Feature

Ice warriors take computing beyond freezing point

His beard and eyebrows are caked in ice, and the beads of sweat around his nose look like frozen tears. His eyes are narrowed slits and he has a bruise on his nose, but the small patch of skin visible beneath his parka and mouth mask shines rose red in defiance of the Arctic winds. This is a good day for Jim McNeil, who is leading a team of novices across the Arctic over the next 50 days. If his team is to survive, they must appreciate how cold life will become. Working in temperatures of -20 degrees Celsius allows McNeil to make some unforgettable demonstrations.

"I get one to make me a very hot cup of tea and then throw it up in the air and watch their faces as it comes back down as snow," he chuckles. "That tends to grab 'em."

His latest expedition, codenamed Ice Warrior, will see him explore the North West Passage before attempting to reach the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility (the location furthest from land), where man has never yet set foot.

Hot drinks and thermals rank as a priority as does the IT equipment McNeil takes with him. He has a satellite phone-cum-modem that he plugs into a ruggidised Terralogic PDA to take GPS readings and to send dispatches of his daily diary back home. Sending pictures back via the satellite phone can take a bit of time as data rates sometimes plummet to speeds of 10kbps.

He also takes a military-grade Windows 2000 laptop that is designed to withstand temperatures of -20C. He has no plans to upgrade to Vista, but says he will be moving to XP soon.

"Keeping the laptop and all equipment warm and moisture-free is a big challenge, even though they are ruggedised. I use IT equipment cautiously though, I don't rely on them wholeheartedly. They are tools to make my job easier if they fail, then my job becomes more difficult, but the goal still remains."

Mind maps

One piece of software that McNeil is currently using is project management software from Mindjet. The visualisation software McNeil uses is based on the concept of mind maps: simple spider diagrams used to represent words, ideas or tasks using bubbles, pictures and colour. The planning tool has been used to ensure McNeil can plan all the logistics and critical contingency measures during this test of human endurance.

"I use mind-mapping software an awful lot for making safety plans and planning decisions," he says. "These expeditions are logistically very complicated and visualisation software has been a revelation in planning for it. As a team we have used the tool to visualise and brainstorm different event scenarios that we might face in the Arctic even the unexpected and highly unlikely."

A mind map is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks or other items linked to and arranged radially around a central keyword or idea. It is used to generate, visualise, structure and classify ideas, and as an aid in study, organisation, problem solving, decision-making, and writing.

Mind mapping software is used to create diagrams automatically. It has been suggested that mind mapping software can improve learning/study efficiency up to 15% over conventional note taking, according to academics.

MindManager

MindManager has been used by users in several diverse industries. Hurricane-Response team leader Alan Stensland uses it to co-ordinate staff when carrying out repairs using visual mapping. Stu Schmidt, vice-president for professional services at WebEx, uses it when talking to customers to capture requirements and present his understanding of the customer problem.

McNeil has been using MindManager since 2004 to look at which routes the team will be taking, the fuel they're using and in more general terms to orchestrate his thoughts. He used a notepad and pen before, but as the nature of his missions became more complex and the conditions he operated in became more serve, the need to quickly model and modify simulations with the rest of the team became urgent.

"My team have played out multiple scenarios in simulation and feel we are as well planned as we have ever been. When faced with a potentially life-threatening situation to the team, the responsibility of getting everyone home safely is imperative."

McNeil says that a critical factor for choosing any hardware or software on one of his missions is ease of use.

"I'm a very practical about things like the design of the user interface in software. In the conditions I operate in, you don't want to be standing around pushing several buttons to get the results you want."

As the satellite connection for the interview grows fainter, I rush to ask McNeil which piece of electrical equipment he misses the most. "To date, I've never had an iPod or an MP3 player, but I've got one lined up for the next mission. It should be interesting. I do miss listening to inspiring music as I'm trekking."

I joke that having an MP3 player can also help drown out the sounds of other team members. McNeil is diplomatic but says that he could see a use for plugging his earplugs in after 50 days on ice.

Innovation Tools website>>

Mind-mapping.org website >>

Mind Mapping Software Blog >>


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This was first published in March 2008

 

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