MachinePix Weekly #52: Year One Retrospective

One year of MachinePix Weekly: the top interviews and posts 📈🥳

This is the fifty-second issue of MachinePix Weekly, which means it’s been a year since I started publishing my thoughts on machines posted to @MachinePix and interviewing the people that created them. Since then, @MachinePix has expanded into multiple channels, in decreasing order of engagement:

Clearly I have a long way to go in some channels, but I’m optimistic. What have I learned this past year? Creating content regularly is hard. Every week, I’ve thought “I should schedule ahead more interviews”, and every week I procrastinate and desperately reach out to friends and colleagues to put together interviews last minute—and for that I am eternally grateful.

Another learning, and this is more intuitive than empirical: a post’s popularity is completely uncorrelated to how complex or impressive the machine is. People are more engaged with machines that make or interact with things they recognize, which is why I think egg machines consistently generate reliable engagement. Woe is me if I post anything related to the chicken though—people are a lot less excited whenever animal processing machines are posted 😅

In lieu of a weekly review, this special issue has the top ten most popular interviews below the fold, as reported by Substack’s analytics. If you have suggestions or ideas, don’t be shy—replies go straight to my inbox.

The most popular post this week was an extremely powerful cleaning laser. Laser cleaning videos go viral every once in a while, and Laserax has one of the best explainers on how it works.

I’m always looking for interesting people to interview, have anyone in mind?


The Year in Review: Most Popular Interviews

Take these rankings with a grain of salt: subscriber count grew steadily over the past year, and these rankings aren’t normalized for how many subscribers I had at the time these were published. I’ve excerpted some of my favorite anecdotes.

10: Alfred Jones, Senior Director of mechanical engineering, Peloton

Alfred had a formal-looking Peloton-themed Zoom background when we started, but I convinced him to show me his office and his awesome collection of toys and kicks. He spoke eloquently about the unappreciated challenges of mechanical engineering at scale:

All of that is taken for granted, because users, the first and the millionth, kind of just expect it to work. I used to laugh that blood, sweat, and tears, and years of our lives, went into these projects, and people would just throw them to children and expect them to work. If you mess up, there’s a flood of bad Amazon reviews. It’s brutal.

9: Seamus Blackley, "Father of the Xbox"

Seamus wasted no time in spilling the tea on the chaos that was the first Xbox team. I’m honestly surprised it got made at all, given a series of comedic stumbles like, well:

The size of the Duke [first controller], and it’s, well, bulk, was so unmarketable in Japan that many people we spoke to thought it was a prank. They thought it was a sick joke insult, like an American, Texas, look-how-big-everything-is joke… I got stuff literally thrown at me at conferences.

8: Jeff Linnell, founder of Bot & Dolly

Has your tech demo ever accidentally discovered a building’s resonant frequency and almost caused a collapse? Jeff’s stories about pioneering robotics for creative industry work was filled with whimsical, inspiring, and “oh shit” moments:

We thought the challenge would be in creating this giant fiberglass sphere, what we found out a day before we were supposed to bolt this thing in, when you moved this thing around, the entire building would resonate in this really scary way. You have this two ton robot with a giant sphere on it vibrating the entire building. Taking down the Moscone Center would not be good.

7: David Möllerstedt, co-founder of Teenage Engineering

Look, I’ll square with you: I did the interview because I wanted to finagle early access to Playdate, the Panic x Teenage Engineering collab. Well, that didn’t work—but I did learn a lot about one of the coolest consumer electronic cos and funny stumbles along the way:

The prototype, when we stuck it on the wall [at Apple HQ], it fell apart. In the process of falling apart, it kept sending volume up commands to the OD-11. So the controller was in pieces, the speaker volume was at max, we were trapped in this small room. Someone had to dive for the power cable. At least we got to test it at full volume.

6: Carl Bass, former CEO of Autodesk

Carl is a canoe builder that found himself the CEO of a Fortune 100 company, having to occasionally call out Steve Jobs’s BS:

I remember when [Steve Jobs] was at Pixar, he preemptively called me to yell at me about something. At some point he said “Carl, listen to me, I’m your best customer”. I stopped him—I said “hold on, in what world are you my best customer? You’re cheap as hell, and you’re incredibly technically demanding. And you never give us public credit for anything!” As those who knew Steve well, it didn’t change his opinion at all. In his mind he continued to be our best customer. That said, in some ways he was great. He really pushed our software’s capabilities.

5: Frank Ippolito, founder of Thingergy, Inc.

Frank makes costumes for Star Wars (among others), which honestly sounds like a dream job… until you realize fans know canon better than you do, and are always keeping you on your toes:

I wouldn’t put this in a major fuckup category, but in the first season of The Mandalorian, the biker scouts, and they have Baby Yoda in the back, all the fans exploded because they had their knee pads upside down. We built the costumes, but we didn’t dress the scout troopers. It could have been an oversight, it could have been the design saying “hey it’s more comfortable this other way,” and honestly it kind of is. But everyone noticed.

4: Laura Kampf, Maker Extraordinaire

Speaking with Laura was really cool because her answer to “what do you work on” was “whatever I want”, and she’s inspired millions of people to get their hands dirty:

Being ok with being weird, different, really helped me find the right community and focus on the things that make me happy. I could have just copied the most popular designs or styles. Embracing the things about you, won’t necessarily bring you the biggest audience, but they will be the truest, the most meaningful.

3: Brian Ignaut, lead solar array designer at SpaceX

Brian is, without hyperbole, a Renaissance man. I tried my best to keep up as he explained how studying bugs and publishing math papers on Origami inspired him to design the most performant spacecraft solar panels in the world for SpaceX:

Imagine peanut brittle the thickness of paper in a paint can on a paint shaker. That’s launching space solar arrays: the array team makes the peanut brittle, the vehicle team makes the paint can, the rocket team makes the paint shaker.

2: Milo Werner, former Head of New Product Introduction, Tesla

Milo gave us a peek behind the curtains of the most popular EV company in the world, from crazy prototypes to chartered jumbo jets. Her favorite car? Her personal Ship-of-Theseus’d Model S:

At home I have a Model S with many, many miles and an uncountable number of prototype parts. That’s my favorite. My car along with many other employee cars were used to validate pre-production assemblies.

1: Dr. Steve Gass, inventor of SawStop

Finally, the most popular interview this past year was with the inventor of SawStop. Sorry, Tesla: I suppose electric supercars will never be as entertaining as putting a hot dog through a table saw 🤷🏻‍♂️🌭⚙️

The audience didn’t speak much English and I didn't speak any German, so we were trying to get these German woodworkers to come see the demo. The one guy we dragged over, he didn’t speak English so he didn’t have any idea what we were trying to show him. So we get the hot dog out, and he gets a confused look. We try to mime at him to watch carefully. My partner David pushes the hot dog through the saw and it cuts right through. The woodworker looked at us like we were insane and we couldn't explain, so we just smiled. Oh man the look he gave us.


Converting a Shelby Cobra to an EV at Carl Bass’s shop:

If you enjoyed this newsletter, forward it to friends (and interesting enemies). I am always looking to connect with interesting people and learn about interesting machines—reach out.