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14 July 2013 @ 02:02 pm
LJ Idol Exhibit B: "No Half-Measures"  
No Half-Measures
LJ Idol Exhibit B |week 8, 1 | 1381 words
Design flaw


A few months ago, my father related some anecdote from when I was twelve. He'd been about to take the car into the shop to have the doors cleaned out, but first showed me the clogged hole in each one.

"Look at how they made this," I apparently had said. "This groove outside the window sends rainwater and dirt into the holes and plugs them up, instead of sending them toward the ground."

"That's when I knew you were going to be an engineer," he concluded (completely forgetting about my entire first-career detour through music).

"It's true," my mother said.

I don't remember the incident he talked about at all, but I have to admit, it sounds exactly like something I would say.

The way things are made is ridiculously interesting to me. The parts that don't work as they should can bother me for years on end. And yes, I can hold a grudge!

Automobiles are a never-ending source of not-quite-right features, where designers often go overboard in counteracting previous issues. My current car has fantastic, expandable cup-holders that can accommodate things other than soda cans… but are located so that the beverages block the AC and heating vents. Nice! The visors that keep sun from coming through the front windshield have a gap around the rearview mirror, a gap which helpfully lets in enough sunlight to blind you if you're going the wrong direction at the wrong time of day. Why isn't that little area completely dark? Is it so we can be prepared in the event of a helicopter suddenly approaching from above?

Our Toyota Prius is designed so that you push the manual transmission knob up when you want to drive in reverse. All these years later, Toyota still hasn't fixed that. However, the car relentlessly beeps at you the entire time the transmission is in reverse, including when you're stuck waiting to get out of your driveway. It isn't to warn people outside the car that your quiet electric vehicle is moving—they can't even hear the beeping. It's confined to the inside of the car, to make you nuts. In fact, if you Google "Prius reverse," almost all the results involve discussions and tutorials on how to disable the beeping.

These are lighthearted mistakes compared to some of the dangerous ones: gas tanks that explode in rear collisions, malfunctioning brakes (my grandfather became a paraplegic in the late '60s as a result of those), and Smartcars (with virtually no back end) that cannot possibly be safe to drive on the freeway. For a while, many cars included automatic seatbelts in an attempt to solve the problem of people 'forgetting' to buckle up. The belts were mounted on a grooved track in the car door, which meant that if the door came off in an accident—or the car rolled toward the occupant's door—the rider was screwed.

The last time I ever went on the Zipper ride at the State Fair was when I noticed that instead of having a safety belt, you were kept up against the seat by a padded bar mounted on the ride-cage's front door—a door secured only by a latch and an oversized steel bobby pin. If the doors ever came open during the ride, you would fall right out onto the pavement below. My last Zipper ride was in 1976. Wikipedia's entry notes that the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a public warning about the ride in 1977, because four people died that year as a result of door malfunction. I guess I wasn't being paranoid after all.

I'm sure other people are bothered by badly designed things, too. Travel mugs, for instance—their sole purpose is not to spill liquids on you. While the lids keep liquids from sloshing, most of the time they also leak around the edges so that the contents dribble on you if you actually attempt to drink from the cup. How stupid is that? Those belong on a special shelf in Hell next to the glass Mr. Coffee carafes from the last two or more decades, which have a spout specially designed to spill coffee back down the front of the carafe and all over the counter no matter how slowly you pour.

I have one of the early Kindles, which has a bizarrely funky slide-switch to turn it on and off. It's a return-to-zero switch, though, and "off" requires holding the switch over to the side practically forever before the device will power down. For an entire year I read no books on it, but my kids would randomly pick it up and mess with it…and days later, the display would show the "low battery" warning. That was my Kindle's main function—to repeatedly drain its own battery.

The flip side of being annoyed by poor design is that I have ridiculous amounts of love for good design. After we had our first child, I bought a Burley bike trailer with a jogging-stroller conversion kit. The trailer had a bench seat with three sets of belts, so one child could sit in the middle or two children side-by-side. There were pockets inside for books and toys, a rear storage area, a sunshade/screen and rain-fly, and the stroller handle was adjustable to multiple heights. The whole thing was fully collapsible—the top bar unlatched and bent down, allowing the two sides and their wheels to fold down flat, and the front mounting-bar/stroller-wheel-arm folded on top of that. The entire thing became squarish and about eight to ten inches deep, neatly fitting against the garage wall. I could easily assemble or disassemble the trailer in about five minutes.

While jogging, the 70 pounds of stroller plus kids maneuvered so lightly you could control it with one hand. When biking, the hitch was designed so that the trailer stayed upright if the bicyclist went down (a huge factor in my decision to buy it). It was a marvel of mechanical engineering.

Some seventeen years ago, my husband broke his hip and had to use a walker for three months. The walker folded up nicely but there was no way to carry anything on it, so I attached a tote bag to the front. More than ten years later, when my Mother-in-law needed a walker, the one she bought had a seat (in case the user suddenly got tired), a basket underneath to put things in, and handbrakes. I can't imagine there are many people who would get excited about a walker, but when I caught sight of that thing—with every shortcoming addressed and the added genius of the seat—I thought its creator deserved every penny of royalties he or she earned as a result of inventing it.

After my music career, I went back to school and got a Master's degree in Computer Science. Now I work as a firmware engineer (writing software that is embedded in hardware), but the issue of design comes up in all areas of engineering. For me, it usually affects the architecture of the code: can it be called from an interrupt routine, does it need protected hardware access, will it execute quickly enough, and what about sequence and timing? Sometimes it's the design within a smaller piece of code that matters, such as not choking on undesirable inputs (i.e., either gracefully handle the bad data, or do not look at it, but for the love of all that is holy do not deadlock the code over it!)

Our products are used and configured by customers who sometimes know very little about technology. There is an art and a responsibility in making the user-interface and behavior as obvious as possible, and also in trying to keep the customer from accidentally messing things up. A few extra checks in the code for, "Is this a dumb thing to do? Let's warn the customer," not only prevent user-aggravation but also cut down on support costs for the product.

So while I'm not working in mechanical design, that same drive to create complete, useful, and occasionally elegant solutions is still there.

And in the future? Let's just say that one of my retirement projects will undoubtedly include inventing a better and much more comfortable saddle for my road bike.

If you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries here.

cindytsuki_no_bara on July 15th, 2013 04:49 am (UTC)
stupid design makes me nuts too! especially in houses, especially conversions or recently redesigned condos. my favorite is still the top floor of a converted house (ie, very large house converted into three condos), which had a chimney bisecting what would've been a decent-sized dining room into a small room and a nook, a patio accessed by a fire escape leading from one of the bedrooms - it was a long narrow bedroom with only one window, and it was the window in the door to the fire escape - and the smallest kitchen ever seen in a big condo, which was galley style with just enough space to open the dishwasher, almost no cabinet space, and no pantry. (when i mentioned that to the realtor, he said "oh, the buyer can just get that". yeah, no.) it was a kitchen designed for people who don't cook and don't eat at home anyway. such bad design all over, tho. such a useless layout. and so overpriced, considering.

i'm also right there with you on good design, altho i can't ever remember things that i think are designed well.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 15th, 2013 05:44 am (UTC)
Haha-- this spills over into architecture pretty easily, doesn't it? There are so many places where you wonder WHAT the person was thinking. Our Portland house had an incomplete wall between my room and the next one-- it stopped about a foot from the ceiling. There was also a door to an isolated elevated garden out of that room... which opened three feet above the ground. No one ever built any stairs.

My Dad dealt the final blow to that house, by running a chimney spout up through that room so he could add a fireplace to the downstairs rec room. Honestly, my Dad is the source of a lot of architectural bizarrities for the next owners of his last home. :O

I did see an episode of The Property Brothers where access to the upstairs bedrooms required going out through a window to the outside staircase. o_O
Desireex_disturbed_x on July 15th, 2013 06:35 pm (UTC)
It always seems like there is something wrong with whatever you get. :P

My old computer certainly fit that!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 16th, 2013 02:49 am (UTC)
It's funny-- my daughter is all over the iPhone concept, and I find her phone so irritating! I'm the kind of user who rarely wants to do the 'typical' thing, and the harder the user-interface makes it for me to get at the unusual thing or task, the more I hate it. Windows 8 will be the death of me when it finally gets forced onto my office-- I finally had to give up my XP laptop in November and go to Windows 7, and thus far... much less useful than XP.

I would like to stab Microsoft Word in the eye much of the time now. After Office 2003, it became more and more customized toward things I have no interest in doing! Meanwhile, the typical things are a lot harder to get at. Ugh.
☾witches on July 17th, 2013 01:05 pm (UTC)
really enjoyed this! and And in the future? Let's just say that one of my retirement projects will undoubtedly include inventing a better and much more comfortable saddle for my road bike. made me laugh! <3
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: Cyclinghalfshellvenus on July 17th, 2013 07:10 pm (UTC)
Oh, boy-- I had a Terry women's mountain bike saddle (wider at the back) that was more comfortable than most, but this problem is so much worse in general for women than for men. Saddles usually have gel blobs under those sitz bones (that cause most cycling pain)... but the blobs are overinflated! So they raise up an area that is already fighting pain from downward compression (your own weight).

And then the front part... people are putting gaps (slits) in the saddle to prevent the numbness you sometimes get in those sensitive areas, but because there's this paranoia about soft saddles leading to reduced speed (or something?), they use really stiff foam. Which is as bad as the original problem!

It's like neverending insanity. I will gladly sacrifice .1 miles/hour of speed to be able to make it past the 70-minute mark without the bone pain starting up. Yikes.
Kellykajel on July 18th, 2013 02:00 pm (UTC)
I read the Mr. Coffee line and laughed hysterically. Well done! ;)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 18th, 2013 04:23 pm (UTC)
:D Are you familiar with that particular coffee pot? Because I'm on my 5th or 6th one now, over about 16+ years of having one of these, and that issue has never changed!

Plus, it's coffee. So, I am not all that patient in pouring it to begin with. But clearly, it would not help!
Kellykajel on July 18th, 2013 04:46 pm (UTC)
lol, I am 38 years old and I bought my first coffee pot two years ago. It is a 12 cup Mr. Coffee. I am completely incapable of pouring my coffee without spillage. It makes me crazy! ;)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 18th, 2013 06:57 pm (UTC)
That's the one I have! I think I've had the 10-cup too, but ALL of the glass carafes are designed the same. WHY? Just don't turn the lip back so much, and it will pour out instead of down!

I'm glad I'm not the only one who knows this particular piece of pain. :D
lriG rorriM: Enemylrig_rorrim on July 18th, 2013 06:17 pm (UTC)
I loved this - it's a great glimpse into how your mind works, and what you do with those design-oriented tendencies of yours. That walker design is indeed really awesome! What kind of devices do you create firmware for?

(Also, I am now sort of cringing at one of my stories this week, because, well, it hinges on a flaw in firmware which is probably completely implausible, because including a garbage collector at all in something like a new heart is a bad idea, but, wellllllll... I plead sci-fi and knowing just enough techy stuff to get in trouble).
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 18th, 2013 07:44 pm (UTC)
I work on firmware that goes inside networking devices. The system has its own OS and everything, because it's a large-scale piece of software that monitors and participates on the network at all times.

I think your story worked just fine! You were oblique enough with the details not to make it too implausible, and I didn't even blink at it. Loved the story, too!
lriG rorriMlrig_rorrim on July 19th, 2013 07:04 pm (UTC)
Oooo neat! I have a lot of friends in software and design, and even know someone else who does firmware, and I love hearing about this stuff. The nuts and bolts part of your job sounds great!

And thank you! I'm glad that the technical thing in my story worked... I was seriously worried about it (because I think WAY too much about these things - heh). First draft had the hearts failing because they couldn't contact the server for a critical update - I scrapped that idea as way too implausible, though.
adoptedwriteradoptedwriter on July 18th, 2013 09:12 pm (UTC)
I love my bike, but the "butt-itis" is awful! I had a car once where the drink cup holders were over the stalk for P N D 1st and 2 nd. It dripped, especially in the summer when cans and bottles were sweaty. Not good. AW
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 19th, 2013 12:41 am (UTC)
I still have the Dilbert cartoon somewhere that says,

"Bicycle seats are hard. They hurt."
"The problem is, your butt."
"Solution: dorky shorts."

Which is exactly how people treat the problem-- don't fix the seat! Why would you do that, when clearly almost everyone has the same 'defective' butt? ;O
blahblahblah, whateverkathrynrose on July 18th, 2013 09:40 pm (UTC)
I remember those "sneak attack" seat belts. I hated them. :)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 18th, 2013 09:54 pm (UTC)
That was the other thing-- the way they moved to take over as soon as the door was closed. Plus, they never felt as safe as a real seatbelt, since the shoulder-strap positioning was off.

I'll be that for the cars from that era which had them... most of the belts eventually had to be repaired for not auto-sliding in their groove, too. Overcomplication is its own punishment. :D
MamaCheshirecheshire23 on July 19th, 2013 04:42 am (UTC)
I really like the bit about the walker. Assistive tech, yay!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 19th, 2013 05:36 am (UTC)
The design of that walker really is fantastic. My oldest sister, who has advanced Huntington's, really depends on hers to get her around. It has given her mobility and some autonomy far longer than her body alone would have.

And the ability to carry things you need is one of the things that aids independence, as well as taking a rest at odd moments if you need it. Really, I cannot praise that walker highly enough. I'm glad someone besides me understands why. :)
favoritebeanfavoritebean on July 19th, 2013 07:58 am (UTC)
I think I will never ride the Zipper, thanks to you pointing out that flaw. I do think I'll invest in the trailer you mentioned.

The world needs more engineers. I really enjoyed your piece.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 19th, 2013 07:14 pm (UTC)
I think the Zipper's design must surely have been fixed by now. I couldn't believe the original was ever allowed, and once I noticed it, I was horrified that it had taken me so long to see it! But kids are more prone to see what they want rather than what is.

The Burley trailer is really great, though expensive (I'd look for a used one). I bought it for the biking, but used it more for running (because the kids' tolerance for 60 minutes in the trailer was higher than for 90-100 minutes. Imagine that!). The real surprise was how light and maneuverable it felt, especially given how heavy the combined kids were! In a regular stroller, you'd notice their weight, but that thing just glided.
michikatinski on July 19th, 2013 04:13 pm (UTC)
Dude, your awesomeness expands by leaps and bounds.

What sort of music did you do? (I'm sure you've written about this elsewhere, but if I've read about it, my mommy brain isn't recalling it.)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 19th, 2013 07:16 pm (UTC)
Hee! Thank you!

I have an undergrad degree in music, and was a violinist (my goal actually was to be an orchestral violinist and not a soloist, which is practically NOBODY's goal). I was a classical music radio announcer for about 10 years total before going back to school to get a Master's Degree in Computer Science (I actually had a B.S. in music, because I couldn't stay away from the math courses in college, so why not?)

It's funny that in being so torn between those two great loves, I wound up doing both of them, just in sequence. :)
michikatinski on July 19th, 2013 10:41 pm (UTC)

I need to meet you someday so I can bask humbly in your glory.

Did you announce for a PBS station?
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 19th, 2013 11:10 pm (UTC)

I worked for 3 PBS stations, over the course of 10 years. My college one in Eugene, and then 2 others professionally. I miss being surrounded by the music I loved (but not sitting through the pieces that used to drive me nuts). :)
Laura, aka "Ro Arwen": Andorian Avatarroina_arwen on July 19th, 2013 09:37 pm (UTC)
This: Our Toyota Prius is designed so that you push the manual transmission knob up when you want to drive in reverse made me think of Star Trek, where if you were beaming DOWN to a planet, the transporter tech was pushing the lever UP. *shakes head*
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 19th, 2013 09:58 pm (UTC)
I suppose, since ST used a slide switch, that they were thinking "Up = activate", but it does seem odd, doesn't it? That show even predates the sound-board levers in radio where you push the lever upward to increase the volume. Really, back when I started in radio (in 1981), the board at the college station had big rotating knobs called "potentiometers" (talk about overselling!) The more 'modern' levers came later. :O