BBC-2: Of Cocoons, Bulletproof vests, and American Dagger Moths

To understand what is going on in this post, take 5 minutes to read this one. It’s an introduction to the concept of Biomimicry Biweekly Challenge, hence a mysterious abbreviation BBC in the title. I also wonder how many people ended up on this page by simply looking for the latest news from British Broadcasting Corporation.

The very hungry caterpillar

Once upon a time, an American Dagger Moth was spotted in my apartment, attempting to lodge itself between the hardcover books for shelter. About a month ago I caught a squirrel red-handed stomping all over my herbs. It was frequenting my 6th floor balcony with a mouthful of peanuts, lunching in oregano flowerpot, scattering husks all over the floor, and escaping by vertical wall Mission Impossible style.

Ever since then, I stopped wondering about random animals showing up in my apartment. This gorgeous caterpillar seemed agitated and worried, looking for a place to start pupating among The philosophy of Zen books. The agitation was passed on to me as I began scouring for books and websites to read up on the habits of dagger moths – here is what a came up with:

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BBC-1: Of Arteries, Patient Nutrition, and Pogonophoras

To understand what is going on in this post, take 5 minutes to read this one. It’s an introduction to the concept of Biomimicry Biweekly Challenge. Besides, you all are very brave to have read my incoherent thoughts this far. Stay strong! You can get through this!

Of birthdays, arteries, and Möbius strips

It all comes down to my husband, again. Well, to him and his bookshelf. Have you ever heard of a book “Imagining the Tenth Dimension” by Rob Bryanton? I highly recommend reading it, if you are into mind-expanding exercises.

According to Rob, as we move through the fourth dimension – time – we are very much like an ant on a Möbius strip. To us, time feels like a straight line, moving from past to the future. But as we move along the straight line, our choices are constantly branching in the fifth dimension. When we look back in time, it feels like a straight line to us moving in the fourth dimension, but that straight line is an illusion.

As you read this post, your fifth-dimensional self might now have two main branches – one would be the version of you that continues reading into the next paragraph, while another would be the one who decides to take a break and go do something else.

 Scenario 1

Hello to all those fifth-dimensional selves, who have chosen to tread onto the next paragraph! Let me introduce you to Mykola and Max.

Myk is a computer scientist, specializing in game programming. This particular choice of branch was influenced by his father, who specializes in cybernetics, by Myk’s exposure to computers and games at a very early age, and many other factors. He is also surrounded by the multitude of paths, one of which might as well lead him to become a surgeon. This has been his dream for many years. In the future – if chance, choice, and the actions of others permits – Myk will achieve his dream, regardless of how improbable it may seem at the moment.

On one of his birthdays, Myk was given a book – titled “The Human Body” – with beautiful illustrations explaining the structure, functions, and malfunctions of the machine we operate. This action, in principle, led me to my first Biomimicry Challenge.

A scan from a book that really caught my attention!

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Emiliania huxleyi + Great friends + Genius loci = Biweekly Biomimicry Challenge

I wonder, if Leonardo da Vinci or Mozart – provided they are still alive – would spend much time in conference rooms scribbling on whiteboards with dry-erase markers to generate their ideas? I hear, Mozart was often inspired by nature and complained that he had to think up his works indoors. Leonardo … well, we all know his take on this:

The eye, which is said to be the window of the soul, is the principal means whereby sensory awareness can most abundantly and magnificently contemplate the infinite works of nature.

If these great men spent their brainstorming sessions in board meetings, we probably would have never known such compelling masterpieces, as The Magic Flute and The Last Supper. To be truly successful, brainstorming sessions must move quickly and freely. There must be lots of laughing, positive energy, and seeding of new thoughts – be it in a group get-together or in a solitary space of your mind.

But this post is not about conducting proper brainstorming sessions: a functioning brain; some passion for a subject; a bowl of fresh fruit; and a line of trees, obstructing your view of the road, are all you really need. This post is about a challenge I got myself into, and you, my readers (yes, that’s right, all three of you!) will bear witness to my commitment.

I call it Biomeekly Challenge. Or Biomimicry Biweekly Challenge for grammar purists.

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RuBisCo, Doom, Google Chrome: Unlikely connections?

I have a tendency to use my bed as a great place for lengthy lights-out conversations, especially when it is 39°C outside, and the only effective way to fall asleep is by sprawling on a window ledge in a precarious position. And I’m glad nights like these exist. I’m also glad I have a husband, who continuously stimulates my mind and questions my ramblings.

A while back, I wrote a post about how optimize rather than maximize strategy in nature should be an essential part of Life’s Principles Circle. However, after reading Tim McGee’s thoughts on Resilience vs. Efficiency, my train of thought slightly modified its path and headed toward the crossroads.

Form follows function is one of those elegant phrases, which fell victim to overuse by designers and engineers. Optimize rather than maximize is also not as straightforward of a phrase as I thought at first. Seems, elegant phrases always have a danger of being misinterpreted for the lack of appropriate context.

Tim gave an excellent example of the importance of context in nature:

The most plentiful protein on earth RuBisCo, is not overly ‘efficient’ at capturing CO2, but does an effective job given the context. In fact some genetic engineers are trying to figure out how to increase the efficiency of RuBisCo, and I wonder if as a result it would lower the resilience of the photosynthetic system as whole?

So, RuBisCo is:

  1. The most abundant protein on earth (40-60% of plant leaf protein content)
  2. The only link between inorganic and organic carbon (turns over more than trillion tons of carbon dioxide each year)
  3. One of the most painfully slowest enzymes known

Does that mean, that if genetic engineers find a way to speed up RuBisCo, they may find a way to increase plant production? Eradicate famine?

Now, here’s a question that I would like to ask:

Why is it, that nature – over millions of years of intensive selection process – failed to increase the rate of carbon fixation to improve efficiency? Did it just find an answer at random through mutation – and that answer may be far from the best possible – but the mutations required to find better solutions were so unlikely, so out of range, that it got stuck optimizing RuBisCo rather then finding a more efficient solution?

Also, if genetic engineers truly wish to improve the rate of plant production, doesn’t it make sense to look for a completely separate solution? The chances of RuBisCo being improved are very slim – nature was all R&D about it over a much greater period of time.

This is where the conversation with my husband comes in

Myk is a game programmer, interested in memory allocation and optimization in games. He basically wants games to run faster, so you don’t have to be subjected to a sight of patchy Elf Paladin (while he is busy loading himself), when all you want is to get a new quest and be on your way.

The conversation I had with him at 2 a.m. was about the difference between memory allocation in offline games – where the environment is extremely predictable and static – and memory allocation in internet browsers  – where the environment is unpredictable and dynamic. Think, scripted scenario in Doom vs. what-the-hell-did-i-click-to-end-up-here scenario on internet.

I thought it was a perfect example of optimization vs. resilience in the world of computer science. Web browsers employ a much slower, dispersed (but much less vulnerable to disruption) memory allocation algorithms, whereas game designers always strive for a much more compact, efficient solution, which also is more prone to disruption.

Unlikely comparison? Not so much, when it comes to optimization algorithms. In Doom, you are pretty much predetermined to end up in the web of this adorable brainy spider. In contrast, you really never know where you'll end up in the forest of google interwebs. Funny, how today I started reading an article about tar sands of Alberta and ended up reading about William Windsor the Royal Goat and his daily diet. If you're interested in connection, it went like this: Tar sands – Tar percentage in cigarrettes – Daily acceptable amount of tar in human diet – Royal goat and his ration of two cigarettes per day, which he eats.

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Designers appreciate Nature innately: A potential cure to God’s complex

My friend and colleague Anthony Dewar has an addiction. He gets to the TED talks website, then wakes up hours later and finds he has looked at over 50 videos. I have a similar problem, when it comes to MIT online lectures. Yesterday Anthony sent me a link to a talk by Tim Harford titled Trial, error, and the God complex. A couple of days earlier, we had a brief conversation about a well-known debate between algorithm vs. heuristic approach followers. Before I proceed, here’s a talk.

When I was working on a civil engineering project in a far-away land called Nova Scotia, my professor made sure we all knew what engineering was about. He once said:

Engineering is an algorithm. The design process can be fast or slow, but the important thing is the guarantee of the perfect solution.

After thinking about this for a week, I quit engineering.

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Review of EcoCradle: From a mushroom cloud to a mushroom corner

There aren’t too many products that feel the need to reassure you that they are, in fact, packaging. EcoCradle is an exception. As I opened the parcel, generously sent to me by Ecovative marketing department, I caught a faint scent of honey seasoned cereal. Definitely not your usual sterile polystyrene whiff.

ORNILUX – an insulated glass that reduces bird collisions and is inspired by a spider web. I put it against a black plate so the special ultraviolet reflective coating is more visible. More about this in one of the upcoming posts. Brought to Biomimicry Education Summit by Dorna.

The madness started at the Biomimicry Education Summit in Cleveland. To be even more precise – with Dorna Schroeter pouring out samples of really cool products on to the table in the conference room of Botanical Gardens. EcoCradle packaging wasn’t one of them, but the whole lunchtime biomaterial orgy gave me an idea for the upcoming Undergraduate Biomimicry Challenge. Instead of simply showing the students a powerpoint presentation filled with rockstar examples, such as WhalePower wind turbines, or sea sponge solar cells, why not spice it up with real examples they can touch and test right there in a classroom?

Industrial designers are used to hands-on workshops and charrettes. There is a reason why we are said to have been found lying under the table – not because we are drunk, but because we are looking at how the legs are attached to the tabletop.

As soon as I returned to Ottawa, I started dialling numbers and firing off emails to companies that might be interested in sending me some of their material samples. And, ta-da! my first sample has arrived in the mail yesterday, smelling of fresh steel-cut oats.

My mother always says about cosmetics, "do not put it on your face, if you are not prepared to eat it", I'm starting to think this phrase could be extended toward food packaging as well. EcoCradle mushroom packaging with freshly cut rosemary and oregano.

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Balanza Verde: Life’s Principles approach to product development

The last post was mainly about a possible long term-solution for the challenges presented by an existing waste management system in Lota, Chile. This approach will employ a well organized recycling centre – consisting of localized transfer stations – bringing formal and informal waste management sectors together and fostering education programs for the community.

But how do we get there? Let’s start collaborating with future decision makers of Lota – children.

Miki Seltzer, myself, Samantha Serrer, and Cote Casanueva with 8th grade students of Escuela Adventista and Professor Isaías Irán Barra Barra. Photo by: Camila Núñez Benítez

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