Racing off the edge

The remaining 4-boats of the 6 original VOR Open-70′s that started leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race continue through the Roaring-40′s ice gates and race deeper into the Furious-50′s on their way to round Cape Horn for Brazil.

They’re racing through an area of the Southern Ocean that has no transcontinental over-flights, and is void of any shipping traffic. There is only the numbing cold and violently windswept wetness of the most isolated place on the planet populated only by the solitary Albatross and teams of international sailors seeking their own personal grails. They have a single link, a golden thread of technology. Inmarsat provides weather, scant news from home and a connection to their shore team while carrying their scheduled position reports and almost real-time media back for us ashore to follow. A single link for all communications. Clear, digitally pure and unambiguous communications.

The VOR-70′s are a unique breed; 70′ in length weighing-in at 14-tons, carrying 7.4-ton articulating keels. They are optimized for high-speed, long-distance racing in a series of globe-spanning sprints. Crafted of carbon-fiber with 31.5 meter spars of high-modulus carbon carrying sail plans of exotic colors on rigs of Spectra, the boats are capable of maintaining 30-knots, . . . Effortlessly. But in the Southern Ocean they’re being throttled back in hopes of surviving the punishment of 40′ waves.

VOR-70 Telefonica

The cold winds from Antarctica howl at 60-knots and push waves the size of condo-blocks that continue to batter the fleet. Sanya(CH) with damage to their steering gear has retired the leg and returns to Auckland, NZ while Camper(NZ) sails to Chile for structural repairs caused by 8-meter waves. Telefonica(SP) has adopted a slower and less punishing northern route, nursing a damaged bow to Ushuaia for reinforcing in port. Groupama(FR) is now chased by PUMA(US) 30-miles astern and closing. AbuDhabi(AD) trails by another 1400-miles after stopping for repairs to damage sustained in brutal upwind conditions at the start of the leg. Continue reading

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Into the gaps and off the edge, . . .

I’ve begun following the thoughts of Nilofer Merchant. I like her thinking.

Nilofer Merchant

And I’ve been thinking on her comment yesterday about ideas coming in around the edges, . . . I like it. A strong conceptual metaphor! Got me thinking about her Who You Are Is What You Make interview, considering those ‘Gaps’ between the boxes in the organizational structure. Which got me thinking about structural scale.

Our world view enables us to think of “organizational gaps” as metaphor for the corporate space, a way of describing the dynamic relationships between people and their influence or responsibilities. From a management perspective this may be the only way to wrap our minds around the concept of the interactions between people and their relationships within an enterprise; A hierarchical organization on a page. Cartesian space characterized by containers with connecting orthographic lines, . . . Otherwise, it just gets too messy.

Visual thinking attempts to dig a bit deeper into an enterprise, perhaps a more dynamic view. Venn bubbles, lines with arrows, even squiggly lines and the complexity of fluid intersections, alignment and vectors describing relationships and structure. Still very 2-dimensional. Still within Cartesian space, and all very difficult for management to influence, . . . So, the result is PowerPointy boxes, complete with gaps on a chart with edges into the void that invite us to fall. All very Newtonian, and Microsoft has made it easy to express, as long as you use their menus. A view that influences our thinking and our perceptions. And maybe it is time to move beyond it. Turn the page.

Consider the transition into thinking in terms of observed interactions, unseen forces and vast distances that inspired Einstein to imagine a more cosmic world view. Organization as a landscape within an environment. Conceptually, the metaphors become very interesting. The influences that are acting on business today may be considered as the curvature of space-time influenced by mass-density providing a localized warping of those neat boxes and the grids of spreadsheets. The mental model quickly goes 3-dimensional, with altitude, wave-forms and some very real geometry.

The Newtonian view works as far as your arm’s reach. Add a little distance, and introduce the dynamics of 7-billion people and space-time warps a bit. But we’re still not looking at the entire picture. Consider operating with definite Finite Limits. Confined to the Earth’s over-developed surface, our need for the dwindling resources available within a closed system creates additional levels of stress. A chaotic model doesn’t begin to do it justice.

Confining our perceptions, our sphere of influence and the collective impact of our actions to arm’s reach needs revision. The mental model begs adjustment.

Alan Chochinov

Alan Chochino

Alan Chochinov is exploring those gaps and those edges in 1000 Words, The Critical Dichotomies of Design.

If we can consider the possibilities, the future becomes quite interesting. We just need some new pictures for a world-view quite different from the current one.

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The i-word, . . .

Innovation is everywhere. It’s become a very popular subject. In the news, on magazine covers, and filling books. They’re even talking about it around the boardroom table.

Many are curious about it. About it’s power to transform technologies and markets. They’re curious (and furious!) about it’s recent effect across the financial markets. Don Norman has even questioned “Is Design Thinking a Useful Myth?” And many are trying to engage it, to put it to work for their organizations, or within their groups. Many would like to institutionalize the processes, procedures and methods, . . . Reliable, and repeatable innovation. Crank it out.

But it’s a little more elusive than that. Look at Pixar, or Apple, or early HP. Companies that have trucked profits to their banks and stockholders for years on the wheels of innovation. They make it look easy, . . . but, it’s a bit harder than that. It involves risk.

Continue reading

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What happens if I connect this wire, . . . to here?

Sometimes curiosity drives the connections we make. At other times, we rely on an intuitive sense of how things need to be connected.  Like, knowing how to jumper a new drive when the instructions are in shreds, or knowing how to get from “L Street” over to “Hamilton”. Sometimes though, it’s not so obvious.

Lia Ditton, North Atlantic

Lia Ditton

I’ve followed Lia Ditton as she makes her way across oceans. First soloing in the 2005 OSTAR aboard “Shockwave” an ORMA 60′ tri, correcting out to 4th in class among 18 finishers whittled down from 34 who started. This was followed by her 2nd place finish in the 2006 Route de Rhum, aboard an Open-40, “Dangerous When Wet” racing solo from St Malo to Guadeloupe. Most recently, Lia and Detective Inspector Mick Birchall rowed the Atlantic in the Woodvale Challenge, racing 2,900 miles in 73-days. Leaving the Canary Islands, she chronicled her daily experiences and impressions until their finish in Antigua, placing 9th among 30 other competitors.

Open-60 Barcelona World Race


Now, she’s moved on to another intriguing project, the Open Boat Orchestra. Conducted (grin!) during the Barcelona World Race, streaming real-time performance data to be converted into music. Double-handed, flat-out, and non-stop 25,000 miles around the world, following the clipper route, in under 90-days. Currently, the BWR shows 9 entries, with a diverse list of international teams. (FR, ESP, USA, GBR, AUS, IRE & SUI)

Fitting an Open-60 with FSR load cells streaming 24/7 performance data on racing conditions, heading, speeds, and environmental conditions, Lia’s team will create the first musical interpretation of a circumnavigation. Capturing the rhythms of life and patterns of an ocean from diurnal cycles of the sun and moon, through tides, waves and wind, it’s all so very connected. As Lia describes it, “the boat moving through the water is the synthesizer.” Today, she completed her first photo-shoot aboard what could be her possible charter for the race, rounding the field of entries to ten.

OK, here comes the connection, . . .

Christen Lien

Christen Lien, photo courtesy Tracy Clay

I had watched Christen Lien perform at the close of the TED-X OilSpill, amazed at the poised control of an artist performing an expressive and impassioned new work weaving themes, patterns and emotive images as music. All of it solo with the help of effects processing, loops and a classical viola to create a sound “both uncannly ancient and reassuringly contemporary”. Really cool to watch and hear.

So, I did some research and discovered Christen’s ‘Midway. Message From the Gyre‘ with photos by Chris Jordan. A moving journey to a remote island suffering a plastic agony. Christen’s music resonates with the pattern language and flow of forces in our oceans. But, it wasn’t until a month later, after an update on the OBO that I wondered why these two people don’t know each other and why they aren’t collaborating? Duoh! It was so obvious. Someone needed to make the connection.

Now, I’ve been able to blindly connect them across a continent and an ocean. And I’m waiting to hear how they’ll expand our awareness of our oceans along with our appreciation for their creativity and talents. And their courage for going out there, alone. Across oceans or out onto a stage, alone.

I think it was Paul Sappho who said “Innovation happens in the space between two people” Sometimes the connections are obvious. And sometimes we need to shrink those spaces, . . . All benefit.

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Snowflakes in summer, . . .

I tend to look for metaphors in attempting to understand new concepts. Considering the mess of hydrate slush formation at the Deepwater oil spill, I remembered my first real introduction to the concept of phase change, and leaped headlong into how concepts themselves crystallize.



More than a few years ago, Dr. Ron Berzofsky and I were flying back to DC from a site-inspection when he broached the wonder of phase-change; that unique ability of compounds to move between solid, liquid and gaseous states or even to a plasma due to changes in ambient temperature or pressure. First order phase-transitions are the result of latent heat exchange, like boiling water giving off steam, or the formation of snowflakes as chaotic activity cools and motion is arrested, becoming organized into a stable, low-energy system. Sometimes a triple-point is reached with very low pressures at low temperature triggers a phase change between multiple states with very small energy exchanges.

As water vapor cools, moisture vapor condenses into droplets. As those drops continue to give up their heat energy to ambient surroundings, their chaotic activity slows further, from liquid to solid with a hexagonal lattice structure, resulting in the formation of geometrically organized crystals. Ice!

OK, where’s this going? Well, in speaking recently with Dr. B, I reconsidered other changes driven by an exchange of energy. As a metaphor, design can be thought of as the condensation of new ideas forming simpler, yet more organized structures from complex experiences or imagination. In developing any new concept, people give up creative energy in exchange for organized patterns of thought in the same way that water exchanges heat energy and assumes a highly organized hexagonal crystal structure.

Most often, we regard creative energy as generating heat energy. Perhaps, . . . But consider the inverse where the creative energy behind a new idea is exchanged as those ideas and concepts are considered, evolve inside-out and finally solidify to crystallize into higher orders of organization in the creation of solutions for new problems.

Design thinking is that wonderful triple-point where new perceptions on the human condition and diversity coupled with observations on behaviors, technology, systems and opportunities are involved in the exchange of wild ideas. Sometimes this leads to the generation of entirely fresh new concepts that seem to literally fall out of the sky.

. . . Like snow.

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Deepwater Horizon, high-volume, low-pressure

I’ve been wrestling with the concepts involved in controlling the disaster in our Gulf of Mexico. Day after day, the spread of oil continues and we watch it grow, unable to believe that it’s actually happening, and apparently unable to do anything about it.


Forces & Conditions

I watched the TEDxOilSpill live-stream yesterday. One of the speakers was Dr Carl Safina, President of the Blue Ocean Institute who had visited the spill site and adjacent estuaries. He spoke of a dolphin surfacing next to his boat, with expelled breath smelling strongly of oil. Motoring some distance away, the same dolphin surfaced alongside his boat once again, as though pleading for help. At that point the speaker’s voice cracked, and he took a few moments to compose himself, . . . As did I.

I’ve sailed the gulf for years, enjoying both it’s challenges and it’s beauty. Two years ago, during a midnight watch on a race from Clearwater to Key West, a pod of dolphins were attracted by illumination on our sails and rig as we made our silent passage across the top of their world. At least 5 adults and several smaller and obviously immature bottlenose dolphins paced us for hours as they played tag, keeping us company, blowing to the surface every few minutes to roll an eye and wave at us.  I’m saddened to think that one of those dolphins may have been the one that Dr. Safina spoke of.

Continue reading

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Charlotte’s nature, . . .

Charlotte spider

Our Charlotte

In late October of ’05, the spiders in our neighborhood spun their webs while we prepared to welcome Hurricane Wilma on the 24th. Somehow, they just seem to know what’s going to happen much better than NOAA.

The south-east window wall of our home creaked while we hid beside Illie’s ‘power tools’ in the utility room. When the eye passed overhead, being a fearless designer with a really bad case of the shakes, I went outside to check for damage and take a breather. I happened to notice that the webs were all still up. As those webs were in the lee on the leading edge of the eye, the trailing eye-wall would blow them all away when they were fully exposed to the 120-knot blasting coming in behind us fueled by a cold front.

As Boyle predicted in 1662, with a drop in temperature, the air density and the force of the storm winds in the trailing wall increased. The spiders weren’t aware of Boyle’s law, nor NOAA’s predictions, . . . Their webs held, every single one of them.

spider web

Tensegrity web

Spiders are hard-wired masters in the art of creating durable structures under tension. As she spins, she resolves ALL of the forces acting on her web without conscious thought. The web is spun in a roughly vertical plane, dropping from above to connect with her radiating shrouds anchored on any handy branch, to meet roughly in the middle. Then, working around the perimeter, she ties the structure together with an annular pattern resulting in a radially symmetrical web, with all of the stress in balance. Absolute Magic!

Conversely, we describe the host of forces of product development with terms that are all derived from pressure; Time-to-Market, Competitive Pressure, Price Pressure, Cycle compression. We’ve all lived with the forces and the extended analytics involved that define how we resolve solutions to problems. They feel like pressure and we respond accordingly.

Design Thinking works like Charlotte, resolving the force vectors by connecting the points directly with concepts or an idea that is literally woven with the same elegance as the web. Interdependent, tensile, and balanced.

The art or science of Design Thinking seeks the same balanced symmetry by resolving apparently polarized forces; prioritized needs, system requirements, operational structures, manufacturing, processing, supply-chain logistics or group dynamics. Design Thinking senses the values of those forces as tensile and balances them with appropriate solutions that are individually insufficient, but collectively robust. We need more spiders.

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Process, tools, . . . and feedback,



Edge jointing a length of mahogany is no big deal with the right tools. Unfortunately, it took me a while to learn the trick. I’d had a collection of junker handplanes for years, and always left them in the drawer for a variety of reasons. Bad sole, needed truing, never enough time. Bad blade that wouldn’t square up, or hold a decent edge. In time I finally bought a new Veritas plane with A2 blades. Sheesh!

OK, clamp down, sight it, take a few passes to find the highs and lows and get it kinda square with the world, then sing through a square, true and straight new face in just a few strokes, . . . Wow! The difference lay partly in the tool, but mostly in the holding. The feedback is immediate as you feel the bite, the grain run and the geometry of the edge on each stroke. You can hear the blade whisper through the grain. A bit of throat adjustment in the beginning and the result is amazing. Straight, true and quiet. Soft shavings without ear plugs. The perfect cordless tool!

Blade micro-bevel

Blade micro-bevel

Tool and process are so closely linked that feedback is both immediate and of a very high quality. Feedback enables the process, providing highly accurate information regarding the configuration of the tool and its use. A bit of knowledge gained by understanding both tool and process allows high levels of control over both. This linkage is so closely coupled as to be almost inseparable.

Can the scale of the process-tool relationship expand across an enterprise to validate organizational structure? Or even the business model? As the scale expands, the feedback loop on performance also stretches. Analysis of metrics measuring performance has difficulty with the qualitative aspects of any system dependent on relationships. Often, months or years can pass until the weaknesses and fault-lines are exposed and opportunities for adjustment within the organization can be lost.

The complexity of understanding the feedback in a complex system can overshadow the ability to adjust the throat, or touch up the blade’s edge to improve the process and the quality of the final cut. With success depending on both the feedback and the flexibility of the tools and the process, then any adjustment also calls for judgement in understanding that feedback. Therein lies the skill.

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Linear thinking for a rotary engine?

Dick Gomez

Dick Gomez

Dick Gomez was a nice surprise. A VP of Zero Corporation that I had the opportunity to work with after his retirement. Sharp as a razor and as blunt as a board, but one fine engineer that had started his career just as WW-II broke out. So, being more valuable to the war effort as a design engineer involved with aircraft than a target on foot, his first assignment was to design a 750 hp, 9-cylinder radial engine for a 4-engine bomber.

As Dick told me the story, you could feel the anguish in his voice. His first job, ever. Large responsibilities and not a clue as to where he should start. Deciding what to do first had him pinned to the brick wall. Without a clear path to design an engine of this complexity, he was frozen with anxiety and indecision. Finally, an older manager took him under his wing and led him through the process.

9-Cyl Rotary

9-cyl rotary

If you know the target horsepower, and HP per cubic inch is a given, divide by the number of cylinders we have room for. With cylinder size you can design the piston and combustion head, leaving space for a valve-train, fuel-air delivery and exhaust. You only need to design one cylinder, ’cause the other 9 are patterned after the first! Then, spacing them out radially, you can determine the connecting rod length and the crank offset derived from the compression ratio for av-gas. Clean up a few details like crank-case and carburetion and you’ve blocked out a 750 hp single-row 9-cylinder Hornet!

The fuzzy front end was a frozen front end until Dick realized that the complexity of the problem overshadowed the chain of dependencies underlying the design of the individual components. Understanding the hierarchy within the assembly was his key to control of the design of each component. Awareness of relationships is fundamental to controlling the design of any complex system. And, not just within the system, but also within the organization managing the effort.

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Laminar flow and design research

Wave front

Wave form

Dream job, fresh out of school and I didn’t have enough sense to know what I didn’t know. But I knew I was going to learn to design boats, . . Sail Boats with tall spars and long legs, OCEAN RACERS! Sawdust, splines, polyester resin, lead and stainless, and ink on mylar, Simpson’s 2/3 Rule, displacement, buoyancy and calculations involving significant digits. And it all started to make sense. I was learning how to learn. Exposure to the principles gave way to understanding, and I began to learn, and question, . . . What is flow? What is turbulence? How do you optimize lift while reducing drag in a fluid with form and shape in motion?

Georg Thomas was an inspiration, a new graduate of Michigan’s Naval Architecture program, he understood the engineering that followed the First Principles that I was learning. He described flow to me one day while I wrestled with a set of hull lines that I was having a difficult time conjuncting, . . . lines and splines held by ducks to conform to small dots on a large sheet of mylar, . . . the hard way.

Georg outlined the flow and motion of a single molecule of water as a boat moves through the water. Surface turbulance and waves on the interface of air and water, and along comes a hull moving at 8-knots. What happens to a drop of water? What motion does it experience? Where does it go and how does it move? Imagine what it feels like to be that single drop of water, . . .just imagine!

Up and down, real simple. Just like a wave. The hull displaces water in the most convenient direction. Downward. Initially with a great deal of motion which slows as the hull passes overhead. That motion eases into a smooth transition zone of laminar flow as the molecules next to the hull are dragged along with it by surface drag. Very low turbulance. The larger -or longer, -or slower a vessel in motion, the thicker that boundary layer of laminar flow. Towards the stern, as the hull form lifts away from it’s immersion and water is free to rise into the area previously displaced, turbulence boils.

Georg and I spent hours in conversation on flow, turbulence and motion, even hanging our heads over the side to get up close and personal with that boundary layer. Watching the motion of the water, over the bow, amidships and hanging over the transom, eyes on the water, watching the movement and flow, . . . Design Research! One of my first real world encounters with the principles of observation and understanding.

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