2022-12-05 8 min read


Notes, 2022-12-05.

A job title can be an intimate part of your professional identity, and perhaps because of that I’ve always struggled to find a title I’m comfortable with. On paper I have a degree in mechanical engineering, but I’ve also got a whole heap of interests across design and technology beyond that.

In conversation I’m often asked “what do you do?” and it's easy to tailor your answer to whoever’s asking. But this luxury is rarely afforded with a job title, which must stand alone on a business card or LinkedIn profile without supporting context. I find this stressful, and I suspect it’s because job titles are so often interpreted as proxies for one’s skillset. It lets others compartmentalize you; a job title allows them to draw a mental line between what work you should and shouldn’t do. This can elicit strong emotions: product designers angry at the growth of (digital) product design, software engineers wondering if they are really engineers at all, or the eternal debate of whether engineer should be a regulated title akin to medical and legal roles. As the heated discourse surrounding job titles shows, it’s natural to feel defensive when our skillset feels questioned.

My job title is a key part of my identity and how I market myself; I want to feel proud of it. But perhaps the better approach is to accept that job titles are really just a designator for your position in the company org chart. No one can ever be summarized in just two or three words, and I’m learning to see my job title as a starting point – not a summary – of who I am and what I can do.

- George Cave

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~6% of opens) was the list of all tools we've profiled over the years. Sometimes conversations in the Members' Slack break out into the wider world – inspired by a link in the group about streetlights turning purple over time, Adam Rogers investigated the phenomenon.

Planning & Strategy.

  • For thousands of years, humans have described their understanding of intelligence with engineering metaphors. In the 3rd century BCE, the invention of hydraulics popularized the model of fluid flow (“humours”) in the body. This lasted until the 1500s, supplanted by the invention of automata and the idea of humans as complex machines. From electrical and chemical metaphors in the 1700s to advances in communications a century later, each metaphor reflected the most advanced thinking of that era. Today is no different: we talk of brains that store, process and retrieve memories, mirroring the language of computers.

    I’ve always believed metaphors to be helpful and productive in communicating unfamiliar concepts. But this fascinating history of cognitive science metaphors shows that flawed metaphors can take hold and limit the scope for alternative ideas. In the worst case, the EU spent 10 years and $1.3 billion building a model of the brain based on the incorrect belief that the brain functions like a computer.

Making & Manufacturing.

  • One of my biggest design crushes is on Dries Depoorter, a Belgian artist whose privacy and surveillance-themed projects make creative use of open CCTV feeds, computer vision, and custom electronics. He’s probably most famous for The Flemish Scrollers, which identified and tagged Belgian politicians using their phone in parliament, or Die With Me, a chat app that only works when your battery is below 5%.

    Depoorter’s most recent project used open camera feeds to identify people posing for selfies near city landmarks, and then correlated them with the final image scraped from Instagram. Like most of his work, at first glance it seems like a clever technical hack, but as you think further the ethical and privacy implications suddenly hit you. It’s also a good example of the unintended consequences that can arise when large, unrelated data sets are combined in ways far beyond their original intent.
  • Having your credit card details stolen must be a horrible experience, but from an engineering perspective I enjoy the intriguing technical battle between thieves and law enforcement. Banks in New York City have recently uncovered a set of super thin card skimmers which fit inside a standard credit card slot yet still allow the card to pass by. The 0.68 mm thickness includes not only the magnetic strip reader, but also the control electronics and battery too.
  • I finally upgraded to Windows 11, and somehow the sounds all seem much more pleasant. I enjoyed this short explanation of how the rhythm of the phrase “ready-to-go” across different languages was translated into the Outlook Calendar Alert.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • Clocks on kitchen appliances like ovens and microwaves often use the AC electricity grid frequency to maintain accurate time. The clocks work by counting the rate of the electrical current, and expect an average frequency of 50Hz in continental Europe.

    In 2018, a grid dispute between Serbia and Kosovo resulted in clocks across Europe running 6 minutes slow due to a drop in the average frequency. The situation was resolved by political intervention, followed by a collective effort to run the grid at a slightly higher frequency for one month to restore the lost minutes. In the UK, live electricity grid data is available at GridWatch – including realtime feeds of demand and generation sources.

Distribution & Logistics.

  • In 1971, almost 20 years before GPS became available for civilian use, the British TV show Tomorrow’s World demonstrated this innovative car navigation system. Pre-recorded cassette tapes were automatically triggered from the car’s milometer, reading turn-by-turn navigation instructions to the driver. The history of pre-GPS navigational aids begins with the development of the first road atlas, followed by successive attempts to mechanize and optimize the presentation of the information.
  • GPS in cities is notoriously challenging, as the signals get blocked or reflected by high-rise buildings. In 2016, Uber acquired the startup Shadow Maps to improve the accuracy of rider pickups, using ray tracing and a 3d model of the city to estimate the interference, a process they called “moving the blue dot.”
  • Last month the General Conference on Weights and Measures voted to abolish the use of leap seconds from 2035, at which point atomic clocks will begin to drift relative to the Earth’s natural rotation. Many GPS systems were not built to deal with leap seconds and effectively ignore them. However, the Russian GLONASS does incorporate leap seconds, and Russia voted against the proposal to scrap them due to technical concerns.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

  • In 2014, Virgin Galactic’s experimental space plane disintegrated at nearly 17 km altitude. One pilot was killed, whilst the other miraculously parachuted to safety despite the plane traveling at over 960 km/h. SpaceShipTwo used a giant hinge to rotate the tail section upwards during re-entry, folding the vehicle in half to increase drag and stabilize like a falling shuttlecock. During the fatal flight the pilot unlocked the hinge prematurely, causing the vehicle to fold up and break apart. Pilot error was the headline cause, but this in-depth account of the resulting investigation ultimately identified three factors: pressure to deliver to deadlines publicly declared by Virgin’s owner Richard Branson, human factors flaws in the cabin design, and poor oversight from the FAA under political pressure to approve permits for space travel.
  • UK electricity plugs may look bulky and inefficient, but they have a deserved reputation as the safest in the world. Despite this, as a child in England I recall numerous child-proof safety covers on sockets in our home. It turns out they are not only unnecessary, but they actually increase the hazard by providing children with a tool to bypass existing safety measures. I’m now a parent myself, and find myself caught between knowing that the design is safe and the emotional worry of watching my son poke his fingers around the exposed socket holes.


  • This Unicode character ꙮ is a rare form of the Cyrillic letter O. It’s so rare that it appears in a single phrase in a single text of the extinct Old Church Slavonic language from 1429. Recently a better quality scan of the original document revealed a flaw in the Unicode representation, which is now being updated.

A plot of survey data from Reddit users, assigning probabilities to common use phrases.

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