nhoeller's blog

Al Roth: An economist who saves lives

The BBC ran a story on the work of Al Roth and Lloyd Shapley on an algorithm to solve the "stable marriage problem".  Given a group of men and women, is there a way of pairing them up such everyone has a "stable match", such that no pairings exist where both parties prefer each other rather than their current relationship.  UC Berkley has created an interactive website where you can walk through the steps and explore the process in depth.

Turning an Idea into a 'Whole Product'

In the first issue of Zygote Quarterly, Dr. Steven Vogel described the many barriers standing between a great idea and commercial success.  Sometimes, inventions that work on the lab bench do not scale as expected: adequate yields and quality may be difficult to achieve or higher volumes do not sufficiently reduce costs.  In other cases, the invention may only be part of the final solution, requiring other components or attributes before the full benefits can be achieved.

'Closing the Loop' in Bio-Inspired Design

Amoeboid Robot Navigates Without a Brain shows the value of 'closing the loop':

  • investigating a natural phenomenon in depth, rather than relying on surface impressions
  • abstracting the underlying principles, rather than superficial similarities
  • making the principles tangible so that they can be tested
  • and lastly comparing the outcome with the original inspiration to further deepen our understanding

"Nature is Over" and "Handprints, not Footprints"

The March 12/2012 issue of TIME ran a series on the "10 Ideas that are Changing Our Life".  "Nature is Over" by Bryan Walsh argues that there are very few pristine areas of nature left, supporting the idea that we are in the "Anthropocene: the age of man" where "It's no longer us against 'Nature.'  Instead, it's we who decide what nature is and what it will be." (attributed to Paul Crutzen). 

Design, Requirements, Constraints and the Life's Principles

Constraints are a fact of life for designers.  The most obvious are the functional requirements: the functions that the system needs to perform.  These are usually well-defined since they relate to the external interfaces of the system.  In addition, non-functional requirements may also be soecified: these are constraints on how the system behaves.  The Life's Principles can be related to many of the examples given in Wikipedia:

  1. Execution qualities, such as security and usability, which are observable at run time.
  2. Evolution qualities, such as testability, maintainability, extensibility and scalability, which are embodied in the static structure of the software system.

Logitech Harmony Remote and the Life's Principles

The Life's Principles Game team has been looking at how the Life's Principles can improve design.  Our goal is to use the LPs to develop better design solutions that are hard to achieve through existing means.  Metaphorically, the designer is at a crossroads in the process where a 'business as usual' approach leads down one path but applying the appropriate LPs would lead us to choose another that is not only novel but delivers value. 

The Process of Bio-Inspired Design

The clipping Power from the people is intriguing at a number of levels.  The original idea of creating a biofuel cell was proposed in the 1970s but languished because the technology available at the time could not generate useable amounts of electricity.  That required a combination of carbon nanotubes and research into metabolic enzymes such as glucose oxidase.  The team working on this project went further, developing a proof-of-concept prototype

Google+ Hangout

Virtual communication through e-mail, forums and conference calls is unfortunately a necessity.  Even if travel were affordable (or sensible given concerns about CO2 emissions), face-to-face meetings can be hard to arrange given our busy schedules.  However, getting teams to 'gel' in a virtual world can be challenging and time consuming.  Being able to see team members while they are talking can make a big difference.

Emulating At the Form, Process and System Level

Based on the large number of case studies, emulating nature's forms appears to be relatively easy.  Our knowledge of nature's processes is growing (see page 33 of Julian Vincent's Workshop Talk at the March 2011 Bio-Inspired Workshop in Palo Alto) but it is still often easier, cheaper and faster to follow the 'heat, beat and treat' path. 

Connecting the two data points and extrapolating suggests that emulating systems will be even more difficult, which appears to be supported by the limited number of verified case studies.  A few that come to mind are John Todd's Living Machines, the Wakefield 'cardboard to caviar' industrial ecology project and REGEN Energy's power controllers.  As in emulating process, we often lack a good understanding of how natural systems work at a detailed level.  On the other hand, systems solutions can be built from 'off the shelf' components.  Although the components are important, the innovation in a systems solution is often determined by how the components interact amongst themselves and with the environment.  

Understanding Complex Situations - a Fish Story

The BBC article Nature's spring: Cod bounce back by Richard Black describes the collapse of Atlantic cod stocks that led to the 1993 fishing moratorium.  Unfortunately, the ban on fishing did not result in the expected recovery, for reasons that have been hotly debated.  The recently published paper Transient dynamics of an altered large marine ecosystem suggests that predatory species such as cod, haddock and saithe (pollock) may be making a comeback due to a complex series of interactions and feedback loops.

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