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Personal Blimp

March 13, 2010

Neat project here… I doubt it will revolutionize transportation, but building a Personal Blimp in your backyard is a pretty awesome project.  I think the physical scale and the relatively slow speed of airships probably won’t allow them to displace the automobile for personal transit any time soon.  But they do have a certain aesthetic appeal about them, and I could even see how the nature of the airship could allow it to be quite useful under certain conditions.

In particular, the thing I like about their design is the structure used to give the balloon its shape. The following image is taken from the “Technology” page of their website.  I think it’s a very clever application of tensioned structures.  By tightening the “Tensioning Line,” the flexible ribs expand outwards, while also being restrained in their final shape by the fabric exterior.  Very clever!

When there is a necessity for heavy transport to places inaccessible by roads, or for surveillance, I would think buoyant aircraft would be an ideal technology.  An example might be the war in Afghanistan; I’ve heard from veterans that well-maintained roads don’t really exist there, and particularly when it rains, the dirt roads which do exist just turn to muck.  And not surprisingly, there is some buzz on the internet which suggests researchers in war technology haven’t lost interest in airships.  It seems the tech would work great in those applications, but I just can’t couple the image of a flying walrus with the epic music accompanying this video:


(RSS) Feed Me

March 9, 2010

I wanted to spruce up the homepage of this website with one more thing.  I decided to modify the (previously) ho-hum RSS Icon in the sidebar.  Recalling an earlier post on the cognitive process of creativity, and another post (very similar to this one) which illustrated this creative process in action within the context of facebook…  Here are the design constraints and design variables for this project:

Design Constraints:

  • RSS Icon Shape: the RSS icon shape must be retained in whatever design I implement.  The RSS icon shape is a universally acknowledged symbol, understood by web users to mean “Click this shape for the RSS feed for this website.”  Altering the RSS icon shape would detract from the user’s ability to understand the website.
  • “RSS Feed”–the name & its purpose: similar to bullet point one, the term “RSS feed” means one thing to almost all web users…  It is an internet tool to get updates on new content for a website.  I don’t want to muddy that at all, since that’s the purpose I’m trying to achieve: ‘by clicking this image, you will get the RSS feed for this website.’

Potential Design Variables:

  • Color: the RSS icon is not like a ‘STOP’ sign–it does not have to be red, or any other color for that matter.  The shape’s form is really the “constant” which must be retained to maintain the user’s ability to understand what the image is trying to convey–the color and texture of the image are potential variables.
  • Orientation: the RSS icon shape, as long as it is visually evident, does not necessarily have to be oriented within the plane of the webpage.

One of the constants noted above is the term “RSS feed.”  With a pun on the word ‘feed,’ I created the following RSS icon out of some wood, paint, and fake plastic greenery from a craft store:

(also: go green!)

This project made me recognize something which I had not before, about the cognitive process of creativity and the process of design.  Namely: the interplay between design constraints and design variables.  In coming up with this “apple” idea for this project, I had leveraged one of the design constraints (the word ‘RSS feed‘) directly into the iterative mental process of adjusting the color and orientation of the RSS object I was creating.  I varied the color and orientation of the RSS object so that it would suit the constraint of ‘RSS feed’ even better than if there had been no relation between this constraint and the variables at all.

An analogy for this process in the world of mechanical design might be designing with fibrous composite materials.  When designing a structure with fiber-based composites, certain structural shapes are more suitable than others…  This is because the fibers comprising these suitable shapes can be oriented to optimally bear whatever load the structure is subjected to.  So, given the ‘orientational strength constraint’ of fibrous composite materials, you will want to ‘vary the shape’ of the structure to favorably agree with the constraining nature of the material you are designing with…  Just as I had ‘varied the RSS Icon’s color and shape’ to favorably align with the constraint of the icon’s purpose: to serve as an RSS feed.  This could even be one good working definition of optimal design–adjusting the design features which can be varied in order to agree, as best as possible, with the design requirements or constraints.

Finally, the ‘spark of insight’ which enabled the pun on ‘RSS feed’ is just another example of the cognitive process involving ‘constraints/variables’ in creativity, too.  This time, the ‘constraints/variables’ are phrases and word definition.  Observing the phrase “RSS Feed” one can then ask the question–what are the conceptual features of this term which can be varied?  One feature of a phrase which can be varied is ‘definition of its individual terms’ (i.e., the definition of a pun).  This is what I chose to vary here–the alternative definition of ‘feed,’ as in: to eat.


March 3, 2010

Check out the video below of the FanWing.  It’s a pretty genius application of Beroulli’s principle to the technology of flight.  If you are going to rely on Bernoulli and airfoils to get into the air, you can either force the wing through the air to generate lift (with jet engines, rotors, or the like)…  Or you can force the air across the wing to generate lift.  The latter is exactly what Patrick Peebles has done with his FanWing!  If he wasn’t the first to think of this alternative method of implementing airfoil-based flight, then I’ll bet that he was the first to successfully pull it off.  Here’s the video (fun part begins around 0:40):

It will be interesting to see if this tech can be scaled up for human transport.

Brad Litwin is a Genius

August 30, 2009

On youtube, I stumbled across the channel of Brad Litwin.  The man is a mechanical genius, an extremely talented machinist, and an artist (and a jazz and blues musician).  He makes kinetic art that is right up there with the mechanical fountains of Jean Tingueley.  Nice work, Brad!  I’d love to become half the mechanic/machinist/artisan that you are!  A few of my favorite machines by him are below, and check his channel for a lot more!

“The Rotapult”:

“Mechanical Atom-Smacker” (air piston-powered suction for ball-bearing; cool!):

“The Sway of Public Opinion”:


Design Constraints

August 22, 2009

In a previous blog post (“Designers are Metaphysical Mathematicians”), I acknowledged that there will usually be aspects of a design project which are not subject to alteration–what you might call “design constraints.”  Clients will have certain strict requirements which must be delivered exactly as requested (whether that be a specific design feature, or perhaps just the overall purpose of the product requested).  The aspects of the design which can be altered–which can be regarded as “variables” in the design problem–are where the designer’s creativity is allowed to, and is expected to run free.

Some projects will have more design constraints than others.  As an example, consider the layout of Facebook.  It is a pretty static website, which largely prevents users from enacting personalized website layout.  Because of this, it would not seem that there is much room for creative customizability of your Facebook profile.  Contrast this with MySpace, which does allow more customization…  though it is important to state the fact that Facebook’s layout beats 99.99999% of MySpace users who take profile design into their own hands (small factions of people who have not explored MySpace may still dispute this).  Perhaps this is even a reason for Facebook’s dominance?

I asked myself this question: what is there within Facebook which I can work with–or regard as a design variable–in order to put a creative spin on an otherwise ubiquitously uniform layout?  Here are two things I implemented:

Varying photo album contents, within the layout constraints of Facebook’s photo albums:

Click 'Back to Album'

Varying my profile picture, within the context of the Facebook profile page:

Profile Picture_cropped

The take-home message of the “Designers are Metaphysical Mathematicians” essay is demonstrated here: creativity is unleashed when a designer views aspects of a system or design problem as variable.  Later, I plan to write more about the nature of “design constraints,” since they serve as the standard by which a design can be considered a success or failure (so, they’re kind of important).

Shop Class as Soulcraft

August 9, 2009

“Spirit?” said the old bum.  “There’s no spirit involved in manufacturing or in sex.  Yet these are man’s only concerns.  Matter–that’s all men care about.  As witness our great industries–the only accomplishment of our alleged civilization–built by vulgar materialists with the aims, the interests and the moral sense of hogs.  It doesn’t take any morality to turn out a ten-ton truck on an assembly line.”  — Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p. 168

“You knew what exacting morality was needed to produce a single metal nail…  You knew that man needs the strictest code of values to deal with nature…”  — Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p. 420

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy.  They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering “interpretations” of himself to vindicate his worth.  He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.  Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world.  But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgement of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.  His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.”  — Matthew Crawford, “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” page 15.

“In this book I would like to speak up for an ideal that is timeless but finds little accomodation today: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world.”  — Matthew Crawford, “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” page 2.

Several months ago, I stumbled across an extensive NYT essay, penned by Matthew Crawford.  He was given quite a bit of room to hold forth since he had recently published a book titled “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.”  (I highly recommend reading that essay, and not just because it is a good way to get the gist of the book)  It was quite evident that Mr. Crawford was a particularly talented and particularly well-prepared critic of some commonly held beliefs in our society, and that he and I were on the same wavelength with respect to the latter.  I immediately bought his book and was glad that I did so!  I’ll comment on it a bit here, and provide some of my favorite quotes from it.

Read more…

Cargo Bridge Game. And Implications.

July 19, 2009

Awesome Game: Cargo Bridge

While trolling the internet one day, I found a really (really) awesome game called “Cargo Bridge.” It was created by a game designer named Limex (whose website is here).  The goal of the game is to get your “worker” across a “chasm” to retrieve items on the other side.  To accomplish this goal, you have to construct a bridge out of beams and walkways; the bridge has to be capable of supporting itself, the worker, and the item he’s retrieving.

The game can be found at Limex’s website here, or where it is hosted at another game site, here (At that second site you can put $ in a tip jar! Great game, Limex deserves to be paid for it!)

There are two modes of “view” within the game.  The “blueprint view” is where you lay out beams in an arrangement of your choice, using the anchor points visible in the blueprint. Then you can switch back to the “test bridge view” in order to ‘run the simulation.’ At this point, you will find out if your design successfully supports the worker and the item he is retrieving…  Or you get to discover that you have epic failed at bridge designing and the bridge snaps with your worker plunging to his death (Though I have to admit: the highly distraught “plummetting-to-doom-shriek” of the workman is pretty funny).  Here’s a video someone made of one of the game levels, in action.  A very janky design; but it worked!

The game is five boatloads of fun for anyone with a mechanically creative bent and is almost limitless in playability.  There are 24 levels and, after that, a “challenge round” where you see how wide of a span you can cross with the anchor points given to you.  Beating the 24 levels doesn’t mean that there is no challenge remaining in them either…  Since the game tallys up your building material costs, you can play the levels again to see just how cheap your solution can be, while still allowing you to complete the level.

 Awesome Underpinnings: Engineering

Read more…

Protected: Job Application Information

July 15, 2009

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My Thesis

May 6, 2009


As of today (May 6th, 2009), I have about five weeks before my thesis has to be completed for my master’s degree at Georgia Tech.  In addition to the necessity of hunting for a job, I’ll be putting “new blog posts” on the backburner until my thesis is officially done in early July.  I might put small updates on my research here before I return to regular writing, but I’ll stay active through Twitter (my tweets are visible in the right sidebar here).

My thesis is on fatigue crack initiation in cross-ply carbon fiber laminates.  The majority of the work was experimental tensile testing of that material (the image above shows one of my test specimens in the grips of an MTS brand servo-hydraulic tensile testing machine), but I’m also supplementing that experimental work with analytical and Finite Element modeling, as any good engineer must. 

Behold, a crack in one of the test specimens:


The horizontal bands in the image above are the individual carbon fiber laminas: there are ten 90 degree laminas in the middle of this layup with a 0 degree lamina on the “top” and “bottom” of the layup.  The thickness of that 12 ply layup is 0.093″.  Below is a further magnified view of the 90 degree plies–the circles in the image are the cross-sectional tips of the carbon fibers, which are embedded in the surrounding epoxy matrix:


When I return, you can call me Master.

Designers are Metaphysical Mathematicians

May 5, 2009

There are probably as many definitions for “design creativity” as there are people who have knowledge of the concept.  However, it seems that a large portion of the descriptions I’ve seen–which also forms much of the boilerplate on “creativity” by the companies claiming to “have it”–could be summed up as “Mystical flashes of insight from the mental void.”

In my experience, it sure seems that the ‘spark of insight’ which initiates the process of creating something new can seem to strike my mind as if it were a “bolt from the blue.”  However, I think there is much, much more to a good description of insightful innovation than simply regarding it as “a mental miracle.”  I think that the cognitive process which enables that spark of innovation can be described better and–this is what makes this goal so important–could potentially be taught and learned.

I think designers, good designers, are exceptionally strong conceptual thinkers.  I think it is their understanding, explicit or implicit, of the conceptual nature of human thought which enables them to be so creative.  By this I mean to say that designers can step back and observe a design problem at a more abstract conceptual level than most people.  By doing this, they have a much broader view of the problem and can see far more avenues to solutions.  But how do they do this?  What is the cognitive process which enables them to do this?

People often think of themselves as either “left-brained” or “right-brained.”  “Logical” or “intuitive.”  Mathematician or artist.  But is there really a dichotomy between the mathematician (rules, laws, concretes and the definite!) and the creative work of the artist and designer (inexplicable flash of genius from the mental beyond)? 


Read more…