Sunday, May 30, 2010

In the thrall of old ideas

This TED Talk by Sir Ken Robinson on changing education to better suit the needs of today struck me because of its relevance to the thread of intrinsic motivation and discovering what each of our "things" are: what is my superpower?

The key ideas that I took away were:
  • Dis-enthrallment: Recognizing the assumptions that we do not question and questioning them.
  • Linear vs Organic processes: Go through education in this order ("University begins in Kindergarten") and you are set for life vs. organizing to meet the need for diversity in type and timing of talent.
  • Conformity vs Uniqueness:  Fast food (McDonalds) vs customized food (Zagats and Michelin Star rated restaurants) and the "value" associated with each.
  • The need to move from a mfg / industrial based model of education to one based on agriculture - "Human flourishing is not a mechanical process but an organic process.... [Like farmers, the goal is to] create the conditions under which they [students] will begin to flourish."
As the limits of the "old" economic model become clearer, the limits of the assumptions on which that model is based also become clearer.
I don't know what the "new" rules are or what they will become.
I do know that as the various systems in which we live crash and stumble towards a new (if temporary) equilibrium, dealing with this kind of chaotic rearrangement will require more flexibility than the old system allows.
Ideas like these speak some truth for me in dealing with the new condition.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Microgeneration (almost) meets Microconsumption - In Biotech

I gave an example of how microgeneration could be useful to power wireless networks and sensor devices to provide data for building automation control systems. Here is an example where microgeneration is applied to biotech devices.

In this story from MIT Tech Review:
A team has shown that they can generate power (~6.5uW) from a fuel cell embedded in the tissue of a rat. The fuel cell uses glucose from the bloodstream to generate power.
A pacemaker requires ~10uW of power to run so this is not quite ready for prime time but it suggests an approach that makes embedded medical devices much easier to live with (no external battery packs or replacement needed).

Monday, May 17, 2010

An Experiment with Virtual Daylighting

I'm not crazy after all!

I posted earlier about the idea of virtual daylighting and it looks like someone has gone and actually done something about it.
From Inhabitat:

"one innovative designer is experimenting with LED lights to create fake sunlight reflections on interior walls. Using over 3,000 LED lights, which give off the natural color of sunlight, Daniel Rybakken is designing lighting fixtures in the shapes of parallelograms, which give the impression of sunlight coming in through a window and reflecting off a surface.

Before, the entrance was a dark, dank, scary sort of place, and afterwards, with the white walls and reflecting light on the stairwell, you’d think they had added windows and a skylight. This light shift makes a huge difference on the psyche and even though all you see is a distorted rectangle light reflection, it looks exactly the way actual sunlight would reflect in through a window on a wall. "

Friday, May 14, 2010

Micro generation meets micro consumption - Energy Scavenging Wireless Networks

 In a previous post I wrote a bit about wireless mesh networks as a means to cost effectively retrofit sensors into a building to allow feedback control and continuous monitoring of environmental conditions to reduce energy usage.

One problem with wireless: batteries.
While they may last for years, they do need to be replaced eventually. If you have truly adopted a full building installation of sensors, that would be hundreds of nodes and batteries tucked into all kinds of hard to access locations where the HVAC, power distribution, and other systems are located or routed.
Replacing all those batteries in all those places: not trivial.

Energy scavenging to the rescue!
Using versions of the technology that power your kinetic watch (mechanical micro-generators) or that can be stuffed into a shoe (piezoelectric), enough power can be generated from ambient vibrations to power the sensors. It's not a lot of energy, but it's probably enough for low power network devices:
So, even with a smaller or less efficient generator than I found in a few minutes of searching, with a small battery or capacitor to store the micro-generator's energy you're in business without battery changes.

image credit: inhabitat

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Spaghetti Sauce Tribes

In a previous post, I focused on what would influence me with regard to moving to full cost accounting. This focus suggested that there was, perhaps, a "right" answer for getting everyone to make this move.

As much as I'd love for that idea to be true: that there is some Platonic argument that would sway everyone, at least two minds greater than my own who have done much thinking on this topic would disagree:
  • Malcolm Gladwell talking about the lessons of spaghetti sauce: "There is no best spaghetti sauce, only best spaghetti sauces."
  • Seth Godin thinking about 
Galdwell's advice is easy: Some people prefer sauce that is pragmatic, purely cost based and some prefer sauce that is high on ideals, justice and aspiration. Ok. Fair enough. Finding more ways to interpret the value of something the better.

So what do I do with Seth Godin's insight into niches and tribes when I need to motivate "everyone" to participate in the project?
  • If I want to give up, I can say that only a few groups are capable of being mobilized in any meaningful way and target those groups.
  • If I want to take the hard road, I can look for the thousand segmentations that pick off the non-average from any given grouping.
Somewhere in the middle probably lies the reasonable path: target a few with special messages, the more the better, and mass market to the rest.

I suppose that is basically the same conclusion as Gladwell and one that really shouldn't surprise anyone in marketing: know your audience and craft the value statement appropriately. If you have more than one audience, you should know that too.

The sad part is, maybe it doesn't work for saving the planet:
"There was no evidence, Bradshaw said, that rich nations — which have greater access to clean energy technologies — have a reduced environmental impact because of increased environmental awareness." 

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Daylighting with "Alternative" Financing (PTO)

I tried to persuade my management to consider a daylighting experiment in our office. A small area covering around 18 workers' desks would require ten 21" solatubes to achieve a minimum 25 ft-candle illumination level. Total estimate ~$16.5k.
Among other reasons for not proceeding (e.g. it wouldn't be fair to everyone else, we've looked at ROI and electricity savings would be marginal, etc...) , no budget had been set aside for this kind of thing.

$16.5k is in the rounding error for the finances of a company the size of where I work, but assuming that it was not, is there another to pay for it? What about Paid Time Off (PTO) hours? Would employees be willing to give up a certain number of accrued hours to fund daylighting? It certainly seems more likely than asking them to give up cash to do it. Especially if you have a substantial  PTO balance and little prospect of using it all in the near future. PTO is a bit like funny money that way.

If I assume that those PTO hours are worth ~$48/ea ($200k/yr*employee with half as salary and half as benefits and taxes which must be paid), that means each employee would need to give up ~19 hours to fund the project.

Two and a half days in exchange for improved mood and productivity for years to come.
Sounds like a trade you could convince many people to make.