Monday, February 26, 2024

A Tale of Two Companies: Information Unlimited and Edmund Optics


I'm going to address a branch of engineering or business ethics that you don't see discussed very often.  The question it answers is:  what obligation does a company founder have to see that the business continues after his or her passing?  To help us think about this question, I'm going to give two examples at opposite extremes:  Information Unlimited and Edmund Optics.


In November of 2008, I ordered three high-voltage capacitors from a company I'd never heard of before:  Information Unlimited.  The company's website had an edgy vibe and featured high-voltage equipment and components that are hard to find in one place.  Whoever was running the site clearly had fun in their work:  many of the items appealed to the teenage-mad-scientist types and were more like semi-safe toys than serious equipment. 


Over the years, I ordered hundreds of dollars' worth of supplies and devices from their website, which was simply  The most expensive item I ever bought was a 40,000-volt DC power supply which cost about $500.  The main reason I favored Information Unlimited over more orthodox suppliers was cost.  You can buy similar equipment at a number of other places, but for that kind of unit you can't touch the standard suppliers for under $3500 or so. 


The expensive units mount in a standard relay rack and come equipped with all kinds of aluminum enclosures and safety interlocks and so on.  The Information Unlimited unit was made out of a piece of PVC pipe wired to a plastic box that you had to be pretty careful with.  All high-voltage equipment can be fatal if you're not careful, so the people at Information Unlimited just assumed their users would be careful with their units.  And I was, mostly, until one day I overloaded it and it broke.  I mailed it back and they fixed it for less than half of what I paid for it, and only in a couple of weeks.


The other day, I wanted something from Information Unlimited, but their website had vanished.  It turns out that their "resident genius,"  as one chatroom called him, was Robert Iannini, who had passed away just a few months before.  A Wired  profile of him from 2012 described a teenager so intent on experimenting with explosives that he blew off his left hand in high school and never quite graduated.  But he talked his way into Northeastern University, graduated with an electrical engineering degree, and in the early 1960s invented the bug zappers that you now see everywhere in restaurants and grocery stores.  With the $60,000 he got from that invention, he founded Information Unlimited and sold blaster guns, Tesla coils and a series of project books with titles like Electronic Gadgets for the Evil Genius.


And that's how Iannini made a living right up until he died on April 3, 2023 at the age of 85.  Sometime between then and August, his company folded—the website disappeared and no one on the Internet seems to know anything about what happened to it.  Whatever good talents Iannini had for running a business, planning his succession was not one of them.  Not only hobbyists, but serious scientists on a budget, plasma physicists, and educators around the world are going to miss the products that only Information Unlimited carried.


Back in 1942, a man named Norman W. Edmund took out an ad in Popular Photography for his company Edmund Salvage, which sold factory-second lenses for amateur telescope makers.  Following the end of World War II, the market was flooded with surplus military gear, including expensive-to-make but now dirt-cheap optics, and Edmund capitalized on this availability and moved his operation to Barrington, New Jersey.  Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Edmund Scientific catalog was a kind of milder-mannered pre-Internet version of Information Unlimited, offering scientific kits, toys, and inexpensive surplus items for both hobbyists and professionals.


The firm turned a significant corner in 1970 when Norman retired and his son Robert Edmund became CEO.  By 1984, the optics end of the business had become so large that Robert made it a separate division, keeping Edmund Scientific as an educational and hobby sales organization with a retail store in Barrington.  Over the next fifteen years, Edmund Optics expanded globally, adding sales and manufacturing facilities in Germany, China, Korea, Taiwan, and elsewhere. 


In 1998, Marisa Edmund, a granddaughter of Norman, joined the company, and she is now CEO of a worldwide original-equipment-manufacturer supplier of state-of-the-art cutting-edge optics.  It is still privately held, and its market share is miniscule, but it is a good example of an extremely specialized niche-market firm which, while perhaps insignificant from an economic point of view, is a key player in many specialty firms' supply chains.


Character is a hard thing to pin down, and anything I say about Robert Iannini should be tempered by the goodwill I hold for his memory and for the many useful and cost-effective items I bought from his firm. 


But the kind of personality it takes to start a company is often different than the personality or character needed to let it grow in ways that will serve a wider public.  The fact that Information Unlimited was unable to outlive its founder by more than a few months tells me that it was in some sense an extension of Iannini's personality.  Some leaders are unable to change the way they do things to adapt to changing market conditions or the need for competent staff who can run and even grow the business in your absence. 


Clearly, this was something that Norman Edmund understood, as he stepped aside in favor of his son Robert when Norman was only 55.  Not every founder has offspring who are interested in the family business, but Norman was fortunate in this regard, and now the firm he began continues to serve thousands of customers around the world.  I wish I could say the same for Information Unlimited, but Iannini's legacy will live on in the Tesla coils and high-voltage power supplies he made.  Still, I kind of wish I'd bought a blaster gun while I had the chance.


Sources:  I referred to the 2013 Wired profile of Robert Iannini at, Iannini's obituary at, a blog mentioning the end of Information Unlimited at, Norman Edmund's obituary at, and the Edmund Optics timeline at 

Monday, February 19, 2024

What's Unjust About Floods?


Torrential rains had turned the normally placid Connecticut River into a turbid brownish-yellow lake.  The sun was out and the water was calm now, but the edge of the water where we stood watching our friend Dori was about thirty yards uphill from her house, which was a former fishing cabin on the bank of the river.  It was all she could afford, and when she bought it she knew the place was in a flood plain.  The house itself was on pilings and undamaged, but she had left her cats behind in her haste, and now Dori was wading out to rescue them.  When she got back to shore with the felines, we asked her how the rescue went.  She said it was okay except when she got her hands in the water, she could feel that the electricity was still turned on. 


A new discipline called "flood justice" seeks to redress wrongs done to people like Dori who live in areas where flooding is more likely than in more wealthy regions.  Last April, the first Flood Justice Symposium was held at the University of Arizona.  Geophysicists, ethicists, urban and regional planning experts, and other interested parties discussed how floods often disrupt the lives of the poor much more than the higher socioeconomic classes, and what can be done to alleviate this injustice.


I must admit that my first reaction to the phrase "flood injustice" was "Huh?  How can floods be unjust or just?"  The juxtaposition of a rain-related word and "injustice" brought to mind the phrase from the Book of Matthew, where Jesus says, "he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust."  (5:45)  But the context of this statement is that Jesus is calling on his listeners not simply to love their neighbors and hate their enemies, but to treat everyone fairly, just as God does in providing his natural blessings of sun and rain for everyone.


The problem addressed by the concept of flood justice is an ancient one.  Some areas of land are more likely to flood than others.  In a free-market economy, the more flood-prone areas will be cheaper than average, and people without much money can't afford anything better.  In some countries, flood plains are occupied by so-called "informal housing" which is a polite name for squatters who cobble together hovels with discarded lumber and cardboard.  Such places become instant scenes of misery and death in a flood, as you might expect.


In an online article on the website of the American Geophysical Union, organizers of the symposium described a long-established policy method that tends to perpetuate flood injustice:  the cost-benefit analysis, or CBA for short.  Engineers are familiar with the CBA, which is based on the simple idea that when you face an array of choices that can each provide some benefits, it is only good sense to figure out what each choice will cost and pick the cheapest way to get what you want.  In the context of planning flood-prevention civil-engineering improvements—dikes, spillways, drainage systems, etc.—this means that the most valuable properties will play an outsize role compared to flood-prone areas where land and improvements are cheaper.  A CBA-guided improvement plan will naturally spend a fixed amount of money to protect the most expensive property in the region, because otherwise you would lose more value if the rich folks got flooded out compared to what the poor folks would lose. 


Put that way, it does sound injust, but CBA thinking is deeply ingrained in engineer-dominated organizations.  One way to widen the scope of planning is to include more community input from the poorer sections of a region, and to consider factors that are not as easily quantified as property values.  The symposium organizers say that "recognizing the wider socioeconomic, cultural, ecological, psychological, and health effects of flooding is not enough.  We must also integrate these considerations intentionally and responsibly into tools, metrics, and measures that inform flood risk management policy."


Another need that flood justice requires is better data.  Many maps of the so-called 100-year flood boundaries have coarse resolution, are based on outdated data, and are deficient in other ways.  Even if accurate data is available, real-estate developers have been known to conceal the fact from customers that a given property is in a flood-prone area, and not all U. S. states require that such information be provided to the buyer. 


Governments can be the problem more than the solution in alleviating injustice with regard to floods.  Floods don't respect boundaries, but local jurisdictions, especially in highly populated areas, tend to be a hodge-podge of finely divided authorities who are reluctant to share information with each other, let alone cooperate on a regional planning effort that would require working with rival jurisdictions.  This is a government-policy matter, not engineering, strictly speaking.  But engineering has to take place in the real world.  Working out political differences and encouraging cooperation among different jurisdictions is part of the job, or at least it should be.   


I will admit that I was skeptical when I saw the headline "Five Key Needs for Addressing Flood Injustice."  But in fact, engineers as well as geophysical scientists have a lot to contribute to making flood damage and casualties rarer in the future, for the less fortunate as well as for the middle and upper classes.  As more people crowd into urban areas, the way those areas are engineered will have a lot to do with the fate of the poorer classes, and whether they will lose everything in the next flood, possibly including their lives.  Our friend Dori was philosophical about her losses, because she knew flooding was a possibility.  But as soon as she reasonably could, she moved out of that fishing cabin into a house that was well away from the nearest flood plain. 


Not everybody can afford to do that, though, and everyone who is involved in flood prediction, abatement, and management should consider more factors than simply the market value of land and improvements when making their next set of plans. 


Sources:  The article excerpted above appeared on the website EOS, operated by the American Geophysical Union, at 

Monday, February 12, 2024

Alaska Airlines Plane Had Bolts Missing


Last month, we blogged in this space about the Alaska Airlines flight that lost a door plug and decompressed at 16,000 feet on January 5.  The aircraft involved was a Boeing 737 Max 9, and the door plug was recovered in the back yard of a Portland, Oregon resident.  Fortunately, no one was killed, although several minor injuries resulted, and the plane landed safely.


On last Tuesday, the U. S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced that its investigators determined that the four bolts which retain the door plug in place were missing before it blew out.  Documents obtained from Boeing and its supplier Spirit AeroSystems show a sequence of events that points to a serious manufacturing problem, if preliminary indications are borne out by subsequent investigations.  At this point, here is what we know, based on news reports and a preliminary report by the NTSB.


The 737 fuselages are manufactured at a Spirit facility in Wichita, Kansas, which used to be owned by Boeing.  In 2005, Boeing spun it off to an investment firm, but it still makes fuselages and ships them via extra-long railcars to one of the main Boeing assembly plants in Renton, Washington State.  The fuselage of the plane in question arrived in Washington in August of 2023.


At the Renton plant, it was found that five rivets near the port-side door plug were damaged and had to be replaced.  To access the rivets, it was necessary to remove the door plug.  Except for the fact that it has no handle and other fittings that would make it a usable door, the door plug fits in the fuselage like a regular door.  There are twelve "stop pads" which engage with fittings on the plug, but in order for it to move like a door, the plug must be free to move away from these pads.  A regular door has a separate locking mechanism to keep it attached to the plane, but in the door plug, it appears that instead of a locking mechanism, four bolts retain it in place.  Without these bolts, the only thing keeping the door plug in place is the mechanical integrity of the stop-pad pins and other machinery that is not designed to keep it there, but to let it move when needed.


After the defective rivets were replaced by Spirit personnel at the Boeing plant, a photo was taken of the completed work.  This is the photo that shows three out of the four door-plug bolts were definitely missing (a fourth location was concealed by insulation, but that one was probably missing too, based on evidence from the recovered door plug). 


These events took place in September of 2003.  The aircraft was delivered to Alaska Airlines on Halloween of 2023, the end of October.  Somehow the door plug managed to stay in place for a number of flights through November and December, but by January 5, the stop pads and associated parts had fatigued with repeated pressurizations enough to fail at 16,000 feet.  If the plane had been at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet when the plug blew, the depressurization could have sucked many passengers out and possibly crashed the plane.  So this incident was an extremely close call.


As a teacher, I am continually impressed with the need for an ability that is unique to humans:  the ability to pay attention.  I impress this need upon my students, but every time I grade exams, I discover what happens when attention is not properly directed, or directed on the wrong things.  Boeing and Spirit obviously have extensive procedures in place to manufacture, assemble, and inspect aircraft.  And nearly all the time, these procedures work.  But every procedure is useless if the human minds carrying them out do not perform them according to the rules. 


Clearly, it was someone's duty to document with a photograph the rework of the five damaged rivets.  But it is so easy to see how someone, even an inspector whose main job was to certify the correctnesss of a repair, would have his or her attention focused on the rivets, and not on the door plug only a few feet to the rear of the rivets.  The NTSB inspectors, focused as they were on the door plug, saw immediately from that photo that someone had forgotten to install the retaining bolts before the insulation and interior finish materials were installed.  And probably the first time the bolts were put in, before the rework procedure, somebody checked to make sure they were there.  But this time, because things were slightly out of the ordinary during the rivet rework, that small but critical act of looking to see if the bolts were in place was omitted.  And once everything was buttoned up, nobody could tell from outside that the bolts were missing.


This raises a question that occurs to a person who has disassembled and reassembled many pieces of equipment over the years.  When a technician removed the bolts to take out the door plug and gain access to the rivets, where did those bolts go?  On a workbench?  In a pile of similar bolts?  It seems like if they were just sitting around after the job was done, that would get somebody thinking about where they belonged.  This is the kind of seemingly unimportant detail that suddenly becomes significant, and I'm sure that some NTSB personnel are asking similar questions of the people involved in the rework.  I would not want to be one of the technicians who get grilled.


Modern technological means of documenting manufacturing processes have made it easier to trace actions such as the ones the NTSB is investigating.  In the old pre-digital-camera and pre-email days, investigators would have had to rely only on recollections of mechanics, and it's very unlikely anyone would have taken pictures at every step of the process or produced documents with as much detail as electronic data can include these days. 


Still, it's not robots who assemble airplanes, it's people.  And people (and robots) can make mistakes, especially when they are doing something out of the ordinary such as rework, where it is impossible to write procedures for every contingency and people are trusted simply to do the common-sense good thing.  The only problem here is, that wasn't quite good enough.  Fortunately, the consequences were a lot more benign than they could have been, and the accident can serve as a warning, or encouragement if you like, that no matter how trivial an inspector's work may seem, it can save lives—or lose them.


Sources:  I referred to an Associated Press report on the NTSB findings which appeared Feb. 6 at  The preliminary NTSB report itself is at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Spirit AeroSystems.

Monday, February 05, 2024

Will Apple's Vision Pro Be the Next iPhone?


Back in June of 2023, Apple announced its Vision Pro, which the Wikipedia article about it calls a "mixed reality" headset.  This week, in some parts of the world you can now buy your own Vision Pro—for $3,500.  While this will not be an obstacle for wealthy early adopters, the rest of us will probably wait until the beta-version bugs are worked out and the price comes down.  In the meantime, we can think about what this means for the future of humanity.


That sounds either presumptuous or silly, but there is no question that the advent of the smartphone has changed the course of world history, especially cultural, social, and political history.  Combined with the AI-fueled algorithms that maximize profits for Facebook, X, and their ilk at the expense of rational political discourse, we have seen the smartphone severely damage democracy in the U. S. and other places.  Yes, there are advantages to smartphones as well, but a serious debate over whether having them is a net gain or loss to society is one that we will probably never have, because they are here to stay. 


That is not yet the case for the Vision Pro, so let's spend a little thought on imagining what life would be like if Vision Pro headsets or their upgraded equivalents become as common as smartphones.  My speculations are aided by my watching an 8-minute video made by Joanna Stern of the Wall Street Journal, who went to a cabin at a ski resort with some video producers and wore a Vision Pro for most of 24 hours.


When you wear a Vision Pro, your entire visual field is mediated, in a literal sense.  You can't see anything directly.  All you see is a projection of two high-resolution video screens that go directly to your eyeballs.  In order to see anything, including the ordinary world around you, you have to use the multiple cameras mounted on the Vision Pro.  Everything you see goes into the cameras, through Apple's proprietary software and some of the 600 apps now available for the device, and only then do you get to see anything.


And it works the other way too.  Physically, the Vision Pro looks like a pair of unusually bulky ski goggles, with a headstrap to keep it on and a fanny-mounted battery pack that has to be recharged every two or three hours.  The outer surface of the goggles is also a video screen, and in order to present something other than a blank shiny surface to someone the wearer is talking with in person, the screen presents video images of the wearer's eyes.  This is after the wearer has taken a photograph of her or his entire face, so the system knows how to present a somewhat reasonable facsimile of the wearer's visage.


Videoconferencing is one of the big intended uses of Vision Pro, but you can't just point a camera at a roomful of people wearing bulky headsets that cover their faces.  Apple to the rescue—the 3-D photos of the wearer stored in the system are used to create "avatar" faces to present to the other people in the videoconference.


From all the reactions to Stern's avatar that she accumulated in her video calls using the Vision Pro, there was one unanimous opinion:  her avatar looked terrible.  Even Apple has not yet overcome the "uncanny valley" effect in trying to use computing to simulate the human visage.  According to the uncanny valley hypothesis, unless a human simulation is extremely authentic (the good side of the valley), people will sense that something is off and have a negative reaction to it.  At the other side of the valley, a cruder image is seen as merely cartoonish and not uncanny.  Maybe Apple should have gone that route, as most people would prefer to see an obviously artistic caricature of a friend, rather than an image that is like something that an undertaker might manage to do with a corpse.


That was probably the worst experience Stern had with the device.  Although Apple doesn't recommend cooking while wearing the Vision Pro, Stern went right ahead and chopped onions, and was delighted to find that the airtight seal around her eyes prevented her eyes from watering.  (Chopping onions in a pan of water, I am told, is just as effective, and $3,500 cheaper.)  And the 3-D movies available from some (not all) streaming services were impressive. 


You can record your own 3-D videos with either the Vision Pro or the latest iPhone (15, I believe), and Stern tried this feature out while skiing, another activity that Apple doesn't recommend for Vision Pro wearers.  But nothing bad happened on her bunny-run venture down the slopes, and the overall impression Stern left with her viewers is that this is still a prototype, but if they work out some bugs and get the battery life up and the power consumption down, along with the price, Apple may have finally found what Google tried to find with Google Glass and failed to do back in 2015:  a mass market for what most people still call virtual-reality or augmented-reality headsets.


Apple avoids both of those terms and insists that what the Vision Pro allows is something they call "spatial computing."  To my ears, this is a singularly unfortunate phrase, because it implies that the computer uses space somehow to calculate things.  Well, every computer that takes up space does that, so it's just going to be a label for the 3-D techniques that the Vision Pro allows you to use for setting up your workspace. 


Wearing a Vision Pro really cuts you off from ordinary reality in a much more radical way than using a smartphone does.  Everything that you see passes first through the guts of the machine, rendering your entire visual field subject to the whims of the Vision Pro designers.  Perhaps that sounds benign now.  But put this device in the hands of criminals, or even well-intentioned entertainers who simply want to thrill people, and it may open entirely new fields of horrors.  It's too early to tell, but there will be downsides, especially if the Vision Pro proves as popular as Apple hopes.  Let's just hope the downsides aren't too low.


Sources:  I referred to an Associated Press article on the commercial introduction of the Vision Pro at, Joanna Stern's video report on it at, and the Wikipedia article "Apple Vision Pro."