It does, you know. You just have to get it hot enough.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Simplicity and Octopart

I like simple things. While I often like gaudy, baroque, Victorian, overdone decoration, I like things I use to be as simple as possible. I don’t feel the need to make arbitrary rules like, “no buttons anywhere on the product”, but I try to make things simple and keep them that way.

Visually, this is a pretty boring journal. But journals are about words, and because I stay focused on words, it’s easy to read this journal on just about any device, from my XV6800 phone to a high-end PC. (Just checked and it looks pretty good in lynx as well.) I spent very little time making it simple, I just started ripping things out if I couldn’t justify their existence. So, there’s no autobiographical photo, no fancy widgets showing what music I’m listening to right now, no countdown-until-W-is-gone clock, do dynamic code generation, Flash animations, or any of that. True, if I were a freelance graphic — sorry, “communication” — designer I’d probably put a lot of effort into having a rockin’ web site that shows off my chops. But I’m not, so I don’t.

So, back to simple. If you’ve ever ordered anything from a supplier like Grainger or DigiKey, you know what a nightmare it can be to find what you’re looking for. For awhile now, McMaster Carr has gotten more of my business than, say, MSC Direct, simply because the McMaster Carr site is so damn simple and easy to use.

McMaster Carr is great for the hardware I’ve needed for some metalworking probjects, but in the past year or two I’ve also gotten back into tangible computing (aka “making electric things with embedded CPUs”). The work I’m doing now is mostly based on the Arduino, an AVR-based single board computer. The Arudino does for physical computing what high level languages did for programming — open the field up to more people by simplifying the interface and the programming environment. Yea for simplicity!

Getting back into tangible computing also means dealing with the dreaded mail order supply titans like DigiKey, Newark, Mouser, Allied, etc. Typically when you’re ordering parts, you make a list of what you need, then try and find each part in each catalog, get the price, sum everything up, figure out shipping, then go find out if the parts are actually in stock. It’s an hour or two with a spreadsheet and often both the online search engine and the printed catalog.

Octopart changes everything. It’s a search engine for electronics, but more importantly, it pulls data from all the major vendors and shows you — in real time — pricing and availability. You can make a parts list, then easily compare prices and availability across most major vendors then build individual shopping carts and place orders.

It’s an amazingly useful resource, but most importantly, it’s simple. Simple, simple, simple. There are no garish colors, no image maps, no egregious animations, no masses of corporate logos showing everyone they are affiliated with. Just plain text, thumbnails for search results to help identify parts, and navigation that doesn’t require FPS-developed reflexes.

Go play with it — even if you don’t know anything about electronics — and see what you think. If you think you’re ignorant of things electronic, then search for something you’ve used or heard of, like “9v battery” or “transistor” and just poke around a bit. By keeping things simple, they’ve taken something very complex — component selection and ordering — and made it a much easier task.

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posted by jet at 17:42  

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Review: _Why Things Don’t Work_, Papanek and Hennessey

Every now and then, I find a book that I wish I had discovered much earlier in my life. _Why Things Don’t Work_ is such a book, but I think it’s just as useful to read now as when it was published in 1977.

Papanek and Hennessey’s primary focus is on both needless consumption and poorly designed things that people really don’t need. However, instead of a long rant against conspicuous consumption and designed-in obsolescence, they point out flaws in products and systems then suggest alternatives. Starting with the home bath and ending with community-level resources (like fire engines), many things we take for granted or assume cannot be improved upon are looked at with a critical eye. Their line of questioning includes things like, “how can this be improved?”, “why don’t we do this the way people in another country do?” to “do you really need this thing in the first place?”

These questions are ones that I think anyone interested in design or sustainability should be learning to ask about everything they encounter. An interesting proposal in response to over-consumption is shared ownership of resources and objects that one only occasionally uses. We do this for all sorts of things, from fire engines to library books, but why do we stop with institutions created in the past century?

For example, why don’t we share lawnmowers?

I own two — a reel mower that I normally use and a gas mower given to us by a relative. Both of my neighbors also own gas mowers, and I think it’s a reasonable assumption that any of my neighbors who don’t hire a gardener probably own a gas mower. When I use my mower, it’s rarely for more than 20-30 minutes every other week or so; the same is true for all the mowers my neighbors own.

So why do we all have to own our own mower, each requiring a fair amount of regular maintenance even though we only use each for a few hours a week? What if we each put a few bucks a week into the “mower fund” and were able to check a mower out from a local storage shed? (Similar arguments are made for shared deep freezers in apartment buildings and other shared appliances.)

And if we are all going to own so many mowers, do we all need gas mowers? I’ve mowed my yard with both the reel mower and the gas mower, and the reel mower tends to be faster, quieter, and easier to store. Factor in down-time for refueling, tweaking the spark plug, and the cost of gas/oil, and the reel mower starts to make a lot more sense, at least for smaller lawns. I’m pretty certain that my reel mower will also last much longer than the gas mower, and it cost about half what a new gas mower would cost.

Taking their argument a step further, why do we have grass lawns that require so much maintenance to begin with? Just because they were popular with the Victorians doesn’t mean we need to waste water growing plants just to keep them closely cropped. On a personal level, we’ve started redesigning our own front yard so that we will no longer need to mow or water it other than occasional spot watering during a drought. It just doesn’t make sense for us to water and maintain 500 square feet of grass simply because it’s green.

It’s this sort of process and thinking that makes the book of value. While many of the specific suggestions they make are irrelevant today (such as rethinking typewriters), the processes Papanek and Hennessey use to critically look at the world around us and improve things for the better.

Cite (if you’re interested in my generating BiBTeX refs in future reviews, please speak up):
Hennessey, James and Papanek, Victor. Why Things Don’t Work, Pantheon Books, 1977, 0-394-70228-X

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posted by jet at 15:16  

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