Chris Aldrich is reading “Aggressive design caused Samsung Galaxy Note 7 battery explosions”

Aggressive design caused Samsung Galaxy Note 7 battery explosions by Anna Shedletsky (Instrumental)
In September, the first reports of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 batteries exploding hit social media.  At first, Samsung identified the issue as one relating to the lithium polymer battery manufacturing process by Samsung SDI, where too much tension was used in manufacturing, and offered to repair affected phones.  But several weeks later, some of the batteries in those replacement units also exploded once they were in the hands of customers -- causing Samsung to make the bold decision to not only recall everything, but to cancel the entire product line. This is every battery engineer’s nightmare. As hardware engineers ourselves, Sam and I followed the story closely.  If it was only a battery part issue and could have been salvaged by a re-spin of the battery, why cancel the product line and cede several quarters of revenue to competitors?  We believe that there was more in play: that there was a fundamental problem with the design of the phone itself.
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A Modest Proposal for Engineering Better and Faster Fast Food Consumption

"Yipee-ki-yay Mother French Fry!" How a simple fast food staple can help save the American economy.

Fast Food in America

America is well known for its fast food culture. So well known, in fact, that it may only be second to its best-in-class health care, phenomenal education system, and overall can-do attitude. Rarely does a day go by without one seeing or hearing a few disparaging words from the mainstream media about what we choose to put into our mouths and whether those items become lodged permanently in some cases. A Google search begun with the first letters “ob…” immediately has Google guessing what we want and prompts a potential search not just for “obesity” but for the very specific phrase “obesity in America”§ and the resultant search displays just under 73 million results in about half a second.

Our obsession with fast food is legendary. Books are written about the subject, movies are made, and we support a multi-billion dollar fast food industry. But how much time do we individually spend really thinking about what we’re doing? The answer hinges on one of our favorite pastimes and is one in which the root of our obesity problem sprouts: “laziness.” (For those incapable of doing the work of thinking for themselves and who just want the quick answer to the previous question given to them, it’s: “none”.)

“Americanizing” your Fast Food Experience with Some Simple Engineering

Given that we love our fast food so much that we can’t even be bothered with thinking about it for a few minutes (otherwise how does a book entitled Wheat Belly become a best seller and major fad?), I’m always surprised that the simple engineering concept which follows isn’t more widely known. If it were, it would be right at home in our gourmand, “have-it-your-way, right-away” culture.

The simple idea follows:

In some fast food restaurants (think Burger King and In-n-Out), instead of (or in addition to) the ubiquitous ketchup packet, they allow you to fill your own container with the condiment of your choice.  But what container do they provide you with? Obviously, in keeping with the assembly line beauty and grace of our ultra-modern food manufacturing empire and our disposable home furnishings industry, it’s something simple, something very cheap, and something immediately disposable: the small paper cup! (Even legal departments could get behind this one – as long as the industry wasn’t putting any hot beverages into it, and, in part, because the patent protection had expired.)

Standard empty ketchup condiment container on left juxtaposed with same container full of ketchup on the right hand side.

But it’s no ordinary paper cup! It’s an honest-to-goodness feat of American ingenuity and engineering design! (At least from a time when America had those things – you remember… way back before we gave them up for the improved qualities like laziness and obesity. And everyone knows the American engineering motto: “Quality is Job #1!”)

Standard ketchup condiment container "spread out" on left juxtaposed with modified container full of ketchup on the right hand side.
A feat of American ingenuity! (Who cares if these are called souffle cups?)

This high quality paper cup has pleats! And with a small bit of pulling around the edges of the cup, it opens right up – or “blooms” if you will.

In this process, the top edge of the cup comes down just a tad, but in exchange, the sides expand out toward the horizon in glorious near-infinite beauty. This simple effect allows one to put a significantly larger quantity of ketchup into it–particularly because the ketchup has such a high viscosity! (While I’m thinking about it has anyone considered liquefying ketchup so we could just drink it out of our big gulp cups? Maybe a French fry shake with ketchup blended in to make things easier all around?)

The Benefits of our Engineering Trick

“But it takes so much time and energy to expand out the sides of my cheap paper cup! Why should I bother?”

I know many of you are asking yourself this question because in a rapidly evolving and improving society it’s often the dichotomy of American life to maintain the status quo.  This simple expansion procedure allows you the following clear benefits:

  • You can put a lot more ketchup onto your plate and therefore ultimately into your gullet. Besides, everyone in America knows “Bigger is Better!” right? Why fill up two or three of these small cups, when one big expanded one will do? Or better yet, three big ones! (Let’s not forget our gourmand cultural heritage.)
  • It makes it easier to carry a  lot more ketchup in fewer trips from the condiment bar to your table. American pride in concepts like capitalism and increased efficiency at all costs dictates that we take fewer trips. The reduced amount of exercise is also a positive side-benefit here.
  • It makes ketchup easier to share. (I know this sharing concept is antithetical to the current American ethos, but maybe someone from one of those poor countries outside of America might be reading this? Maybe it’s a strong enough idea to quell the strife in Ukraine right now?)  No more approaching the cup at excessively steep angles to get your fries into it.  Now you can approach from a lower angle with your fat fist-full-of-fries and still hit your target.
  • Not only can you now dunk your fries, but you can actually dunk your majestic hamburger! Why waste time trying to open up that ketchup packet and squeeze some on while you’re making the effort to balance your heavy burger in your other hand? Just smash it into the ketchup and then smash it into your face! “Yipee-ki-yay Mother French Fry!”
  • Those suffering from diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and cataracts no longer have to worry about being able to get their French fry into such a tiny paper cup anymore, the size of the target is now bigger by almost an order of magnitude.
  • Use of these paper cups helps to support the American paper goods industry which churns out highly recyclable products which also have the benefit of being Green and therefore unquestioningly good for the environment. No one knows what those alternate ketchup packets are manufactured from or if they’re recyclable or not. Some fabricated laboratory studies indicate some of those packets may have heavy metals in them, which we all know are mined/sourced primarily in China.
  • And perhaps best of all, in the true spirit of America largess – there’s huge return for a very little effort! Everyone is looking for a get-rich-quick-scheme which doesn’t involve actual work, right? This is the closest you’re likely to come to it, and my friends who know a thing or two about the second law of thermodynamics agree. In fact, it might even qualify for the ethereal and long-fabled “free lunch” because, hey, most restaurants aren’t going to charge you for condiments are they?

Ketchup and the Economy

I have a deep, abiding suspicion that far too many Americans haven’t been taking advantage of these pleats in their condiment cups, and that, in fact, the marginal utility lost in manufacturing the extra unused paper when this isn’t done is very likely the root cause of the world economic crisis which began in 2008. The plummeting American efficiency numbers just weighed too heavily on our economy, but that’s a longer and more analytical story than I have space or phony facts to back up with here. (If you’re a talking head political pundit on a major cable news network, call my publicist and let’s talk.) Needless to say, if we can work this simple trick into the second grade core curriculum, I think our long term efficiency numbers will perk up and the savings realized could mean saving the beleaguered Social Security program until at least 2079.

Standard ketchup condiment container on left juxtaposed with modified container full of ketchup on the right hand side.
Super Size Me!

Footnotes:

§ Obamacare was a close second.

† I was too busy lounging on my couch watching Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives on TV and eating a bag of Doritos and Twizzlers to come up with other examples like Supersize Me.

♦ Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan admits almost as much in his book The Map and the Territory: Risk, Human Nature, and the Future of Forecasting (Penguin Press, 2013) where he indicates real estate as a leading cause of the downturn. Each of these condiment cups has a square inch of space hiding in its pleats and when multiplied over tens of thousands of cups per fast food location multiplied by thousands of fast food locations in any given year it becomes a lot of real estate rapidly, and the effect can become crippling.

‡ This also reminds me of a treatise I was reading last week called a Modest Proposal written by a political hack/wannabe writer named Swift. It wasn’t the sharpest thing I’ve heard recently, but with a few tweaks, I think his idea could make a huge dent in third world hunger and poverty and speed us along towards the goal of realizing Soylent Green in the marketplace.

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Tool Review: Timbuk2 Command Messenger Bag

Overview: Simply the best messenger bag out there

5out of 5

Pros: Delightful To Use, Roomy , Excellent Design and Engineering,  Napoleon Pocket, Lightweight , Great Strap Length, High Quality, Attractive, Great Craftsmanship, Comfortable , Durable

Best Uses: Commuting, School, Office, Day Trips, Computer Laptop, Airplane travel

Timbuk2 Command Messenger Bag

I spent quite a while (months/years) looking at almost every messenger bag in existence (and even contemplated designing my own) for my mobile office and for weekly trips to study abstract mathematics at UCLA. I’ve been through dozens of bags (including one that could only charitably have been called a “murse”) and had problems with all of them – particularly shoulder and neck problems from carrying around so much weight. The Timbuk2 Command messenger bag ($139, medium, black) seems to have remedied all of that. My neck and shoulder pains have gone away because this bag is simply so comfortable it feels like I’m carrying half the load that I used to.

The two length adjustment mechanisms on the shoulder strap of this bag should be a requirement for every bag on the planet. I simply don’t know how I managed without them for all this time and now I can never go back. One makes it dead simple to take the bag on and off and the other allows for additional easy length change – the combination makes the bag wear incredibly comfortably.

As an engineer I can readily appreciate some of the very subtle design and manufacturing elements that truly make this bag a wonder. It’s not only functional and sturdy, but it’s both beautiful inside and out. Timbuk2 has certainly put some serious thought into how to make a bag. In particular the velcro strips at the top of the the flap to keep water out, the Napoleon pocket (so one doesn’t have to completely open the bag to retrieve frequently used items), the plastic strips sewn into the lining to provide additional internal structural support, and an ingenious custom pocket at the bottom of the bag for my cables and computer power brick are simply genius.

My only minor caveats about the bag are:

Although there are quite a number of great and useful pockets, I could do with maybe half a dozen more for daily use to keep either small items (I carry my desk in my bag) or organizing additional papers from floating around inside the bag. One can’t really fault Timbuk2 for this as it’s personal preference on my part and I haven’t seen any other bags on the market with a better designed grouping of pocket spaces for such things.

Having a slightly larger water bottle carrier on the outside of the bag would also be excellent, but it’s nearly perfect for my Zojirushi stainless steel thermos and most small (<16 ounce) plastic water bottles. I’ll mention that one of Timbuk2’s line of Classic messenger bags includes internal water bottle pockets for those that desire something like this — or who need full waterproof interiors. The Command bag is roomy enough that I’ve also contemplated using a Camelback-type of fluid reservoir and drinking tube inside for longer day-trips.

As a comparison, the next closest high quality bag I’ve seen in my research is Tumi’s Alpha Bravo Benning Deluxe Messenger Bag ($275). It rates incredibly high for design and beauty, but slightly lower on the functionality scale (which still makes it one of the top 0.1% of bags on the market in my mind, so if you’ve got the money, it’s definitely worth it).  It’s almost twice the price and though it’s got equivalent design touches and is made from some equivalently excellent materials with fantastic craftsmanship, it is missing some of the more interesting engineering touches including the engineering work on the shoulder strap.

Timbuk2 Command Messenger Bag Open

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Tool Review: Zojirushi Stainless Steel Mug

Designer/Artist William Morris once said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” My Zojirushi stainless steel mug is one of the few things I’ve ever owned that I feel truly meets both of these criteria.

Zojirushi Stainless Steel Mug

The design, materials, manufacturing and workmanship of the mug are nothing short of outstanding; the aesthetics and heft in the hand are truly fantastic. I really could not want for more out of such a product. I love looking at it, I love holding it, and I love using it.

I hope one day to come back and write a review worthy of how truly great this travel mug is, but for now, suffice it to say that I’m in love. I spent a LOT of time reading reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, and searching stores and vendors to find the best thermos/mug on the planet and settled on this one. Not only is it easy and intuitive to take completely apart and wash thoroughly (too many I’ve come across are impossible to take apart and clean properly, if at all), but it seals completely and doesn’t spill.

Even better it keeps my beverages piping hot or cold for far longer than I wish it would. There have been days that I’ve filled it with hot coffee or tea and come back several times to drink it hoping that it had cooled a bit only to find it still too hot to consume. After several rounds with this over an eight hour span, I finally opened it up and put in some ice so I could finally drink my coffee. Now I often just leave the cap open (or off) to let it cool a bit more quickly, although even this is a fairly slow process. Now I try to put my beverages in at the temperature I want to drink them knowing that that’s generally the temperature they’ll be when I get around to drinking them.

I love the fact that the cap is designed with a two stage opening mechanism (which probably won’t be noticed by most users because it’s so subtle). One pushes the button and the top opens just a few millimeters. Then letting go of the button allows the top to spring back and click neatly into place so that it doesn’t fall forward and bonk one on the nose when attempting to take a drink.

When I first came across it, I will admit I was a bit reticent at it’s relatively high price (particularly in comparison with cheaper mugs on the market, many of which I’ve tried and been highly disappointed with), but the Zojirushi is certainly worth ever penny; I would not hesitate for a moment to buy more of these.

As a small aside, I will mention that due to physics and the design of the mug that it can occasionally leak a bit when filled with carbonated beverages and then shaken. Doing this creates additional interior pressure that pushes up the internal seal mechanism on the cap that allows a small amount of liquid to escape. Beyond this small category of fluids, which I infrequently use with the mug (and I’m sure others probably won’t either), it has been absolutely airtight and worry-free.

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On Telephones and Architecture

John J. Carty (), first head of Bell Laboratories, 1908

 

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Vintage Tanker Desk Hobby

Refurbishing a McDowell & Craig vintage executive dual pedestal tanker desk

I had always wanted a nice McDowell & Craig vintage executive dual pedestal tanker desk, but the $2,000-$3,000 price tags for the ones in excellent condition or that had been refinished was way too steep for me. Some of the others I’ve seen for sale at lower prices were in mediocre shape and were in such ugly institutional colors, I couldn’t imagine having one at home.

Unfinished Desk

Unfinished Desk - Rusted Top

Late last year, I found a couple from the 1950’s and 60’s that were in horrible physical shape that were going to be scrapped for their steel. I got both of them for $10 bucks and did some research on how to refurbish them myself.

I stripped off the corroded, stained, and torn linoleum off the tops, took them to a local place that does sandblasting to have them stripped and then sanded down the heavily rusting portions. (These desks are usually made of heavy 20 gauge solid steel, so they’re literally the “tanks” of office furniture.) Both were in relatively good condition structurally and didn’t have any significant body damage aside from some significant rust, so I decided not to bondo the couple of dings they had, which in the end I think just adds to their vintage beauty.

Jr. Tanker Desk - Unfinished with rusted bottom

For the blue/gray one I found an industrial paint shop to do an old style enamel process. For the smaller red one, I sandblasted and painted/sealed the undercarriage and inside drawers and then used a special brushing process to obtain a nice brushed steel effect followed by a 5 layer clear coat seal to give it a high shine while still having the brushed steel visible through the clear coat.
Partially refinished tanker desk chair with blue upholstry

Finally, I tried to find a place to recreate the original linoleum desktops, but there really isnt’ a supplier who does this and some of the alternatives were prohibitively expensive as was the process of redoing the metal trim to hold it on after the fact. I contemplated doing some various laminates and even formica, but ultimately decided that the bare metal top was too pretty to cover up. I finally gave a local glass shop a template for the top of the desk and had them cut out custom 1/4″ glass tops with rounded corners to match the desk shape and then bevel the edges slightly.

Finished Executive Tanker Desk in gunmetal grey with blue highlighted drawers

At long last they’re now both finished!  They are truly beautiful and it’s nice having a desk about the size of a compact car and certainly as heavy! When I originally got the desks, Sonia refused to let me keep them they were in such terrible shape, and I spent a while convincing her to let me keep them. Once the first one was done she forbid me to “hide” it in our office and insisted that I put it in our living room because it was so pretty. I finally got the second one finished and gave it to her for her birthday in September.

Jr. Executive Tanker desk with clear coated metal and red highlighted drawers

It’s been an interesting enough process with such a beautiful end result, that I’m in the midst of acquiring a few additional desks including one that may be from the 30’s/40’s with some nice art deco design touches.

So I suppose I’m calling it my “hobby” at the moment.

I’ve posted a gallery of additional photos of the desks on Flickr.

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