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.
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.
- When SimCity’s designers began working on the game, they discovered they couldn’t accurately model real cities, because the percentage of land use for parking lots was far higher than they ever realized. One reason people underestimate the dominant role of the car in our lives is that car-first thinking permeates our everyday language. When we “close” streets for an event, we really mean they are closed for motorists – though it would be equally true to say that the street is open to anyone not in a car. Phrases like main roads or vulnerable road users are similarly flawed, presenting a worldview from the perspective of only one group of users.
The language we use is a reflection of our unconscious worldview; pushing back on this requires an active effort. One example is Flemish MP Dirk de Kort’s invention of “bus-cyclists” to describe a category of commuters missing from official government surveys. It makes me wonder what other areas of my work could be improved with new phrases to represent overlooked user groups.
- A creative look at the process of creating a new airline route map, using Bernie Jenny’s MapAnalyst tool to calculate and visualize the distortion in the resulting layout.
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.
- Last summer at EMF Camp I watched a talk by Ottilia Westerlund entitled Anti-surveillance Knitting. Knitting and surveillance have a long history, most notably during wartime to encode secret messages into thread patterns. Ottilia’s project is an anti-surveillance jumper, knitted with patterns of black and white dots to incorrectly trigger facial detection algorithms.
- 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.
- In Ireland you can now purchase a digital stamp through an app, marking it on the letter yourself as a grid of 12 letters in the top right corner.
- 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.
- In 2016 somebody in the UK registered ; DROP TABLE "COMPANIES";-- LTD as an official business name – one which contains a common form of database hack. Whilst this was a mostly harmless prank, in 2020 a new company was registered with a legal name containing a potentially much more serious exploit. Since then, that company’s name has been redacted from all public government records, and the law was amended last year to prevent company names that “consist of or include computer code.”
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.
- An aerodynamic drag analysis of the viral video of cyclist Michael Guerra adopting the superman position. His pose was 24% faster than a typical posture, but only marginally better than lying on the top tube. It reminds me of CFD simulations of Eliud Kipchoge’s attempt to run a marathon in under 2 hours. In this case, the tight V-formation of his pacers had a significant impact, decreasing the aerodynamic drag on Kipchoge and saving him around 4 minutes.
- 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.
- Back in the days of Windows XP some laptops would crash when the music of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation was playing nearby. The song contained audio at the natural resonant frequencies of the laptop’s 5400 rpm hard drive.
- 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.
- The first off-Earth archeology project, conducted aboard the ISS earlier this year.
- It turns out there’s no such thing as a tree (phylogenetically); it would be more accurate to describe a tree as a strategy.