Sunday, September 25, 2016

Well Designed Failure

So last night, while I was out for a social gathering and my partner was out of town, someone appears to have tried to break into our house. They did a moderately good job of disassembling the door handle on our front door, but didn't get any further than that, thanks to the deadbolt lock on the door and the two loud dogs in their beds next to the door. Last night I was pretty upset about it, and I was also being critical of the door handle, but the more I think about it the more I think I'm wrong. I am beginning to think that the door handle itself was really quite brilliantly designed -- it was designed not just to work, but to fail gracefully.

When I got home I found the front door handle had been jimmied somehow, and was loose in the door itself; in addition, the interior handle part had come completely off the door. So I was mildly upset about this, thinking that first, someone had tried to break into my house, and second, that I would have to replace the door handle (at 9PM on a Saturday, which did not sound like the best time to go shopping for door hardware). But actually the door handle did its job brilliantly, and here's why I think that:


  1. Most importantly, the alleged intruders were unable to get into the house. So when the integrity of the handle failed, it still managed (with backup from the deadbolt and the dogs) to accomplish one of its two main design goals: keeping the door shut (the other we'll get to in a subsequent point).
  2. After the alleged intruders departed, when I arrived home I was still able to gain entrance to the house via the front door. This, by the bye, is the other main design goal of the handle: allowing the door to be opened. 
  3. This allowed the handle to accomplish another design goal, which is often ignored: it failed securely, and kept functioning even in failure mode. This was accomplished by various parts all acting in concert even in failure mode (including the length of the haft of the knob, the length and placement of the screws, and the design of the latch mechanism itself). 
  4. In addition, after the failure mode, it was relatively easy to return the handle to full working order -- the recovery process was relatively simple and not time-consuming.
  5. It did all this without any damage to the door itself, the deadbolt, or even the handle and knob mechanisms, meaning it was designed for robustness in its application.
So here we have a really, really good example of designers not just designing for the stated goals, but also taking into account failure and recovery modes. This is also an example of how even old, complicated tech (and a modern lock/latch is pretty complicated) can be designed to fail gracefully and with minimal agita to the user. From an Operational perspective, this handle may be a nearly-perfect design: secure, robust, graceful in failure, silent in normal operating modes, and easy to recover. It is a benefit of having had door knobs and locking latches for a couple of hundred years, including the last 50 or so when CAD methods have allowed for much finer tolerances and more rapid iteration of incremental improvements.

To sum this all up: if you, as a software designer, think not just about the stated goals but about how the tool you're building will be used (and broken by users), you'll have not just a better starting point, but also a better idea of what you'll need to iterate towards for improvement. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Well, there it is.

It's still a little rough, but it's in place and ready to be cataloged: the Brian A. Newman Memorial Boardgame Lending Library. Brian loved boardgames: collecting them, playing them, teaching others to play them, getting new people interested in them. He was a gift, and now that he's gone, I want to try and share that gift with as many people as I can. And this is how I'm going to try and do it. I want to allow people and organizations, like schools and classrooms and shelters and whomever, to check out and try out games. To use them as teaching tools, or just to enjoy playing them, and maybe get people interested in playing and collecting their own games. 

I haven't worked out all the details yet, but when I think about this idea, I feel good, like it's a Good Thing To Do. And so I want to do it up right. I didn't have room for everything, but I made room for as much as I could. And I'm hoping that I'll be able to share as much of these as I can. 

Brian was always eager to introduce new people to the boardgaming community. There's a lot more available these days than Monopoly and Risk, and the chance to show that to others was something that always made him happy. I hope I can take as much joy from these as he did. And I hope I can share that joy with as many people as I can. 




Sunday, February 21, 2016

Letting the days go by...

This is probably incredibly shallow and male and white of me, but I have to admit that every so often I just straight-up forget how beautiful my partner is. It has to be at least partly because I can't believe that someone so beautiful would be interested in me, and at least partly because I have a terrible memory, and probably partly because I'm pretty self-involved and self-directed by nature. But yeah, I'll be sitting around and I will just plain forget that my wife is beautiful.

And then I'll see a picture, like this one:

Or she will come home from work and I will get up from my desk and she will take off her scarf and say "Hello, Husband!" in this fantastically posessive way that never fails to make me smile, and I will see her and suddenly remember all over again how beautiful she is, and how amazingly glad I am that she is a part of my life.

I don't want to forget, but sometimes I do. And the best part of that is when I get to learn again how lucky I am.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Goodbyes You Don't Get To Say

My friend Brian died today.

He'd been sick for a little while. It'd been tough to see him struggling. Brian was kind, and generous, and fiercely self-reliant (to his detriment, it turns out). He was sharp and wise and while he didn't talk very often, frequently his contributions were the spot-on perfect note for humour or insightful commentary. He was a good host and a good gamemaster, and he convinced me to try more than one thing I never would have tried before, from specific boardgames to specific game engines to specific foods, even to specific music. He was one of the people that convinced me to move to Portland, and who welcomed me when I arrived, and who opened his home and his social circles to me when I was settling in, and who consistently made sure I had a place at his table and his games. He sold me his house, my first house, when I decided I was ready to put down roots here.

We were going to pick back up on our tabletop game next week; we tried to work out something for Saturday but it wasn't coming together, so we decided to push it back a week.

The last time I saw him he was tired and in pain, but he seemed determined to take care of himself. I don't know for sure, but I'd guess it wasn't so much a fear of being weak as a nearly-pathological commitment to not imposing on others.

I worry about my friends who knew him and loved him, including his ex-husband, with whom he was still close. I hope he didn't suffer more than he had to.

I will miss his presence in my life fiercely.

I don't believe in the afterlife, or in souls, or anything like that. I only know that there is now a Brian-shaped hole in my life, and I am hugely angry at the universe for that.

There's a lot of "I" in this, probably because I'm a selfish jerk, but Brian was important to me in all these little ways that I didn't realize. He hosted our game nights. He led our Rock Band bands. He always had a new boardgame to play. He was a part of so many sections of my life.

Goodbye Brain. I am sorry I didn't get to say that to you. And I am sad I had to say that now.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Creating the Ladder, and then Climbing

So here's a thing that happened this week: I got promoted at work.

My current organization has had significant growth over the last 12 months, including a pretty significant ramp-up in the team I'm on -- basically doubling the number of people in the team over my tenure at the job -- which has led to some serious conversation about what the layout of the organization should be. And this week, the management team rolled that plan out, including a promotional ladder for both managerial and non-managerial advancement, roles and responsibilities for each level, expectations for time-in-grade, and basically a bunch of stuff that bigger organizations have to worry about and smaller organizations ignore to their peril once they become bigger organizations.

So now I'm technically at least a part-time manager. Finding ways to shoehorn the much-needed time for managing people is going to be exciting given the current workload, but at least there's the intention of giving some of my time on the clock back to me to handle the non-ticket-related stuff. Which is pretty exciting to see. I've been given a really good, diverse team and a basically free hand as far as how that management should go, which is pretty cool to me. So here's hoping I can clear out some of my backlog and get to the job at hand, which is documentation, documentation, documentation...

I did have a moment of flashback when my boss let me know about the change, because she called and said "Hey, do you have time to talk? Give me a moment to bring in this other person," which immediately called back to the day when I was laid off, where I came out of a meeting planning six weeks of work and got pulled into a conference room where I was made redundant effective immediately. But once I managed to get my heart rate under control, the news was all good!

I've had several mentors I respect tell me that getting some management time under my belt will be extremely helpful in my career so this is a good thing on several levels, and I'm looking forward to the new challenges.

So go me! Here's to an interesting 2016.