Category: Design

Camera Design

There are times I wonder if product designers ever use the products they design.

3 diginal cameras

My digital cameras. Top to bottom, they are 2.1 MP, 5 MP and 10 MP. The photo was taken with my iPhone.

This is not a new complaint for me. My second post was on smoke detectors, and a couple of months later I included cars and washing machines.

Now it’s digital cameras.

I’ve had three of the things, steadily increasing in resolution and decreasing in price and size. That part’s great. But my first digital camera, the clunker on top, had a viewfinder as well as a very small screen. I finally retired it when it started giving me double exposures, photos which were cut in half in the middle, and other peculiarities, but at least I never had a problem knowing what it was pointed at.

Camera number two was a Kodak with over twice the resolution of the first, and it took great pictures – except in bright light. I couldn’t see what I was photographing. No viewfinder, and while young eyes may be able to see those digital screens outdoors in bright light, I can’t. A good many of the photos on my blog before last fall were taken by guessing where the camera was pointed, as I certainly could not see the screen. It was large enough; I just couldn’t see anything but gray.

Last fall my brother-in-law showed me his camera, which had both a large screen and a viewfinder, like my first digital camera but with a large screen. Great! I wrote down the name and looked it up on the internet when I got home. I found it all right – a discontinued model. So I searched, not just Canon, but several on-line stores, for a digital camera that had both a screen and a viewfinder. After all, I’m surely not the only person who has trouble seeing those screens in bright light.

Turns out that the combination, or even a viewfinder, was available only in expensive, SLR cameras, not in the pocket point-and-shoot I wanted. I wound up getting a “used” camera of the type my brother-in-law had, and it’s been quite satisfactory, though I’m sure I’m not using a tenth of the features. But sooner or later, I suspect, it will refuse to work with a computer upgrade, as the Kodak did, and I’ll have to look for another camera.

Why on earth did the camera designers decide that a viewfinder was no longer necessary? Have they never tried to take a picture in bright ambient light? A cell phone I can understand – picture taking is strictly secondary. (Of course it’s rather difficult to dial a number if you can’t see the screen, but it’s usually possible to find some shade.) But why has the viewfinder become obsolete in cameras?


I don’t normally get childproof caps. For one thing, I almost never have children in my home. For another, I suspect the average 5-year old could open them far more easily than I can.

pliers opening bottleI think my worst experience with these caps was the time I broke my wrist, several thousand miles from home. A cousin took me to the emergency room, where the ER doctor applied a plaster splint from upper arm to fingertips. The cousin was kind enough to run into a drug store and fill the prescription the ER doctor had given me for pain – but I forgot to ask him to get non-childproof caps. And I was staying by myself.

Have you ever tried to open a childproof cap by yourself, one handed, half sick with pain, and somewhat disoriented? I finally managed, with the aid of my chin. And I was careful not to put the cap back on fully.

vacuum breaker

I’m not sure this gadget has a name, other than “vacuum breaker”, but as far as I’m concerned it’s worth its weight in gold.

Unfortunately, either the childproof idea has spread, or my ability to open things has declined with age. I won’t even mention blister packs, which require a heavy-duty knife or tin snips to open them, not to mention the waste they generate. But surely the caps on plastic bottles of water or soft drinks are supposed to screw off. Aren’t they? Not to mention the metal lids of peanut butter jars.

I’m happy to say I’ve found solutions to at least the plastic bottle and peanut butter problems.

The plastic bottles are hard to open because I simply can’t grip hard enough any more to break the molded seal between the screw part of the cap and the collar. (Exactly how they get those caps on the bottles is a mystery to me.) But the solution turned out to be simple – vice-grip pliers. They can be adjusted via the screw in one leg to fit exactly over the cap, and they provide plenty of leverage.

Peanut butter, pickles, sauerkraut and other things that come in glass jars are usually vacuum packed, and it is the vacuum that makes those lids hard to turn. But it is possible to break the vacuum before you try to turn the cap. I found a little plastic gadget in one of the junk catalogs that litter my kitchen table. It’s simple. It’s cheap. And it works! I just lever the lit up slightly before I try to open it, and it turns easily.

Now if someone would just come up with solutions to the dozens of other types of packaging I find myself struggling to open….

Typewriter (Morguefile)When I learned to type, it was on a typewriter. Not a sleek little electric portable, or even a mechanical portable, but a big, clunky machine with keys that had to be pushed hard enough to flip up the letters through a mechanical linkage, and a lever that had to be pushed over when a bell signaled you were approaching the end of a line. And what I hated worst was threading in a new ribbon.

It wasn’t a cartridge, it was a spool of ink-impregnated fabric that you had to thread through a finicky little gadget that held it where the lever with the letter on its end could strike the ribbon and leave a letter on the paper. It was impossible to thread the ribbon without getting ink all over your hands, so I generally used a ribbon as long as possible – until the letters it produced were getting too light to read.

Probably that’s why I try to do the same with cartridge ink and even toner.

No longer.

I’m not sure whether it’s bad design because of not thinking or bad design because the company wants to sell more ink cartridges/toner. In either case it’s bad design as far as customer usability is concerned.

My current inkjet printer is a 3-way HP Photosmart. It serves as a color copier and a scanner as well as a printer. I would have killed for a copier back in the days before Xerox when you layered paper with carbon paper to type, and woe betide you if you made a typo. Especially on the first page of a long document! Likewise a scanner – my first one was a standalone that cost far more than my printer. But having all three together is a great way to save space.

Unfortunately, there’s that design problem I mentioned.

All of my printers, laser or inkjet, now decide for themselves when the toner or ink cartridge is low, often before I even notice any reduction in quality, and simply quit working. Usually they send me a message that they need a new cartridge. Usually this is in the wee hours of the morning when all the stores are closed and when I cannot find the spare ink I’m sure I bought. When it’s a matter of printing something I usually just sigh and put a cartridge on my shopping list. But why on earth does the lack of a black inkjet cartridge keep the combo from scanning? Especially when I need to scan a signed contract and send it off by email, and I promised to do it right away?

It does not help at all that the exact name of the printer, and the size of ink cartridge needed, are hidden inside the machine, and it’s not obvious how to open it.

I finally went to the HP web site, looked for the machine that looked most like mine, and downloaded the instruction book – again. I still can’t find the one I’m sure I downloaded before, but I was able to find the instructions for opening the ink compartment, which (a) confirmed that I’d downloaded the right instruction book and (b) finally allowed me to figure out what kind of replacement cartridge to get.

I still think it’s bad design.

How do you Eat a Salad?

I like salads. I do not like trying to eat them neatly. Especially in a restaurant.

One of my favorite salads, with leaf lettuce, mangoes, sugared pecans and raspberry dressing.

Salads do not hold together, and holding together helps if you are trying to get a fork under something. Forks do a poor job of sticking in lettuce if you stab at it. The pieces of lettuce are frequently too wide for one bite, though generally far less than a satisfying mouthful. If the salad has small items, like the mangoes and sugared pecans in the mango salad pictured, they roll off a fork. In short, the conventional fork and spoon just do not work very well for eating a salad. (I except things like coleslaw or carrot salad, where the pieces are very small and glued together with dressing.)

At the same time, the dressing makes a salad far too messy to just pick up and eat.

Perhaps we need to invent something that would do a better job of conveying a bite of salad from plate to mouth?

One could wrap it in a bit of tortilla or pita, I suppose, but that is not always the taste desired. Nor do many restaurants serve them that way.

Is it too much to hope for that someone would invent a new eating utensil suitable for salads? Perhaps some kind of eating tongs? Something small enough to take a bite from neatly? Ideas, anybody?

The Perversity of Inanimate Objects 1 4/10/10
Insulin Pumps 5/20/10
Wars With Word 5/28/10
The Perversity of Inanimate Objects 2 6/4/10
Float Chair (fictional) 6/24/10
Tricycles are not Bicycles 8/8/10
Why Temperature Remembered doesn’t match the Record 4/5/11
Does Banking Software Work? 4/21/11
My New Toy – an iPad 2 5/12/11
Before Computers 6/5/11
How do you Eat a Salad? 4/28/12
Battery Woes 5/12/12
Printer Woes 6/14/12
Adult Proof 9/8/12
Digital Cameras 9/29/12
Who Needs a Nightcap? 9/3/13

500+ posts is too many for me to keep track of, and quite a few are “reference” posts, such as the ones on planet building or horse coat color genetics. So I’m putting in a new feature, an index page that links to posts linking to the posts on a given topic. (Sound confusing? Try doing it!)

These indexing posts start today (see below) and will appear occasionally until the reference posts are all indexed. After that I’ll just be updating the index posts, which will be accessible from the Index tab above.

With 550 posts as of today, I’ve started to have problems remembering what I’ve already put on here. This is particularly a problem with posting existing content such as poems, short pieces from the Summer Arts Festival, or science explanations originally written for the Alaska Science Forum. I can’t remember which books or DVDs I’ve posted reviews on. It also is starting to be a problem when I want to link to a previous post and can’t remember when it was put up or what the title was. And there are posts on this blog that have permanent information, like the series on planet building and the one on horse color genetics, or the book and DVD reviews. I want to make it easier for my readers as well as myself to find things.

I made a start some time ago by adding an index page, which can be accessed from the menu at the top of any page. Right now, the only links are to index pages on my author site. This takes you out of the site and sometimes back in, which is rather clumsy. The index list is also incomplete.

I’m going to start posting an occasional entry which is strictly an index of past posts on a particular topic. These posts will be linked from the index page, and will link forward to the individual blog posts. As it takes a while to find all the posts that belong together, this will be a slow process—probably extending over the next few months. The first in this series, on DVD reviews, is already queued for January 3. Others will follow, most on Thursdays.

I probably won’t be indexing every post. Some, like those early posts which were simply glossary entries for my books, are on the author site and really belong there. Others, like the regular Monday updates on North Pole weather starting in November 2010, can be found easily enough just by using the calendar on the site. But I hope that by the time I have finished this, older posts of interest will be easier to find.

I need to replace the bulbs in my outdoor lights—the porch light, the old dog run light, the lights over the garage door, and the light on the Arctic entry off the bedroom. And I find myself in a quandary.

Ordinary incandescent bulbs work at the outdoor temperatures we have up here in Alaska — below -40°F most winters, and not uncommonly below -50 or even -60°F. Their lives are probably shortened when they’re turned on at these temperatures, but they do turn on.

Incandescent bulbs, however, are being phased out. The idea is to replace them with fluorescents, and I’ve done that wherever possible indoors. I even replaced the hanging fixture over the kitchen table with a ceiling-mounted fluorescent.

Outdoors, however, is another story. Fluorescents (or rather their ballasts) simply will not work at the winter temperatures found in interior Alaska – or the northern tier of states, for that matter. Even low temperature ballasts only start working when it warms up to -20°F – and warms up is the way we think of it up here.

LED’s do work, and I’ve had outdoor LED Christmas lights for several years now. Over the last year, I’ve begun to see a few screw-in LED bulbs. But they are either very low light output (useful for replacing the bulbs in night lights) or highly directional – useful in some, but not all, of my outdoor fixtures. Yes, there are self-contained outdoor LED lights. They use batteries. See my earlier post on indoor-outdoor thermometers, and the problem with the outdoor sensor being battery-powered – even lithium batteries are questionable at temperatures below -40°F. And a size “C” lithium battery? Just try to find one! They’re available on line, but they are obviously a very expensive specialty item, and I’m not at all sure they’ll work at temperatures colder than -40°F.

It’s not the first time national policy has failed to take Alaskan temperatures into account.

I am reminded of my first new car – bought the year Congress mandated seat belt interlocks, which required that you have the seat belt buckled before the car would start, and which activated a blaring alarm if the seat belt was not buckled. 1973, I think. Fine, I thought. I put on my seat belt as a reflex. My father drilled holes in the frame of our old Woody so he could install seat belts. I’d never be bothered by failure to do something as automatic as that.

Turned out the car I got had two switches to implement the Federal requirement. One was in the seat, and turned on the seat belt safety mechanism if there was weight in the seat. The other was in the buckle, and told the car whether the seat belt was buckled.

The switch in the buckle did not work if the temperature of the buckle was below about 0°F.

I did not have a heated garage then.

I finally figured out that I could start the car at low temperatures by bracing myself between the back of the seat and the floor, so no weight was on the seat. Once the interior warmed up, the alarm would quit.

That worked until the temperatures got below -40°F, and the rather poor heater was unable to bring the interior temperature of the car above 0°F. At those temperatures, the alarm screamed constantly – a serious distraction while trying to drive in ice fog with frosted windows. I would never have heard a siren, for instance.

The dealer said sorry, federal law prohibited them from touching the interlock system, never mind that it wasn’t working properly and was a safety hazard rather than a safety feature.

Cars are not my thing. I lived with that alarm for the next couple of months, until the ban on interfering with the system was removed January 1.

It got disconnected January 2.

Musk Ox Art

Ever heard of musk oxen?

They’re more closely related to goats and sheep than to cattle (though larger) and they’re definitely an Arctic animal, with a luxurious underwool called qiviut under an outer shell of long hair. They have horns that make a helmet over the tops of their heads with wickedly forward-curved, sharp tips, and they’re a daunting sight head-on. Their defense against their traditional predators such as wolves was to gather in a circle, heads out, with the vulnerable calves in the center. However effective against wolves, such a defense was useless against human hunters, and musk oxen were close to extinction when restrictions on hunting, and transplantation, allowed them to bounce back.

Today musk oxen are being farmed for their qiviut, though it is probably going too far to call them domesticated. The best qiviut is allowed to loosen naturally and combed from the animal (with the aid of a holding chute!) and knit by village women—one of the few sources of cash income in remote Alaskan villages. It’s not overrated — I had a nachaq before the fire, and qiviut is an incredibly soft, warm, lightweight fiber.

The animals themselves have not gotten much attention in art – until recently. Our local PBS affiliate, which has a contest every winter for a poster design, had a semi-abstract muskox painting a couple of years ago. And this month there is an exhibit of musk oxen at the Bear Gallery in Fairbanks.

Have you heard of the Painted Ponies?

Lacie Stiewing decided that musk oxen would be just as good as horses for decorating. Better, in fact, and she designed a somewhat abstract musk ox form and decorated copies of the form with abandon. The result is a herd of musk oxen, a few shown here, in the Bear Gallery at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks, Alaska. It’s an exhibit to make you smile, even if small varieties of the critters are not available. Lacie, have you thought about that?

Fireworks displayTrue or false: The Chinese invented gunpowder a thousand years before it was known in the West, but being a peaceable people, they used it for many centuries only for fireworks.

This is one of those trick questions that is neither true nor false. The real story seems to be that the Chinese did indeed have fireworks at the time of the Roman emperors, that they did invent gunpowder, and that the use of gunpowder in war started sometime around the tenth century. Nevertheless, gunpowder was used as a weapon in China from the time of its discovery. The unstated — and false — assumption is that fireworks require gunpowder.

Early Chinese fireworks consisted of colored and perfumed smokes and noisemakers often called firecrackers. These early firecrackers were simply sections of bamboo thrown onto a fire. The bamboo sections would explode as the air and moisture inside the closed sections heated and expanded. The bamboo crackers may have been used initially to frighten more primitive tribes away from campfires, while smoke was used for fumigation and as a signal in warfare, so even these fireworks were not entirely peaceful.

Fireworks displayThe first evidence for gunpowder is in about the 9th century, and consists of a Taoist warning against mixing saltpeter, sulphur, arsenic compounds, and honey (which supplied carbon), on the grounds that burnt hands, faces, and houses had resulted from the experiment. By the beginning of the 10th century, however, there is mention of the use of “fire-drug”, the term later used for gunpowder, in war.

The early gunpowders were low in saltpeter and burned rather than exploding. They seem to have been well established in incendiary bombs, poison smoke bombs, and fire arrows — not exactly peaceful uses — by the eleventh century. At about the same time, a new and noisier kind of firecracker appeared, probably similar to modern firecrackers. Fireworks on frames were known by the 12th century, and may have involved gunpowder.

Fireworks displayOne kind of fireworks, definitely known by 1264, may have been the first step toward the rocket. This was the “ground-rat”, probably a bamboo tube filled with gunpowder and with a small hole in one end. When lit, it rushed violently around on the ground. (A dud firecracker will sometimes behave in the same way.) The exact date has survived because of an incident in which a ground-rat chased the Emperor’s mother at a fireworks display. Luckily for the officials in charge of the display, the Empress-Mother, though frightened at the time, had a sense of humor and was able to laugh about the incident by the next day.

At some point in the next century, ground-rats of this type were used in warfare. They would certainly have been quite as upsetting to horses as they were to the Empress-Mother, and in addition the military ground-rats were fitted with hooks to catch on clothing.

Fireeworks displayA ground-rat bouncing around on rough ground would at times take flight for a short distance, and some alert designer of weapons came up with the idea of fastening a ground-rat to an arrow. The result was the first rocket, an arrow that could be fired without a bow. The fireworks designers promptly stole the idea back from the military, removing the arrowhead and adding a gunpowder bomb, whether plain or packed with material that would produce colored lights. Modern flights to the moon and planets are based on exactly the same principle, though the details are more complex.

By the middle of the 13th century Dominican and Franciscan friars were traveling to the Mongol court at Karakorum. One of these friars may have sent a package of firecrackers to Roger Bacon, whose writings indicate a knowledge of firecrackers as children’s toys, an awareness of the ingredients of the gunpowder within them, and a realization of the military potential of larger versions. The Chinese, however, had at that time already been using cast-iron bombs filled with high-nitrate gunpowder for a century or more.