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August 5, 2020

Ad Astra

Yesterday, a prototype of SpaceX's future starship rocket achieved a flawless 500-foot-high test flight, returning intact.

Details here.

Elon Musk is as close as it gets to being a sorcerer.

August 5, 2020 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

How to choose a murder mystery when you're in a hurry

Stanley Fish, in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, explained how to choose a mystery when you only have a couple minutes.

Hint: Not by its cover.

Here's the essay.

Murder, I Read

You're in the mystery section of a bookstore. You have maybe three or four minutes to make a choice. (That is your assignment, if you choose to accept it.) How do you go about deciding?

Look at the back cover? No, back-cover copy is written by an advertising flack who probably hasn't read the book and is trying for something short and punchy like (and I will be making none of this up) "As unpredictable as trade winds" or "It couldn’t get any worse. Until it does." Besides, rarely will the style of back-cover prose be anything like the style of the book itself, so reading it won't tell you what you want to know. Depending on your taste, it might tell you something usefully negative. The moment I spot a reference to any country but this one, I move on. No international settings for me. Ditto for any promise that the book I am holding will be funny. Funny is for sitcoms and stand-up comedians. When it comes to mysteries, I'm a Matthew Arnold guy, all for high seriousness.

How about the blurbs, especially if a few of your favorites are touting the merits of an author new to you? I used to take direction from blurbs until I told a very famous mystery writer that he was right to have praised a book I had bought on his authority. He replied that he didn't remember it, probably hadn't read it, and was no doubt doing a favor for his publisher. Members of that club, it seems, pass blurbs out to each other like party favors.

The only thing left — and this is sure-fire — is to read the first sentence. The really bad ones leap out at you. Here's one that has the advantage of being short (you can close the book quickly): "He cut through the morning rush-hour crowd like a shark fin through water." Enough said. Here's one that begins O.K., except for the heroine's name, but then goes on a beat and a half too long: "Brianne Parker didn't look like a bank robber or a murderer — her pleasantly plump baby face fooled everyone." You don't need the stuff after the dash. Brianne's not looking like a murderer is the hook that draws you in to find out why she is one. The "pleasantly plump baby face" bit lets you off the hook and dumps you on a cliché, which might be all right if the author gave any sign of knowing that it was one. This guy is going to hit false notes for 300 pages, but I won't be listening.

Sometimes a first sentence is bad because it's pretentious. "Some stories wait to be told." That’s an opening Tolstoy or Jane Austen might have considered (although they would have produced superior versions of it). But mystery writers usually aren’t Tolstoys or Austens, and a first sentence like this one is a signal (buyer beware) that the author is intent on contemplating his or her "craft" and wants you to contemplate it too. No thanks.

Time is running out.

Here's something much better: "Stromose was in high school when he met the boy who would someday murder his wife and son." High marks for compression, information, and what I call the "angle of lean." A good first sentence knows about everything that will follow it and leans forward with great force, taking you with it. As you read this one you already want to find out (a) what was the relationship between the two in high school (b) what happened that turned a "boy" into a murderer, and (c) what sequence of events led to his murdering these particular people? The only thing wrong is that the author is as impressed with the sentence as he wants you to be; it is written with a snap and a click of self-satisfaction.

And here, finally, is the real thing, efficient, dense, and free of self-preening: "Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride." The name is nicely cadenced and sounds serious; "eleven years old at the time" takes the seriousness away, but it comes back with a vengeance and with a question: descent into murder, how did that happen? The answer — "with a bus ride" — only deepens the mystery, and we're off. And look, the book is big and fat. Sold.

August 5, 2020 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Singing Sand Dunes

August 5, 2020 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Mistake-Proofing: Designing Errors Out" — Richard B. Chase & Douglas M. Stewart

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I spent a most instructive half-hour yesterday with this slim (56 pages) book.

A concise introduction to the concepts of mistake-proofing or "poka-yoke," the quality improvement tool of choice in the Toyota production System.

You know how I feel about mistakes: it's so much easier to avoid them than to correct them.

Especially if they're links in a chain of events that go off the rails as a result.

The book was originally published in hardcover in 1995 and went out of print several years later, only reappearing in 2008.

Excerpts below.

Mistake-Proofing: Designing Errors Out

This book is about mistakes and how to prevent them from ruining your business. It's about how to rescind Murphy's Law. In this book we present a way in which you can control the mistakes that cause the defects. It allows you to go back into the process, weed out the mistakes, and ensure that they will never be a problem again. We call this mistake-proofing.

Mistake-proofing is really quality control in its strictest sense. It does not redesign a process as reengineering does, nor does it track problems as statistical process control does. It simply keeps the system performing as it was originally designed to perform.

As a method, mistake-proofing is comprehensive. You can apply it to services just as easily as to manufacturing. This is because mistake-proofing is designed to deal with defects that originate from human mistakes as well as those that originate from equipment and materials.

Most importantly, mistake-proofing is the only method we know that includes customers' actions in the quality control system. The importance of this is emphasized by one study that estimates that customers of services are responsible for one-third of the the problems they complain about.

Another big advantage of mistake-proofing is that it is simple — you don't need a Ph.D. in statistics to apply it. In reality, mistake-proofing is more like a structured form of common sense.

Mistake-proofing is also inexpensive relative to its design alternative, redundancy.

Mistake-proofing works on the principle that if you look behind every defect, you will find a mistake that caused it. For our purposes, we define a mistake as the result of an activity, either mental or physical, that deviates from what was intended. If you can correct or prevent the mistakes in your business, you will eliminate the defects.

Machine mistakes, being generally mechanical in nature, are better understand than human mistakes. They are, therefore, more predictable and easier to control. If we look closely at the different types of machine mistakes, we see that they fall into two categories: those mistakes we can see coming and those that catch us unaware.

Employees experience a continuous stream of encounters — one defect is a low failure rate. Customers experience a single defect as a 100% failure rate.

Mistakes are random events and therefore we must continuously watch for them. Sampling is not good enough. It looks at only a small proportion of the outputs in a process. It assumes that the rest of the outputs will be similar to the sample and that, therefore, we can draw conclusions about the entire output.

The best way to ensure the detection of a mistake is to make sure that something in the environment makes it very obvious that one has been made. A good example of an environmental cue is the inevitable "extra" parts that remain after a do-it-yourself repair project. These parts make it very clear that you have not reassembled the item correctly.

The key to creating mistake-proofing devices and procedures is not to do too much at once. Instead, concentrate on clever, inexpensive methods to check for only one mistake at a time. If you have two possible mistakes, develop two separate devices or procedures to catch them.

Toyota, which is very experienced at mistake-proofing, averages about twelve devices for each machine.

Go/No-Go gauges are not limited to the shop floor. Customers often use such gauges to detect and prevent mistakes. Some amusement park rides require riders to be above a certain height (so they do not slip through the safety restraints) or below a certain height (to keep larger people off of rides meant only for small children). Parks do not want customers to discover they are too small or large after waiting in a potentially very long line. By placing a gauge at he front of the line, customers can tell if they are tall enough (or short enough) to go on the ride without waiting in line.


Remember that the goal is to develop clever, simple and inexpensive devices. Don't immediately opt for the high-tech solution.


August 5, 2020 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ikebana Ring

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From the website:

The Ikebana Ring is a sterling silver ring that holds a small bouquet of wildflowers.

Ikebana is the Japanese art of floral arrangement, based on a philosophy of developing a closeness with nature.

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Insert a flower stem and wind it around the ring to create your own arrangement.

Designed by Gahee Kang.

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Features and Details:

• 0.925 sterling silver

• Small (3.5-5.5), Medium (6-8.5), or Large (9-12)

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August 5, 2020 at 08:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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