Posts Tagged ‘resolution’

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Strive for a simple design

February 4, 2009

There are a lot of ways to solve a problem, but it seems like many of them are more complicated than they need to be. You start by satisfying one design criteria. Then you tackle the rest of them, one-by-one, until the problem is completed. Unfortunately, you may end up with a Frankenstein product that’s difficult to use and ugly.

The best design, the one to strive for, is the simplest one. This is the one where everything fits together and works. It’s easy to use and elegant. It makes you hit your head and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?!” As an engineer, I’m impressed by simplicity just because it is so hard to achieve. I’m always considering it as the ideal solution, something to aspire to.

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Homegrown outriggers - CAD rendering

“Good design is as little design as possible.
Less but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with inessentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity!”
– Dieter Rams

“Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler!”
– Albert Einstein

I am usually found within the electro-mechanical device sphere, but I can appreciate good design principles wherever they happen to show up. I keep thinking about something I saw while fishing for Rockfish on the Chesapeake Bay last Spring. I can’t find anything online about it, so I thought I’d share. I’m not a fisherman, so you’ll have to excuse any incorrect terminology. I had seen fishing outriggers that were long rigid poles that stick out from the boat sides and the fishing line attached along the length, like these. They keep the lines wider apart so you can have more lines in the water without tangling.

On this boat, though, they had outriggers that were a couple of wood planks mounted together with threaded rod. A line is attached to the eye-bolt at the front and it’s dropped off the boat. As the boat drags it, the water rushes past the planks and forces the outrigger away from the boat until the angle, rushing water, and mainline reach an equilibrium. Attach your fishing lines to the mainline using shower-curtain hoops. When a fish bites and drags the line, it breaks free of the hoop. It’s as simple as can be, and you can build a pair for around $50, I’d guess. After-market outriggers go for $500 and up, plus there’s professional installation and maintenance.

I’m not all that impressed by “cheap and dirty” solutions, even when I use them myself. For the most part, they’re just enough to get by when you can’t come up with the right solution. However, even though these are inexpensive outriggers, they’re also easy to install, can reach out 50′ to 100′ off the boat without any modifications, and don’t raise your height into the local bridges. They might be better than the “real thing”!

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Photo credit: Alex Flamm

Unfortunately, I didn’t think to get a picture of the setup, so I created a CAD model from memory. It may need a bit of tweaking to work properly. I’m guessing the 2″ x 12″ boards are 36″ long, and it’s about as wide assembled. Remember to use stainless hardware and boards that float.

I’m interested to hear if anyone knows the origin of these things or how well they really stack-up against mounted outriggers. All of the other boats in the marina seemed to have them, but maybe it’s just a local thing.

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The Dreaded Product Recall

January 28, 2009

danger_wrongway1Today, peanut butter manufacturers have a problem: salmonella contaminated a huge batch, and hundreds of people have gotten really sick, six have even died. The tainted peanut butter was packaged for industry, not retail, and distributed around the country. Since it was sold to industry to be added to other products, the outbreak was stalled while the product was processed into everything from crackers to dog treats. The FDA and food industry can’t identify everywhere it went, so it could be virtually anywhere. That effectively makes everyone responsible and every candy bar and plate of Pad Thai a potential outbreak. The FDA appears to have tracked the salmonella to its source, but containing the problem is slow-going and far-reaching. The real question is why wasn’t this problem caught by the manufacturers or even via one of the distribution chains? Are food safety precautions not stringent enough or too slow, or was somebody trying to avoid consequences for something they hoped wouldn’t become serious.

I went through a product recall once in a past job many years ago. It was a small-batch production, but enough products had the same problem that a recall was issued. At the time, I was preoccupied with other projects, and my responsibility to adequately supervise assembly was sacrificed. The hardest part was accepting and admitting the mistake both with my colleagues and with my customers. Luckily, this was a low-quantity product, the problem was caught early, we had a personal relationship with every customer, and the potential consequences were minimal (aside from the damage to my ego). Our actions seemed straightforward, but customers appeared to really appreciate our proactive approach to retrieving the items, inspecting and fixing them, and returning them quickly. It certainly wasn’t the easiest thing to initiate, but it was the right thing to do and our customers were happy we did it. As a result of this experience, I still strive to remember that the delicate balance of properly supervising someone – somewhere between micro-managing and saying hello at the annual review – should be based on the needs of the employee, not my availability.

Kryptonite Locks once conducted an excellent example of what every customer hopes would happen when bad products make it onto the shelves. Kryptonite makes super strong locks for bikes and motorcycles. The locks are well known for their ability to stifle a thief. In 2004, after being the market leader for years, a video surfaced on YouTube showing a guy breaking into a tubular-cylinder lock in seconds with just the end of a $0.10 BIC pen. Not good for the lock business. Kryptonite initially offered a qualified recall for locks under 2 years old, but then they did the unthinkable – they issued a full and free recall of ANY of their locks using tubular cylinders and ran their manufacturing line around the clock to meet demand. “ANY lock” meant every over-used, 10-year-old, clunker well past its warranty. The Voluntary Lock Exchange Program ran for more than a year and freely replaced over 400,000 Kryptonite locks worldwide. They weren’t the only locks affected, but they were the only company to react so swiftly. It was a brilliant move that kept their reputation intact, although they might still be paying off the free locks and manufacturing overtime for years to come.

Bad things happen to the best companies. How long have you remembered the companies that got it right? How about those that got it wrong?

Photo credit: Enrico Corno

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Train hard, fight easy

January 5, 2009

lecture_room1Preparing to do something is often much harder that actually doing it. There’s often anxiety, stress, physical and emotional hardship, etc. In the end, most people sigh and quip, “That wasn’t so bad.” So why do we focus so much of our fear on the act itself?

Whether it’s giving a presentation, sparking up a conversation at a networking event, or sitting down to an interview, the act itself is often insignificant compared to the hours or even years put into preparing for this moment. Plus, let’s gain some perspective; unless you are actually training for a fight, the consequences are usually much less than we imagine. Is someone going to rudely quip that you’re stupid, yell at you in front of a crowd, or slap you across the face? Not likely.

Get out there. Revel in the good experiences, learn from the bad ones, and gain confidence either way. And, when you think, “What’s the worst that could happen?”, be realistic.

Photo credit: Fred Kuipers

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A New Year’s Resolution – Change your commute

January 1, 2009

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This time of year, everyone’s talking about the changes they didn’t get to keep last year, maybe the year before that, too. This New Year’s, maybe I can help you cross one of your resolutions off the list.

If you’ve made the resolution to live healthier, using one of the many car alternatives, like public transportation or biking, may be a good place to start. You can relax instead of stress about traffic, maybe read a book (was “Read more” also a resolution?), and you’ll have the chance to look up and appreciate the view. I’ve been a regular bike commuter for about 15 years, not including elementary school. It’s great exercise and an invigorating way to start and end the day. If your commute is less than 3 miles to your office downtown, it will probably take you the same amount of time whether you ride a bike or drive, but you won’t have to go to the gym that day.

For the last 5 years, I’ve been using a combination of my bicycle and the Baltimore Metro to travel the 10 miles downtown. Many in Baltimore don’t even know we have a subway, so if that’s you, you’re not alone. It covers only limited parts of the city, but at least it’s clean and relatively safe. Here’s a little info to get you on your way.

Public Transportation (MTA)

The Metro parallels Reisterstown Road and the Light Rail follows Falls Road. They cross each other downtown, but they never meet, which seems to me a pretty significant oversight. However, if you’re working downtown, these can both be good options to get you to work.

Bicycles are permitted on both the Metro and Light Rail whenever the cars aren’t packed with passengers.  That’s great, because the DC Metro has restrictions which completely prohibit bikes during rush hour. Since coverage of the city is limited, being able to take bikes on the Metro, Light Rail, and buses is really helpful to really open up the system to a wider area. It seems that the MTA has the right idea:

“Public transportation and bicycles provide more mobility options to everyone, helps improve air quality and reduces traffic congestion. In Maryland, public transportation and bicycles can and do work together to allow for longer trips. That’s smart transportation – the ability to move seamlessly between transit modes in a healthy enjoyable manner.”

Storing my bike on the Metro

Storing my bike on the Metro

Although there are no specific accommodations for bicycles on the Metro, there are racks on the front of the buses to make carrying bikes simple. However, the Metro cars are rarely full, so I can just lean my bike out of the way against the far doors and take a seat. You may have to experiment with your ride, but placed properly, mine is secure enough to manage the whole ride by itself without falling over.

Tickets, please

Fare passes for the MTA system are available in a variety of configurations, and bikes are always free. I usually opt for the Single Trip pass because there are no discounts offered for the 5-day commuter, and I only use the Metro. However, weekly and monthly passes offer unlimited service on the Metro, Light Rail, and buses if you need to combine modes to get around town. The machines take change and bills, but they will only provide change up to $16.50, so if you only have a $20 bill, a day-pass is your best option. As I understand it, the capability of accepting credit cards or a debit card similar to an EZ Pass are in the works, but it is not available, yet.

If you’re bringing your bike,  aim for the handicapped accessible turnstile. It’s wider, and the MTA prefers it. By the way, keep your ticket after you enter because you’ll also use it at the exit turnstiles.

By the time you get to the train platform, it’s easy to become a bit disoriented, especially underground. There are signs on the far side of the train that show you where you are (the dot) and where the train is headed (left). Trains normally pass each other on the right unless there is a problem on the tracks. To be sure, each train also has signs on the front and side that say either Johns Hopkins or Owings Mills to let you know to which end of the line it’s headed.

It’s like riding a bike

You probably remember how to ride a bike, but there is plenty left to learn about safely riding a bike in traffic. If you want to ride a bike to work, Washington State has posted a fairly comprehensive guide to help you get home safely. Remember, you don’t need to spend $1,000 on gear to get started. You really just need an old bike in good working order and a good helmet. The Velocipede Bike Project is a good place to start if you need to get your bike tuned up because they’ll teach you how to fix it yourself. The rest depends on your preferences. If you can’t bring your bike inside at the office, you’ll need a sturdy lock. And, if you’re starting right away, you’ll need some warm gloves, bright/reflective clothing, and a lighting system.

Depending on your pace and the distance covered, it really is possible to arrive at work without being drenched in sweat. Bikers also pack their office clothes and ride in something more appropriate (spandex are rarely appropriate). Alternatively, you may have a shower at your office or find a nearby gym that offers a “shower membership”.

And, my #1 tip for riding in traffic: Assume you are invisible. You’re not invisible, and I don’t run around believing I’m invisible, either. But, unless you see evidence to the contrary, it’s a safe bet to assume the driver of that bus doesn’t see you. Don’t be shy – ride defensively and feel free to yell.

Let’s get started

The hardest part about changing a habit is getting started. First, accept that you can do it, then do it.

Good luck. Let me know how it goes. And, if you live in Baltimore and want a hand getting started, I’d be happy to join you on your first commute.

Disclaimer: Riding bikes in traffic can be dangerous. Life can be dangerous. Use your own judgement before partaking in any activity.

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Keep your resolution this year

December 28, 2008

This year, don’t just make a New Year’s resolution to work out and sign up for a gym membership. You need a commitment to keep you going. You need metrics to show you how well you’ve improved. 

Register for a marathon. Plan your year: a 10-miler in January, a half-marathon in May, and a marathon in October. 

Tell your friends about it. Even get them involved. Don’t be afraid to fail in front of them. You can’t fail. By showing up at all, you’ve succeeded in meeting your goal. 

Make this a year to remember. 

The Al Lewis 10-miler is on January 3rd. Hope to see you there.