Thursday, January 27, 2011

Special Screws

From Miscellaneous
I'm going to lose my science cred if I don't put more charts on here, so here's an attempt to summarize yesterday's blog in graphics.

I'm told that there are a lot of illegal mods for X-Boxes so I made that the pinnacle of nefarious purposes. But I'm really not sure what the deal is with public bathroom stalls having those screws that can be tightened but not loosened. Is that to prevent blatant destruction of property with common hand tools or to prevent juvenile pranks where the walls fall down on cue? I made it the middle ground because I just don't know. I found an online store selling screwdrivers  to remove those one-way screws but the picture showed them with a rubber cap on the end so I can't see what they actually look like. There was a warning that they are only for removing, not installing the screws. I want to know how they work!

Weird segue -- how do I educate the managers of establishments with public bathrooms in the workings of a floor drain? Maybe I should go to Vistaprint and get a pack of preprinted post-it notes to stick to the mirror.
Dear Management: There's a curve in the drain pipe down under the floor -- a trap -- and you have to keep water in it. That stench in your bathroom is the sewer. Pour water in that hole in the floor. Thank you.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

No, you can't fix it

I'm gonna come right out and say Apple can put any kind of screws they want in my phone. I respect the engineers at Apple. Anybody that thinks they know better can suck it.
My iPhone 4 with the new fabulous pentalobular screws
I've had to two of my friends pop up on IM to complain about these tiny screws on the iPhone 4, like it's some kind of personal insult that Apple designed their own screw head. They were of the same frame of mind as MJ on iFixit in this video.

Apple's Diabolical Plan to Screw your iPhone from iFixit on Vimeo.

I can't watch that whole video because it just annoys me unnecessarily, particularly when it gets to the part where she's trying to sell something. I don't believe MJ has ever had to develop a bill of materials for a piece of consumer electronics nor deal with the transition to manufacturing and roll out of a new product. Well I have. So MJ can suck it. Repair is not the main concern of the Apple engineers when they specify their screws. They are thinking of how the assemblers can most easily put these things together. The next issue is how a proper service technician will reliably remove the screws to refurbish the phone with a new battery down the line. How the iFixit girl will take the back off so she can take it to her manicurist and get it decorated to match her nails is really not their concern. They probably only used those Philips screws in MJ's early version American phone because they had a box full of them they had to use up and they were waiting for the factory to ramp up making their special screws.

The ones in iPhone 4s now are five lobed flower-shaped screws apparently specific to Apple. After this became a news story "pentalobular screwdriver" shot up 1000% in Google searches. These screws are freaking tiny, by the way. The actual part where the screwdriver would go is smaller than the end of a toothpick. From inspection with my bookworm eye I can tell you the sides of the indentation are not angled like a Philips, they are straight, like a square bit. There are a lot of different screw drives and there are reasons they exist. Square bits, for example, hold the screw better at an angle. This one looks like that, straight sided cylinder cut out of the head of the screw, not angled like Philips. Say the Apple assembly line wanted to have the phone sideways when the screws were installed, like my phone in the picture above. I mean, I would, to keep the screw from accidentally falling into the docking connector. You're going to want a bit that will hold the screw. Phillips wouldn't work at all. The screw would fall off the bit as you tried to get it in the screw hole.

I checked with my friend Cheryl Tulkoff, a reliability engineer, to see I could find ANYBODY who would be with me on the side of the pentabular screw. Here's what she said:

It's funny that Apple ever used Phillips head screws to begin with. We routinely recommend against them in manufacturing because they are notoriously easy to strip - especially when they're small. So, you don't want to use them in situations where you'd expect to have to a need to remove them. I could see where you could end up doing cosmetic damage to the case trying remove stripped screws.
However, the real advantage is really in the replacement options from a manufacturing perspective. The Torx are supposed to save money in the manufacturing process now that torque controlled screwdrivers are so widely available. The Torx head wears the bits much less so they last longer before needing repair. And, they're supposed to stay tight once installed correctly - no backing out. 
But, tamper-proofing is also an important concern for warranty costs. Contrary to the opinions of folks who hack their devices, the majority of users aren't savvy enough to do anything but damage their device by opening it. And, everyone lies when they take a product in for warranty about what actually happened to it. :-)
In your face, iFixit! I think the pentalobular screw head is probably better than Torx since it is SO VERY TINY. Any sharp edges would just break right off. I think this screw design is kind of genius. I'm really sorry these people on the internet are being so mean about it.

Some stuff just isn't designed to be taken apart or repaired. I took apart my Mighty Mouse to try to fix it.
Once I got it apart and cleaned it I found that that my sweaty hands had just corroded through the conductor on the flex circuit and it was a goner. Saved me the trouble of gluing it back together. I bought another one for $60. I accepted that I just wore it out. I used it A LOT. I bet it cost me about $0.0001 per hour of use, so that's perfectly acceptable. But it doesn't make me mad that they designed a product that was held together with glue. They didn't do it to keep me out. They did it because that was the best way to make it. The scroll ball had issues though, and they phased it out. Now I use a big glass trackpad that won't corrode.

I bought the iPhone because I expected a high level of build quality, plus it was highly subsidized by the phone company. I'm not even sure I agree with MJ's claim that once she buys her phone it's hers to do with as she wants. We're really just renting it from AT&T. I plan to use my iPhone 4 until they are ready to entice me into getting a new one with fabulous new features. People are lucky if they even keep the same phone for 2 years. We already know what happens when I drop it in the creek. I just go straight to the Apple store and get a new one. I could tell by looking at the outside there was no way I could clean the condensation out of the camera lens even if the rest of it wasn't damaged. This is not something I'm going to try to "repair," even if I had the right screwdriver.
So to recap, thinks the pentabular screw is evil. In this article on they kind of take my side and think iFixit overreacts. In the background of MJs video you can see this poster. Honestly I find this iFixit manifesto kind of offensive. I bet these people also want their new products to be inexpensive. R&D is a bare bones business. When I designed consumer electronics I was usually creating a Quick Start guide right after I finished checking the first sample off the production line and I was lucky if I even know how it worked since that was kind of a firmware thing and not really my area. It's not like there are separate people writing the instructions, let alone a whole team to work out the instructions for how to repair it. I don't think repair teaches engineering as much as trying to design stuff from scratch does. Especially since these dopes on iFixit seem to have no appreciation whatsoever of what goes into designing and manufacturing a product like the iPhone.

Now if they were talking about a lawnmower I'm completely with them. My Snapper back in Beachton came with a wonderful book that tells me exactly how to do all the maintenance on it. Step by step instructions for how to change the oil, how to drop the deck and get the blade off, how to tension the belt, on and on. Because it's a LAWNMOWER! Built by people in McDonough, Georgia with hand tools. OK, they're probably pneumatic, but the point is that it's MADE to be worked on by humans. Circuit boards today have components 1.8 the size of a piece of rice. The solder is silkscreened on and the parts are placed by precision robots, soldered in an oven and tested on a specially designed test station. They are not user serviceable. They're just not. If you want to get your phone apart so you can paint it then that's not repair, that's art, and I am fine with that. But I would think a real artist would recognize the beauty in that design and wouldn't be demanding inferior screws. And then try to sell them to you.....

Sunday, January 16, 2011

People with no sleep smell like cake mix and violence

It's been raining since yesterday at 5:00 pm. I've only been in Austin half a year but this seems unusually dreary for here. Not such great weather to cheer up  comedians after Fargo and Des Moines. Despite this downer Patton Oswalt and his opener Joe Mande got up on stage and told their stories at the Paramount tonight to the obvious enjoyment of a sold out crowd.

Patton was incredible. But I have to take a moment to reprimand Joe before I get to the rest because we have been over this. Cows have four teats. Finish one, there are THREE left, NOT FIVE. I'm gonna let the rest of the ridiculousness of that bit go about the first man to drink milk. This is Texas and I guess you thought we'd be lax with the specifics of evolution and domestication of livestock.

Patton shared some stories about his book tour and radio interviews and airport escapades. But what I liked the most was what I said before -- the word usements that he structures -- he's just such a poet. He can take the same story every person on the planet who has a baby has told about no sleep but with a few carefully chosen words he can make it fresh. "People with no sleep smell like cake mix and violence." I love that. I appreciate that he had the right crowd for a line like that. I was jealous.

Smells definitely trigger instant adjectives like that sometimes. But when you say them to  people in the wrong mood it doesn't work. I opened the front door to our office one day last week right after my boss microwaved some of his weird curried leftovers. "Man, it smells like a maharaja's crotch in here," I blurted out.

My boss was standing at the secretary's desk and gave me that look like a dog trying to do math. "How would you know that?" he said. Oh never mind, Mr. Literal.

Patton did a thorough analysis of sweat pants, something he no longer mocks since fatherhood. He pointed out several immutable truths, such as the concept that nobody ever takes a shower and does a full toilette only to pull on sweat pants to go to the grocery store. "Swamp ass" was the apt term he used. He used appropriate hand gestures to describe how this funky zone can be used as a weapon, sliced off and thrown at attackers. Howling laughter.

As an anti-kids person I guess I am exempt from the sweat pants appreciation group. It was sweatpants that contributed to that poor woman getting burned so severely by the McDonald's coffee. I am suspicious of them as a garment. I am more a disciple of Dolly Parton in this area. Dolly once said she never goes anywhere unless she has her wig on and her makeup just so. She has to maintain her persona even just to run errands. I think that's admirable. I'm going with that. Patton can have his two hours sleep and sweat pants with matching t-shirt and flip-flops. What may be a heinous outfit is legitimately good material and I appreciate that.

Thanks for the show!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Where do platypus live?

Newly hatched mammals (Reddit link)
When I was in Oceanography grad school I had a class called Marine Nekton. I tried to get the professor to let me present a paper about platypus but he refused. Said it was because they live in fresh water. Harumph. I bet they could live in salt water if they wanted to. He was probably just afraid of the blank looks from my classmates with undergraduate degrees in stuff like Psychology when I tried to explain why there's no electric field inside a hollow conductor.

Back then I was interested in the hearing of mammals that go from water to land. Seals, otters, walruses, scuba divers, things like that. I was looking for any papers about how animals that do that deal with how different it sounds in and out of the water. I had an idea to make a theater that simulated what it would sound like to be underwater. I'm still up for doing that if the Navy wants to give me a grant. I hypothesize that humans could learn to judge distance and direction at the faster speed of sound underwater if they just had enough practice. It's possible the Navy has already proven this but they are really secretive about that kind of research.

So anyway, the platypus has terrible hearing but they are as fascinating as sharks with regards to electricity. They close their eyes and nose and ears when they hunt, feeling around for shrimp in the mud with those bills. They have an electrical sensor array in there. Platypus are so sensitive to electric fields the scientists who study them in captivity have to build the platypussary inside a Faraday cage.

That's right, I said platypussary. That is possibly my favorite word of all time. If anybody wants to get some platypus and study them let me know because I would love to design and build a platypussary. That would look so awesome on my resumé.

Before I read the paper about the platypussary I never really knew how big a full grown platypus is. I pictured it around otter or beaver size. They are much smaller than that, only as big as a small house cat. I thought you ought to know.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Small world extends to space

The first I heard of the shooting rampage in Arizona was this Discovery News link on Dr. Ian O'Neil's twitter feed. I saw the big picture of Gabriel Giffords with her astronaut husband and thought, "Oh NO! This woman was just shot through the head and her husband is CIRCLING THE EARTH in the SPACE STATION?!" Fortunately the article clarified for me that the astronaut on the space station is the identical twin brother of the man in the picture. Scott Kelly is clean shaven with glasses and his brother has a mustache and no glasses. Thanks for that, twins.

Just last week I watched a great video Scott Kelly made on the space station about how he prepares and eats his food.

My impression at the time was that people with shaved heads look very professional in zero gravity. But I wondered if he has to wear his glasses frames especially tight to keep them from drifting off his head. I still wonder these things, but now I also wonder how he deals with doing his job in space with the emotional distraction of having his sister-in-law targeted by a gunman with a whole slew of her friends taken out at the same time. Once again I've gone all hyper-emotional over something that has nothing to do with me. I can't help crying for this engineer in space.

I imagine him watching Brian Williams tomorrow night (no news feed on the weekends) on that tiny little monitor while he eats Starkist tuna out of the same pouch Alton Brown recommends for home use. If I was up there watching news about my family in crisis I would break down and cry, therefore my eyes are welling up right now just thinking about it. But I'm pretty sure there is no crying on the space station. And I expect that Scott Kelly is similar to other engineers I know, like my brother, who could always block out any distraction to focus on what he needed to get done.

Back in college I had a crappy K-car with $60 tires. That's what I paid for all four. One afternoon I slid off a rain-slicked road into a tree, broke a headlight and was left with one front wheel hanging in midair. I rang the doorbell at a nearby house and borrowed the phone to call my brother to come help me. He told me he had a test the next day and couldn't leave his books. He said he would call our friend Tom for me. Tom liked any excuse to avoid school work. He came with a rope and pulled my car back so all four tires were on the ground. I envied my brother his ability to concentrate like that back in the day, and I still do. I'm starting to figure out that it's basically a kind of handicap -- I have extreme emotional reactions where normal people are blasé. The only sure way to concentrate is to write about whatever it is I'm overemotional about. I'm not sure what other people feel about this shooting spree. Not a lot of people in my social network have said anything about their feelings. Plait says his heart is heavy. "It’s OK to grieve, it’s OK to be horrified, and it’s OK to be angry. I’m angry, damn angry." From the sound of this I'm not getting the same emotional reaction. Am I grieving? I'm pretty sure I'm not horrified or angry. I'm just really sad in a kind of oblique way. I guess that's grieving. I'm not interested in the details other people are so much. I haven't even bothered to go get a look at Sarah Palin's crosshairs map. I'm just worried about the engineer stuck in space while his twin brother is probably pacing the floor of a waiting room somewhere.

So anyway, I hope Scott Kelly is like my brother. And considering he licked the scissors after he opened his beef stew in that video he made I am pretty sure he is exactly like my brother. Before we moved off campus to an apartment together my brother lived in the new swanky dorm on West Campus. One day I took the Stinger bus from my unairconditioned old dorm on East campus to go visit him. He was making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and asked me if I wanted one. I was so relieved that I said no when he licked off the spoon and put it away in the pencil tray of his desk drawer.

I hope Brian Williams has good news for you tomorrow night, @StationCDRKelly. I think the green beans and mushrooms sounded a lot better than asparagus, especially since you're drinking your reclaimed urine. I would go right out and buy NASA brand water filters if you were the spokesperson.