The passing of Neil Armstrong

August 28, 2012

The Saturn V carrying Apollo 11 took several s...

The passing of Neil Armstrong has brought back memories of the historic Moon landing in 1969.  Many who are old enough will remember the awe and excitement of seeing the Apollo 11 mission on the grainy TVs of the day.  I remember as a young boy that my school let the kids out early to view it and I recall peering through shop windows at the landing on the display TVs which were everywhere due to the significance of the event.  Many people had the same idea – it was standing room only outside the local store.

The various articles praise President Kennedy for the original vision, and the scientists and engineers who made it happen. But, as always, it was the human astronauts who carried out the mission, and I recall reading that Armstrong actually took control of the Lunar lander to steer it to its safe resting position after realizing that the planned location was unsuitable.

This poses the question of what role humans will play in future manned missions into space. Will they just be cargo and the autonomous spaceship take them where it is programmed to go? Or will the specially trained commander of the mission and their crew do a similar yet higher tech version of Armstrong and have the final say in where they go?

A few weeks ago, I posted a comment on the issues with regard to pilots becoming flight managers rather than retaining their ultimate control of the aircraft.  There is a current discussion about the ramifications of this for the skills of the pilots and their ability to recover a situation if the automation controls fail for whatever reason. It seems that there is always a problem in striking a balance between automation and human control.  In many circumstances, we get it right but there is still a view that humans should be excluded from decision processes.  I think a better way to go is to provide the humans in executive control the information they require to make the right decisions.  Robbing them of this basic situational awareness is a typical error in automation and the ramifications can be catastrophic.

So, as always, we need to ensure that we provide the right information to the human in the loop, at the right time, and in the right format.  That’s where human factorsprofessionals can help.

Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11

Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sleeping in the moonlight… or not

August 21, 2012

Moritz von Schwind, Selene
and Endymion‎, 1831

In 1609, the English writer Thomas Dekker wrote these lines in praise of sleep:

For do but consider what an excellent thing sleep is: it is so inestimable a jewel, that, if a tyrant would give his crown for an hour’s slumber, it cannot be bought … sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together. Who complains of want, of wounds, of cares, of great men’s oppressions, of captivity, whilst he sleepeth? Beggars in their beds take as much pleasure as kings. Can we therefore surfeit on this delicate ambrosia? Can we drink too much of that, whereof to taste too little tumbles us into a churchyard; and to use it but indifferently throws us into Bedlam? No, no. Look upon Endymion, the Moon’s minion, who slept threescore and fifteen years, and was not a hair the worse for it. Can lying abed till noon then, being not the threescore and fifteen thousandth part of his nap, be hurtful?

Full moon (from Weird
Tales, Sept 1941)

The modern prevalence of jet travel and shift work has prompted considerable research in sleep and sleep-related issues, since many travellers and shift-workers struggle to find effective strategies for managing sleep. Thomas Dekker is certainly correct about the effects which sleep deprivation can have.

However, although Selene (the Moon) caused Endymion to sleep, she is unlikely to be of any help here. In fact, the full moon reduces hours slept, and this effect may underlie traditional beliefs in lunacy caused by the moon. Not to mention the legends about werewolves.

– Tony

The human face and emotion

August 20, 2012
Emotion: Fear

Emotion: Fear (Photo credit: Cayusa)

Everyone has experienced emotion to some degree.  From chilling fear to surprise and delight.  These emotions are quite obvious in children who are still quite innocent in the ways of the world.

The human face is believed by many to betray many of these emotions and this view holds that expressions are quite universal, overriding aspects such as  culture and geographical location.  However, this view derived by Charles Darwin and supported by many subsequent studies begs the question: what do these expressions mean and why are they associated with the respective emotions?  There is new evidence that suggests that there may be more at play here than first thought.   Cultural influences may play a more important role and it may be that the six basic themes of happiness, fear, anger, surprise, disgust/contempt and sadness may have nuances which make the whole concept far more complex than previously thought – it is the subject to current research and discussion with perhaps future modification.

This coincides with technology to clone a human face by the Disney Company.  It seems that this technology will make its way into animations and ultimately, humanoid ‘soft’ robots which will then enable a more ‘human’ interaction. I suppose the task of the engineers has been made a little harder by those pesky psychologists who are  saying that humans are more complex than the six basic themes. Oh life would be a lot easier for a lot of people if humans were simpler and behaved themselves according to physical laws.

But then, psychologists aren’t real scientists are they?  The author of this article decries the methods that psychologists use to describe and understand human behaviour.  Believe it or not, mate, it’s an extremely difficult task – doesn’t really fit in with testing for the Higg’s boson in the CERN but probably at least as difficult.  Similar to doing microbiology without a microscope.  But as technology improves as does our understanding of the extremely complex mechanism called the human brain, we’re getting better.  Sort of like how a real science like genetics made changes markedly after DNA was fully understood and the mechanisms behind how genes are expressed are developed.

After all, chemistry became a science after ancient chemists practised alchemy.

Vive la difference!

August 20, 2012
Rumpole of the Bailey

Rumpole of the Bailey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was recently reflecting on how my spouse of many years sees life differently to me.  This has been very effective on many occasions, as she is far better at many things than I am.

This doesn’t mean that things don’t get somewhat testy at times.  For example, I do a lot of cooking – one of the few things I am good at.  I’ll clean the kitchen bench and then have to step back as my dear wife cleans it again – it seems that my ‘clean’ is not the same as hers.  I have ceased to query why – reminds me of the ‘Rumpole’ series where he refers (secretly) to his wife as ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’. But then that’s such a trivial view of life – the benefits of being with such a wonderful person far outweigh her little quirks, as I’m sure that she has to put up with the many more of mine.

So the article about a male contraceptive really caught my attention.  Not because of the great scientific work which has resulted in this breakthrough – although it really shows how advanced drug design and manufacture is getting.

The main aspect from my point of view is the human element of how males and females will behave when, and if this male contraceptive actually becomes a reality.  How will males react – will they see it as a loss of masculinity? Will they feel impotent (sic) or will they feel empowered?  Will it be something they can point to or draw upon to get more action in the sexual department?

This leads onto the next, and in my view the most important point – how will women react? Will they trust their partner to take the pill? Will they take their own contraceptive precautions because they can’t trust the male to do so? Will they stand behind their partner to ensure that he takes it? After all, the female will be the one to bear (sic) the consequences.

So really, for all the advances in science, the basic human relationshipsthat we make will still determine how we use much of this knowledge.  Emphasizes how important our senses, perceptions, emotions, thought processes and other aspects of being human are.  These

Goodbye 'Birth Control Glasses'

Goodbye ‘Birth Control Glasses’ (Photo credit: United States Marine Corps Official Page)

aspects should never be discounted but typically are.

So I’m waiting for the line the clever marketers will come up with when they advertise this product. Because they do take note of these aspects and leverage them every day!

Games and teamwork

August 16, 2012
I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew

I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew (book cover)

One of my favourite children’s books is I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew by the great Dr Seuss. It contains that wonderful description of teamwork:

… ‘This is called teamwork. I furnish the brains.
You furnish the muscles, the aches, and the pains.
I’ll pick the best roads, tell you just where to go.
And we’ll find a good doctor more quickly, you know.’
Then he sat and he worked with his brain and his tongue
And he bossed me around just because I was young.
He told me go left. Then he told me go right.
And that’s what he told me all day and all night.

Is that really teamwork, though? There are requirements on true teamwork, and these requirements include processes that are (at least to some degree) democratic. But apart from that, what does a good team really look like?

In a 2006 paper in Simulation & Gaming, José P. Zagal, Jochen Rick, and Idris Hsi explore Reiner Knizia’s “Lord of the Rings” board game, in which a team of up to five people play the roles of hobbits intent on destroying Sauron’s ring.

Reiner Knizia’s “Lord of the Rings” board game

Zagal et al. find that this collaborative board game models four aspects of more realistic teams:

  1. There is a genuine tension between perceived individual utility and team utility.
  2. Players may, if they wish, take actions which go against group consensus.
  3. Players are able to trace outcomes (good or bad) back to player decisions.
  4. Players have varying strengths and weaknesses in the context of the game.

These characteristics make the “Lord of the Rings” board game, and similar collaborative board games, fascinating tools for exploring teamwork at its best (or at its worst), and for exploring strategies for improving team effectiveness. And they’re fun, too!

– Tony

Big Brother on Mars

August 14, 2012


Great little piece re getting people to go to Mars.

Seems the engineers and physicists are really across the technical aspects of this idea.  Fantastic stuff!

But using the ‘Big Brother’ paradigm to investigate individual and group behaviour of small teams in special environments, is a bit too left field as far as I’m concerned.Big Brother Logo

Now I don’t profess to being a ‘Big Brother’ admirer (try to keep away as much as possible in fact).  Don’t find the intrusion, trivialisation and sensationalism of the human condition that occurs on the program entertaining.  See it on the News and current affairs shows all too often.  Would rather watch something uplifting, educational or inspirational.

However I am interested in some of the really important experiments that have been occurring in various deserts around the world over the past several years exploring exactly how human teams interact in these extreme environments.  Testing how life would really be like on Mars. These experiments unlike what appears to be planned for Big Brother, are scientifically and ethically based.

Remember Ethics?  That aspect which supposedly is the core of all scientific research?  And remember Ethics in Human Research?

I wonder how the ethics of the Big Brother paradigm on mars will be handled.  Suspect it will be overlooked as all efforts will be focused on the technical and physical science brilliance required to  go to Mars.  Seems that all too often the technical sciences are either unaware of or remember to forget Ethics.  Perhaps training in this area should be compulsory in their undergraduate training as it is for all social sciences.  Maybe then there would be more understanding of this critical issue.

I wonder how the principle of informed consent would be handled for the typical ‘Big Brother’ contestant?  Consider the breadth of discussion at the table of the Human Research Ethics Committee considering the proposal – now that would be fantastic TV viewing!

Big Brother

The human factor in healthcare

August 14, 2012

Moin Rahman wrote a very informative piece about the various factors which influence emergency healthcare.

He clearly illustrates the stages which occurred in the case study of a child who died from septic shock as a result of a small cut he received whilst playing basketball.  Fits beautifully into the safety management systemframework.

What is apparent immediately is that it reflects a common theme in society – the tendency to attribute blame to the end user despite the underlying reasons for an incident.  As is so often the case in other areas such as aviation, road use and military applications, ‘human error’ is commonly given as the reason an incident occurred, often with deadly consequences.  However, as Moin succinctly points out, there are very clear underlying factors that are probably more important and should be highlighted.  The root cause is the process which almost makes the final act, in this case the death of a child, almost inevitable.

Unfortunately, as in many fields where there is a high aspect of skill or ‘art’ in a profession such as medicine, these root causes are too often subsumed as there is an easy scapegoat on whom to focus attention.  But what about the lack of funding, high workload and lack of resourcing common in the medical field, especially in public-funded or profit-driven private hospitals.

As is now the case in OH&S matters, managers are increasingly being scrutinised regarding their contribution to an incident.  Adopting Reason’s (1990) model as described in Moin’s article, their function is to provide the first three layers of the safety system and one would expect that they should shoulder an appropriate proportion of the blame if something does go wrong.  Perhaps they would be less inclined to reduce services if they were held truly accountable for their actions. Perhaps the accountants who have no knowledge of the coalface and make cost cutting  decisions without first taking a reasonable view of the potential results could take a fair cop as well.

But then, how will they know what is wrong?  What is a reasonable view? A theme which I have espoused in my other blogs is that many, if not all systems contain humans as an integral part. Therefore, a scientific, objective assessment of the human in the system should be fundamental.  And given human scientist expertise in this area, it should be evident that they would be best placed to undertake this role.