A truly uncool armrest design

Back from vacation, having flown a Boeing 737. This lacked the personalized screens seen in longer haul craft but it had a headset jack and a set of volume and channel controls for each passenger. The controls were set in the armrest, in easy reach of the passenger, like this:

Boeing B-737 armrest audio controls

Cool, huh?

Not cool. The two rocker switches for the volume control and channel selector are flush with the surface of the armrest. This means that if you rest your arm on the thing – or if your neighbor in the next seat does – your channel is bound to skip up or down every few minutes. If you watch a movie this can get truly aggravating.

And all they had to do was recess the controls a couple of millimeters under the surface…

    A curious slide rule design

    For some reason, inventors in the first half of the 20th century thought that incorporating a slide rule into a mechanical pencil was a great idea. In reality, these combination devices were of dubious utility, gives their low precision as calculators… but they are certainly ingeniously designed.

    Pencil Sliderules

    I describe three of them,  including one extremely rare device, in a new article on my history of computing site.

    Enjoy!

      How cool is that?!

      Evolution has crafted some amazing design solutions to the problems of life, and I never have enough of their elegance.

      Take the crocodile’s heart.

      Crocodile

      Crocodiles have a special bypass short circuiting blood flow to their lungs. Specifically, although they have the same four chambered heart configuration as us mammals, which pumps the blood first to the lungs to get oxygenated and then to the body to use that Oxygen, they have a special hole – the Foramen of Panizza – that connects the blood vessels leaving the heart’s two ventricles so that blood can flow from one circuit to the other without visiting the lungs. What’s more – and this is the cool part – in some species, a special valve enables the short circuit only during prolonged diving, when the lungs are useless anyway.

      Is that cool, or what?!

        Ingenious design sighting at Heathrow

        Here is a bit of outstandingly smart design I saw in Terminal Five at London Heathrow airport.

        Heathrow Terminal 5 signTo fully appreciate the ingenuity, you should know that there are two security inspection areas (you know, where they check your shoes and X-Ray your hand luggage): Security North and Security South. Both serve the same function, and they’re located a minute’s walk apart in this huge hall.

        What this real-time information sign (and the similar one at the South area) does, is tell you that right now, you’ll be much better off to make that one minute trek, because the other area has a much shorter line.

        Neat!

         

          My Dad’s tin suitcase

          My father, God rest his soul, was a young physics student when Israel’s war of independence broke out, and he was among the defenders of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. When the quarter fell to the superior forces of the Jordanian Legion, he was taken prisoner and spent 9 months in a POW camp near Mafraq in Transjordan.

          When he came back he brought with him a humble but interesting artifact: a small suitcase, about the size of a modern carry-on, made entirely of tinplate. This survived to this day, and has an interesting story to tell.

          Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

          My father, it turns out, had ample time on his hands in that camp, and he devoted it to studying Physics (he was to become a Physics professor for the rest of his life) and to teaching it to any of the other prisoners who found it preferable to doing nothing. In return, one unnamed prisoner used his skill as a tinsmith to produce this suitcase for my Dad.

          The source of the material is obvious if you turn the thing over:

          Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

          This was a standard tin of biscuits, provided to the camp’s residents either by the Jordanians or by some welfare organization. They must’ve been rather stale, as they date to 1945, but in war you aren’t choosy; meanwhile the empty tin was recycled into this suitcase.

          The craftsmanship and attention to detail in this item is wonderful indeed, considering the difficult conditions of its manufacture. The potentially sharp edges are all doubled up for safety and convenience. There is a folding handle, hinges, even a hasp – and everything is made from tinplate and steel wire. Here are some photos of the details:

          Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

          Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

          Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

          Good job, unknown tinker!

           

            The little details… bless ‘em!

            When I was QA manager in an Intel fabrication plant I had this Honda Acura ad copy stuck to my cubicle partition:

            To fully appreciate the precision that goes into our 24-valve, 2.7 liter, 161-horsepower engine, touch the ashtray.

            And indeed, a quality product – be it a car or a flashlight – reflects its quality in attention to every detail. Every now and then I run into such a small detail where the designers went the extra mile to make a better product, and it makes my day.

            Clock

            Take this clock I recently bought. It’s a standard wall clock, with the usual battery operated quartz movement, meant to be hung on a wall by use of a screw.

            Back of clockBut when I turned it over I found the screw, affixed to a specially molded clip on the back of the clock. Of course it costs the same to make the unit with or without the clip, and the nylon bag they saved costs nothing anyway; but only one maker in a hundred would bother to pay attention to such a detail.

            Made my day!

              Independence Day pins: a case study in deteriorating design

              Unlike the US, Israel doesn’t celebrate its Independence Day by sending its president to fight invading aliens in huge spaceships (our presidents are too advanced in years for that). We do, however, have other traditions, and one of the earliest of these has been for the Jewish National Fund to issue each year a small lapel pin celebrating the young state’s birthday. Since my childhood these would be sold for a small donation to the JNF’s activity, and I’ve kept some of them and bought some others later, making a nice little collection.

              Here they are. Each row stands for one decade; the oldest pin I have, with the stylized number eight, is from 1956; the newest, #40, is from 1988.

              Israeli independence day lapel pins                                        Click photo to enlarge

              And as I look at the series, I’m amazed to see that while the state of Israel has progressed from humble and austere beginnings to become today’s vibrant “start-up nation”, these pins have moved in the opposite direction: their design and quality of manufacture have degenerated considerably with the advancing years!

              Like this:

              Israeli independence day lapel pins

              This photo shows the pins from years 20, 25 and 38. See what I mean? The leftmost pin is cast in a solid bronze alloy; all the years before it use embossed metal too. But year 25 uses a flat metal disk with a paper sticker, as do subsequent years (and years 31 and 37 shamelessly recycle the same design on the paper!); then, in year 38, we see a move to the el-cheapo buttons used for political rallies and countless other mundane uses.

              And it gets worse. Year 39 had three versions: the cheap button, a flimsy plastic “paperclip”, and a disposable paper sticker!

              Israeli independence day lapel pins

              Incidentally, year 10 also had a choice; but not between flimsy and disposable. In that year there were two respectable, embossed metal pins – one in tinplate and one in bronze.

              Israeli independence day lapel pins

              Consider the change in raw materials in this sequence:

              Israeli independence day lapel pins

              Bronze in year 10 (this was the only material in use in the first decade), tinplate in year 16, and the yucky plastic in year 39.

              Lastly, consider the complexity of structure in the year 14 pin from 1962 (the wooden backplane was meant to celebrate the JNF’s highly successful reforestation efforts), in contrast to the trivial technique in the paper sticker from 1987.

              Israeli independence day lapel pins

              Of course, we see this decline of craftsmanship in many manufactured goods in our modern world – and here it is captured nicely in a microcosm of ID lapel pins!

                Five Intel chips that changed the world

                Check out the new article in the History of Computing section of my Possibly Interesting Web site: Five Intel chips that changed the world.

                Intel's first chips

                These are the five “Firsts” that Intel introduced during its first four years as a small start-up: the first chip in each of four key memory types, and the first microprocessor. Between them they made the personal computing revolution possible, ushering in the world we know today.

                Enjoy!

                  Cherubs and Technology

                  I wrote recently about the batch of WW1 postcards left by my great-uncle Ettore… and while the cards described in that article focus on hate propaganda, there was also one postcard  that is quite endearing, and here it is:

                  A WW1 postcard of the Italian Signal Corps

                  This postcard was issued 100 years ago by the Third Regiment of Telegraph Operators – basically, a unit of the Signal Corps of the Royal Italian Army. Click it to get a closer look!

                  The endearing scene shows some classic Italian city (looks like Florence), a bunch of cute cherubs using a very early telephone, a war goddess (?),  and various electrical gear – antennas, telegraph lines, and unidentified apparatus that no doubt would be familiar to Guglielmo Marconi.

                  Those ancient telegraphers were really proud of their trade; they could see how wonderful, how outright angelic, the ability to talk at a distance was. Today we have instant connectivity, anytime, anywhere… but that early innocent sense of wonder is gone, and I can’t think of one internet provider that uses angels in their advertising.

                  Those were the days…

                    WW1 Propaganda: a sinister form of art

                    WW1 Italian military propaganda postcardNew on my Possibly Interesting site: Heroes and Barbarians, Propaganda postcards from the Great War.

                    Showcasing a collection of postcards issued to Italian soldiers in the first world war, in order to urge them to fight in that tragically senseless conflict.

                    An illuminating, if disturbing, lesson in how to craft hate propaganda.