Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Wooden Wonders: Traditional Malaysian Fishing Boats

I had the pleasure of discussing my work with traditional Malaysian fishing boats and my book, "Wooden Wonders" yesterday. You can watch the presentation at:


Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Comfort and Luck versus Sacrifice and Trust


We desire comfort and luck, but what we need are sacrifice and trust. Yes, comfort is appealing, but it placates people and destroys some deeply human element of ambition. It prevents difficult actions and difficult conversations as we hunker under comfort’s false sense of security and bliss. Life is neither easy nor comfortable, but we love the low hanging fruit of comfort where success is measured by minimal motion and minimal stress.

Comfort shouldn’t be a way of life because it shifts its role from nurturing us to defeating us. Asceticism seems to live in all cultures and religions as people push back against comfort. However, hedonism thrives too and many of us slither between asceticism and hedonism like a snake in a small alley.

Luck is also a fickle friend. We never understand providence as deeply as we think. There is an old story of unclear origin, but it is instructive:

An old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.


Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Accomplishments versus Excellence


I just turned sixty, which is sort of like a prank you play on your twelve-year-old self. Same person, different package.

This birthday does offer a benchmark to consider my work life because I’m entering my last decade of employment. It makes me think of the difference between accomplishments versus excellence. Accomplishments grow with time due to hard work and perseverance. Excellence is something else. It is also related to hard work and perseverance, but there is something else. It is something that I don’t seem to have. When I compare my accomplishments to those who earnestly pursue the arenas where I claim accomplishments, I see that I am not more excellent than anyone else working in that pursuit. I started listing these pursuits, but it sounded like a mix between bragging and a pity party.

I pursue many areas of personal and professional interest--all at an average level of achievement. Many of my accomplishments meet minimum thresholds, such as academic degrees and licensure, but they couldn’t be considered excellent. They are binary yes/no accomplishments. They are the punch boxes of a puffed-up curriculum vitae.

Excellence it hard to achieve. I realize a semantic debate arises whether excellence means complete competence or above “average” ability (whatever that is), but it can most readily be identified quantitatively. For example, I can only think of one thing I used to be excellent at, namely Morse Code. Not many people know Morse Code, but I knew it well. In my early twenties I could copy over thirty words per minute, which is fast. That’s it. That is my most excellent ability. This is not meant to be negative, but honest.

My heroes are people you have never heard of. People who serve others quietly. Their excellence is in their sacrifice, their excellence is in their humility. They will never win awards or enjoy monuments to their own glory. I don’t fit in that camp either, but it is certainly my preferred desire as I enter my twilight years.

I made the painting on the right when I turned 60, I made the painting on the left when I was 45. Still dreaming though!

I wrote a couple poems which I inked on the back of the “Average Man” painting. One goes like this:

Decade swings
A number clings
Time is soft on rusty hinges
Swelling wisdom tinges
And energy lingers
Love made bold
For those who are old
Actions for others
Cries in our troubles
We cry, “we were here”
We fought our fear
We tried with each day
To prevent a tear
To laugh and lift
And truly care.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Adventure Democratized – by design


Navigating on the water has become remarkably like playing a video game. You keep your digital boat image in the digital white area of a digital map. I have been sailing many decades and remember the old days of boat navigation. These were bad old days. You were more tense. You would determine your position as best you could and plot a direction that was safe to travel. You would do this with a paper chart (map) and parallel rulers. You would determine a range of directions (bearings) that were acceptable and those that weren’t. You considered current (and leeward movement for sailboats) and try to offset these invisible movements. If you could see visible markers, such as buoys, you were in pretty good shape although the current and leeway could deceive you. When you could see two navigational markers you could precisely locate your position and that was thrilling. Otherwise, you were not exactly sure of where you were. Your depth sounder gave you some idea of what was going on but it could not be fully trusted in silty waters. You struggled with how fast to go when things got tight. Running aground at anything but dead slow is a big problem. Sextant sightings were fine in the open ocean but not around hazards.

I don’t miss the tension of analog piloting. It was a challenge and had some visceral thrill (we are going to run aground!) You were still dependent on technology, but it was charts and navigational aids. This is not much nobler than GPS and electronic charts. However, I guess you are more prepared for power outages and digital deaths. I also know high speed Morse Code, having been a ham radio operator for many decades. However, this ability has not helped in any way for the last few decades. It is a little sad when your skills are no longer important, but that is how life goes. Don’t love anything that won’t love you back.

I recently finished Dana’s, “Two Years Before the Mast” which recounts a trip from the US East Coast, around Cape Horn and up to California. It was a more interesting read than I expected. Now you can view California’s nature on YouTube. When Dana was traveling in the 1830s, you might have to wait a week in the raging seas to get a wind shift so you could actually get around Cape Horn. Losing your ship for any reason meant you were likely to die or at least be stranded. The saddest part of sea life at that time is the men were stuck in their position. They had little hope for anything better. I can’t imagine not having hope. Hope is fueled by wonder and in turn fuels ambition and action. Losing hope takes away a deep part of human essence. 

Secret knowledge closes doors. Modern navigation turned my old skills into nearly useless relics, but reducing the stress of boat navigation is a sweet change and makes boating more accessible to everyone – adventure democratized by design. Navigation is a small example of the doors opened by design and technology. Designing both technology and its integration into purposeful systems has allowed people to do wonderful things, from visually hopping on their drones to accessing the world’s greatest library on the internet. 

I don’t know if “purposeful systems” is a real term, but I like it. Only humans can have a purposeful vision that brings technology together by design. Adventure democratized reminds me of rock climbing, kayaking, and backpacking. These are some of the inexpensive ways to gain access to nature’s wonders, but that is another story…. 

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Social Anxiety in Design


The public nature of design critiques used in education may adversely quiet gentile voices. Those with social anxiety are overwhelmed by this affront to their propriety and sense of peace. Does public scrutiny and pointed criticism help one become a better designer? Well, yes. Is it required to make you a better designer? No, not necessarily.

Artists and poets may work best in their quiet ecology of introspection and creative expression. Communities and historical interconnections are often required to make a significant change in the status quo. However, singular voices have lifted paradigms from deep foundations – consider the works of Petrarch and the advent of the Renaissance.

Public critiques can have a homogenizing affect as we try to communally agree on what is good and bad design. The intrusion of AI makes this effect broader as we move from friends and classmate’s opinions to some algorithm rooted in established data or normalized rules.

Almost all of my work has been improved by the critique of others. However, there are categories of my work in which I don’t want critiques. I want only to be a songbird in the forest.

Monday, March 15, 2021

A Life of Radio

Hobbies can make a difference in one’s life. I thought I would offer some reflections on many decades of involvement with activities outside of work. The first is ham radio. I have been an amateur radio operator for over forty years. Here are some reflections for my ham radio friends:

The bars on the green cat’s eye winked in and out as I found a station giving iceberg reports in the Atlantic Ocean on my parent’s old shortwave radio. The Morse Code signals sounded like alien whooshing sounds because the radio didn’t have a BFO.  Coupling this sound and content with teenage imagination brought a spark to my heart because I wanted to be climbing mountains, cutting through jungles and riding on the roof of buses, not studying chemistry in high school.

Amateur Radio is more than dancing gauges and wisps of solder smoke – it’s about friendships and life lessons. Many of us have made friendships that allow us to have conversations that move from oscillator circuits to favorite hiking trips and then back to Sunspot cycles. Here are some examples of my life lesson.

Community: College is a weird time. You are exposed to all sorts of new ideas – good and bad. But I had a place to hang out with friends at the University of Illinois’ club station, W9YH. It was a great club and a refuge from all the stress and challenges of student life. I would take long walks in college, sometimes with an old portable Drake two meter rig hanging off my shoulder.  This radio gave me everything a lonely heart could want: nature, a clear mind and radio friends to talk to all the while. This was a time when “wireless” was an old fashioned term and my unprotected final had to be replaced whenever the trimmed coat hanger soldered into a PLH239 connector misbehaved. Hams always seemed to support and encourage each other and these are especially gracious qualities during times of loneliness and change. This sense of a distinctive community still provides comfort.

Keeping up with technology: I thought radio teletype (RTTY) was high tech and then I experimented with packet radio using a 300 baud acoustic modem and cut tennis balls for the phone cradle. This experimentation moved to a range of digital modes including APRS for monitoring cliff temperatures and on a kite-lifted weather station. I am always several steps behind the latest technology, but ham radio keeps pulling me out of my trenches.

Unique friends: I have met remarkable people through ham radio. Early in my professional career, when I moved to upstate New York, I walked around my neighborhood looking for antennas. I saw a Yagi perched on a 60 ft. tower and knocked on the door. From this introduction, I made a new friend with Henry who learned about World War I when the bells of his village church started ringing. When he asked why they were ringing, he was told that his Germany was now in a war with France. He told me about how he looked for shiny rocks to make "cat whisker" rectifiers and listened to the handful of stations in Europe during the beginning of the 20 th century.

Public service: From traffic control to tornado spotting, ham radio has been an entry point that let me help people. One unique public service event was monitoring overpasses for people dropping pumpkins during Halloween. I did this with a senior executive at my company. He shared his World War II navigation stories and our ham radio friendship became a great equalizer. Bike race monitoring, parade assistance, air show communications, and Field Day have all been peculiar mixes into my everyday life.

Goal setting: Getting my Extra Class license taught me about setting goals and working hard to accomplish them. I struggled to learn the 5 word per minute Code needed to get my Novice. After I earned my license and made those shaky first contacts, I made the arbitrary goal of getting my Extra Class license within one year. I worked really hard to learn the required 20 word per minute Morse Code and radio theory within that time. I took long, scary train trips to downtown Chicago sketching Colpitts oscillators on the train journey as I prepared to take my FCC exams. I finally passed my Extra before my self-imposed goal and it is still one of the accomplishments of which I am most proud. Goal setting remains an important element of both my professional and personal life.

Unexpected connections: I’m a mechanical engineer/industrial designer but having an electrical background comes in handy. On my first day at my new job in Venezuela, I volunteered to set up their base SSB station. Early in my career, during those years of great optimism, when I would write lists on how to improve my work efficiency and notes with “great ideas”, I removed my ham gear from my kitchen table and tucked it under the table.  I put a tablecloth on the table and a heated up a meal of stuffed clams and mixed vegetable. I invited my girlfriend over and proposed marriage.  She said “yes” and the ham radio equipment hidden below the dangling tablecloth didn’t realize how this change would affect my relationship with it (ham radio, that is). I moved into the phase of life where you divided things up in to that which you can change and that which can’t.  A time where you still dream but sense the closure of many doors. However, throughout my career, I have frequently needed my practical electronics skills to build control systems.

Hidden Superpowers: Bouncing signals off the Aurora Borealis, the Moon, and all the other odd propagation modes appear to be science fiction to the general public. Those of us that know Code have abilities only few other share. It is always a good, weird fact about yourself. We are some of the earliest users of digital modes – we are like walking museums.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Contending with Complex Interdisciplinary Problems using Affinity Congregates

Many innovations come from those in marginal positions in a discipline, and these individuals therefore greatly benefit from the support afforded by like-minded people. James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix nature of DNA, stated the power of collaboration unequivocally: “Nothing new that is really interesting comes without collaboration”. However, in some groups a dominating person might drive ideation. As discussed previously, group dynamics need to be recognized in group settings. Particularly in the case of new groups, such as in a classroom setting, an affinity congregate allows people to individually express their ideas before becoming engaged in a group situation. This is a small variation of affinity diagraming because affinity congregating focuses on initial, independent problem solving before bringing ideas to a group so that participants may collectively identify affinities. Affinity congregation preserves the independent voice of each student. This approach is intended to prevent group dynamics from taking over the ideation process.

With affinity congregating, the participants are presented with a problem or design prompt, they individually write solutions on a sticky notes or other suitable media. When they are finished writing proposed solutions, the notes are collected and assembled by a moderator and grouped by affinities or themes into an affinity diagram. The themes arise from the data, which is founded on grounded theory. Grounded theory is a method common in the social sciences that allows categories and concepts to develop based exclusively on data and not from predisposed theories.

While these affinity congregations shown by the groupings of notes is subjective, general themes or affinities arise in a logical fashion. A variation of this approach is to have the group identify themes rather than a moderator. In this approach, the group gathers around the notes and identifies logical groupings. The notes are reviewed and duplicate ideas are stacked on top of each other. Finally, the affinities can be discussed and each idea can be critiqued by the group.

Affinity Congregating Technique Summary

1. Problem statement or design prompt.

2. Individuals write proposed solutions on sticky notes.

3. Moderator collects notes and assembles by affinities or themes that arise (affinity diagrams). Alternatively, the group identifies affinities as a team.

4. Duplicates omitted.

5. Group critiques affinities and proposed solutions.

Outcomes of Affinity Congregation

One example of applying this technique to professional practice is addressing the issue of palliative care in the developing world. In this case, I invited two physician colleagues to partner with this investigation. Because we came from different disciplines (design, pain management and palliative care), the congregation technique was used to prevent the board-certified palliative care specialist from overwhelming the pain management expert and the engineer. This cooperation led to identifying four tracks of palliative care: physical, psychological, relational, and spiritual as shown in Figure 4. These tracks were further divided into key concerns and we developed practical treatment options.

In this example, the most common concerns were identified as pain, dyspnea (air hunger), nausea and vomiting, delirium, anxiety, and terminal secretions (‘the death rattle’). The affinity aggregation allowed artificial intelligence driven diagnosis systems to inhabit an equal space as recommending paracetamol or diclofenac for pain relief. This technique worked well in this interdisciplinary environment because we concluded with specific recommendations as well as the somewhat surprising result that the patient care should be the responsibility of a loving caregiver rather than a medical professional.


Figure 4 – Integrative palliative care factors.

From:  T. Ask, “Engaging Creativity: Classroom Exercises for Enhancing Engineering Students' Creative Self Identity,” 2019 ASEE Zone I Conference & Workshop, Niagara Falls, NY, USA, April 2019, https://peer.asee.org/33791.

And     T. E. Ask, J. Boll and A. Nesbitt, “Steps towards Integrative Palliative Care in the Developing World,” Design for All Institute of India, Newsletter Vol. 12, No. 3, p. 61, 2017.