17 August 2011

Earbuds always breaking? Use modular design.

As a computer scientist (or perhaps more accurately, something in between a scientist and an engineer), I am always thrilled to see one of the core concepts of my discipline pop up in the wider world.  In this case the concept is modularity - a continuum describing the degree to which a system’s components may be separated and recombined [see linked wikipedia article for citation].  Now, modularity well predates computer science - Henry Ford relied on it in building his auto empire and the idea wasn't new then - but we've definitely made it our own (G-d, I can't imagine what hell it must have been to program custom assembly code for each task, or perhaps I can and simply don't want to).

In the past couple of months, I've been occasionally providing advice to the Ironbuds Kickstarter project (not paid, I'm just really excited about it, although I will hopefully get to beta test their stuff down the line) that addresses one of my personal peeves - my earbuds are always breaking.  Since I got my first smartphone, I've continually been disappointed in the durability of the earbuds I need to use the thing efficiently.  All I need is something that project sound into my ears and collect sound from my voice while leaving my hands free.  Sounds simple, right?  In actuality, not so much.

Over the years, I've gone through literally dozens of pairs of earbuds/headphones.  I've had bluetooth ones that hardly worked from the get go, other bluetooth sets that were really nicely designed but didn't hold up - the Plantronics Voyager 855 had a really neat design, but shoddy construction and when it broke after a couple of months, it had already been discontinued!  I've tried a variety of wired headphones: from the crappy buds Apple includes with the iPhone to, most recently, specially ruggedized JBuds J4M.  Most of these broke within a couple of months:  an earbud stopped working (or completely disintegrated in the case of Apple's lovely buds), the microphone died, the cable attachment to the buds or jack loosened.

Now, I'm not going to claim I'm the most gentle fellow on my hardware.  I'm physically active, travel often, and fairly wired in.  That said, I don't walk around smashing my stuff with a mallet ;-)  My average laptop lasts me 4 years and I only buy new cellphones because my contract is up and I see something enticing.  So why can't I keep a pair of earbuds for more than a couple of months before they belly up?  Probably because (1) they aren't made to last, (2) even if they were, it is likely that eventually one of their many subcomponents will fail, and (3) for earbuds, when subcomponent fails the entire item becomes essentially useless.

This is clearly a pain economically (I've spent hundreds of $'s just on earbuds/headphones).  I do want to recognize that some of these companies are really great in replacing their product - particularly the folks at JLabs & Skullcandy, and the J4's hold up better than any I've seen yet.  However, there are only so many times I want to go back to customer support and ask for replacements.  Moreover, it is so wasteful. These things take natural resources to make and, so far as I know, just get dumped in a landfill, where they can eventually leach poison into my great-grandchildrens' (or someone else's) food and water.  Finally it is just plain lame, which irritates the engineer in me.  Modern design should be able to produce something better.

That's where modularity comes in.  If one were to simply design headphones so that each individual subcomponent could be plugged into the others... well if one component broke, it could be easily swapped out  by the user for a replacement.  Less cost, less waste.  Moreover, this kind of design would have immediate benefits w/ respect to unexpected jerks and pulls (ever got your cord stuck on the doorknob or had your phone fall while you were plugged in?).  Instead of the maximum instantaneous load being borne by the cord (no matter how large), on a sufficiently strong pull, the connectors will just separate and you can plug them back in later!  You can think of this as being a kind of circuit-breaker for physical stress - which I'm guessing will result in less breakage.  I'm very much looking forward to getting my hands on a pair and playing around!

It shouldn't have taken decades for modularity to make its way into headphone design, but, then again, consider the economics.  Breakable/disposable stuff can be sold again and again = $$$ for companies.  Stuff you can repair yourself = $ for companies.  Companies like $$$.  Hence no modularity.  Platforms like Kickstarter let folks like Thomas Young, who has worked in the industry for decades and is now co-founding Acoustic Forge to produce products like Ironbuds - modular, kit-based earphones, obtain funds from folks like you or I, sidestepping those blokes in the corporate offices who are trying to convince you to buy a disposable refrigerator and bathtub ;-)  I'd recommend checking it out.

08 August 2011

Google Chrome takes up 4.3G of space?!?

Was just cleaning Linda's MacBook as it had run out of disk space and was hardly functioning. While doing so, I found something that completely shocked me. Google Chrome was taking up 4.3G of space - more than 50% of the storage taken by all applications on the computer!
So why does Chrome need so much space? Well it turns out that it apparently never deletes a previous version when it upgrades - wasting your hard drive space for no useful purpose I can see. This is simply sloppy Google! On Linda's computer there are no less than 47 Versions of Chrome (ranging from build 6.0.472.41 to 13.0.782.99) currently stored - each one taking up between 80-112M!
This is enough to make me consider removing Chrome from my computers.
For now, I'm just deleting the previous versions. For those of you who aren't familiar with the command line, here's a simple recipe:
  • make sure Chrome is closed
  • use Finder to open /Applications/Utilities/Terminal
  • in terminal type
$ cd /Applications/Google\ Chrome.app/Contents/Versions
$ ls -l
  • then read the output and find the highest number (e.g. 13.0.782.109)
  • in terminal type
$ mv 13.0.782.109 ..
$ rm *
$ mv ../13.0.782.109 .
  • replacing my example number with your highest number
  • type
$ exit
  • and close the Terminal program. You should be all set to restart Chrome.
Having said this, I take no responsibility should you come to harm by following the above. This post is for informational purposes only and implies no guarantee of positive results, your milage may vary.

05 August 2011

The best defense is a passed defense

I know I haven't blogged in quite a while. The main reason - well I've been trying to finish up my PhD. It hasn't really left me with any spare time, well at least not enough to blog.

So why am I blogging now? Because I successfully defended my dissertation. Apparently the whole "slow and steady" thing payed off! If you are curious as to what my dissertation was actually on, well you can try looking at my academic homepage in a week or two when I get a chance to update and streamline it (yes I know, the material there is currently about half-a-decade old). Or you can just email me.

Suffice to say, at the moment, I'm just about disserationed out (though I am quite passionate about the research upon which the dissertation was built). Am currently running some final experiments to round things out and plan to deposit shortly after the Tisha B'av fast (saddest day of the Jewish year) is done. Doing it beforehand strikes me as overly inauspicious.

Anyway, I'm really happy and may even start writing stuff again on a more regular basis... maybe.