Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Yeah, well… your face.

The round table in the MER-B sequencing room is, well, round. It conveys a sense of control of both the room and the rover. With this comes an inevitable feeling that we — only us JPL'ers, only us in the room — are in control of everything, that we know everything. Of course, we don't. Far from it. If we did, we wouldn't need our SOWG chair (who is ever so kind as to point out that we're here to do science, not backflips), our documentarian (who is ever so kind as to remind us that we forgot to add the cal target image and that we didn't give the target a damned name), our instrument PULs (who are ever so kind to actually build those beautiful imaging sequences), and our coffee mugs (who, contrary popular opinion, can write a pretty mean Perl script).

This realization hits us in the room pretty often. Well, at least me. The rest of them can speak for themselves. The fun (sic) wakeup calls are the ones coming from "over the line" — over the phone. Since the MER project moved to Earth time and the majority of the science team moved back home, far away from JPL to places like New York and St. Louis, we've had to operate with half the team being local to JPL and half the team being remote. Setting up secure computer and phone lines, that's all trivial stuff. What the project really lost, what was really a challenge was having the whole team in the room. We got some of that back with the Polycom, but really only during the SOWG meeting in the mornings. Now, we've lost even that capability. We're stuck with people — our SOWG chair, usually, as well as our documentarian and most of our instrument PULs — being only voices to us.

I'm notorious, if only to myself, for saying stupid things in front of people who know better. My filter on asking questions and puking words went out the door a long time ago, so it's only statistically probable that I'll say something profoundly wrong. I can trace it back to an aircraft dynamics and control course I took in school where suddenly I lost faith in everything because, let's face it, the Dutch Roll response makes no sense, and therefore nothing else should. 

Figure 1: Confused.jpg

I use this picture for two reasons. Well, three. First, I like analogies. They work. They fit things together. I like neat things. Second, it shows that, yeah, that guy up there is showing us hotshot undergrads how life really works (z = e^[st], is how), and we really don't know what we're talking about even when we think we've got the room under control. This is how I feel when I think I know how, say, the Pancam takes and compresses its images, but then the Pancam PUL comes and says, "Well, z = e^[st], so, you're wrong, but it's cool, you just learned something." Third… can you see his face? No, you can't. I promise. This faceless person has an end goal with an end product. In the picture, that end product happens to be a lesson on the principles of linearized aircraft dynamics.* We, the users of the information, are not privy to the data stream from which this information springs. All we see are abstractions of this data stream — letters and numbers. This guy turns his back to the room and just starts going. Like it's his job. (Ahem.)

For us in the room at JPL, we have ourselves a set of voices representing remote participants who are working and massaging their respecting parts of the current tactical plan for Opportunity. They all have a goal with an associated end product. But, to us, they are effectively just voices in the ether. The phone glows green to let us know there are folks — you know, real, actual people — on the line, but it's not really… enough. They are faceless contributors to an extremely complex set of 0's and 1's. Their backs are to us. They're just facing the chalkboard, and all we get are abstractions of their thought process — sequence IDs and strategic plans and rover attitude translations.**

Years back, probably shortly after the transition to remote operations for the non-JPL'ers, the JPL team got pictures of all of the SOWG Chairs and taped them plastic spoons. To this day, when a given SOWG chair is on duty for the day, we get their face and place it in cup with an LA Kings jersey on it. There they are: our SOWG chair, LA Kings fan and all. (Hey, at least it's not the Red Wings.)

The pictures-on-a-jersey method gets the trick done to some extent. But it's not enough; I don't suppose that Ray Arvidson is actually smiling all the time, and yet his picture depicts this. Again, it's just an abstraction. We can't see his body language. When someone is right next to me, in the room, I can see the way they lean into the microphone, or their body language when someone else on the line says something intriguing, or confusing, or wrong, or right. Chair fidgeting, though disconcerting to those around you, can be very telling. This is important, this learning to read people's body language thing, and it makes it so much harder to really get someone's stake in a given moment or event when you can't see how they're reacting.

Well, it is what it is. The remote participation is pretty cool, actually: We've got people in three different time zones coming together to make a piece of metal on Mars do what we tell it. Ridiculous. Sometimes it helps to imagine these voices as something representing their stake in the tactical plan, like a piece of hardware, plopped on top of a rudimentary stick figure:

Figure 2: Crude and ill-conceived representation of MER Remote Participant; not to scale. Also totally inaccurate.

So, we've got this person on the phone, a stick figure with a camera. And I say something silly. Despite all the abstractions and walls between our lines of communication, it is very easy to show me that I said something silly. When someone tells me that I'm wrong, and it's clear to me that I am, all I want to say is:

Yeah, well… your face.

Which, you know, isn't really a response. Turns out. Since, you know, I don't know what their face looks like. Turns out. And even if I did, then I'd be, you know, still wrong. Which is cool, because I don't get stepped on by anyone but myself. And plus, I just learned something. Even cooler.

So, sorry Pancam Nancy and Ecam Billy Bob. I just see a camera mast on a stick figure. Maybe we should get jersey'd cups for you guys, too?


By the way, no albums of the day for now, since I haven't been on tactical for a week and a half… but tomorrow, I shall rain the heaven of music upon thy ground.

*F-16 on brick times brick does not equal F-16. Turns out.
*The analogy breaks down, of course, when you remind yourself that the teacher occasionally turns around, and we get to see his face.

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