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The Engineer's Notebook

The Engineer's Notebook is a shared blog for entries that don't fit into a specific CR4 blog. Topics may range from grammar to physics and could be research or or an individual's thoughts - like you'd jot down in a well-used notebook.

Japan May Change Signage Ahead of 2020 Olympics

Posted February 05, 2016 12:00 AM by Jonathan Fuller
Pathfinder Tags: japan olympics signs

Roads and maps have interested me for some time now. There's something about driving a route that was traveled by countless predecessors for hundreds or thousands of years that piques my interest.

Little did I know that there's a (presumably) small but dedicated group of so-called roadgeeks who take trips to experience the road and take pictures of signage. These guys might drive to my home state, for example, to see and discuss the country's highest numbered interstate, shortest interstate, or particularly interesting interchanges. I'm haven't yet reached that level of fanaticism, but maybe I'll get there someday. I am, however, roadgeek enough to care about some interesting changes to signage and maps that various Japanese agencies are considering ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.

The more finalized proposal to alter Japanese signage involves new pictograms on foreign-language maps of the country. Japan's Geospatial Information Authority (GSI) polled over 1,000 people from 92 foreign countries to aid their development of 18 new map symbols. The most notable altered symbols give an interesting look at the country's attempt to satisfy different cultural requirements. For example, the Japanese symbol for a police station is a simple 'X' representing two crossed police batons, but foreign language maps produced ahead of 2020 propose instead using a saluting guard-like figure. And the Japanese symbol for post office--which resembles a 'T' inside a circle and is supposedly derived from a 19th-century Japanese term meaning "communication"--would be replaced with a more universal envelope image.

A more striking example involves changing the swastika-like manji representing Buddhist temples to a silhouette of a stereotypical temple tower. This one in particular has been met with backlash from native Japanese, who contend that the ancient Sanskrit symbol (shown on this page) has been associated with Buddhism since long before its use by the Nazi Party stigmatized it worldwide. They also believe Westerners could learn a bit of Japanese history by discovering the truer origins of the symbol.

Japan's National Police Agency (NPA) is also considering a redesign of the country's stop signs ahead of the Olympic Games, which shines some light on an interesting difference in international signage. In almost every part of the world since the 1960's, stop signs have taken the form of red octagons with 'STOP' written in that country's script. And interestingly, Japan adopted that design (even adding 'STOP' in English) from 1960 to 1963 before switching to their current design, the inverted red triangle seen here.

The NPA plans to survey foreigners in a similar fashion to the GSI poll mentioned above and expects to complete the survey by the end of next month. Replacing each and every sign would cost the nation over 25 billion yen. The project would presumably cost less if the NPA decides to just add the English 'STOP' to every existing sign, an option they're also considering.

It's not unusual for Olympic hosts to take drastic measures to accommodate the massive influx of tourism, and Japan's no exception. The country has a proven track record for adapting to tourists anyway: in 2013 it changed romanized Japanese street signs to straight-up English translations to accommodate foreigners. Speaking for myself, if I were visiting a country notorious for earthquakes and tsunamis, I'd certainly appreciate clear signage directing me where to take shelter in the event of another disaster.

Image credits:

Eastwind41 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons | Public domain

4 comments; last comment on 02/05/2016
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Mortars and Mousetraps: Static Technologies

Posted January 19, 2016 12:00 AM by Jonathan Fuller

In both a personal and professional sense, I've never given mortars and pestles too much thought. In fact, I'm pretty sure I forgot these tools existed until a paper written on the topic crossed my digital desk last week. Coincidentally, the Atlantic ran an ode to the mortar and pestle just days after I read mine, prompting a little more consideration.

While the magazine article waxes poetic about its evolving uses, I'm personally more interested in the fact that, in the thick of the Information Age, we still use a small, blunt club, a bowl, and brute strength to grind food and sometimes pharmaceuticals, just as we did 20,000 years ago when these devices were becoming common. I glean that the reason for this is a simple one: for fine grinding of spices and drugs, mortars and pestles are at least as good as modern automated solutions that are tens of thousands of years newer. They're a static technology--one that has changed very little since its invention. Today, in an age when we're encouraged to upgrade our phones and operating systems every year or two, these technologies are a stark contrast.

Consider the mousetrap, the engineering of which gave rise to a quote probably misattributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. The modern spring-loaded bar trap design was patented a little over a hundred years ago and has remained more or less static ever since. It's simple, effective, and relatively safe for the user. When introduced it represented a huge improvement over previous mouse killers: not only biological ones like cats and humans, but also previous designs that mashed, cut, or electrocuted the mouse to death. Yet each year the US Patent Office receives hundreds of applications for "better mousetraps" and has granted thousands of them in the past hundred years. The one "improvement" that seemed like a good idea--the glue trap introduced in the 1980s--is now often decried as inhumane and troublesome for those without the desire to watch a mouse flail itself to death in a sticky mess.

It doesn't take long to spot static technologies today, even if they're not as extreme or long-lived as the mortar and pestle or as unique as the mousetrap. Barbed wire, "gem-style" paper clips, flyswatters, and bubble wrap are long-lived solutions to relatively major problems. Flyswatters and mousetraps, especially, contributed to public health by efficiently ridding human areas of two vectors of infectious diseases.

I'm not a trained engineer, as most of you are, but I can't help but think of the people who invented or patented these things. If the definition of engineering is to apply scientific and technical knowledge to solve problems, shouldn't these guys have received something like the Engineering Triple Crown, or at least be more widely recognized? They came up with devices or designs so simple and effective that improving upon them has been all but impossible, at least commercially. Doesn't that make them legends in their field?

These days it seems we more often idolize public figures like Steve Jobs for providing us with overpriced pocket-sized computers to solve every problem we didn't know we had. But it's high time to recognize William Hooker, for trillions of ethically destroyed rodents; Robert Montgomery for eliminating flies with a mesh square and not a folded newspaper; and Glidden, Haish, Washburn, and Ellwood for the ability to fence in a 30 acre pasture without killing ourselves first.

1 comments; last comment on 01/20/2016
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Rethinking Information Overload

Posted January 05, 2016 12:00 AM by Jonathan Fuller

A few summers ago my decade-old, rusted-through lawnmower finally bit the dust in the middle of the first mow of the season. At Home Depot, I picked out a model from a brand I'd known to be reliable in the past and happily drove it home. After I'd lugged it to the garage but before opening the box, I decided to read a few online reviews to confirm the fact that I'd chosen a solid machine.

Of course, I found the opposite. A full 15% of reviewers had their starters quit on only the tenth start or so. The manufacturer repeatedly claimed that worn drive wheels were not under warranty. The blade sucked. They're "just not made like they used to be." Three stars out of five. Sufficiently horrified and feeling like an idiot, I lugged it back to the store and exchanged it for one that had a marginally better rating and supposedly less-severe issues. My almost-computer-illiterate father-in-law was amused by this exchange and asked me: "Why don't you just keep it and ignore the reviews instead of breaking your back exchanging it? You're probably in the 85% of those whose starters won't quit."

I admit it's a good question, and it raises bigger ones. How much good does a load of additional information really do? It might eliminate uncertainty but does it also increase neuroticism and fear of failure and mistakes? Information overload is far from a new concept, but is it still legit to gripe about it?

The aspect of info overload that I often fail to consider is that, in many ways, we've been in this position many times before. We all know the revolutionary effects of Gutenberg's printing press, but consider that the mid-15th century was the first time a human could come in contact with more printed material than he or she could consume in a lifetime. Maybe the first instance of overload as we know it? And replication technologies like carbon paper and photocopying made the proliferation of existing information that much easier and cheaper. Obviously, the digital revolution had the greatest effect, in that our information now takes up zero space and can be produced and reproduced at almost no cost.

Researchers continue to share data (more information!) about the staggering costs of information overload. Linda Stone posits that modern knowledge workers operate (poorly) at "continuous partial attention," dealing with email and social network interruptions on a continuous basis. She also found that people unconsciously suspend breathing when checking their email, a phenomenon she calls "email apnea." Studies have found that overload and email interruptions result in lower functional IQ for employees and over a trillion dollars in lost productivity for the US economy as a whole.

Although these days it's bandied about as both a corporate and mental-health buzzword, the practice of mindfulness seems to be an effective technique for combating information overload. Asking oneself "Where does my attention need to be right now?" is a good start. Alan Jacobs, one of my favorite writers on technology and culture, points out that in our modern world "paying attention" is not a metaphor: it's "an economic exercise, an exchange with uncertain results." Jacobs' statement that "we should evaluate our investments of attention at least as carefully and critically as our investments of money" is a profound one in this age of information onslaught.

Information overload is not likely to go away, and will likely get worse. Maybe in the future those who "win" at work and life will be those with manic attention spans, who can switch gears within seconds and consume more information as a result. The whole discussion reminds me of an adage I frequently hear from fellow working parents of young children: "I'm doing too much, and I'm not doing any of it well."

Image credit: Beth Kanter / CC BY 2.0

7 comments; last comment on 01/12/2016
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Holiday Lights are an Unlikely Source of Wi-Fi Interference

Posted December 23, 2015 10:30 AM by HUSH
Pathfinder Tags: holiday lights string lights wi-fi

On the eve of Christmas Eve, all the bloggers have writer's block, the mods are asleep, and the readers are seeking any distraction at all. Are you ready for an extra fluffy blog entry this week?

This is the first holiday I've seen a plentiful amount of light laser projectors installed on people's lawns. And it's the first year I've considered been pressured into putting up exterior lights to celebrate the season. To me, it never made sense to waste electricity by hanging lights, or to spend a day or two untangling light strings and decorating outdoors and then do the task in reverse in January. It's a labor too often wasted by early winter weather, our current Indian summer notwithstanding. Hang a wreath and we're done at my house.

Yet these projectors install via a stake in the front lawn and speckle an exterior wall in red and green lasers. They're more energy efficient than most string lights and infinitely easier to install. One projector is advertised to be able to cover 3296 sq. ft. from a distance of 40 ft., though they're unable to outline or accent architecture or objects. Coupled with an increasing popularity that seems like everyone next year will have one, I did not bother to purchase or install a holiday laser light projector. For at least another year, my residence's exterior will be dim.

It's just one example of progressing consumer technology in holiday lights. Until the 1880s, it was custom to attach candles to Xmas trees with wax or pins, or suspended in lanterns. It was actually quite expensive to do this, and clearly a fire hazard. Inventor Edward H. Johnson is credited as the first to decorate his holiday tree with electric lights, just three years after his business partner Thomas Edison had invented them. Incandescents were the staple holiday light until LED light strings began appearing in the late 1990s. They've improved considerably since then, and are now the market standard. Many enthusiasts *coughcough* even program LED strings to music to create choreographed displays.

But are they crippling your Wi-Fi? Over the past month there were reports that holiday lights were doing just that. According to CNN, the U.K.'s Office of Communications claimed that about 20% of poor Wi-Fi performance is caused by electronics and lights. Painting in broad strokes, it's easy to see why some might think moving the lights or turning them off will yield better Wi-Fi speeds. But as people use more LED lights with an external controller, the less likely LEDs are to cause interference. Even those LEDs directly attached to chips are unlikely to create an issue. Older style incandescent bulbs are also unlikely to cause a disturbance. Instead, issues arise when unshielded light strings are too close to the router. This blogger interviewed telecommunications manufacturer Belkin, who noted that you would have to wrap your devices in unshielded holiday lights before noticing a detriment.

So I guess that explains why I was able to talk my way out of putting lights up outside, but the inside of my home is just a few shades duller than the sun.

Happy Holidays CR4.


6 comments; last comment on 12/24/2015
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Where is 3D Printing Headed?

Posted December 09, 2015 8:10 AM by SavvyExacta

I caught part of a great webinar on 3D printing earlier this week. Why is 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, accelerating? Major patents are expiring!

Dr. Ron Aman from Rochester Institute of Technology and Steven Walker of North Carolina State University discussed the manufacturing scene and how their leading research institutes are developing pioneering approaches.

One example they walked through is how to choose whether to 3D print with plastic vs. going with a molded design.

They also shared the approximate number of 3D printed parts that Boeing has in each plane. Hint - it's a big number!

Key points discussed in the webinar:

  • Understand how research efforts are turning into commercial applications.
  • Gain insight into materials development for 3D printing.
  • Understand the dynamics around expiring patents and their impact on 3D printing adoption rates.
  • Learn about the growing interest in hybrid 3D printing techniques.

You can catch the free webinar, which was sponsored by Stratasys, on-demand for 90 days. In addition to viewing the webinar you'll be able to listen in on a 30 minute Q&A session where Ron and Steven go into more detail on some aspects of 3D printing.

View the list of upcoming webinars

If you watch the webinar, share your thoughts below!

4 comments; last comment on 12/10/2015
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Self-Quantification and Supersensing Using Embeddables

Posted November 06, 2015 2:08 PM by Jonathan Fuller

If my last post on this blog didn't solidify it clearly enough, in many ways I might be labeled a neo-Luddite. Not anti-technology, per se, but concerned enough about its social and cultural ramifications that I stay away from a lot of tech, even that which makes my life a bit easier or more fun. And it's safe to say that wearables fall pretty far from my comfortable pseudotechnological center.

Imagine my horror, then, when I hear increasing buzz about embeddable tech. Embeddables one-up wearables in that they're designed to be injected or implanted directly into a human being. Futurists imagine "post-humans" stuffed with sensors that predict heart attacks, RFID tags that trigger thermostats to adjust a room's temperature based on its inhabitant, and phone infrastructure built into our bodies so we can make calls by snapping our fingers. While embeddables are being touted as the new "next big thing," they raise important questions about our relationship with technology.

The glaring question surrounding embeddable sensors is: Why? Why would anyone want to turn their bodies into a walking data acquisition system? For decades a movement-termed the Quantified Self since around 2002-has pushed self-monitoring and self-sensing technologies with the ultimate goal of...wait for it...lifelogging. While lifelogging has typically been done with wearable computers, embeddables would seem to transcend the human-machine barrier altogether, pushing us closer to becoming fabled transhumans.

On a widespread level, embeddables seem to have the most potential in the healthcare industry for monitoring insulin or other bodily parameters. The cochlear implant, while not a sensor, has been an effective (albeit expensive) treatment for tens of thousands of deaf patients, for example. But will they ever reach the average consumer? Maybe, but not yet. While FitBit and other wearable activity monitors are becoming more and more popular, slow sales and (reportedly) high return rates have hampered Apple Watch, and Google Glass suffered a false start (to put it kindly) before being pulled from production. These warning signs are leading market analysts to question whether consumers really want-let alone need-to quantify their bodies or environments 24/7, or what they expect from wearables at all. Also, I'd think twice about embedding multiple devices emitting RF radiation under my skin. While we don't know the full effects of electromagnetic / cell phone radiation on our biological systems, I'd imagine if embeddables became a thing we'd find out pretty quickly.

Most of the current work on embeddables is done at the guerrilla level, in collaborative online forums like Its members have developed implantable compasses (basically bio-GPS), implantable RFID tags, and more. Rich Lee, a hacker who suffers from deteriorating eyesight, implanted headphones near his ear and has been training himself to use them for echolocation navigation in place of his eyes. Lee is also working on erogenous zone enhancement implants for the adult industry, which not surprisingly is a front-runner for commercially marketable implants.

It's disconcerting to realize that, with a complete lack of support from professional medical staff (with a conscience), biohackers essentially perform surgery on themselves or enlist tattoo and body modification artists to do it, which has led to some pretty horrific accidents. But with the myriad ethical uses for embeddables, these hackers and amateur surgeons might just increase public acceptance in a positive way.

Image credit: Nokola / CC BY 3.0

2 comments; last comment on 11/08/2015
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