you wonder if they set to out make GNOME 3 the most frustrating user interface ever. Think how many times a day you minimize windows. In GNOME 3 you’ll quickly end up with a disorganized mess of overlapping windows. Need to get a window out of the way for a few seconds and then bring it back? Sorry can’t do it anymore. Need to keep a certain program minimized and at the ready so you can pop it up briefly and hide it again? Sorry can’t do it. If a window becomes completely covered up, there’s no obvious way to reach it. The only way to get it back to the top is to drag and resize other windows until you can see enough of the desired window to click on it.

Why not just click on it in the task bar, you ask? Well, there isn’t one any more. At least there’s not one that’s visible on the desktop where you need it. So even though I found a hack to get the minimize button back on the windows, if I click the minimize button, I’m pretty much screwed.

Where does the minimized window go? Non-intuitivily, it ends up on the ‘Activities’ menu. Remember I mentioned when you first arrive on the ‘Activities’ menu there’s a crude replacement for the task bar? That’s where you’ll find your minimized window. Only you’ll have to identify it by squinting at little screen captures. There is some tiny text with the window title but it’s significantly smaller than the text in the GNOME 2 task bar. So if you had say, 10 browsers or terminals open and minimized a few, it becomes non-trivial to tell which is which among the screen captures on the ‘Activities’ menu. But you can always click them at random until you find the right one.

And between each of those random clicks you have to “task switch” back and forth between the desktop and the ‘Activities’ menu, watching the eye-candy animation of windows flying around between each transition. I think the goal here was generating something akin to road rage in the computer user.

Is there more bad news? You bet! Context menus have been removed. You remember context menus? The menus you get by right-clicking on things to find meta-functionality. Traditionally, left-clicks affect a thing itself (e.g. left clicking an program icon starts the program). Right clicks on the other hand traditionally bring up a menu of properties (e.g. a right click might lead to settings or version information).

Well throw a couple of decades of usability research out the window because GNOME has a better way of doing it! Let’s get rid of that right-click menu by – wait for it – taking away all the functionality that it accessed. In GNOME 3 a right click duplicates exactly the functionality of a left click. Any function you used to access from a right-click is gone, with a few exceptions where they’ve shoe-horned the functionality into a left click menu. So, no, your mouse isn’t broken, it’s just being used half as efficiently now.

Typical example: left click the Network Manager icon in the task bar of GNOME 2. You get a list of available networks. Now right-click. You get a list of options that affect how Network Manager behaves, like turning notifications on or off, editing connections, or version information. Okay, what about in GNOME 3? Left click is pretty much the same, a list of networks you can log on to. Right click is – yikes! – it’s the same as left click. How do you turn notifications on and off? Sorry, can’t do it. How do you edit connections? Left click again and look at the bottom – they’ve shoved a new option in there: “Network Settings”. Where’s “about”? Gone. I’ve noticed that menus like ‘help’, ‘about’, and ‘version’ are hard to find in GNOME 3. Even finding out what version of Fedora you’re running (two clicks in GNOME 2) is now a complex task that a new user is unable to discover without help.

To give a more commonly used example, how do you change your desktop background? In GNOME 2 you right click on the desktop and select ‘change desktop background’. In GNOME 3 it’s a bit harder to find. Click your user name, then ‘System Settings’, then ‘Background’. As with a lot of the changes, it’s only slightly harder and slightly less intuitive but the cumulative effect will make you want to throw your computer out the window.

It took nearly an hour to get a common network printer working with Fedora 16. This is a process that was intuitive and took only a few seconds on Fedora 14. GNOME 3 kept complaining that I needed to change the settings in a firewall daemon (firewalld), a message that would be meaningless to new users (and may represent a new firewall mechanism – the name isn’t familiar to me from previous versions of Fedora). Where is the firewall UI? Never found it. Not in ‘user name’ -> ‘system settings’ which would be the obvious first choice. Also not in ‘Activities’ -> ‘system tools’ or ‘Activities’ -> ‘internet’. Apparently there’s not a firewall UI component in GNOME 3.

After a little Googling, I discovered the GNOME 3 printer setup UI is completely broken anyway. The recommendation online was to ignore it and use the old version from GNOME 2, which is possible by going to the command line and typing ‘system-config-printer’. You may need to install it if it’s not there already. Once I did this I was able to get the printer working in under a minute.

There are too many similar annoyances and my rant is getting way too long so I’ll just list a few others I’ve run into without expounding on them:

  • You can’t run multiple instances of a terminal any more. Trying to start a second terminal just takes you back to the one you already started. This is a deal-breaker for me as I often have as many as dozen terminals open at once.
  • No more applets on the tool bar. Forget the weather applet that tells you the temperature outside, or the little CPU temperature monitors, and bandwidth monitors, all gone.
  • There is a clock on the tool bar but it’s completely unconfigurable aside 24 hour vs 12 hour time. No date, no seconds. And worst of all, it’s centered and displays in a proportional font, so it jiggles back and forth every time it updates.
  • The only difference between the active desktop window and inactive windows is a slight variation in the text color: dark gray on light gray for active compared to slightly less dark gray on light gray for inactive.
  • There are lots of violations of the principle of least surprise. For example, typing something in the “search” field of the ‘Activities’ menu doesn’t search the ‘Activities’ menu, it starts a web browser and does a wikipedia search (forget about finding the firewall configuration that way).
  • One of the most surprising changes is that the update notification in the status bar is gone. There’s no way to know when software updates are available now unless you manually start the software update program, another thing that won’t be intuitive for newbie users.
  • The concept of multiple desktops is gone as is the desktop pager on the lower task bar. Maybe the theory is that since window management is a mess now, one messy desktop is better than several?

So to sum it up, there are two fundamental problems here: 1) GNOME 3 is buggy and unfinished 2) GNOME 3 is fundamentally a non-intuitive UI design that’s inefficient and slow to use. I suspect that by Fedora 17 or 18, problem #1 will be rectified and it will be a lot less buggy and have features that are missing from the current version. Problem #2 I’m not so sure about. There are a lot basic UI design mistakes in GNOME 3 and I’m not sure they can be easily fixed.

A good start to improving GNOME 3 would be:

  • Add a better, smaller applications menu to the top toolbar so programs can be started without leaving the desktop.
  • Add a bottom task bar, or at least a task area to the top tool bar so it’s easy to find out what’s running without leaving the desktop.
  • Add max/min butttons back to windows to simplify windows management
  • Add right-click context menus to speed up access to frequently used properties of desktop objects.

Those four changes would make GNOME 3 ten times faster and easier for new users. It wouldn’t completely fix things but it would be a good start.

The Non-statistical Man

The Non-Statistical Man

The Non-statistical Man is a collection of four short stories by Raymond F. Jones. The author is better known to some for his novel, This Island Earth, which was turned into a cheesy 1950s B movie and later lampooned on MST3K. But Jones’ real claim to fame is the title short story in this book, The Non-statistical Man, which has been called the best science fiction ever written about the human sense of intuition. Like most interesting SF books, this one is long out of print. I’d read it before, many years ago, in an anthology or old pulp. I recently happened across this copy at an estate sale and bought it so I could re-read it.

The Non-statistical Man is the story of Charles Bascomb, chief statistical analyst for a major insurance company; a man obsessed with logic and precision, a man who lives and breathes statistics, a man who endlessly ridicules his wife’s sense of intuition. His world slowly turns upside down after he discovers a series of anomalous insurance claims. Somehow a growing number of people are buying exactly the insurance they need, just in time to make a claim, and then cancelling. Convinced there is something possibly illegal and definitely strange going on, Bascomb sets out to investigate.

The trail leads to Dr. Magruder, an obvious quack who teaches self-help classes designed to develop the human sense intuition through a series of mental exercises and pills. The mental exercises are clearly nonsense and the pills turn out to be ordinary vitamins when analyzed. But somehow, where ever the doctor turns up, people begin outsmarting insurance companies. Every time Bascomb thinks he’s close to understanding the scam, logic and statistics fail him. His wife’s logic-defying intuition, however, repeatedly puts him back on the right track.

If Bascomb can’t put a stop to Magruder and his quackery, the entire insurance industry is doomed and field of statistics with it. In his desperation to preserve his world view and belief in statistics over intuition, Bascomb decides the only way to find out the doctor’s secret is to sign up for classes, take the pills, and follow the exercises. Strange doesn’t even begin to describe the events that follow.

The other stories in the book are enjoyable footnotes in SF history but don’t compare to The Non-statistical Man. The Gardener is the story of a child born with a mutation that gives him unusual mental powers. It’s notable primarily for an early use of the term Homo Superior. The term originated from Olaf Stapledon’s story Odd John in 1935.

The Moon is Death, set in a future of interplanetary travel, is the story of astronauts sent to Earth’s moon to find out why no mission there has ever returned. It reads like an early SF pulp story; you’ve got weird radiation, rapid aging, gun fights on rockets, and atomic explosions.

I found Intermission Time marginally more interesting. It involves colonists travelling to a planet with two intentionally designed societies that are experiments in solving problems that have plagued human history. Two musicians, a brother and sister, are destined for one of the colonies. John, the brother, falls in love with Lora, a woman he meets aboard the ship who’s destined for the other colony. Once a colonist commits to the voyage, they can’t back out or change plans and both colonies are sealed against contact with the other. The two lovers are faced with a series of dilemmas and choices, balancing individual relationships against the good of the species.

Lastly, I can’t help but add that this is the 1968 Belmont Future Series (B50-820) paperback edition published by Belmont Books of New York with some interesting and uncredited cover art by Ralph Brillhart done in his well-known style reminiscent of Robert M. Powers.