Russian nuclear power plant is all buttons and knobs

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68 Responses to “Russian nuclear power plant is all buttons and knobs”

  1. rimstalker says:

    I did a tour of a German nuclear power plant last year – including inside the reactor building (1 metre away from the open cooling pool for the rods).

    They took us to their control room as well. When something goes wrong in the plant, all the controls are actually disabled and the computer takes over for the first 30 minutes.

  2. cbwallday says:

    >: 4 8 15 16 23 42

    EXECUTE

  3. lewis stoole says:

    they should keep an eye open for any stray canisters of tigger fun, nasty stuff.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Knobs and levers and buttons and toggles are single-purpose devices. They are visually binary – either they’re in one position or another. That makes them much better than a computer screen when you have to get a particular piece of information *right now.* When there’s a crisis, it’s a heck of a lot quicker and easier to be able to grab that one lever, rather than to have to take the time to deal with the subtleties of computer interfaces. A single big lever or button is easier than having to make sure you hit just the right key on a keyboard.

    Sometimes old and clunky is an advantage. Case in point in a different venue: it used to be that wearing a wristwatch was considered old hat. For years, most people figured they’d just use their cell phone’s built-in clock if they wanted to know the time. Now, a lot of people have started going back to using watches. They’re tired of, when they want to know the time, they have to dig through a pocket or purse and find their cell phone, then fiddle with getting it to show the time, then have to put it back. 35 seconds, LOTS of motions, in some cases multiple keypad presses just to find out the time. How much quicker and easier it is just to look at your wrist.

    • AnthonyC says:

      This was me, for years. Where I go to grad school now, for some reason almost none of the rooms have clocks. And since I turn my phone off during classes, meetings, and delicate experiments… I’ve started wearing a watch again.

      And @W00dy: My girlfriend was a Human Factors Engineering major in college. Most of her classes used airport control systems as examples, but there was one story she told me about a nuclear power plant. Essentially, there were two rooms with identical controls on opposite sides of the plant- the they were mirror images of one another. All the knobs and switches, backwards. Things have certainly gotten better since then, but Human Factors people still make mistakes sometimes.

  5. holtt says:

    I love this kind of stuff. reminds me of the FSQ-7 that you see in a million movies, probably courtesy of Woody’s Electrical Props.

  6. bjk says:

    These lighted buttons, knobs, dials and gauges just look “proper” on such a beast as a nuclear power plant…

    And seriously, I’ve been in a nuclear power-plant (with a genuine westinghouse design), and it looked just like that (albeit that one was finished in the 1980′s)…

  7. Anonymous says:

    John’s biggest mistake is stating that “The plant was completed in 1990, so color computer screens, mice, and “normal” high-tech user interfaces were certainly available.”
    That may hold true for NASA or CERN, but not for Russia in the late eighties…

  8. Anonymous says:

    Speaking of Russian practicality, I remember reading about an analysis of a Soviet intercepter plane (a “Foxbat”). They noted that it used vacuum tubes in some places but admitted that they were more rugged than more modern transistors on US planes. They also saw things like rivet heads that stuck out of the body whereas US planes were carefully smoothed everywhere but these heads stuck out in places where it didn’t matter. They are not so much as cutting corners but cutting costs everywhere it made sense.

  9. aeroplane says:

    The control room of nuke plants in the US look remarkably similar to that, but substitute gray for white, and the people in it wear regular business casual, not the white shirt,pants, and hat getup.

    I presume because there haven’t been any new plants built for quite some time, and it’s much easier to service and replace parts with identical ones than to do a complete revamp of the control system. Plus, all that hard-wired, no-microchip stuff is extremely reliable.

  10. Anonymous says:

    It’s actually pretty simple: Current regulatories don’t trust software based systems a lot.

    And, as a power-plant operator or vendor: If you have the choice between explaining to a national authority the complicated system how the press of a button is converted into network datagrams, transmitted, routed, switched, processed and finally an valve being opened, closed or a control-rod injected into the reactor core… versus a simple switch, relay and coil… You normally just take the easier route and build safety critical systems out of analog (or simple digital) electronics.

    (chris)
    And that’s why there are a lot more buttons and switches compared to monitors, mice and keyboards in safety critical automation systems.

    And @rimstalker: It’s not that manual intervention is forbidden/disabled during 30 minutes in the onset of a accident, but rather that intervention is discouraged as long as the situation is unclear. The aim is to be able to leave the plant control unattended for some period of time to be able to concentrate in the general assessment and understanding of the situation.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Well if anybody actually READ the EULAs, you’d find that for the vast majority of software, the control of nuclear power plants is expressly prohibited. So there’s little “off the shelf” software available. So, as chuckwa points out, that means that there’s little saving to be had by using an automated interface.

    • Anonymous says:

      Well if anybody actually READ the EULAs, you’d find that for the vast majority of software, the control of nuclear power plants is expressly prohibited.

      What’s a EULA, then, asked the professional systems architect who has worked on several ICBMs and nuclear reactor control systems (that’d be me)? Do you mean a license agreement? OK just kidding.

      The stuff we use has no such prohibition. There is generally BSD or GPL licensing on the stuff we don’t write ourselves.

      So there’s little “off the shelf” software available.

      You are talking about commercial home use software. Nobody in their right mind uses that shit for this kind of job. It is insufficiently reliable.

      Closed source is unverifiable crap, and you don’t use crap when the cost of failure is a water table poisoned for ten thousand years. We wouldn’t use it even if the “EULA” said we could, because it’s not good enough. OpenBSD and compiled C all the way, baby!

      I hear the Hubble boys use Java and Microsoft crap… I also hear the Hubble engineers have three or four separate physical PCs they use to run individual programs because in the Real World [tm] you can’t generally run a dozen Java programs on an MS operating system without them stepping all over each other due to library version incompatibilities.

      Compiled C, physical knobs and verniers, mercury wetted switches, raised-letter dymo labels – that’s high tech! Java, Windows, that’s not good enough for the important stuff. It’s unstable eye candy for eloi.

      Over at NIST the big domes are hiding their linux and BSD systems and have Windows systems “for show” that sit on the desks for when the TSA comes around. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. TSA mandated windows at NIST a year or two ago, because they aren’t capable of determining whether anything else is secure (the running joke is, they always know whether your windows machine is secure because it can’t be secured). Sadly they’ve decreased security because of all the research they’ve forced out of NIST proper and into various scientists’ basements.

  12. muteboy says:

    Many safety-related or safety-critical systems use the tactile response of physical controls to interface with the controlling system, for the reasons described above. Power stations, factories, rail signalling systems, and so on. But there is usually a computer behind it all anyway. PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers) are industrialized, hardened and super-reliable computers which are programmed to react in near-real time to conditions in the plant. The software is written and tested to be very reliable too.
    The factories I have worked on usually have PLCs (often Siemens or Allen-Bradley) connected to physical controls and displays like the ones in the photo, with a SCADA display screen for supervisory and reporting roles.

  13. W00dy says:

    Nuclear plant designers employ techniques in “human factors engineering” to come up with these control room station designs. It’s not just arbitrary arrays of dials, gauges and buttons.

    Also, even though newer plants and some refurbished plants will see some more elements of “glass cockpit” design in their controls rooms, I believe there will always be some portion of hardwired instrumentation and controls present in these control rooms. One of the key tenets of reactor safety design is “defense in breadth and depth”, meaning the use of multiple, redundant, diverse, non-interconnected systems for safety-critical monitoring and control functions.

    So while the computer control/monitoring system might be capable of doing 100% of the tasks required to operate the plant, there will almost certainly always continue to be elements that exist completely independent from it, to offer that element of separated redundancy.

  14. GlenBlank says:

    Cameras are another good example. Back in the mechanical/analog/chemical days, cameras had buttons and knobs and levers – all in different shapes and sizes and positions so they could be easily distinguished by feel – and you could adjust virtually any setting on the camera without ever taking your eye away from the viewfinder.

    And, yes, some of those knobs were linked to displays visible in the viewfinder, so you could distinguish, say, f2.8 from f3.5 – but you could change the setting without taking your eye off your subject. No need to use joystick buttons to navigate through scrolling menus just to select the function.

    More high-end cameras these days have started to understand this, and provide photogs with more buttons and knobs and levers (and some of them are even getting smart enough to realize that four identical buttons in a row are less useful than four distinctly shaped buttons in different locations), but most digital cameras still suffer from menu-think and five functions overloaded on a single button.

  15. stasike says:

    Go ask Iranians what system is better.
    If Iranian centrifuges for enriching Uranium ran controlled by knobs and dials, instead of Stuxnet infested Simatics …

    Friend of mine was servicing Soviet made radars during his compulsory military service. All triangulation data that radar needs to process signals from other interlinked radars were encoded by miniature mechanical switches. The signals were processed by vacuum tubes. This way the radar could operate (so were we told) even after a nuclear attack and subsequent ElectroMagnetic Pulse.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Actually in eastern europe and russia, ‘more complex’, even if over-complex usually wins out when it comes to UI design.

    They’d rather have 20 buttons that have no function than a clean efficient solution. i.e. “the washing machine with more controls must be better as it must do more and my friends will think the same”. Even in the west we’re often subdued by the perception of more control, even if the reality is otherwise.

    I’m not suggesting that this is definitely the case here, but this could be an intentional design decision, but not necessarily for the reasons suggested. UI and product design varies wildly from a psychology POV in different parts of the world.

    Many of the examples in the comments aren’t examples of why physical controls are better than screen based UI, they’re simply examples of poor design. I can assure you that there are just as many examples of poorly designed physical controls – almost every office phone is a good example (any readers of The Design of Everyday Things will know what I’m talking about).

    However push buttons and levers are cool, so I approve either way.

  17. GlenBlank says:

    Of course, it’s possible to design really bad interfaces with buttons and knobs and gauges, too.

    One of the conclusions of the failure analysts after the TMI meltdown was that badly-designed controls contributed to the errors that led to the failure. Gauges that were distant from the controls that altered them, alert klaxons that were so loud they made communication difficult until they were silenced, controls that were grouped arbitrarily by “type of button” rather than by functionality, and so on.

    As @W00dy notes above, there’s a lot of “human factors engineering” in modern reactor control romms – but a lot of that is the result of TMI. Before that, there was very little, and its absence contributed materially to a number of serious accidents.

  18. vmaldia says:

    In one of the star trek novels, I remember someone mentioning that after a refit, all the enterprise’s buttons were replaced by touch screens and the crew complained because of the lack of tactile feedback and the necessity for one’s eyes to be on the touch screen to be sure the press registered

  19. gwailo_joe says:

    I loves me some knobs and switches; you want to start a fire engine, it’s all analog. Master switch: On. Ignition switch: On. Start button: push. Parking brake: press down. Lights? clickclickclickclick

    The boss hits the siren button with his foot and it’s go time!

    And once you get to a fire: emergency brake: pull out. Transmission button: Neutral. Pump lever: move from Drive to Pump. Transmission: Drive. Now you can pump water!

    One intake pressure gauge. One main pressure outlet gauge. Eight or so gauges for various outlets. One knob to control them all. . .

    The newer American La France has a digital ‘fire command’ setup with an attempt at modernizing the pump controls: me no likee. Give me a Spartan engine with analog controls any day. . .

  20. RedShirt77 says:

    The advantages to knobs are great, the lack of blue screens of death being a big one.

    the downside is mostly about size.

    A computer doing this same function would probably fit in a cubical and be run by maybe 2 people.

    Here you need a team of 10 people and they need to pace back and forth to see countless meters, guages, knobs and switches.

    The question I have for a nuke plant is, couldn’t this thing be a whole lot more efficient if a computer could fine tune settings and track output? I think that is the other big loss.

    I always think about this when I see an interior shot of airliners and the shuttle. looks about the same. There the space issue is much bigger Trying to keep you eyes on all those guages is another.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Reading all the comments brought back old memories of watching Flash Gordon at the movies.
    Just for the nervous among you, think about the newer transport aircraft have “glass cockpits”. The lady next door just qualified on them for Southwest.
    The other memory was of a friend on facebook linking to a Corning ad for the glass home. All I could think of watching it was: Who is going to clean off all the finger prints?
    Our rebuilt 1940′s era windtunnel went to a computerized interface. The mechanics had no problem adapting except now they could not run the tunnel with their feet while eating lunch.

  22. CANTFIGHTTHEDITE says:

    Having worked at the Bruce Nuclear Power Station for 4 months on a co-op work term, and having wondered about this very thing I asked why everything wasn’t computerized.

    The answer was, at least with respect to integrating with the existing physical and electrical systems outside of the control room, that the same level of reliability could not be acheived with a computerized system in a cost effective manner.

    In other words, without re-designing the existing systems at the time (before ’03) below the control room level systems, computerizing the system within their budget (which was large) decreased the level of reliability that they already had with the existing control room design.

    I didn’t bother to ask whether or not this was reliability in general, or just a specific angle with respect to the electrical controls, so I don’t know about the human factor and how much of that was an issue.

  23. alllie says:

    After the US seeded some Soviet software with a virus that allowed the CIA to blow up the trans-Siberian pipeline in the largest non-nuclear explosion in history, I would think mechanical controls would be the way to go. Some people believe Chernobyl had a similar cause.

    I think US nuclear power plants need mechanical knobs as well.

  24. Anonymous says:

    I have a feeling it is more to do with the knowledge available to the builders. They know how to build them like this. And computers in the 90s weren’t that great. And neither was Russia, depending on which bit of the 90s.

  25. Anonymous says:

    I had the pleasure of sitting next to a fellow on an airplane who is a consultant for the nuclear energy industry. We had a 15 minute chat which was provoked by my comment about a newspaper photo of the Canadian Chalk River reactor that looked much like the one you have of the Russian reactor – buttons and knobs. He told me that it is a highly regulated industry and it is very difficult to introduce new technology. As a result, they lag technology shifts by generations partly due to the hassle and also to be conservative.

  26. Anonymous says:

    That control room is way easier to grok than the Fast Company Design site.

    Am I the only one who thought the multitude of fonts, inserts, and sizes made it way harder to read those couple paragraphs than necessary?

  27. mn_camera says:

    Video control rooms are still (largely) populated by one-button-per-function devices as well, and for good, if less life-critical reasons.

  28. Mister44 says:

    The Russians are great at making more with less. Their space program was more crude in a lot of ways, but it lead to some unique innovations. For example their space suits were considerably lighter.

    They were the first to build and lunch a rover (IIRC), the Lunakhod.

    There is something to be said for hard wired controls and their robustness.

  29. Narmitaj says:

    I remember seeing a documentary some time ago where someone had gone further, even in a levers and knobs control room like this one, by taping a tennis ball, I think, to one lever and a Coke can to another, so you could tell which one you were using by touch.

    On airliners the undercarriage lever generally has a little wheel on the end of it, even on the otherwise highly computerised A-380 flight deck. Plenty of controls are still knobs and switches and levers, such as the throttles.

    • Halloween Jack says:

      That may be referring to something that Donald Norman mentioned in The Psychology of Everyday Things in reference to a nuclear power plant whose operators put beer tap handles on some of the levers in order to make them both visually and tactilely distinctive–sounds like something from the Simpsons, but true.

  30. DWittSF says:

    Wow, what shocking inefficiency. Somebody *really* needs to do that with CSS, HTML 5 and Canvas. Then all will be good in the universe.

  31. Anonymous says:

    I remember a german astronaut (was it Ulf Merbold?) going to space with the russians. I think he knew or even flew on the american space program as well.
    anyway – when crawling out of the sojus casule a reporter asked him about all the buttons and knobs.
    “Well,” he said ” it is pretty much straightforward – if you push one button, another button somewhere pops out!”

    on the other hand – knobs and switches are prone to some mistakes, too.
    I myself unscrewed the knobs on the stove in our office kitchen after the third electrical coffee heater got melted. apparently it was very easy to switch the thing on when you put the milk back into the fridge and needless to say, you did not notice straight away…
    also, when some lunatic or kid-on-a-tour would just randomly push and pull those things in a nuclear reactor, you cannot simply press the reset button but have to check everything.

  32. pidg says:

    Perhaps it’s also got something to do with the same reason that most electronic musicians can’t help preferring dedicated hardware (and hardware controls) over software:

    Computers are good at doing lots of different things very well, but dedicated hardware does things near-perfectly every time.

  33. Anonymous says:

    All of those control room dials, telltales and controls are connected on the reactor side to sensors, valves, levers. The analog variety appear to be better at withstanding constant, relatively low-level exposure to radiation and heat. In fact, that’s true of all the gear in the control room as well, because while the humans come and go, the hardware stays put for decades.

    Even current electronic sensors are nothing like as reliable as the hardened physical, “analog” gear when deployed in a potentially high-temperature, high-radiation environment for any length of time.

    It isn’t the software so much as it is the underlying remote equipment that acts as the front line for monitor and control operations. But, even in the shielded control room, nuclear power plants and high density processors do not mix without quite a bit of work. Running a plant is pretty straightforward except when something goes w0rng; which is when computers come in handy to help stabilize the plant.

    Fermilab, CERN and other high energy physics labs have lots of computing gear for monitor and control. They don’t have quite the same emphasis on reliability, and their need for precision is very high.

  34. kalahari says:

    In my younger days I worked in professional theatre as a scenic and lighting designer and a shop foreman. As a high schooler I had occasion once to run one of the old-school auto-resistor style lighting control panels that were often located in the wings of the older theatres (http://www.thelope.com/images/06-05-21-067.jpg). The big ones were HUGE, with tons of levers and switches and big buttons. You actually had to put some *muscle* into those boards to run them, and doing a complicated cue could involve using both arms, both legs, and a hip twist for good measure. Likewise, before the advent of digital technology, running sound for a show meant using an old-style reel-to-reel tape deck, which involved intricate and intimate touch skills to administer skillfully. When you did this with skill, you were *part* of the show, along with the actors and singers and dancers. Nowadays, you just push a button. I just realized that totally makes me sound like an old grumpus.
    tl/dr: fucking digital technology – how does it work?

    • muteboy says:

      I did some theater stuff some time back too. Reel to reel sound cues were fun. Minidiscs were pretty good too – the good decks would pause after each track. Sadly you needed a couple of backup duplicate disks, because of the dreaded ‘TOC Error’.
      I remember doing the lights in an old village hall production – the light board consisted of four 2-foot long sliding resistors, which gave off a fresh burning dust smell when I used them.

  35. Felton / Moderator says:

    “We’ve all got our switches, lights, and knobs to deal with, Striker. I mean, down here there are literally hundreds and thousands of blinking, beeping, and flashing lights, blinking and beeping and flashing – they’re *flashing* and they’re *beeping*. I can’t stand it anymore! They’re *blinking* and *beeping* and *flashing*!

  36. Lidok says:

    Russians like making everything simple. Life is easier this way and you can get new developments out there faster and cheaper. For example, US spent tons of money to develop a pen that would work in space, Russians just used pencils.

  37. awjtawjt says:

    Go to a heating plant anywhere, at any large building or campus. They all look just like this.

  38. Anonymous says:

    The “buttons and knobs” thing holds true for synthesizers as well as Nukes; it might look intimidating to have scores of dedicated knobs, buttons, and sliders for every function, but it’s SO much more intuitive (and musical) than scrolling through bland touch screens and menus.

  39. retchdog says:

    a physicist friend of mine worked with a Russian at CERN. he asked, one day, why all their equipment is hardwired. the answer was “this way, when nuclear war comes, it will still function.” my friend said there was something about his intonation of “when” that left him terrified for a week.

  40. Anonymous says:

    It’s never too late for push-button annunciators and legend lights!

  41. Anonymous says:

    sure buttons and levers are nice and conservative. It might even work well if your system never has to change and you have a very well trained staff. But, does that retro feel really make it safer?

    Human error becomes a big factor again.

    The biggest issue: Buttons don’t enforce procedure. Set dial ‘A’ first, then open switch ‘1’, followed by switch ‘X’ and ’Y’. Never open switch ‘Y’ when dial ‘B’ is greater than 5. Are we going to leave that all up to the manual, or can we build it into the design of the system? How’s that for safety!

    What happens in emergency when you have to turn down dozens of dials quickly and flip off switches. (in order, quickly)

    Just because it is hard wired, does not mean that it is correct it must be tested like software is tested in the build phase. In addition, light bulbs in switches do burn out. dials can stick. switches can fail. You will need additional lights and switches to test for this.

    What happens when you upgrade a pump an now it needs 3 dials instead of 2? Or 5 switches instead of 3? now you have to rework that crowded panel of dials and switches. Flexibility for change is part of good design.

    There are good reasons why modern control systems use screens to provide situational awareness. All modern SCADA systems are on computers. And thus we have redundancy and failover protections.

    • muteboy says:

      Agreed.
      I’ve worked with clients who demanded dedicated buttons and lamps, and never knew that they were all linked to digital IO in the PLC anyway. This was in a biscuit factory though, so no deadly danger.

  42. DeWynken says:

    as Ronan from VNV would say…
    “I KNOW WHAT KNOBS DO!!”

    (actually that’s SimRonan, but close enough).

  43. YarbroughFair says:

    Damn, can’t find it, maybe one of you can. I read a fantastic article years ago, I thought it was The New Yorker, about either the Russian Space Station or Shuttle and its computers longevity as opposed to Americas because the Russians decided to use the same type of knob system because it was practically impervious to space particles. Their system could handle most of these common impacts where as the Americans had to constantly repair their equipment. And I also agree that it looks beautiful and must be much easier to maintain and repair. I also think being able to stand back and look at the enormity of the scene almost instills the gravity of the situation; could you imagine running the whole thing from a few lap tops that a simple cup of coffee could destroy? And the set up almost removes the mindset that one man has control of the whole environment; this setup requires choreographed team work and spreads the responsibility.

  44. Anonymous says:

    “turn red knob, throw release switch” @5:06 of
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vspPDM20wLk

  45. seyo says:

    knobs, dials and analog gauges also don’t crash and need to be rebooted due to invariably shitty code. and when something breaks it can be pin pointed and fixed as opposed to computer hardware, where you never really know what went wrong and the whole thing needs to be thrown out and replaced.

  46. carriem says:

    look at all the fellow nuclear workers in here! nice.

    Buttons are better, and the boffins know it.

    @YarbroughFair:
    You WANT a team to run the plant. You are less likely to all make the same mistake than if it was just one person running the show (hopefully!).

  47. Prufrock451 says:

    Also, as we saw on Battlestar Galactica, it’s harder for Cylons to break into a knob-driven system.

    For “Cylons,” read “Stuxnet”.

  48. cellocgw says:

    Here’s a situation closer to home. It’s about cars, and no, it’s not a Car Analogy. Up until very recently, all dashboard controls were switches or knobs. you could easily tell by feel which switch you reached; even the 5 buttons for radio stations were identifiable because the center one had a bump (like F and J on your keyboard). Then some jackass (I’m calling you , BMW!) thought it would be real cool to have a soft-button touchpad interface. Now you have to pay close visual attention to what you’re doing, and… ooops ran into the guard rail.
    There’s a famous rule in design (more often broken than followed): “Form follows Function.”

    • Muse says:

      Yeah, it bugs me that a lot of cars like the Prius heavily rely on touch screen controls now. It forces the driver look away form the road. It is even worse if the interface is designed in a confusing way and the driver now needs to think about how to navigate to a new screen. In situations that require quick information cognition and reaction, bad UI design can cause fatalities.

      The advantage of a computer display is that it can interpret a large amount of relevant information and present it in an easy to understand manner. Interpreting what a console full of hundreds of flashing lights means, requires lots of training.

      It also occurs to me that buttons and dials might just be easier to understand for people who grew up in an analog world. I was humbled by seeing a three year old kid quickly figure out how to navigate through my iPhone menus and play a video game. She couldn’t even read yet, but it all made perfect, intuitive sense to her.

      I wonder if touch screens enabled with haptic feedback technology will make be the best of both worlds.

    • Anonymous says:

      “There’s a famous rule in design (more often broken than followed): “Form follows Function.”

      Actually a good designer will balance both. Function is irrelevant if no one wants to use it.

  49. Godfree says:

    Can’t argue with the benefits of tactility. But forget “Star Trek.” That set is right out of “Lost in Space.”

  50. Anonymous says:

    Oh! for the days of knobs and dials!

    Mostly, the user interface designs are chosen based on cost.
    It’s just plain cheaper to use a computer so you can update or change things later. A knob and dial have to be hard-wired and calibrated, and they are hard to change when something gets updated.

    It may be cheaper on a powerplant, because it’s a one-off build, but in mass-produced products, the circuit board and microchip rules. Just toss in an off-the-shelf Texas Instruments chip for controlling this or that, put an on-board tiny pushbutton next to it, and voila! You have control.

    For consumer electronics, it’s the defacto standard now. Like in my Ford van: they used cheap little right-on-the-circuit-board pushbuttons for the radio adjustments. And, they are tiny, as is the text describing them. I darn near crash trying to do something as simple as change a station!

    Same in my Jaguar: the heater controls are up-&-down-arrow pushbuttons. It takes 21 pushes to turn it up from 70 degrees to full-on for that quick morning heat-up. And there are 5 little buttons to choose where the heat comes out. Sheesh!

    My wife’s Volvo has good old knobs and dials! I love it! It’s so easy, intuitive, and direct to use.

    The Hitchhiker’s Guide has a great little blurb about this, ending with ‘gesture controls’ where you have to hold your hand infuriatingly still to keep it on a radio station. And, yes, gesture controls are getting press these days… sigh…

  51. That Neil Guy says:

    @godfree That’s what I thought, too. Looks like it came straight out of Irwin Allen’s brain.

  52. chuckwa says:

    Oh! for the days of knobs and dials!

    Mostly, the user interface designs are chosen based on cost.
    It’s just plain cheaper to use a computer so you can update or change things later. A knob and dial have to be hard-wired and calibrated, and they are hard to change when something gets updated.

    It may be cheaper on a powerplant, because it’s a one-off build, but in mass-produced products, the circuit board and microchip rules. Just toss in an off-the-shelf Texas Instruments chip for controlling this or that, put an on-board tiny pushbutton next to it, and voila! You have control.

    For consumer electronics, it’s the defacto standard now. Like in my Ford van: they used cheap little right-on-the-circuit-board pushbuttons for the radio adjustments. And, they are tiny, as is the text describing them. I darn near crash trying to do something as simple as change a station!

    Same in my Jaguar: the heater controls are up-&-down-arrow pushbuttons. It takes 21 pushes to turn it up from 70 degrees to full-on for that quick morning heat-up. And there are 5 little buttons to choose where the heat comes out. Sheesh!

    My wife’s Volvo has good old knobs and dials! I love it! It’s so easy, intuitive, and direct to use.

    The Hitchhiker’s Guide has a great little blurb about this, ending with ‘gesture controls’ where you have to hold your hand infuriatingly still to keep it on a radio station. And, yes, gesture controls are getting press these days… sigh…

  53. Anonymouse says:

    yeah. russia has a great safety record when it comes to nuclear plants. i wonder if it is due to this revolutionary interface.

    • Anonymous says:

      I assume you are referring to Chernobyl. Sorry but that had nothing to do with interfaces, it was decision making and a dangerous basic design (graphite) that were at fault.

      If you are going to take shots at something at least pick the right target.

    • aeroplane says:

      Part of the cause of the Chernobyl was the interface (not the knobs-and-lights bit itself, but how things were arranged), but there were also about 30 other contributing causes (such as the lack of containment!!!!) that were probably more damning.

  54. Sam says:

    I hate it when people overuse “simply don’t”, as in:

    “Our brains and hands evolved they way they did for a reason, and virtual displays and interfaces simply don’t “click” with the kind of infomation-processing we’ve evolved to do so well.”

    I think the issue here is hardly simple, but the author uses the “simply don’t” construct to suggest that the statement is always true for everyone.

  55. Napalm Dog says:

    Yes, there’s no real need to make the shiny, red, candy-like buttons smaller when there’s no need to save space and make something compact. Make it obvious and easy to use!

  56. Allen says:

    After finsihing up as an navy Engineering Officer, I began working as a Senior Reactor Operator for SCE at the San Onofre power plant. I’ve been an S.R.O. here since the reactor first went critical in the 1980′s. We had Analog controls on Carriers and we have them at the generating station. There is a Digital Control System (DCS) but there really is no substitute for the touchy/feeley knobs and buttons we are all so comfortable with. Unlike the DCS, when one device malfunctions, it rarely has an affect on everything like a DCS failure would. When the DCS has a fault, control defaults to the relaiable Analog control system. Makes me feel better when I know I don’t have to rely on a computer to get everything done.

    Allen

  57. Anonymous says:

    i think it better that an “Error 404 – page not found” never appear in a nuclear facility, no ?

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