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.


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.


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.



Longer is better!

So here is a wonderfully useful tool from Shachihata: the Artline 710 Long Nib Marker.

Long Nib Marker

What’s the big deal, you ask? Not if you’re a handyman, you don’t!

This funky looking tool is designed to fill a very specific need: marking through deep holes, as when you have to drill holes in the wall to hang some bulky object. Without this tool, you must bend over backwards to find a way to do this, for instance by trying to scractch the wall with a nail inserted through the object, while trying to keep it level. With this marker, this frustrating challenge becomes a piece of cake.

Long Nib Marker

Good idea, Shachihata!

Funky pumpkin!

Was in Germany and saw these in a supermarket. The thing is called Bischofsmütze – which means Bishop’s hat, although there’s something vaguely oriental (Islamic oriental, I mean) about it.

Bischofsmütze - Bishop's hat pumpkins

This is the weirdest fruit I remember ever running into – it looks like it’s a mashup of two different species, with the poor attention to finish seen in Frankenstein’s monster…

My first reaction was, that settles the heated controversy: surely no intelligent design can be seen in this ridiculous fruit! But then I had to admit: even the most meticulous designer may express a sense of humor now and then…  🙂

A small difference

Here we have two glove compartments. The one on the left is from the Renault Clio; the other from a Mazda 3. They serve the same simple function and – not surprisingly – look pretty much the same, if you ignore the nice touch in the Mazda’s, that places the latch closer to the driver.

Glove Compartments

To be precise, they look pretty much the same from the outside. When you open them you see a world of difference.

Here is the one from Renault:

Glove Compartment Renault Clio

It goes pretty deep under the dashboard, so you can stick a lot of stuff in there – an advantage for sure. But the angles and the door design are such that the moment you open it, everything is liable to spill out in a mess.

And here is Mazda’s design:

Glove Compartment Mazda 3

Here, there is a deep section behind, and a door designed like a separate deep tray; and the geometry ensures what you put in the inside part stays there, and what you put in the door remains in the door, ready for you to reach in and take what you need.

Two designs for the same function: a poor one and a superb one. And they cost the same to produce, no doubt…

A new biological theory: the Aerial Cat!

You may have heard of the Aquatic Ape theory, which deduces from our hairless skin that our ancestors had gone through an ocean-dwelling phase. Well — here is my new theory: that the common cat, Felis catus, evolved from a flying creature!

Consider the cat’s ear. Whenever I scratch a cat behind the ears I can’t help but notice the way the external ear is split near its base, forming a narrow hollow. This seemingly useless feature always reminds me of the wing root air intake seen on some jet fighters, like the Hawker Hunter seen in the photo.


So why would the cat have this vestigial structure? Obviously, because in some earlier part of its evolution it was a flying creature, using flight to catch small birds in midair, which remain a favorite source of food with modern cats as well. Then some proto-cat discovered that it’s far easier to charm the evolving human race into feeding it, and the wings were lost over the generations, becoming the ears we see today.

Oh well, not really…

[Photo credits: Hawker hunter by Arnauld Gaillard. Cat by Michael Seljos].

An amazingly ingenious retro kitchen item

Here is an item I saw on the wonderful Nostalgia Online site. They have a large collection of vintage kitchen utensils, most of which I do recall from my childhood, and many of which I run into as I rummage in flea markets in search of computing history items. However, this one I’ve never seen before, and the ingenious way it solves a real problem simply blew my mind.

Milk heaterThis, folks, is a milk heater. The problem it solves is that whereas a watched pot doesn’t boil, the moment you turn your back on it it’s liable to boil over, which in the case of milk makes a real mess.

The solution is this: you put the milk in the outer pan, and a little water in the central cylinder. Since the water will boil a little before the milk (remember your chemistry!), it will activate the steam whistle at the top and alert you that the milk will boil in a moment.

I remember when raising a baby I also wanted to solve the boiling problem for baby formula, but as an electro-optics student my thoughts were along lines of detecting the steam above the liquid by its optical absorption (I never realized that over-complicated scheme). But the whistling pot seen here is way better, I think – and it did get used, evidently!

You can see this, and lots more retro items, here. If you can read Hebrew you can even read all about them! 🙂