Archive for category Interdisciplinary teams

Incommensurability and the Design-Engineering Gap

Those who conceptualize products – particularly software – often have the unpleasant task of explaining their conceptual gems to unimaginative, sanctimonious engineers entrenched in the analytic mire of in-the-box thinking. This communication directs the engineers to do some plumbing and flip a few switches that get the concept to its intended audience or market… Or, at least, this is how many engineers think they are viewed by designers.
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Truth is, engineers and creative designers really don’t speak the same language. This is more than just a joke. Many posts here involve philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn’s idea of incommensurability between scientific paradigms also fits the design-engineering gap well. Those who claim the label, designers, believe design to be a highly creative, open-ended process with no right answer. Many engineers, conversely, understand design – at least within their discipline – to mean a systematic selection of components progressively integrated into an overall system, guided by business constraints and the laws of nature and reason. Disagreement on the meaning of design is just the start of the conflict.

Kuhn concluded that the lexicon of a discipline constrains the problem space and conceptual universe of that discipline. I.e., there is no fundamental theory of meaning that applies across paradigms. The meaning of expressions inside a paradigm comply only with the rules of that paradigm.  Says Kuhn, “Conceptually, the world is our representation of our niche, the residence of the particular human community with whose members we are currently interacting” (The Road Since Structure, 1993, p. 103). Kuhn was criticized for exaggerating the extent to which a community’s vocabulary and word usage constrains the thoughts they are able to think. Kuhn saw this condition as self-perpetuating, since the discipline’s constrained thoughts then eliminate any need for expansion of its lexicon. Kuhn may have overplayed his hand on incommensurability, but you wouldn’t know it from some software-project kickoff meetings I’ve attended.

This short sketch, The Expert, written and directed by Lauris Beinerts, portrays design-engineering incommensurability from the perspective of the sole engineer in a preliminary design meeting.

See also: Debbie Downer Doesn’t Do Design

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Multidisciplinaires par Excellence

HannibalThis weekend I was pleased to take part in the Third Annual Berkeley Ancient Italy Roundtable (BAIR) conference. The event, chaired by Ted Peña, UC Berkeley Department of Classics, promotes interaction between an amazingly diverse group of scholars to develop a more cohesive professional community. This was a wonderful example of raw interdisciplinary innovation, essentially without commercial potential, done purely for the love of knowledge. Every time I’m in such a group, I can’t help but think that if I ran the corporate zoo, I’d institute a “20% time” (or similar) that required study outside an employee’s field rather than allocating 20% to in-field projects that are outside the employee’s normal job role (like Google and 3M used to do). The innovations that come out of “20% time” programs are rare to start with. I don’t mean they’re not worth the cost, just that they tend to produce a small number of high-value outcomes. Given that, why not push for even more creative thinking. After all, it’s easier to learn to think outside the box if you start by actually getting out of the box. Learning to work with lawyers, electron microscopists, aviation psychologists and the FAA makes aerospace engineers better at engineering. I think art and music classes make for better mathematicians, and I suspect digital archaeology teaches innovation better than many schools focusing directly on that goal. Radical innovation almost always involves stepping across knowledge and social boundaries. We’d probably be better at taking such steps if we got more practice.

The keynote talk for this year’s BAIR conference was by Professor John Dobbins of the University of Virginia. He combined art history, archaeology, architecture and advanced 3D modeling to study the Alexander Mosaic at Pompeii. Working with Ethan Gruber of UVA, Dobbins took us on a visual and intellectual journey to the House of the Faun in Pompeii, which held the most famous mosaic from antiquity – one showing the defeat of Darius by Alexander the Great.  Dobbins examined the ancient viewing conditions that once existed in the House of the Faun and raised questions about how well the mosaic could be seen, tucked away in its exedra.  He used a 3D model of the house including a lighting package set for summer and winter conditions in 100 BC, (rough date for the mosaic), and showed that modifications to the house, previously unexplained by archaeologists, were probably made to eliminate shadows of pillars that would otherwise ruin the viewing of the mosaic. With the 3D model and its lighting package, Dobbins could move the sun across the sky exactly as it would have happened in ancient times, seeing the lighting problems that emerged at different times of day and year. Dobbins made a case for the utility of this type of 3D modeling, not merely as a viewing aid but as as a research tool.  He finishes by proposing a Roman date – i.e., after the Social Wars – for the Alexander Mosaic and suggesting that the mosaic and the expansion of the House of the Faun made sense with respect to the social and political context of Sulla’s conquest of Pompeii in 89 B.C and its subsequent absorption by Rome.

Another fabulous example of research across disciplines came from Patrick Beauchesne of UC Berkeley. Beauchesne works with bioarcheological studies of ancient Rome. He described findings regarding the daily lives of average citizens (as opposed to aristocratic circles), knowledge of whom has otherwise been lacking. He convincingly drew conclusions about the society from life course perspectives – ways to interpret the complex biocultural production of human bodies situated in specific historical contexts. Beauchesne noted that children in antiquity have been studied before, but mainly through biological lenses that focus on health and pathology derived from skeletal remains- of which Beauchesne described in some detail. He then used examples from the Roman antiquity to highlight how existing methods can be used in new ways to make inferences about the process of childhood in ancient Rome.

Sarah Witcher Kansa (Alexandria Archive Institute) shared new realizations about ancient life and architecture drawn from aspects of fauna remains including ratios of livestock to wild animal bone counts in Etruscan garbage pits. We then learned some secrets of Roman seawater concrete and how modern adoption of Roman concrete formulas could reduce the CO2 emissions from concrete, which constitute a surprisingly high percentage of global emissions (Marie Jackson, Civil & Environmental Engineering, Berkeley). Patrick Hunt (Medieval Studies at Stanford) led us through paleoclimatology and lichenometrics to determine the route Hannibal took across the Alps with African and Asian elephants. Patrick regularly crosses the Alps in the snow on foot, by the way. There were many more fine talks – all boldly crossing disciplinary boundaries. During a break I had a great discussion with Chris Johanson of UCLA on digital visualization techniques and aerial photography using helicopter drones.

0608_8479WSMy talk was on craniofacial anthropometry of Roman portraiture. It was connected to the work I did on the Getty Augustus (described here), and included an anthropometric comparison of the young general in the Ludovisi Sarcophagus battle scene against the Capitoline Hostilian, along with a case for the Vatican Pertinax being a modern forgery on the basis of measurements and statistics.

We can bridge knowledge boundaries if we put our interdisciplinary minds to it. Doing so may even be easier than crossing the Pyrenees, the Alps and flooded rivers with elephants in tow.

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A Helicopter Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

flowerpower“Fail early and often.” This war cry du jour of speakers on entrepreneurial innovation addresses several aspects of what big companies need to learn from little ones about market dynamics at the speed of the internet. The shelf life of a product idea is pretty short these days. If you don’t cannibalize your own line, a nimble competitor will eat your lunch. Failure is a necessary step on the path to innovative solutions. Short-cycle failure is much cheaper than the long-cycle variety. Innovation entails new ideas, and the idea generation phase is not the time for Negative Nelly, the devil’s advocate, to demoralize your design team. A lot of bad ideas beget new insights that spawn good ideas.

My favorite story about letting crazy ideas fly deals with Pacific Power and Light, who supplies electricity to some remote spots in the Cascades. As the story goes, storms left thick ice on their power transmission lines. Linemen were sent out into the field, who climbed the icy towers and used long hooks to knock down the ice. The process was slow, expensive and dangerous.

PP&L’s brainstorming sessions initially yielded no clever solutions. They again attacked the issue, this time ensuring cognitive diversity by including linemen, accountants, secretaries, and the mail guy.

As a joke, a lineman suggested training bears to climb the poles and shake them. Someone else added that by putting honey pots on top of the poles, the bears would go for the honey without training, and perhaps shake the poles sufficiently to knock the ice off the lines. Continuing the silliness, someone suggested using helicopters to periodically fill the honey pots.

Bingo.  A secretary, formerly a nurse’s aide in Vietnam, recalled the fury of the down-wash from the helicopter blades and asked if flying a helicopter near the power lines would be sufficient to shake the lines and knock the ice off. In fact, it is! By valuing cognitive diversity and by encouraging crazy thinking, the team found a solution. As the story goes, PP&L now uses helicopters to fly over the power transmission lines after ice storms and it works fabulously.

As is probably apparent to any student of mythology, literary form criticism or biblical criticism, the story is pure fiction. It appears in many tellings on the web, some dating back several decades. Veracity strike one: manuscript (version) differences indicate multiple independent secondary sources. Strike two: earlier versions have less textural detail than later versions (e.g., the lineman is named Bill in later tellings). Strike three: the setups for the convergence of a diverse group are strained and get more detailed over time (compare the aphorism setups in Gospel Mark vs. Matthew).

Sure, the story is fiction – but what of it? The tale itself is aphoristic – an adage. It does not rely on the credibility of its source or the accuracy of the details to be valid; it’s validity is self evident. Or as Jack Nicholson (R.P. McMurphy) is often quoted as saying in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “Just because it didn’t happen, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”

But as any movie fan with access to web-based movie scripts can attest, that quote never happened either. But just because McMurphy never said that just because it didn’t happen, doesn’t mean it isn’t true doesn’t mean that that isn’t true. (That last sentence contains a level-two embedded phrase, by the way.)

Further, just because Nicholson didn’t say it doesn’t mean it wasn’t said. It turns out a few others are cited as sources for this saying as well. The earliest one I could find. oddly enough, is Marcus Borg, theologian and New Testament scholar who found himself in the odd position of trying to defend Christianity while denying that Jesus said the things attributed to him. Borg’s tools are the same ones I used on the helicopter scriptures above.

Quote attribution is a tricky matter, especially when a more famous guy repeats a line from a less famous guy. Everyone knows the one about Oscar Wilde saying to James Whistler, “I wish I had said that.” To which, Whistler replied, “You will Oscar, you will.” I love this one, because it’s a quote about a quote. And none the worse when we discover, as you might expect, that it never happened – which, of course, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

The exchange between Whistler and Wilde is cited in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. They give the source as page 67 of Leonard Cresswell Ingleby’s 1907 book, Oscar Wilde. As you might expect from my mentioning it here, Inglesby’s book contains no such quote on page 67 or anywhere else in the book. However, the 1973 Monty Python skit, Oscar Wilde, does include this exchange between Whistler and Wilde. Inclusion by the Monty Python crew, who tend to research history better than most textbook authors, is reason enough to dig a bit further for a source. Oscar Wilde researcher Peter Raby would be the guy to check on this trivia. I did. Raby traces the quote back to rumors in the early 1900s. He finds that some time after Wilde’s death Herbert Vivien, Douglas Sladen and Frank Harris all recalled the quote but disagreed on whether Wilde or Whistler or neither were involved.

I will never be ashamed of citing a bad author if the line is good.  – Seneca

Mix a little foolishness with your prudence: It’s good to be silly at the right moment.  – Horace

In a world of crowdsourcing and open innovation, it barely matters – beyond frivolous patents of course – where an idea originates or if its pedigree is respectable. Fables about bears, helicopters and Jack Nicholson are fair game. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

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