2023-05-15 9 min read

Notes, 2023-05-15

Notes, 2023-05-15
The author on a visit to the school children of Ashton St. Peter’s School in Dunstable, UK.

In the UK, schools group together design, electronics, 3d printing, and other similar topics in a subject called Design & Technology (D&T). It was by far my favorite subject, so I was disheartened to learn that since 2009 there has been a catastrophic decline in the number of students studying D&T. In the 14-18 age group, pupils studying the subject have fallen by over 50%, and the number of teachers has reduced by a similar amount.

Organizations such as D&TA are working to address this balance, primarily through a combination of improved industry-education links and lobbying the government. But on an individual level, I believe the most useful thing I can do is simply visit a school and talk passionately about my work.

Last month I did this for the first time, talking with a class of 10-year-olds about what it’s like to be a designer. After discussing diverse topics like problem solving, materials choices, and marketing, I gave each child a badge labeled “designer” and we embarked on a mini-brainstorm to design some new sports equipment. The output was one of the most inspiring and creative sessions of my career: I began with few expectations but was delighted by the ease with which they combined ideas from their hobbies and lives to come up with crazy new sporting inventions.

Children seem endlessly fascinated by the way things work, but despite their best intentions, teachers often lack the experience to explain what careers in design, engineering, or manufacturing might entail. I hope that I helped in a small way to fill in the gap, and perhaps one or two of the class will go on to study a subject that led me to a career I thoroughly enjoy.

-George Cave

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~8% of opens) was a video sharing useful digital caliper tricks. In the Members' Slack, we're hosting an AMA with Kenton Harris, the Director of Battery Manufacturing Engineering at Rivian, on 2023-05-30.

Scope of Work is supported by our awesome Members, and through generous support from:

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Magic Mixies isn’t just a toy. It’s an entire experience where kids channel their inner sorcerer, casting spells to conjure a fortune-telling pet from a cauldron or crystal ball. Take a behind-the-scenes look at how Moose Toys brought this best-selling toy to life, from concept to working prototype, in just 3-4 months.


  • In my car, I will follow directions from Google Maps without question. When cycling, I find myself continually adjusting and ignoring the algorithm’s choices based on the weather, road surface, or size of the hill ahead. BRouter is a very interesting navigation algorithm that can be fine-tuned with profiles such as “Recumbent bike (fast)” or “Trekking MTB medium-wet.” The project includes a scripting language for writing your own custom cost functions to suit particular riding preferences and plenty of information on how the algorithms work. All algorithms have bias, and the negative consequences of the biases in social media algorithms are well known. This project makes me wonder what my life would be like if more algorithms that I rely upon allowed their biases to be tuned to my preferences.
  • Designer Alex Hollender recently led the multi-year effort to re-design Wikipedia’s website. His blog provides a thorough account of the iterations, but it was his conclusion that I found most thought provoking. Decisions about major changes at Wikipedia are made democratically through consensus, but not all user groups are equally represented. As Alex writes:

    As the comments/votes started coming in, I became frustrated at how unrepresentative of the general public the people voting were. It was a very small group of editors, potentially making a decision for billions of readers.

    He also elaborates on the significant discussions held about small details of the new design:

    There was a lot of arguing about white space and icons, and people saying they simply didn't like it, rather than discussions of user needs and/or key metrics.

    I’ve always believed that you can trust a good design process to arrive at a good outcome, even if the direction is unclear. Yet Alex’s conclusions are quite mixed: he wonders if he simply got lucky when the new design was approved. The design process isn’t set up to handle huge multi-stakeholder approval committees, particularly if many have entrenched views and have not been involved in the development to date. I look forward to his promised future thoughts on how the systems of governance at Wikipedia could evolve to address some of these challenges.


    • Every thirty minutes, a train passes right outside my house and my 16-month-old son gets extremely excited. Building off of his enthusiasm, my latest project is trying to make his toy train toot at the exact same time a train passes outside. After falling down the rabbit hole of the UK’s Live Departure Boards Web Service, I concluded it wouldn’t be accurate enough. I settled instead on a system built with a single-point LiDAR sensor that communicates with the toy train using the long-range, low-bandwidth LoRA protocol.

      This project inspired me to consider what else I could count from my house, leading me to Telraam. This Belgian company created a product that clips to your window and counts passing traffic, providing individuals access to data previously gathered only by local governments and organizations using pneumatic tube counting. In this interview, Telraam founder Kris Vanherle describes how the cameras initially used a crude comparison of the height-to-width ratio of an object to distinguish between pedestrians, bikes, and cars. Their latest generation uses a more advanced algorithm to improve accuracy and is a good example of edge computing. Much of the data processing is conducted on the device, avoiding the privacy challenges implicit in saving video of a public street to the cloud.
    • Our eyes have three photoreceptors (red, green & blue). This is nothing compared to the astonishing eyesight of the mantis shrimp which has 16 photoreceptors and can see UV, visible, and polarized light. Polarized light is light in which all the waves are undulating in the same plane. Light reflecting off non-metallic objects will always become partially polarized and we experience this as glare. Most sunglasses are polarized vertically to reduce the glare from horizontal surfaces such as lakes. To the mantis shrimp, seeing the polarized light provides additional visual information about prey that might otherwise remain hidden. With only color vision, their prey could hide against the background of a nebulously blue ocean. But light reflected from the prey will vary in polarization compared to the background, causing them to stand out. Research into how these organisms see led to the development of a new ultra-sensitive camera, replicating the unique structure of the mantis shrimp’s eyes that stack the different photosensitive elements on top of each other in a column.



    • Tesco is the UK’s largest supermarket chain and the introduction of their Clubcard loyalty scheme has a wild backstory. Whilst Tesco was trialing the Clubcard, a couple came up with a way to extort the supermarket. They threatened to taint food with their own HIV-positive blood unless they received payment via the new Clubcards which they realized could be collected anonymously from Tesco stores. Tesco agreed and the cards were secretly encoded to work in an ATM, using PIN codes hidden in a national newspaper. The couple managed to withdraw £7,000 before being caught. Despite the chaotic introduction, and a further extortion attempt 5 years later, the Clubcard scheme was rolled out successfully and is used today by 17 million people.
    • In 1984, British Energy crashed a train at high speed into a nuclear waste container to demonstrate the safety of transporting nuclear waste by rail. The train was totally destroyed but the flask was unharmed. The scheme was devised by the author Terry Pratchett who was working in PR at the time for the Central Electricity Generating Board.
    • A Reuters investigation into recycling streams for shoes in Singapore used hidden Apple AirTags to track them to an Indonesian flea market. The report calls this out as greenwashing, but I’m torn: re-using them as shoes is surely much better for the environment than grinding them up to make flooring. However, it was the use of AirTags that particularly caught my eye. They provide a low-cost means to track objects across continents that was previously only possible with GPS equipment.



    Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members and Supporters for making this newsletter possible. Thanks also to Lukas, Erinna, and especially Jo Ingham from Ashton St. Peter’s for loaning me her class of 10-year-old pupils for the afternoon.

    Love, George

    p.s. - I started a new job using drones to support healthcare supply chains. If you work in a similar area, I’d love to say hello. :)

    p.p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here’s what we’re doing about it.

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