New Blog Post on Inc. Magazine’s Website

I have written a blog post that has been published on Inc. Magazine’s website, if you’re interested.

The Greatest Technologist of All

Those that have heard me speak on designing color displays will recognize a consistent refrain of carefully matching the capabilities of the display to that of the Human Vision System (HVS).  At times, to accomplish this, I take advantage of the design inspiration concept of biomimicry, the recognition that natural selection has already found a favorable solution through evolving forms toward a local optimum, given the constraints of the cost of time, energy, and materials that nature must use.  By taken a lesson from nature, we often can find that a good solution already exists.

But we must differentiate between taking inspiration from nature and actually using an evolved solution to essentially the same problem that we as designers, engineers, and inventors face.  Nature can provide abundant beauty in both form and color.  Many an artist as reflected that beauty in their work.  But this is not “biomimicry”… and just because an engineering solution bears a resemblance to something in nature, may even have been inspired by such, does not mean that it is being applied to the same problem.

Consider an example often touted in the press as being engineering biomicry, the curved impeller / propeller designed by Jay Harmon and manufactured by Pax Scientific.  Their impeller is often described as having been inspired by the calla lily or the spiral nautilus shell:

But, while it may have been inspired by the lovely curves of the flower, this impeller owes its design more to Archimedes’ screw than any evolutionary process to solve the problem of fluid mixing.

Similarly we must differentiate between merely using a natural biomaterial, though it may be used for exactly the same purpose for which it was selected for by nature.  For example, antibiotics are most often discovered in nature, since many organisms must fend off bacteria.  But that shouldn’t be called biomimicry.

So what would be an example of biomimicry?  For one of the most obvious example, one need look no further than up into the sky at the nearly constant traffic of airplanes.  The early pioneers of aviation, starting with Leonardo DaVinci, Otto Lilienthal, John Montgomery, onto the Wright Brothers, all took careful note how nature solved the problem of flight and emulated her.

Sometimes engineers and nature come up with the same solution.  Albert Einstein was a great inventor as well as a famous physicist.  One of his most important inventions was the reverse flow heat exchanger, perhaps the most efficient heat exchanger yet developed, or evolved.  It turns out that many marine mammals, notably the cetacea (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) use exactly this same mechanism to supply oxygen to their skin will retaining body heat.  I don’t know if Einstein knew that or not, but I doubt it.  So, should we call that an example of biomimicry, or merely that great minds think alike?

In any case, if one wonders why a high tech inventor like myself bothered to study not only physics, but psychology and biology, one need look to further than at nature, the greatest technologist of all.

As the Earth Turns

I’ve always loved sundials.  The ability to use the sun’s position to cast a shadow that can tell both time and the seasons has such an elegant directness.  No elaborate clock mechanism.  No calender.  Just a slow moving shadow, marking time’s passage.

But of course, I have my own idea of how a sundial should be configured.  In this drawing, from my personal notebook, I envision an inverted globe, an etched bronze bowl, with the continents and major cities, along with latitude and meridian lines, in lieu of hour lines, as well as the the tropic, arctic and antarctic latitude lines.  The globe’s markings are aligned such that the nearest pole, north in my drawing since I live in the northern hemisphere, is pointing due south.  From this position the gnomen extends and points to celestial north.  This puts the gnomen parallel to the Earth’s rotational axis.  The sundial’s location is marked at the very bottom of the bowl by a small hole through which any rain water may be drained.  Along the gnomen, at the center of the hemispheric bowl is a small etched bronze spherical globe.  The globe is also marked with the continents.  The globe is aligned with the sundial’s location pointed straight up to the zenith and the north pole pointed toward celestial north.  This puts the globe’s map in the same spatial orientation as the real Earth.

SundialThis arrangement has interesting properties.  The small globe is sized such that the penumbra forms a small dark dot of a shadow cast upon the interior of the bowl, indicating the exact position upon the Earth where the sun stands at zenith at that moment.  The shadow is always the same size since the small globe is always the same distance from the shadowed bowl surface.

Thus it marks both the solar time and the season.  If the shadow falls south of the equator, it is fall or winter.  If it is further south today than it was yesterday, it is fall.  If it is further north, it is winter.  If it lies on the southern tropic latitude line, it is the winter solstice.  If the shadow lies on the equator it is one of the equinoxes.  Similarly the spring and summer seasons may be discerned.

Given that the small globe is in the same spatial orientation as the Earth, it will show where on the face of the Earth the sun is shining.  The terminus of the sun falling on the globe will be the same as the Earth.  From that, one can see which places on Earth are seeing a sunset or sunrise.  One can also see the effect of the Earth’s inclination to its orbit around the sun as the seasons change.

I drew the sundial as a garden ornament, but what I really would love to see is a very large public art installation in a public square or corporate headquarters, set partially into the ground, the lip of the bowl forming seats upon which passersby may rest awhile, while looking over their shoulders at time’s passage.  Consider the educational value of such an installation.  Any large corporation want to work with me?


Seeing Things in a New Light

In color science, there is a phenomena called metamerism in which different combinations of pure colors can combine to create the same perceptual color.  For example, red, green, and blue light can be combined to form white.  This is of course, the basis for most color displays.  But another combination might be pure, narrow band, yellow and blue light, yet another might be red and cyan (bluish-green).  So, when we make physical objects that are a specified color, they are that color because they reflect some wavelengths of light and not others… and because they do, they are dependent upon the illumination to create the desired color.  If the illumination has a different spectrum, different combinations of pure wavelengths, the “color” of the object may change.  This is called Illuminant Metameric Failures.

You may wish to read more on metamerism and Illuminant Metermeric Failure here at Wikipedia:

This illuminant metameric failure is usually something that is carefully avoided, or at least controlled to be made repeatable, especially in consumer goods manufacture, where the pigments used in the products are carefully monitored for consistent color match from unit to unit, batch to batch.

But in creative innovation and invention, sometimes the very place that others are trying to avoid is where we should look.  Could we not use illuminant metameric match deliberately, for effect?

An almost obvious one would be in security and authentication of documents, such as checks or money.  If one put such a document under a specified light, we might see a hidden pattern.  Consider for a moment that you are handed a document with a what appears to be a blank grey circle, but you know that only a valid document will show a pattern when shown under a special illuminant.  How might this be done?  We choose two colors of ink that both look grey under standard room or outdoor light, but under pure green light, one of the inks may be significantly less reflective, but high reflective to yellow and blue.

While useful, its not all that interesting you say?  I agree.

But what I do find interesting is the idea of applying illuminant metameric failure to art, especially painting.  Imagine creating a single canvas that is actually a diptych or even a triptych in which the same scene may have quite different appearance under different illumination.  For example, imagine a single canvas showing a woodland scene in winter, summer, and fall.  The illumination may come from a controllable set of bright Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) aimed at the painting.  I imagine a darkened room where these paintings may be installed for the public to admire, in galleries and museums.

To create these paintings, the artist would work in a studio in which the same controllable LED lamps illuminate her work and her palate.  She would observe her pigment tubes carefully under each illumination, selecting them, blending them, until she had just the right color for a given location on her canvas, under each illumination.  One other “trick” she may use is to consider the effects of pointillism.  It may not be possible to get each color just right under each of her illuminants, but she may perceptually blend colors seen at a distance to increase the range of her perceptual palate given her more limited pigment palate.

Thus, can art and science be blended to bring about something new, allowing us to see things in a new light.

Our Greatest Invention

A few years back, I was talking to a young protegee about some big ideas for future development, ways that could greatly expand the standard of living for all of humanity.  Instead of engaging in thinking about how to implement these big ideas, she asked the most thought and action limiting notion that plagues our society, that hobbles our imaginations, paralyzes us, “We could never do that, where would we get the money?”

I had to explain that money isn’t real.  But to her, money is more real than solid objects.  But, as the philosopher Alan Watts so eloquently put it, “Money isn’t wealth, its a measure of it.”

And yet, money is important to our society.  Money does not exist in nature.  It is a human invention.  I believe, strongly, that it is our single greatest invention to date.  Not control of fire, not the wheel, money.  Money is what allows our complex society to exist.

Money is what allows us to trust one another, even strangers, especially strangers.  Think about it.

With family and (real) friends, we can simply give them what they need, knowing deep down, that if we need something, they will reciprocate.  If I have food today and you, my best friend, are hungry, I gladly will give you some food, knowing that next year, when my harvest is bad, you will keep me from starvation.  Or, I need a new chair for my living room and you just happen to be a carpenter who makes chairs.  You will give me a chair.  Your cousin needs a horseshoe put onto your best plow horse.  I, as a blacksmith, am only too glad to turn iron ore and charcoal into a horseshoe.  Everyone in the little hamlet where we live, we all know each other, trust each other, and know that we are all doing the best we can to help each other.

Ah, but that no good layabout who lives on the other side of the hill, we know that he won’t do a thing unless he has to.  From him, we can expect nothing.  So, when he needs something, we insist that he trade for it.  The things that are traded must be equal value, which is hard when many of the trade-goods are in units too large to match to one another in value.  We could accept his “promise” to provide something in the future, but we all know how that goes.

And what of the traveler, the trade caravan or the lone peddler?  How to find suitable trade goods of equal value?  We can’t accept their “promise”, nor can they accept ours.

Enter “money”, a unit of measure with no real value in and of itself, but that which we collectively agree to.  OH… but you then say that that money was in precious metals, gold and silver.  My answer is yes, and at the same time, no.  Gold and silver artifacts started out as just another trade good, often in the form of ornamentation, jewelery.  That’s not “money”.  The word “money” gives us a hint as to the social sanction that it took to turn such metal into “money”, as it comes from the name of the Roman goddess, Juno Moneta, in whose temple such metal was stamped, coined, with her image.  Gold or silver certainly had trade value as a raw material, useful in manufacture of various useful objects, but it wasn’t “money” until is was given an official, in fact, sacred, stamp of approval.

Consider coins and paper money today.  The metal in the coins is not what gives them value.  And certainly the paper that money is printed upon isn’t worth what numbers are printed upon it.  What makes a one dollar note worth less than a hundred dollar note?  Surely there is no difference between the two in paper quality or even in the quality of the portraits printed thereon.  Our society has even gone a step further, using electronic tabulations, with no physical object as value counter, in our banks.  No, the value is that which we all agree it denotes.  This concept, this social invention, is so powerful, that even anti-social individuals, criminals, agree with the social convention and honor the collective decision to use “money”.

Thus, “money” an elusive, non-thing, is our greatest invention.  With it, our society, on a global scale, trades goods, services, labor, land use, etc.

But money is only a measure of wealth, a means for lubricating trade.  It does not create wealth.  We create wealth using our imagination, working with the only two things that are real, raw materials and energy.  As long as we have these three ingredients, we can create any amount of wealth we desire or need.  And, since raw materials and energy are quite abundant in the universe, we are only limited by our imaginations.

That’s worth repeating:

We are limited only by our imaginations.

Speaking Engagement

I will be speaking and participating on a panel of display technologists during the upcoming Display Week, the Society for Information Display’s annual symposium and trade show.  So, if you are in Vancouver on the 23rd of May, consider coming to the conference.