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Archive for June 6th, 2011

Commencement Address to graduating Harvard architects, May 30, 2011

I do disseminate articles that are worth re-publishing, as well as translating what I think people need to read. I edited out redundant sentences and shortened the speech.

“By getting this far, the Harvard Graduate School of Design class of 2011, have proved that you possess a certain, incredible talent. It’s a talent that is unique to our species. And if you were to rank this talent among members of our species in general, I have no doubt you would all be in the top 1% of 1%.

I’m not talking about intelligence, fine breeding, good looks, dress sense, or compelling social skills.   I am talking about the talent which some would call…   imagination or invention or innovation. It is the remarkable ability first of all to model some aspect of the external world inside our heads… and secondly to play with that mental model until suddenly… bingo… you find a a way to rearrange it so that it’s actually better.  This is the amazing engine that underpins both technology the T of TED, and Design the D of TED.  It is this skill that has made possible human progress of the last 50,000 years.

For almost the entire period of life on earth, the appearance of design has been driven differently. It was mostly done by random trial and error; like a drunkard lumbering through a dark maze of passages, and life has lurched its way forward. For every evolutionary step forward, there have been countless dead ends.
In a single lifetime, change was not detectable. It happened slowly, painfully over millions of years. Somehow, in our species the light came on. We actually found a way to model the future before lumbering into it. That… changed… everything.
Viewed from a different perspective, you could say our brains became the ecosystems for a new kind of life, a life that replicated and transformed itself at a rate hitherto unknown in our corner of the universe. The thrilling life of the world of ideas. TED is devoted to nurturing this life form.
You’re about to devote the rest of your life to that same mission. But whereas we, at TED, nurture ideas by putting free talks up on the Internet, you will be not just dreaming them, but turning them into reality so that thousands or millions of other people will be impacted by them.

Espoused in a mind over here, I think I can just about make out… a gorgeous building, full of natural light whose bio-inspired curves evoke wonder and delight in everyone who sees it.  Over there, I can see a once barren industrial wasteland converted into a glorious city park where people gather, mill, walk, play and dream.  Here is a spectacular city of the future, one in which cars are replaced by intelligent, next-generation  transport systems, and human-scale meeting places where people naturally mingle and connect.  A city which breathes and adjusts and interacts with its citizens like a living system.

When you sum up all the visions contained in this room right now I have to tell you, the future looks pretty enticing.  And the most thrilling part? A significant proportion of those dreams will, within the next decade or two, become real. Why? because you will make it so. You are the 2011 graduate class of the GSD.  Like few other people on earth, you have the skills and the  resources to truly change the world.
But here’s the rub. What will determine which of the dreams today see the light of day, and which will languish unfunded, forgotten, ignored?
Well, usually a single person can’t make a big idea come true (unless they have extremely rich parents).  In almost every case, an idea need multiple backers. So it must first spread from one brain to many, spreading excitement as it goes. So what makes THAT happen?
It certainly helps if the idea itself is powerful, with some combination of beautiful, ingenious, and… affordable.  But there’s something else. It needs to be communicated with power.
One of the most tragic things in the world is a powerful idea stuck inside the head of someone who can’t actually explain it to anyone else. At TED over the years, we’ve had a lot of architects come and share their visions with us, and a good number of them have been absolutely… awful.  How can that be?  They have the most compelling subject matter imaginable. Giant designs at a scale that impacts thousands or millions of people… Yet when it come to articulating them, they descend into gibberish – the abstract, over-intellectual language of architectural criticism that makes an audience’s eyes glaze over and their brains numb.  This is an utter tragedy!
Whatever else you do in the coming years of your life, I beg you, I truly beg you to find a way of sharing your dreams in a way that truly reveals the excitement and passion and possibility behind them.  The good news here is that you’re entering the profession at a wonderful moment.
I speak as an outsider, but it seems to me that three giant trends are combining to transform both the role of architecture – and  how it can be talked about. First of all, in recent years, a mode of thought that has dominated intellectual life for much of the past century is gradually being laid to rest.  I’m referring to the toxic belief that human nature and aesthetic values are infinitely malleable, and determined purely by cultural norms. For a while, this gave a generation of architects exhilarating freedom to abandon all traditional architectural rules, and impose their own vision on society. But like similar experiments in music, art, drama, and literature, they didn’t always win the world’s love.

Today there’s a growing consensus that we should think of humans differently. That far from living in separate cultural bubbles, we actually share millions of years of evolutionary history. That there are far more ways that we are the same than that we’re different. The anthropologist Donald Brown has documented more than 200 human universals present in every culture on earth. They ranged from things like body adornment, feasting, dancing to common facial expressions and, yes, shared aesthetic values. This latter question has been the subject of countless experiments around the world in the past couple decades, and they’ve mostly revealed an amazing degree of resonance among vastly different people on what they find…  beautiful.

This shift is surely allowing us to change the language in which architecture is discussed. In a world of pure cultural relativism, there are no absolutes to appeal to. To succeed you had to learn the opaque language of a tight-knit clique of critics and opinion formers. It didn’t matter if the rest of the world was left scratching its head.

Today, slowly, gingerly, it’s become possible once again to use language the rest of us can understand. I think it’s even OK to use that B word again: Beauty. Not as a proxy for arrogant artistic self-expression, but as a quest to tap into something that can resonate deeply in millions of souls around the world.  I’m happy to report that in the last couple years at TED,  we’ve been wowed by a new generation of architects like  Joshua Prince-Ramus,  Bjarke Ingels, Liz Diller, Thomas Heatherwick and others, as they’ve shared with us – in plain English –  their passion, their dreams, and yes, the beauty of what they’re created.

When Thomas Heatherwick shared his vision for a stunning, new residential complex in Kuala Lumpur, curved out from narrow bases like a bed of tulips, I had just one thought.  I wish I had been born in the future.

I suppose an architect might have dreamed of such a development 30 years ago… but it could never have been built. And that brings us to the second trend. Technology is changing the rules of what’s possible. The astounding power of computer-assisted design and new construction techniques are giving us the ability to actually build what before could only have been a whimsical doodle on a sketch-pad.. .

Suddenly, the fractals and curves of Mother Nature, are a legitimate part of the architectural lexicon. And around the world, as people watch these new buildings arise, instead of muttering “monstrosity”, their jaws are dropping, their eyes moistening.

And finally, perhaps most important of all, we’re at a moment in history where the world is paying attention to you like never before. As leading designers of scale, you, more than anyone else, hold in your hands the answers to the most important question we all face. Namely this. Can the coming world of 10 billion people survive and flourish without consuming itself in the process.

The answers if they are to be found, – and I think they will – will come from… design. Better ways to pattern our lives. There is nothing written into our nature that says that the only path to a wonderful, rich, meaningful life is to own two cars and a McMansion in the suburbs.

But it’s becoming urgent for the world to start to see a compelling alternative vision. Probably it’s going to come down to re-imagining what a city can be, and making it so wonderful, that few people would want to live anywhere else. If there are to be 10 billion of us, we will have to live close to each other — if only to give the rest of nature a chance.

Indeed, more than half the world already lives in cities and the best of them offer so much to the world : richer culture, a greater sense of community, a far lower carbon footprint per person – and  the collision of ideas that nurtures innovation.  And the future cities you will help create need not feel claustrophobic or soulless.

By sculpting beautiful new forms into the city’s structures and landscapes; by incorporating light, plants, trees, water; by imagining new ways to connect with each other and work with each other, you will allow the coming crowd to live more richly, more meaningfully, than has ever been possible in history – and to do so without sacrificing your grandchildren.

Let me offer a few personal advices to you as you embark on your career. Everything from “one word: plastics”.  to… “follow your dream, pursue your passion”.  Indeed the mantra of romantically pursuing passion is hammered into us by countless movies, novels and pulp TV. I’m not convinced it is very good advice. Apart from the fact that many people aren’t sure what their passion is, even if they were, there are lots of wonderful things in life that absolutely should not be pursued directly. Take love.  We all want it. But there’s a word for people who pursue love a little too directly.  Stalker.

Or take happiness. Go after that wholeheartedly and most likely you’ll end up a hedonist, a narcissist, an addict.  A great musician who wants to pursue the absolute in artistic creativity doesn’t get there by being creative. She gets there by being disciplined. By learning, listening and by practicing for hours… until one day the creativity just flows of its own accord.

The architect Moshe Safdie ended his TED talk a few years with this poem.
    He who seeks truth shall find beauty. He who seeks beauty shall find vanity. 
    He who seeks order, shall find gratification. He who seeks gratification, shall be disappointed. 
    He who considers himself the servant of his fellow beings shall find the joy of self-expression. He who seeks self-expression, shall fall into the pit of arrogance. 
    Arrogance is incompatible with nature. Through nature, the nature of the universe and the nature of man, we shall seek truth.  
    If we seek truth, we shall find beauty.
So I guess my advice would be… Don’t pursue your passion directly. At least not yet. Instead, pursue the things that will empower you. Pursue knowledge. Be relentlessly curious. Listen, learn. You’re leaving Harvard this week, but your learning cannot ever, ever be allowed to stop.
Pursue discipline. It’s an old-fashioned word, but it’s never been more important. Today’s world is full of an impossible number of distractions. The world-changers are those who find a way of ignoring most of them.
And above all. Pursue generosity. Not just because it will add meaning to your life — though it will do that — but because your future is going to be built on great ideas and in the future you are entering, great ideas HAVE to be given away. They do. The world is more interconnected than ever. The rules of what you give and what you hold on to have changed forever.
If you hold on to your best ideas, maybe you can for a moment grab some short-term personal commercial gain. But if you let them roam free, they can spread like wildfire, earning you a global reputation. They can be reshaped and improved by others. They can achieve impact and influence in the world far greater than if you were to champion them alone. I
f we’ve discovered anything at TED these past few years, it’s that radical openness pays. We gave away our talks on the web, and far from killing demand for the conference, it massively increased it, turning TED from something which reached 800 people once a year, to something which reached half a million people every day. We gave away our brand in the form of TEDx, and far from diluting TED, it democratized it, and multiplied its footprint a thousand fold.

Knowledge, discipline, generosity. If you pursue those with all the determination you possess, one day before too long, without you even knowing it, the chance to realize your most spectacular dreams will come gently tap you on the shoulder and whisper… let’s go.  And you’ll be ready”. (end of quote)

Architects and engineering designers are not necessarily better than others in retaining any model fresh in the mind for any length of time.  They are trained to transcribe their models on paper, or on any other medium, with details in two dimensions of various sections.  The transcribed sections can be read to reconstitute the entire model at will. 

Designing is a long process that involve studying and analysing people behaviors so that the end-product is useful, safe, and acceptable by the users.  It is a shame if designers are not exposed to the human capabilities, limitations, and behaviors.  It is a greater shame if any design is done for “art sake”, not taking into account the end users acceptance, even if the designer is rich enough not to design for monetary remuneration. 

Reflecting again: On design errors in human-machine interfaces

Note:  I occasionally edit, translate, and re-publish articles that I deem them worth disseminating: Worthy articles are meant to be read.

Matthew Squair posted this May:  “Having recently bought a new car, I was driving home and noticed that the illuminated lighting controls were reflected in the right hand wing mirror. These sort of reflections are at best annoying, but in the worst case ,they could mask the lights of a car in the right hand lane and lead to a side-swipe during lane changing.

This is one of the classic system design errors that is well understood in domains such as the aerospace field.   Not so much in the car industry apparently.

But what really interests me is the fractured nature of engineering knowledge that this problem illustrates. I guess there is an implicit assumption we make that “we’re all getting smarter”.  But if that’s the case, why are the same errors committed over again?

Henry Petroski points to a study by Silby (1977) of bridge failures:  The study shows a 30 year-cycle between major bridge collapse and posits that, in any technology, we go through a cycle of learning, mastery, overconfidence, and subsequent failure due to over reach.

I’d point to the fragility of corporate memory within organizations and design teams:  I recognize that in the current  environment of rapid organizational change, it’s extremely hard to provide mentoring and oversight for young engineers, who unfortunately “don’t know what they don’t know“!

This remorseless cycle of destruction is exacerbated by codes and standards that record ‘what’ must be done from a compliance standpoint, but not the why”  Without the reason for compliance there is always the temptation…

I do agree with Petroski that failure breeds reflection, insight, and knowledge and that engineers, (especially young engineers), need in many ways to experience failure themselves or learn through the failures of others.

Evaluations of cockpit transparencies for reflections are required as part of the development of a new aircraft. These effects are particularly a problem for fighter aircraft with a large curved canopies and where the pilots’ displays sit comparatively close to the canopy.” (End of quote)

I have published over 30 articles on related to Human factors in design.

Human Factors professionals attempted to establish various error taxonomies, some within a specific context, during their study and analysis of errors that might be committed in the operation of nuclear power plants for example, and other taxonomy that are out of any specific context.

One alternative classification of human errors is based on human behavior and the level of comprehension; mainly, skill-based, or rule-based or knowledge-based behavioral patterns. This taxonomy identifies 13 types of errors and discriminates among the stages and strength of controlled routines in the mind that precipitate the occurrence of an error, whether during execution of a task, omitting steps, changing the order of steps, sequence of steps, timing errors, inadequate analysis or decision making.

With a strong knowledge of the behavior of a system, provided that the mental model is not deficient then, applying the rules consistently most of the errors will be concentrated on the level of skill achieved in performing a job.

Another taxonomy rely on the theory of information processing and it is a literal transcription of the experimental processes; mainly, observation of a system status, choice of hypothesis, testing of hypothesis, choice of goal, choice of procedure and execution of procedure.  Basically, this taxonomy may answer the problems in the rule-based and knowledge–based behavior.

It is useful to specify in the final steps of taxonomy whether an error is of omission or of commission.  I suggest that the errors of commission be also fine tuned to differentiate among errors of sequence, the kind of sequence, and timing of the execution.

There are alternative strategies for reducing human errors by either training, selection of the appropriate applicants, or redesigning a system to fit the capabilities of end users and/or taking care of his limitations by preventive designs, exclusion designs, and fail-safe designs.

You may start with this sample of two posts:

1., and 2.

Note 1: Petroski, H. Success through failure: The paradox of design, Princeton Press, 2008.

Note 2: Sibly, P.G., Walker, A.C., Structural Accidents and their Causes. In: Proc. Inst. Civil Engineers. 62 (May 1977), pp. 191–208 part 1. 1977.

Is polio next to be eradicated? What disease was wipe-out anyway?

Melinda Gates spoke on TED (Technology, Education, and Design) and claimed that polio is 90% eradicated (kind of less than 2,000 cases last year).  She was apprehensive that the generous donors might be witnessing “polio fatigue”, and might be reluctant perusing donations after two decades of containing polio.

In India, a single case of polio generated the vaccination of 2 million kids in the region.  Ethiopia is witnessing a significant drop in infantile mortality rate because remote communities are training specialized nurses for vaccinating and delivering pregnant women.

Diseases like malaria, diarrhea, measles, tuberculosis, cholera, polio, and countless others banal diseases that have vaccines, or can be treated with antibiotics, are still rampant and killing everyday thousands of babies and adults in under-developed States, particularly, kids under 5 years of age.

For example, Cholera is back in force and threatening to spread in many neighboring States to Zimbabwe.  Mugabe of Zimbabwe refuses to step down as President and his State is suffering great famine, miseries, and the plague.  Thousands of people have contracted cholera and over 7,000 have already succumbed.   Cholera cannot be controlled; it could not be through the ages and current progress is not at a par with that plague.  Why?  Cholera has the capacity to mutate: an element of AND code new functions for the benefit of the bacteria, modifying its genome and increasing its adaptation to treatments or new antibiotics.

So far, medical research has not mapped out all the means of transmissions of Cholera.  It is possible that home pets, cats and dogs, carrying flea might be transmitters of the epidemic.  What is known is that older generations of antibiotics such as streptomycin, chloramohenicol, and tetracycline are increasingly inefficient against the bacteria of cholera.  The antibiotic based on fluoroquinolone might be of more effectiveness.

The best angle to analyze the topic of transmissible diseases to divide the diseases in three categories.  The first category represents the diseases that have effective and cheap vaccines and antibioticsThe second category represents disease that require costly vaccines, expensive treatments, and common surgeries but can effectively cure.  The third category is reserved for diseases that have no cures but can be contained for several years until progress is achieved like AIDS and a few other cancerous cases.

For the third category, funds are allocated to the under-developed States, simply because the rich States need guinea pigs to experiment with treatments that are traumatic in their own communities.

The first category is the most promising for decreasing drastically the casualties at an affordable cost.  Basically, the vaccines and the prior generations of antibiotics have already covered the expense of experimentation, and have been a cash cow for many decades.  The main expense would be to train local nurses in remote communities, and university students in medicine, to administer vaccines and inexpensive antibiotics that are still effective.

The second category is not as urgent for the under-developed States as the funding and the structural organizations for eradicating the diseases in the first category.  There has been a mobilization in 1994 for creating a world bank for medicament and vaccines and a few States invested funds in that bank but there was lack of active pursuit for the long term.  All the health related branches in the UN such as UNICEF, OMS, PAM, FUND, Red Cross, and Red Crescent have been working on the field for many decades, but diseases are gaining the upper hand.

The scarcity of resources allocated to fighting disease in the under-developed States need to be restructured.  Priority should be given to diseases in category #1, before attacking effectively diseases in category number two.  At least, trained nurses and medical students would be ready to tackle more complex treatments.

You may read my article

Note 1:  A short history on Cholera or plague.

Bubonic plague has a long history, through the ages, to devastating more than a third of a population as it hits.  Cholera lands suddenly, kills for a short period and then disappear for no known reasons.  The best remedy was to flee as quickly, as far away as is possible and not to return any time soon.

The Jews in Judea were decimated during David.  The troops of the Assyrian Monarch Sanhareeb, putting siege to Jerusalem in 701 BC, suffered the plague. Greece and Athens in 430 BC was devastated by cholera as Sparta was laying siege to Athens. Ancient Rome was plagued.  Cholera hit Byzantium during Justinian for one century and traveled around the Mediterranean basin; Pope Pelage II succumbed to cholera in 590.

In 1346, the Mogul troops, laying siege to Caffa in Crimea, were plagued and they catapulted infested bodies over the rampart of Caffa.  The Genoa defenders fled Caffa and transmitted the plague to all Europe; Spain, Marseille, Paris, England are contaminated and then Russia ten years later. France lost over a third of its population and Spain as many if not worse.

Cholera crashed London in 1665.   The English monarch and his family had to pay a long visit to the French Monarch.  The plague subsided when fire engulfed the better parts of the poorer quarters of London in 1666.

The last time, before Zimbabwe, that cholera expressed its virulence was in 1894 in south east China.

History accounts shows that cholera was carried by the Mogul troops arriving from Mongolia and Central Asia. As they sweep into relatively humid regions then plague settles in during summertime. India, Iran, Iraq, and Syria suffered plague during the Mogul successive invasions. I cannot but figure out a few hypotheses.

Note 2:  Alexandre Yersin, a French physician and bacteriologist, discovered in 1894 that Cholera is a bacteria but he failed to come up with a curative serum. Yersin still believed that rodents (rats) are the main culprit for transmitting this disease.  Only in 1898 did Paul-Louis Simond confirmed that cholera is transmitted by flea that quit dead rats to other greener pastures by sucking blood elsewhere.  Rats are infected with cholera but they are not affected or transmit it because they rarely bite humans.  Once a man is afflicted with cholera then the main transmitter of the epidemics are men.

Cholera infects people but does not bloom in dry arid regions.  Cholera is virulent in humid regions and during the hot seasons. Could it be because people sweat profusely? Especially because people failed to wash or take bathes in older days?  Or is it that since sweat excretes most of the salt in the body then cholera has an ideal medium of less salty body fluids to flourish and concentrate during the ripe seasons?




June 2011

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