Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Lisp and Robotics at JPL

One of my robotics students found this great personal account on the web:

He probably sent it to me because he thought, "Hey look what you can do with a 68HC11!" True enough. But I read the article for what it said about Lisp. I saw management give similar short shrift to Lisp at BBN, BAE Systems, SPAWAR and SFA. The stories are all too familiar.

The good news is that eventually the limited solutions that get foisted on developers (or managers) eventually die out, and the good ideas from long ago keep re-emerging. If you live long enough, you realize it's an endless cycle, like those old diagrams showing rainfall, oceans and streams, evaporation and clouds. It's up to you to decide whether developers or managers are the oceans or the clouds; both positions could be argued.

In the meantime, my hope for computer science grows when I see the brightest of the new generation pick up the torch.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Comair Flight 5191

A friend sent me a link to a Fox News / AP story with excerpts of the crew conversation before takeoff. As I read the transcript, I kept thinking, "CRM! CRM!" CRM stands for Crew Resource Management, a discipline, particularly around critical phases of flight, that the airlines and other pilot organizations have been drilling into pilots for quite a few years now. I kept thinking, "Why are these guys, probably good guys, talking about all this non-flying stuff now?" And when I read the bit about a "flex takeoff" procedure that uses less than full power, I was floored. I had to wonder if a full power takeoff could have gotten them off that short runway OK. I don't know whether "flex takeoff" is just an airline procedure meant to save some money, or if it's an early morning procedure to reduce noise. After all that, taking off from a runway without runway lights and not bringing that up with the open control tower, seems like the last straw.

But I think I understand part of how this happened. In the transcript, the pilots discussed working hours and tight schedules, flying into a place, spending a maximum of ten hours in a hotel, and then flying out again. When you do that, you have no social life. I'm guessing the pilots' social life was in that cockpit. The cockpit provided a time and place for chit-chat that was otherwise lacking in their busy lives. Unfortunately it was not the place for such talk, particularly in a critical phase of flight. I'm hoping the airlines learn from this, and loosen the schedules of commercial and airline pilots, so that they have adequate time to do their socializing in their off-hours, and so that while in the cockpit they have a greater feeling, "OK, I've had my time off, now I'm at work, and I must give it my full attention."