Sunday, April 29, 2012

Clean and Intuitive

The adjectives in the post title are the two most important elements of interfaces designed with user interaction in mind. Yet, they often seem to be the two most neglected features. Our strongly web-based, or even computer based, culture should be keenly aware of the importance of these two features, but I am often baffled by the complexity, busy-ness (spelled so to avoid confusion with business), and shear illogical structure of many interfaces I interact with on a near daily basis.

Admittedly, I have never taken any courses on design or human-computer interaction. However, my mind is keenly aware of the downfalls of a poorly designed interface and seems to provide me with innate knowledge of how an properly designed interface should be. Just think of how many times you have become frustrated with your computer (or a particular webpage) when you can not immediately find content you are looking for or when you feel overloaded due to immense amount of text and links scattered randomly across a page.

Examples of such pages* are numerous and are not difficult to locate. Chances are, you visit such pages daily. I dare not name an pages explicitly, to avoid any potential backlash. If you are a Google user, however, you may have noticed changes in Google's interface for Gmail, Calendar, Google+, and so forth that have made the Google page more pleasant to view while still making it simple to find the content you are looking for. Google has seemingly made a very strong attempt to clean up their interfaces and return to their initial model that made Google the search engine so appealing: it's simple, clean, and intuitive. How do you search? Oh, you type in the search box under the Google logo on the otherwise blank white page.

Unfortunately, I feel that Google is one of the few web companies that is making cleanliness and intuitiveness a priority. We exist in an age where flashiness and quantity (of content) is valued over anything else. "Does this page have a shiny navigation bar that has a smooth drop down animation? Is this a one-stop shop for my web-based needs?" Yes, flashiness, when done right, can compliment an already clean and intuitive page. However, most pages seem to use flashiness as a means to cover up their apparent lack of ability to organize and streamline content.

There may still be hope for web design companies to alter the direction of this downward spiral of needlessly cluttered webpages. With the advent of web enabled smart-phones, many companies have had to streamline their interface due to the lack of real estate available on phone screens. I hope this trend carries over to webpages displayed in browsers and the age of cluttered, poorly designed pages are on the way out.

What do you think? Do you agree that the two most important design element are "clean" and "intuitive", or are there other elements that you place higher on the list? Are there particular design elements that drive you crazy? How about elements that you adore?

I'd love to hear your comments as I plan to address my view on design elements in more detail for future posts.

* I focus on webpages since they are an interface people can most easily relate. However, we can easily extend it to operating systems, window managers, and other abstractions that do not require interaction with a computer.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Exoplanet Lecture

Today was my first college lecture, and by this I mean this was the first time I have ever been up in front of a large class lecturing. In this count, pre-lab lectures are not considered. Small lectures before a laboratory are fairly straight forward since there is a very limited amount of information that you need to convey before the students start following the laboratory procedure. Anyway, my advisor is teaching the introductory astronomy class this term and, seeing as he was going to be out of town this week, tasked me with presenting a lecture on exoplanets in his stead.

It was actually quite a fun experience and I think the students were engaged and absorbing the material. I approached the topic in such a way that when the students left the class they should be able to critically analyze a popular science article describing an exoplanet discovery. This includes not only understanding the detection methods, but also the metrics that are used to qualify a planet as habitable. Since habitability is often exaggerated for public consumption, it was crucial that students be able to understand what all is involved (and not involved) in these claims.

Specifically, I focused on a fun exoplanet that was announced not too long ago - Kepler 16, the real life "Tatooine" from Star Wars. The system was discovered with transits using Kepler and confirmed using radial velocity and a recent paper discussed potential habitability of an exomoon (Ewoks!?). I was really pleased with the analysis that Kepler 16 lent itself to. Hopefully the students agree.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Sunday in Brest

Greetings from Brest, France! After the conference, I decided a small vacation was in order as was mentioned a couple posts ago. I spent today walking around the city trying to just see what there was to do and attempting to see some of the standard tourists sights. One of the many sights is the Musée de national de la Marine, a castle housing the French naval maritime museum. The castle is apparently the oldest monument in Brest and dates back possibly to the year AD 260 when the Romans had an outpost there. Anyway, the history isn't important, what is important is that it was free. Not knowing any differently, I was all in favor of touring. Below is a picture of just one segment of the outer wall (taken from within the castle). The tower in the picture is one of several towers you can visit.

Later in the day, I was having a coffee in the hotel and the hotel worker said that all museums were free this weekend! He mentioned that it was a special weekend, but didn't elaborate - he seemed very hesitant to continue, so I didn't push any further. One site he highly recommended is a tunnel called Abri Sadi Carnot. Not knowing what it was exactly, I looked it up online. During WWII French civilians in Brest and a large grouping of German soldiers were hiding in the tunnel (really a bomb shelter). One night, the clerk in charge of the generator made a mistake somehow and a fire ignited - which then lit the reserve fuel which was nearby. Shortly there after the ammunition which was stored in the shelter erupted. In total, ~400 French and ~700 Germans died in what was apparently a massive explosion - probably enhanced by the topology of the shelter. This occurred on September 8 (I believe).

 Anyway, that isn't necessarily what makes this weekend so special. It turns out that tomorrow is anniversary of the liberation of Brest from Nazi control. On September 18, 1944 the American forces finally freed the city. I'm not sure if it's because I'm American that he didn't want to say, or if it's just a very trying time for the people of the city, but either way, this weekend is one of celebration.

Friday, September 16, 2011

EES 2011 - Outlook

Greetings from Roscoff. Unfortunately, I was not able to publish blog posts during the meeting. This was mostly due to internet issues, which were not resolved until mid-week, but there was also the issue of time constraints. The meeting is fairly well scheduled, which means one is quite often supposed to be somewhere at all times. The "free time", however, generally ended up being consumed with conversation or (even) research. Many interesting papers were released to the pre-print archive astro-ph this week (include one on modeling the Kepler object KOI-126). I will hopefully be posting a bit more over the next couple days as the school wraps up and I start my mini-vacation in Brest!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

EES 2011

Tomorrow I head off to Roscoff, France for nine days to participate in a summer school on low-mass stars and the transition to brown dwarfs. I will attempt to keep the blog updated with my current status and anything interesting that learn about or see on my trip. This may or may not include pictures, but we all know what the answer to that should be from a previous post

What precisely is a summer school and what exactly is it about? The former is fairly simple to answer. A summer school isn't like your typical "summer school" we are all used to hearing about. You know, the one for misguided children and those basically failing in their studies. Quite the opposite. It is for the mega-nerds of the world to go and learn as much as they can on a particular subject. Some schools last a few days, some months. This one is 5 days, so not too much of an information overload. 

The latter is more difficult to answer. I know we will be exposed to pretty much every topic imaginable about low-mass stars and the transition to brown dwarfs. Well, not exactly all of them... but pretty close to it. There is some very interesting physics that goes on in this stellar mass regime, and plenty that hasn't yet been studied in detail. So maybe that answers the question I posed. It'll be more about learning the current state of the field in order to gain exposure to what is known and what still needs to be done, opening new research avenues. The lectures last all week, save a half day on Wednesday where we travel to l'Ile de Batz.

Oh, and yeah, the last remaining days of my trip will be spend touring around Brest. Might as well take a mini-vacation while I'm there! It should be a lot of fun, but also quite a bit of work, so the vacation will be well earned, in my opinion.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Big Bang

Being in the science world, it is hard to be blind to the rather prominent anti-religion sentiment that many prominent scientists take. This is not to say all scientists are atheist, but I think it's fair to say that most of the outspoken scientists are in that position. Often science and religion are branded as incompatible with neither adding to the other and both standing in stark contrast to each other's teachings.

In the case of religious fundamentalism, this isn't far from the truth. However, in the case of Catholicism, it is entirely NOT the case. Catholicism is very embracing of science and scientific fact. Leading theologians work with science facts in order to evaluate philosophical arguments and to bolster their beliefs in God. Many people are probably scoffing at this very moment, "Ah, and I bet you think Galileo was treated fairly?" Galileo represents any interesting case where it wasn't necessarily the science which led him to be treated as he was by the church. He has also since received a full pardon. More on this in a later post.

So, is there any good evidence for the church adding to science? Yes. Georges-Henri Lemaître. What about him? Well, his name should really read: Monsignor Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître. For those who are familiar with cosmology and astrophysics, this name should be familiar. For those who are not, Lemaître was the first person to propose the Big Bang theory. While his original hypothesis has since been revised and expanded upon, the notion of the Big Bang still exists and has a large amount of evidence in its favor.

It is interesting, however, to note that hardly any books (textbooks and popular science books) mention that he was a Catholic priest. While it may be rather irrelevant in the scientific context, it would do no harm to write his name as it should be written, Msgr. Lemaître. Also, it wouldn't hurt to dispel the myth that religion is strictly against the advancement of science. I wonder, are authors afraid of mentioning his religious background for fear of condemnation? Or maybe they do not want to give credit to the notion that religion is not opposing science? Maybe people just do not really know that he was a priest. Entirely possible.

I think his life would be interesting to read about. Unfortunately, no extensive biographies exist, at least from what I can tell, aside from the typical Wikipedia biographies. In the end, it is irrelevant to the science that he was a pious man, but I do believe that it can do a lot of good for science-religion relations if it were mentioned.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Making Progress

Have you been to Flagstaff, ME? Probably not, unless you were around pre-1940. It turns out Flagstaff, ME was once a small town located on Flagstaff Lake. However, "progress" wiped out the town. Slaid Cleaves has chronicled the story in his song "Below".

The song is older (2004), but today I learned of Slaid Cleave and really enjoy his music. He masterfully weaves song and story leaving the listener (aka: me) wondering what to be more enthralled with, his tunes or the story?