Something Positive About an American Airline

Scott McCartney of the Wall Street Journal nominated Delta Air Lines as America’s best carrier of 2018. He backs it up with specific statistics, but I have two other reasons to believe it’s true.

First: the people on the phone. Every phone call I’ve made to Delta—admittedly not often—has connected me to someone who is unfailingly polite (“oh, my son loves ____”) and absolutely competent (“I’m going to move you and your baby because that particular aircraft doesn’t have an extra oxygen mask in that row”). Sometimes even a little too chatty, in that charming southern way. That is absolutely not typical of other airlines in the US.

Second: employee autonomy. I also travel on a bunch of lower-cost carriers, and I’ve become accustomed to the notion that airline employees are slaves to the whims of some faraway machine with grander plans for us (inevitably referred to in conversation as “the computer”). Stuff goes wrong all the time in air travel. Senior employees of Delta appear empowered to do pretty much anything to correct problems. I’ve seen them rearrange seats, redirect luggage, and hold flights, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were allowed to re-route planes. I can’t forget the time that my flight to a funeral was canceled, putting me on standby for the last conceivable flight that could actually make it in time. The replacement flight was sold-out, but with no more than a nod at me, the gate agent turned away a paying passenger in the final minutes of boarding so she could give me the seat. That is the kind of world you get to live in when humans are in charge.

Instability: When Machines Take Over

Behind the broad, swift market slide of 2018 is an underlying new reality: Roughly 85% of all trading is on autopilot—controlled by machines, models, or passive investing formulas, creating an unprecedented trading herd that moves in unison and is blazingly fast. Behind the Market Swoon: The Herdlike Behavior of Computerized Trading, The Wall Street Journal

As an engineer, I know a few things about feedback loops. The world is full of feedback loops. I design electronic ones, but the financial markets are full of them too. When a bunch of people build automatic control loops around some crucial piece of infrastructure (like the stock market) and gradually turn up the gain to maximize profits (as we know they will), the system will eventually go unstable and oscillate. You can model that. It looks like someone learning to drive a car while spotting the road directly in front of the hood, overcorrecting for every perceived error.

Meanwhile, to the great detriment of humanity, many bright minds–including many of my college classmates–are engaged in high-tech R&D to advance the state of the art in automated “investing.” They have built new algorithms, better supercomputers, broken new ground in programming languages and big-data analysis in the name of automated trading. Millions of dollars have been invested in further gaming the system, like by locating datacenters in places that optimize communications latency at sub-millisecond levels.

Does any of this work serve the real world? Of course not. None of it creates lasting value–just money. Automated trading exists to siphon money out of the real economy and into the hands of the financial industry. Appreciate for a moment that it’s not really fair to call these schemes “investing” if they are automated and high speed. Investing implies that you are making a long-term bet on something, not responding to a tiny signal.

I’ve met these people and their companies at career fairs where we compete for young talent, and it feels bleakly hopeless and strange to me that nobody seems to question the ethics of it. Of course it’s technically demanding and academically interesting work, but so is building weapons of mass destruction. Except instead of building machines to kill people, you get to build machines that gamble with people’s retirement savings.

If I were king of the world, I would fix this problem quickly and easily without violating any of the core principles of capitalism: by introducing a highly random and arbitrary (but fairly short) delay on every trade, automated or human. There is no real reason that trading needs to be fast. Overnight, automated computerized trading would be wiped out, but fairly so. The big banks siphoning money out of the system through high-speed financial arbitrage would lose a potent source of income, but this consequence would pose no detriment to the actual (productive) economy.

Think about it.

Credit cards in 2018

My credit card bill is full of lines like:

GRUBHUBPUNJABPALACE GRUBHUB.COM NY
and
WHOLEFDS RVR 10214 CAMBRIDGE MA
and
TST* DARWIN S LTD. - M CAMBRIDGE MA

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.

Rams

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.

Inspiration

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.