Friday, September 20, 2013

And Now, For Something Completely Different

I'm still antistate, but I find this morning that I can't bear to write about the hideous crimes of our rulers.  In fact, that's been the case for weeks now ... hence, no posts.  No doubt I'll be back at my old familiar lemonade stand soon enough.  Meanwhile, I'll discuss engineering.

I'll start by saying that my wife and I are the "owners" (slaves might be more like it) of one cat, but we have two cats living in our house, and have had since March of this year.  That's because my sister-in-law is also a cat-owner, but encountered profound medical problems in March that did not allow her to care for her cat.  So we acquired a long-term guest cat.  Ours is an upper-middle-aged male named Tybalt:

Yes, Tybalt's name was stolen from Shakespeare.
The guest cat is a young calico female:

Meet Eleanor, or Ellie as her friends call her.  No idea where that name came from.
Tybalt is and always has been devoted more or less exclusively to my wife; he's very much her cat.  Ellie, on the other hand, is fairly partial to me.  As a result, I'm not sure how I'm going to give her back when the time comes; I am smitten.  But that's a heartache for another day.  And I claimed I was going to discuss engineering, so I will do that now.

Cats have individual bathroom habits and practices, and when Ellie arrived, we found that her litterbox style differed substantially from Tybalt's.  Ellie is quite energetic and enthusiastic about burying her waste.  Indeed, she buries it so wholeheartedly that the litter tends to be launched from the box.  She's a thrower.  At first, I attempted to mitigate this tendency by spreading newspapers under her box.  It quickly became clear that, in order to be effective, this approach would require half the room to be carpeted in newspaper: unsatisfactory.  So I put on my engineer hat and dreamed up a solution: the Litter Retention Superstructure, or LRS.  Here we see the prototype.  As you can tell, I'm a better engineer than I am a craftsman.  Most things that I build look as though they were constructed by unusually-clumsy orcs.

LRS prototype, as implemented by the Fighting Uruk-Hai.
Now, as rough as this thing looks, it proved supremely functional.  It's big enough for both cats' litterboxes, the cats liked it, and the litter stays inside, where it's easily cleaned up using the little whiskbroom and dustpan visible at left.  A few months ago, when my sister-in-law's problems prematurely appeared to be over and I thought Ellie's return to her was imminent, I constructed LRS Production Model 1 with the intention of sending it home with her.  That didn't happen, so it's still stored in my garage.  It's scaled down for a single litterbox and constructed with a little more attention to detail and finish.  I must apologize for the garish primary-yellow color; but when you purchase your latex enamel by the one-quart can, you must choose from the colors found on the shelf, and the palette was pretty limited.

Hey, Grizhnak made himself a cat's-paw stencil!  Cute.
But now, here's the engineering lesson learned.  Notice that little platform attached to a corner of each LRS unit?  In the case of the prototype, it was obviously added after the original construction, no?  What happened was, I noticed that when a cat wanted to use the litterbox, he or she would first jump up and balance on an LRS wall edge in order to reconnoiter the interior and choose a place to land inside.  Reasonable, right?  So I thought, a cat would like it better if there was a larger and easier place to jump up on and look things over before going all the way in.  So I added the Hesitation Platform.  After I did so, both cats ignored it completely.  I'm guessing that, to a clever and agile creature such as a cat, balancing on the edge of a piece of 3/4-inch plywood is trivially easy.  By the time it was established that the cats had no use for a Hesitation Platform, I had already built LRS PM1 ("The Yellow Submarine") with one included.  This doesn't mean that the Hesitation Platform has no function, however.  The one on the prototype LRS has proven ideal as something against which I can bark my shin if I'm careless while walking past, or servicing the litterboxes within.  So it's a character-enhancement device for me.

Actually, two engineering lessons are available:

  • Never assume that your customer wants a particular design feature just because it seems desirable to you.
  • Sometimes, you have to incorporate a feature in order to discover what its true function really is.  Solzhenitsyn said, "Things know their place;" I will venture to add, "things know their function, too."


Mimi said...

Jim, I don't have a cat, but your account of the litter boxes is so charming, I almost want one.

Jim Wetzel said...

Thank you, Mimi! The people who like cats, I notice, really, really like them; and the people who don't, really don't. It's good to know which kind of person one is. I will say, though, that there's a real advantage to a domestic animal that is born housebroken, and tends to have very tidy habits otherwise, too. But then, there's that whole sharpening-my-claws-on-your-door-frame-moldings thing ...