Credit cards in 2018

My credit card bill is full of lines like:


Why does GrubHub write its name twice and mention New York? I ordered that meal in Massachusetts. Who swallowed the rest of the letters in “Whole Foods” and why did they leave a 5-digit number? Who is “TST*”? Or “M”?

Visa and MasterCard made about $10 billion and $4 billion, respectively, in annual profit this year. You’d think that if Twitter (whose 2018 profit is in the low hundreds of millions) can afford to offer 280-character messaging, the credit card companies could cough up computer systems that can handle more text than a 19th-century telegram. Maybe even lowercase letters. Or human-readable metadata.

One can dream.


Dieter Rams
Photo credit: Gary Hustwit

I attended the Boston premier of Gary Hustwit’s new film Rams at the Museum of Fine Arts today. I’m a super fan of two of his previous documentaries, Helvetica and Objectified, so I really had little choice.

The movie is great. Dieter Rams is a fascinating character with an incredible résumé. He has a message for us: design is about more than form or function. We need to stop getting excited about the shiny and the beautiful. We need fewer things, and the things we have need to be more permanent and more consequential.

It’s a great message from a legend of the field. And it comes across well on the big screen. The photography is beautiful. The editing is relaxed and the story emerges on its own. The original Brian Eno soundtrack isn’t too shabby either.

The live Q&A with the director left a few ideas percolating in my head. Rams is, of course, famous for his ten principles of good design. In response to an audience question, Hustwit suggested that perhaps we should all have a set of principles that govern how we judge design. Why not try to write them down?

Introducing Scottosphere 4.0

Okay, okay, this site has suffered from a little neglect lately–but I’ve been busy, okay? It’s been 6 years since this site had a major redesign, so it’s time for a refresh! This one’s been a long time in the making too.


I love the history of electrical engineering, and I treasure the handful of random old catalogs and journals that I have picked up over the years. Something about the look of mid-century technical printing speaks to me. Figuring out how to apply those styles to a modern Web site was a little challenging, since my style is utterly unpopular and I had nobody to copy from. The examples I drew from all employed slightly clunky Scotch Roman fonts mixed with worn Futura, paired with delightfully formal photo and illustration presentation, artifacts of meticulous hand layout. I resisted the temptation to add simulated folds and 3-hole punches. You’re welcome.

It was fun to be reminded of how much high-quality technical content was curated and published by the giants of industry themselves.

I kept the overall grayscale look because it still evokes the Netscape-based Ghost of Internets Past, which feels right.

Words about WordPress

I reluctantly built the whole site on top of WordPress again. I think WordPress has passed its peak years. Its developers are focused on a controversial effort to overhaul the editor (fine in theory) without improving serious underlying architectural problems with the design. They seem much more focused on being a CMS than a writing platform. And it remains an enormously clunky PHP application. But I haven’t found a perfect alternative yet either.

And now…

I have a lot to say about real life, so let’s get to it.

The BBQ Flosser(!?)

A couple years ago, a bunch of scare-mongering news articles warned the public about the dangers of ingesting errant steel bristles left behind by low-quality barbecue cleaning brushes. (I’ll save you the click: eating bristles is bad for you.)

I’m not the sort of person who is easily scare-mongered, but I’ll admit I bought a commercially-available wood scraper anyway. The build quality was disappointing: it was made of narrow glued-up pieces of hardwood that quickly fell apart at the (non-waterproof?) glue lines. Also, it never developed the grooves that were supposed to clean the grill grates.

The BBQ Flosser

Introducing the BBQ Flosser, a one-night build (in red oak) on my Shaper Origin. With a little help from the bandsaw, to get that tapered blade.

The BBQ Flosser

If I do another one, I’ll streamline the handle quite a bit–canoe paddles have this down right. But I got the grooves just right for optimum scraping (flossing?) on my barbecue.

The BBQ Flosser

My Take on the Shaker Peg Rail

The peg rail is one of the neatest features of Shaker design. It’s simple and utilitarian. People continue to produce classic Shaker-style turned pegs, but for an unused space behind my kitchen entry door, I was curious if I could evolve the design into something equally robust but modern.

Hat rack

I started with a solid maple board I found in the shop. I added a nice backward bevel to give it a more distinct shadow. For the pegs, I wanted to use a clean dowel form. But I also wanted to ensure that coats couldn’t fall off–without installing them at an unsightly non-90º angle. That requirement led me to what I call the “whistle cut.” It works! Figuring out how to make it repeatably on the bandsaw was probably the biggest challenge of the project.

Hat rack

Public Buildings in America

Hello again, after a long hiatus. I’m still here!

I just happened upon a nice update on the renovation of the old Eero Saarinen-designed TWA terminal at JFK airport. Of course it’s beautiful. Check out the rendering of that fountain-lined entrance! But of course it’s not going to be an airport anymore, either. Somewhere in the last 50 years, we decided that communal public spaces like airports should be caustic, unpleasant environments with a minimum of comfort and ornamentation. There are exceptions big and small, but grand public spaces are largely not being built in the United States anymore. We save that class of work for luxury hotels, theaters, and so on. It’s a shame, because it’s a choice we make.

Hold My Beer

Problem: the nice fireslate, birch and steel end table you built years ago is now covered in children’s books, leaving no place to put your beer.

Solution: build a beer shelf for your couch.

I used 12 mm phenolic-faced plywood. It’s not the quality stuff from Finland (Koskisen), but I don’t have a local dealer for it so I’m stuck with what I can easily mail-order. Phenolic plywood is waterproof and looks amazing. I would probably build everything with it if I could.

This is one of the few woodworking projects I have designed completely in CAD (Fusion360) and constructed with my Shaper Origin CNC router (which is amazing).

An Cabinet for the Bathroom

Everything is better with lasers.

Our house has a small bathroom, which necessitates a thoughtful approach to storage. It also has an exterior wall that is not vertical (owing to the Mansard roof) and a ceiling that is not level (built circa 1895!). So, for the over-toilet storage, not just any cabinet would do.

Immediately after installation.

So I built a custom face-frame cabinet out of high-quality white oak plywood. White oak looks great, wears well, and on top of that, holds up nicely to the moisture of a bathroom. Since it’s custom, I figured I’d make the inside of the box as pretty as the solid wood face frame.

Testing the door fit. Look at those gaps.

A water-based polyurethane finish gives it a long-lasting and, crucially, an appearance that won’t darken over time.

Due to the crazy geometry of the opening, I scribed a Masonite template and carefully constructed the face frame (complete with beveled rip cuts) to fit. I was pleased to see that it fit snugly and was dead-on level on the first try.

The Blum Euro-style hinges I used did a nice job of allowing the tiny adjustments needed to make the inset doors look perfect. Although the installation was easy, I’m not sure I’d use them again in this application due to the depth they require inside the cabinet–they really interfere with storing boxes in a shallow cabinet. I used a Blum Aventos HK-XS door lift to balance the upward-opening top cabinet door and was delighted by how superbly engineered it is.