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 BLOG >> December 2015

Multiscale Thinking [Education
Posted on December 23, 2015 @ 06:59:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In T.T Forman's book, Urban Ecology: Science of Cities (2014), he argues for a multiscale approach to understanding objects or patterns:

This hierarchy of scales highlights another key dimension in understanding urban ecology. Typically the object or pattern of interest at a particular scale is strongly affected by characteristics at three scales. First, characteristics at the next broader or higher scale encompasses and tend to control the object. Second, characteristics at the next finer or lower scale help control and explain the internal mechanisms or functions of the object. Third, other objects at the same scale interact competitively or collaboratively with the object considered. These three hierarchical interactions effectively mold the form of an object and determine how it functions. (p. 12)

In Urban Ecology, for example, Forman posits these 9 different scales:

  1. Megalopolis
  2. Urban Region
  3. Metro Area
  4. City
  5. Major Land Use Type (e.g., residential, commercial, etc...)
  6. Neighborhood
  7. Block
  8. Building
  9. Micro-site (e.g., wall, roof, basement, and so forth)

So if you are trying to understand some pattern at the city level then you should also think about the factors that influence and determine that pattern at the Metro scale and at the Major Land Use Type scale in order to better understand the drivers of that pattern and how it might evolve over time.

One aspect of this technique that should be noted is that what constitutes a scale or level of analysis is not always clear and the art of using this technique is in large measure defining the macro and micro scales that are appropriate to understanding the object or pattern you are interested in. In the simplest cases you might be able to invoke some domain of physics or chemistry to define the micro scale of analysis. In the case of understanding how mosses grow (a recent interest of mine) the micro scale might be the soil profile under the moss and the macro scale might be the topography of the landscape that a particular type of moss is situated in. What you are trying to understand may suggest what micro and macro scales might be appropriate. The benefit you might derive from multiscale thinking may reside in defining what micro and macro scales might be appropriate to use.

Another aspect of this technique worth noting has to do with the reason for engaging in this type of analysis. My own feeling is that there is no direct benefit in adopting this approach unless you consider intellectual understanding a benefit. Otherwise, adopting this approach is not for the direct purpose of solving a problem or designing something. Prior to solving a problem or designing something, however, we need to understand the patterns we are observing and it is in this prior stage that a multiscale approach to understanding might be useful. Without a good understanding of the domain our problem solving or designs are likely to be less than optimal.

In the case of investing in a business, for example, a multiscale approach might be useful in understanding the viability of the business better. The business operates in a particular niche and we might evaluate the business with respect to competition and collaboration with other companies servicing a similar niche (level n). To follow this multicale approach we would also have to bring in the microscope and analyze the business at finer scale, and a macroscope to analyze the business at a broader scale. Once we have an understanding of the business at these three scales we might be in a better position to decide if we should invest in the business. So the investment heuristic here is only to invest in a business after you have performed an analysis at three scales.

I'm not sure at this point how the micro and macro scales should be defined for businesses in general. It would be nice to have set of scales like Forman does for urban ecology to utilize for understanding business patterns for the purpose of investing. I'm still trying to master multiscale thinking and would not want to try to define such a scale this early in the game. Studying some micro and macroeconomics texts would probably prove useful in such a quest. Perhaps in a future post I'll revisit this topic with some suggestions for scales that might include time and motion studies all the way up to global economic forces that can be used to better understand business patterns.

Fields such as multiscale modelling might provide some useful formal techniques.

Allan Newell in Unified Theories of Cognition (1991) was very interested in understanding cognition at multiple scales and has one of the best extended discussions of multiscale modelling. Below is Newell's time scale of human action. Newell's book didn't address the social scale which is why it is not very details at this scale.

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Good, Bad & Debatable Advice [Decision Making
Posted on December 19, 2015 @ 07:37:00 AM by Paul Meagher

One book I'm currently reading is a gardening book called Decoding Gardening Advice (2012) by Jeff Gilman & Meleah Maynard.

The book is broken up into various gardening topics such as soil, water, disease and pest control, mulch, etc... For each topic they discuss advice that they consider good, bad, and debatable about that gardening topic and provide reasons for their classification.

On the topic of soil an example of good advice is "Add organic material to all garden soil before planting". An example of bad advice is "Always us a balanced fertilizer". An example of debatable advice is "Use urine as fertilizer". You can read the book to find out exactly why they consider these imperative statements to be good, bad, and debatable advice.

I find the format of the book is quite useful, easy to read, and stimulating. Reading these short advice-and-evaluation pieces is a good way to organize knowledge in an actionable way.

I think a similarly formatted book would be good when it comes to investment advice or managing a startup. In both cases there are different topic areas we might focus on and within these topic areas we might formulate various pieces of advice about the topic and then evaluate how true that advice is.

It is important to recognize, however, that advice is seldom infallible and that even good advice can be wrong in certain circumstances. For example, the advice to add organic material to all garden soil before planting would be incorrect if that organic material is, say, pine needles whose acidity and tannins might prevent the growth of the plant you are trying to grow. Many people would have regarded the advice to use urine as a fertilizer as universally good advice but the authors consider it debatable because urine has 10 times the dose of nitrogen that liquid fertilizers usually have so if you repeatedly apply urine to the same area you could damage your plants with too much nitrogen. Also if you don't apply it right away, stale urine could accumulate diseases and become even more concentrated. All of these problems go away if you dilute urine with water, use it immediately, and throw it on your compost pile rather than directly on a plant. They would even argue that the urine-added compost pile should only be used for non-food plants. The need to add more qualifications to the advice is the reason they consider it "debatable" advice.

There is alot of advice out there on the best way to invest or manage a startup. Much of it falls into the debatable category, but some is less debatable (good advice) or more debatable (bad advice). It is always necessary to contextualize advice and ask yourself whether this is really true for my circumstance and in the way that I am proposing to implement that advice.

As an exercise you might want to google "good advice for startups" or "good advice for investing" and ask yourself whether the suggested advice is really good advice. I doubt there is any advice that is always "good" so the question becomes whether there are enough circumstances where this advice could be "bad" advice that you should really put it into a category of "debatable" advice. Perhaps all that is required for the advice to be good advice is to be more precise in the formulation of that advice so it does not apply as broadly. I think the exercise of assembling your own pieces of "good" startup advice or investment advice is worth the effort because, like gardening, it should, if reliable, lead to more success than following debatable advice when you shouldn't or bad advice that you thought was good advice.

All advice needs to be decoded by evaluating whether it is appropriate to your particular circumstance and in the way you intend to apply that advice in practice. All investment, startup or business management advice is debatable to some degree and it might be useful to raise at lease one objection to any piece of advice touted as "good" advice. Expertise is the ability to recognize subtle nuances that often make a big difference in practice.

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Vernal Pools & Mosses [Nature
Posted on December 18, 2015 @ 10:39:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I took some time yesterday and today to film some of my natural surroundings.

Yesterday I encountered an icy vernal pool and after looking at it for awhile decided I wanted to do a video study focusing on pattern formation, life at the edge, and cold-hardy amphibious plants. Mosses are a family of plant species that are cold-hardy and amphibious in part because they are "non-vascular" plants (no internal circulatory vessels).

In my second video which I took today the temperatures are warmer. I was checking up on a white birch log that was innoculated with Shitake Mushroom spawn 3 months ago. I also noticed all the pretty mosses growing around it. I've become quite interested in mosses lately because of a book called Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Also, this is a time of year around here when the moss family of plants (a.k.a Bryophytes) are most noticeably alive in the forests (after the evergreen trees). In this video I was trying to determine how many species of mosses there are near the log. I thought there were at least three species - one that is more tree-like, one that is more fern-like, and one that is more fur-like in shape. I'm still new to moss identification so I can't get any more specific than that at the moment.

The moss family is an under appreciated class of plants considering that all plant life on land owes it's existence to the mosses. They invaded the land from the oceans. Mosses are an evolutionary step up from primitive ocean algaes. Some people call them "primitive" plants but I think "primordial" is often a better term. They are primordial because from moss forms all other forms in the plant world were realized (see Fundamentals of Pattern). There is still evidence of mosses in the body plan of all plants. That might be going overboard to make the point but the microcosm of the moss communities in the video above bear a family resemblance to plants, or elements of plants, that exist at a larger scale.

A recent noteworthy event in the moss world is the release of Mossin' Annies new book The Magical World of Moss Gardening (August, 2015).

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Computers On Wheels [Future
Posted on December 14, 2015 @ 09:37:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Tony Seba is a Lecturer in Entrepreneurship, Disruption and Clean Energy at Stanford University. He has written a recent book called Clean Disruption (2014) that advances some of his claims about where the energy and transport industries are headed in the near future.

Tony sees a near term disruption happening in the car industry in the form of electric vehicles with Tesla being the most notable player but with smart phone companies like Samsung, Apple, and Xiaomi making bold moves to enter the market. It might be surprising that smart phone companies are poised to become major players in the electric vehicle market until you realize that electric vehicles have an order of magnitude less parts than internal combustion engine cars (making it more feasible for smart phone companies to get involved) and that many of the near term trends in the automotive industry involve vehicles essentially becoming "computers on wheels". Vehicles are becoming loaded with sensors, software, and are becoming more connected to the internet. They are also expected to take on other roles besides just passenger transport such as storing energy from the grid or renewables and distributing energy back to the grid or to wherever it is needed. If we reach the point where we are just riding around in vehicles that drive themselves the functionality the car delivers to the occupants will be quite different than what a vehicle is expected to deliver today. We will want our vehicles to provide more entertainment options, productivity tools, mobile social networking, etc.

Disruption is a bad thing for those whose jobs depend upon the industry remaining the same, such as manufacturers, sellers, and distributors of internal combustion engine parts. Disruption, however, is also an opportunity for those who get ahead of the curve and find their niche in the disrupted landscape. If the electronic vehicle disruption comes to pass we will, for example, need some visionaries to figure out how to make it into a sustainable industry as well by figuring out what to do with all the spent lithium batteries. My own prediction, based on circular economics ideas, is that these cars will increasingly be purchased as leased vehicles that the car brands will want to take back so they can remanufacture these batteries, upgrade some sensors and software, and put it back into the market again like we do with refurbished computers.

To learn more about Tony's predictions regarding disruptions we might see in the transport industry you can watch a recent talk he gave on clean disruption in the public and private transport industry. He is also in demand as a speaker and you can find lots of YouTube videos of his talks.

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Circular Textiles [Design
Posted on December 11, 2015 @ 10:26:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I'm finishing up an excellent online EdX course called Circular Economy: An Introduction.

The course consisted of many short videos with leading experts on various circular economy ideas and research directions. There was also alot of interesting online discussion spurred by questions that the instructors posed on various circular economy ideas.

One expert we heard from is Gwen Cunningham who is doing interesting work on Circular Textiles (or textile-to-textile recycling). Circular Textiles extends to things like remanufacturing carpets, but Gwen is particularly interested in remanufacturing clothing products so we can give them a second birth as a new high value clothing item (rather then downgrading them to cheap rags, mattress filler, insulation material, etc...). There are many technical and supply chain challenges in circular economics that are particular to the the type of product you are trying to close the loop on and in the case of clothing fabrics sorting them into homogeneous types of fabrics and breaking them down so they can be built up again are some of the main challenges which Gwen discusses in one of her short videos from the course.

In many industries that adopt a circular economics approach to product development, the business model can potentially shift from consumers buying your product to leasing your product instead. In the case of circular textiles, it would be possible to offer customers the opportunity to lease a pair of jeans for, say, a year or two and after that time have your jeans disassembled, the textiles broken down into their basic constituents, and then reassembled to be leased again by you or someone else. It is fairly easy to see that circular textiles allow for the possibility of creating a much more sustainable fashion industry rather than the industry we have today where a small percentage of clothing is reused, but most of it is either downgraded or landfilled.

It would appear that in North America we are somewhat lagging in our circular economy research and development activities compared to Europe. Integrating circular design and economics into our industries is going to be an important way to achieve our sustainability goals. If you want to learn more about some of the foundational ideas of circular design and economics I would recommend you check out videos from the recent Disruptive Innovation Festival that was designed to coincide with the Circular Economics course and was another reason why I thought this was one of the better online courses to participate in. Videos from the festival are still available to view for a limited time so register now and check them out if you are interested. The festival twitter account is also still quite active with interesting posts.

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Becoming a Maker [Entrepreneurship
Posted on December 2, 2015 @ 09:44:00 PM by Paul Meagher

I'm a quarter of the way into a book by David Lang called Zero to Maker: Learn (Just Enough) to Make (Just About) Anything (2013).

Part of what hooked me into reading the book is an epiphany he had that I can relate to - the realization that you are useless.

The jobless wandering and the maker longing were a powerful mixture in the days and weeks after being laid off. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how tragically specialized I had become. I was extremely well prepared for a job that no longer existed, without the fundamental skills I could repurpose elsewhere. I seemed to be far away from being able to build, fix, or create anything of tangible value - any real, physical thing. My so-called skills - emails, social media, and blogging - were hollow substitutes. Now, after hurtling in and out of a digital career, I felt as though I were missing a critical piece of my humanity. ~ p. 8

The realization of my own uselessness came when I was helping a friend for a few days with the building of his house. One guy on the job was frustrated with my lack of ability to measure, cut and carry out directions. Life in university and in front of a computer had not prepared me well for the building trades. I've since taken steps to remedy my lack of practical skills but I've still got a long way to go.

The urge to be a maker is, for some people, based on the realization of being useless and wanting to take steps to acquire what they perceive to be useful skills. In the case of David Lang he eventually got involved in a project to develop an underwater rover vehicle so that they could find out if a treasure was buried in a cave at the bottom of a deep well. A treasure was rumored to be hidden in the well because the pirates apparently went into the cave with gold but didn't leave with it and no one has found it yet.

One of the storylines in the book is how he came to acquire the range of skills required to contribute to an underwater robot project in a fairly short amount of time. By hearing about his story and how he was able to acquire the practical technical skills he needed you can get a better sense of how to become a maker yourself. The book discusses the maker culture, the internet resources that makers use, and the maker mentality. If you have heard about makers and wondered what it was all about this is a good book to get you up to speed. It might be a good book for a high school student who likes to tinker with electronics or someone who wants to run with the geeks and build cool stuff.

To become a maker you have to be dedicated to learning alot of technical skills so that you can practice making competently. The book goes into some detail on the types of skills that makers acquire and how they acquire them. In contrast to Maker books that deal with just the technical aspects of making, this book provides you with an unabashedly personal journey into becoming a maker. This makes it easy to read.

In some ways becoming a maker is about engaging in a lifelong learning quest to become more skilled in practical and technical crafts. While Making has become associated with working with microcontrollers, harvesting electronics from old appliances, and hacking various electronic devices it is more general than that. Taking ownership over fixing your own vehicle, building or renovating your home, or growing your own food are all examples of skills a maker might want to master as well and it might define your particular brand of making.

The maker culture is a vibrant and growing culture and this is a good book for gaining some insight into the types of characters who engage in it, their motivations, the resources they use, the importance of engaging with the maker community and how it is evolving. It is an inspiring read and might inspire you to take up the cause of becoming a maker yourself.

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