Thursday, January 26, 2012

What Would Woz Do? Inside the Mind of a Designer.

Author Steven Berlin Johnson has stated quite plainly that an idea is a network of neurons (1). These networks can today be crudely but dynamically visualized with advanced brain scanning. Within this network of neurons, transient connections bring together the fuzzy memories of designs we carry.  When we connect  existing designs together, complexity grows from simplicity. Humans encourage their offspring to copy the eating behavior of their tribal family group, and thereby learn what things are edible and safe, by example. These human faculties, both connection-making and copying, contribute to our survival and place as the dominant species on the planet. 

Wozniak’s Long Hunch

Johnson also talks about the “the long hunch” in the mind of the innovator. Innovations in human design are limited by the network of memories we can juggle in our minds. Human memory is notoriously fickle and transient. Even upon making a new connection, vague memories must be recalled into working memory, facts double checked by reading, observing, or testing, and research must be done in order to fill in the gaps. It is a slow process. 

A clear account of a long hunch story can be found in Steve Wozniak’s autobiography entitled "iWoz. From Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It." Wozniak tells how he progressively acquired knowledge about technology, starting with an electronics kit in fourth grade. I can spot more than 30 separate complex technologies that Wozniak had to learn and master before he was able to contribute the design of his first production computer, the Apple 1. He tells of at least 12 complex electronic devices he made that had prototype elements of circuitry and ideas that he would eventually integrate into the Apple 1. Some of these devices were copies of others, like his hardware-based Pong-style video game with on-screen obscenities to amuse his friends.  This game helped him learn how to draw letters and dots on a cathode ray tube with digital circuitry. Some of Wozniak’s prototypes connected existing ideas, like a TV and a typewriter keyboard wired together with circuitry to make a cheap teletype terminal. The copy from an original Apple 1 computer advertisement (2), speaks directly to the contribution of this prototype:  

You Don’t Need an Expensive Teletype. Using the built-in video terminal and keyboard interface you avoid all the expense, noise and maintenance associated with a teletype. And the Apple video terminal is six times faster than a teletype, which means more throughput and less waiting.”  

By connecting a microprocessor and RAM into his home-made teletype, Wozniak created the Apple 1. It was the first integration of video, keyboard, microprocessor, ROM boot code and expandable dynamic RAM, and it ignited the personal computer revolution.  In Wozniak’s words: “People who saw my computer could take one look at it and see the future. And it was a one-way door. Once you went through it, you could never go back.” Wozniak’s design spread through the computer world because he promoted it with free design schematics, software listings and demonstrations at the Homebrew Computing Club. Elements of the design were copied and adapted many times, including the successful computers like the Commodore 64, the Apple //, the Macintosh and the IBM PC.

Wozniak’s study of electronics and his continued prototyping of devices filled his own neural networks with the information he drew upon for the Apple 1, recognizing that he could build a computer inside a cheap teletype terminal by including within it a microprocessor and RAM and ROM code. He proceeded slowly to its realization. I recommend Wozniak’s book for the complete story. You can go further and make your own Apple 1 replica if you want a more detailed view of what it took to build the first modern personal computer (2). 

The Ancestor's Typewriter

Now on this same topic, Denyse O’Leary gives us a nano-lesson on the nature of human design in her book “By Design or by Chance? The Growing Controversy on the Origins of Life in the Universe”. As regards the complex nature of human design it is astonishingly thin in detail, as O’Leary writes just this about the computer: “In the same way, your computer did not evolve from a typewriter by a long, slow series of steps. Most of the steps that separate your computer from a typewriter were the product of intelligent design.” O’Leary floats this little analogy about human design without relevant historical  bibliography. Her footnote suggests that there may be some lessons for Intelligent Design in the retention of the QWERTY keyboard. I submit that the pursuit of O’Leary’s footnoted “lessons” from human design history are things her ID colleagues should have taken seriously as a research topic, but as yet have not. 

Let me correct O’Leary’s intellectually lazy analogy as follows. The human design process that led to the Apple 1 computer did in fact involve a long slow series of steps and there is an early identifiable step that utilizes a manual typewriter. I need not comment on the obvious fact that the typewriter is not of a self-replicating variety. My argument is that the human design process is slow and that complexity grows in small incremental steps. If human design is to be foisted as an analogy to some kind of unseen deistic design, I think we should not allow the example to be historically misrepresented by faint mention.  

Human design proceeds in small steps perhaps because the human mind finds connections only rarely, and must consider whether the connection is a waste of time, to be culled, or whether the connection is something of value. The human mind must speculate about how selection agents will react to the design, and bet on an outcome by taking action to gather the materials and parts and develop the prototype. This all takes time. We see Wozniak repeating this process throughout his life.  

Figure 1. Type Writing Machine, 1898. Thomas Oliver. U.S. Patent 599,863.

So what about the manual typewriter? Here in Figure 1, I show the drawing from the U.S. Patent office of the Oliver Typewriter of 1898 patented by Thomas Oliver  (U.S. Patent No. 599,863, and subsequently refined in further patents of the period (e.g. Patents 693,033 from 1902 and 837,611 from 1906) to the Oliver Model 5 typewriter. And in Figure 2, I show the drawing from the U.S. Patent office of the first electronic keyboard of 1909 built by Charles L. Krum from an Oliver Model 5 manual typewriter and granted a U.S. patent in 1915, No. 1,137,146. This "Printing Telegraph Apparatus" is built from the very same Oliver typewriter model, elaborated with solenoids and signal wiring added to the undercarriage. The wiring designs are derived from the telegraph key, and applied in copies to each key on the manual typewriter. This device is noted in the written history of the teletype as the first working prototype, the first keyboard device which signaled key-presses over electric current to another such device, which printed the character pressed. 

Figure 2. Printing Telegraph Apparatus 1909, Charles L. Krum, U.S. Patent 1,137,146.

It led to a long and slow line of innovations in the teletype, which was made extinct in turn by microprocessor-based personal computers. Wozniak himself adapted an ASCII encoded keyboard from a 1970s electric typewriter, which was also a long-modified design improvement over a manual typewriter, and much simpler in mechanical terms.  

There are two signatures of the typewriter and the teletype in the Apple 1 computer.  The QWERTY keyboard and the ASCII code for teletype communication. The former is visible on the Oliver mechanical typewriter keys. This Oliver typewriter is the mechanical ancestor of the modern personal computer keyboard. It has undergone over a hundred years of design changes in its adaptation to today’s use. Legions of different individual human designers contributed to this effort.

Now Wozniak did not bother redesigning the QWERTY keyboard and ASCII code. He employed their existing designs. But both the QWERTY layout and ASCII have been subsequently re-designed. Unicode intelligently expanded the characters of the English dominant ASCII code to represent characters from many languages. The Dvorak keyboard layout intelligently reorganized the older QWERTY keyboard layout for optimal typing speed. 

But note that QWERTY was also an effort to improve typing speed. Between 1867-1878, C. Latham Sholes used trial and error to slowly modify the keyboard layout in his typewriter to minimize type-head jamming, leading up to his U.S. Patent 79,868. Minimizing mechanical jams sped up the typists of the day considerably, but these constraints are now gone and the Dvorak keyboard shows superior typing speed. 

What of the outcome of these ASCII and QWERTY re-designs? One is a success. Unicode has replaced ASCII allowing the representation of all the characters of the world’s languages. The other is a failure. The statistically optimized Dvorak keyboard did not win enough demand from consumers to become commonplace. Typists resisted re-learning how to type, despite the advantages in typing speed that switching from QWERTY to Dvorak might offer. So we live with the QWERTY layout, a suboptimal but working design that is now frozen in time on every computer. Not a superior design, but one trapped in place by consumer selection and laziness. 

Now just because the signature of the original typewriter is trapped in the design of the personal computer does not mean that it originated from a different human design process. It is rather the long accumulation of human typewriter designs by the same slow and incremental process, which you can uncover by looking up the timeline of typewriter patents as I have. If you understand the process, you would not be surprised to see signatures of earlier designs and inventions nested within a complex object.

Designer Myths

Do human designers have some kind of special intelligence that other humans do not possess? Their intelligence may have more working memory, or they may be better at reading comprehension, or their 3D spatial skills may be better. But there is nothing outside the normal human intelligence required. It is not mystical. Wozniak was a voracious consumer of information about technology, and to a great extent he trained himself to be a genius in electronics technology. Certainly he is a genius, but there is no evidence that genius level intelligence is not itself composed of the same mental capacity we all possess. Genius is an expected outlier, an occasional observation within the distribution of normal human intelligence. Just as some people are tall, or have large breasts, it requires no supernatural explanation. Not all humans engage in design, so it is easy to be led to think that human designs are spontaneous, magical creations of intricate complexity, and invented in isolation by a single mind. They never are. Our human efforts at design follows the gradual timeline of our species, accelerating in complexity only after what I would argue is a continuing industrial revolution. 

A recent article in MIT Technology Review by David Rotman entitled “Can We Build Tomorrow’s Breakthroughs?” (3) discusses the invention of new kinds of batteries suggests that human design is now such a complex process, that innovation can only take place in the context of the factory that itself produces batteries. Micheal Idelchik of GE is quoted by Rotman in the article as saying: “You can design anything you want, but if no one can manufacture it, who cares?” The argument is that a lone inventor working in a garage, tinkering on battery design has insufficient information about the production of batteries to make a useful contribution. So the hidden complexity of assembly lines and factories further masks the process to the observer of human design. Yet behind closed doors the innovation process remains the same, the orchestration of Change, Prototype, and Production agents, as I described in my previous essay. The memory of company designs is resident in CAD data files and information systems which are hidden to us. Serial copies of new designs exit the factory only by the mercy and whim of internal Selection agents. 

We may think we see remarkable changes in human designed products. But this is an illusion, and the reality of many small steps and prototypes is hidden inside the company. The story of any object lies in its complete history, and the only intentional design process we can study with historical facts is that of the human design process. We have no examples of intentional deistic or anthropomorphic-alien designed objects and of course no accompanying history. To understand the intentional design process we must study and understand those things that humans have created. When you look carefully you will find that complexity in human design often requires many minds to achieve.

This tight coupling of Change, Prototyping and Production in large teams may have left the individual tinkerer in the dust. But Steve Wozniak reminds us that the individual can still be a successful human designer. Let me close this essay with a few words about how to train your mind for human design.

Prepare for Design

For any form of creative design work, one must take considerable time to build into one’s memory this kind of neural network of information that Steven Johnson describes. Following Wozniak, this process starts from childhood. If you wish to become a great human designer, your challenge is this. You must spend an extraordinary amount of time cultivating your own mind and build your own neural network. You must read, understand and critique a great variety of existing designs, and get your hands dirty with the materials and technologies.

You must understand the tools to develop prototypes, and indeed go further to understand the assembly line processes required to produce serial copies of your design. You must make prototypes as they will feed back and reinforce your understanding about the relation between form and function. Successful human designs must become part of your knowledge. Learn broadly and seed the neural network in your mind with a selection of old and new inventions. Critical thinking is a requirement for this discipline of design, and is not to be avoided. You cannot be intellectually lazy and you cannot submit yourself to the deluded and time-wasting arguments of lazy thinkers. Instead, get your information from original sources.

To polish your neural network of information, it is important to pay attention to opportunities for design connectivity. To do this, make an effort to identify and recall the interface points of each design you encounter. What is an interface point? Steve Wozniak’s 1970’s TV had no video input port on the back. So he opened up the case and used a probe to find the location of the video signal on the circuit board. Then he could connect it to his video circuits. This is precisely what I mean by an interface point. Sometimes it is obviously designed for the purpose, like a video cable connector. Sometimes it is hidden, a signal inside, from which you have to build an interface.  An interface point is that location or opportunity on an existing design to connect to or to construct a connection to another design. Interface points can be mechanical parts, electronic signals, or software functions to which connections can be made. Biosensors often take advantage of chemicals produced by enzymes as interface points for sensor electronics. Chemists recognize certain chemical substructures as interface points for the synthetic reactions required to build complex pharmaceutical molecules.

Copy and Connect to Create Complexity

In all these cases, complexity arises from recognizing the opportunities in connectivity. To best train your mind for design, focus on the identification of these interface points as you learn about general science and technology. Consider it a mental game to find the interface points that are hidden or non-obvious, and think actively about the connectivity opportunities as did Wozniak. Learn by making playful copies of existing designs. Be frugal and eliminate unnecessary components. Make things. And find joy in each of your successes.

1. Steven Johnson’s TED talk:
2. Apple 1 Computer Information:
3. Can We Build Tomorrow’s Breakthroughs? David Rotman, MIT Technology Review, 2012.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Four Horses of Homeopathy and the Agents in Human Design

In this series I write about human design, and show how human design processes that lead to mass produced items of complexity are similar to evolutionary processes in living systems. So far, I have shown only a few examples. In this essay I will explain a framework with which one can understand the human design process. 

I start by describing the “agents” in human design, and a simple classification of these. Put most simply, the agents are the actors and characters in the process of human design. They contribute during the arc of the process that starts with an idea for a design, then a prototype, then production into many copies of the design, then decisions about sustainability of production and demand, and eventually, obsolescence. This arc, from idea to prototype to production to obsolescence, is universal in our world of man-made things. 

For every example of a human design that is copied in substantial numbers and then widely distributed over a long period of time, there can be many agents involved. The first person to adopt cork bark as a bottle stopper centuries ago is a different agent than the modern designers and manufacturers of steel screw caps. Despite being separated by centuries, their designs still compete with one another. 

Agents may not even know they are participating in a given design or selection process. From my last example, legislators banning promotions on alcohol and sommeliers performing wine pouring rituals inhibit the success of the steel screw cap design from displacing natural cork in wine bottles. Likewise, health and safety legislation exerts a very weighty role in human design decisions today much more than it did in the past. For example the motorcycle was invented well in advance of helmet laws. So agents are the actors with efforts and influences exerted, upon which the success or failure of each story of human design is dependent. 

To understand the agents involved in any given example of human design, a study in the history of the object in question is required. Detailed historical summaries of objects are not always easy to discover. The richest source of historical information about invention is the U.S. Patent office together with its sister agencies in other nations. In my examples I provide links to patents as primary sources of reference for human design because they are, in fact, the legally sworn testimony of the inventors. They are intended to describe the novelty and utility of an invention and they also are intended so that someone skilled in the art of construction can reproduce the invention. A design historian therefore has a rich source of reference information, and search engines like Google Patents ( offer everyone who is a student of human design immediate access to this wealth of historical information.  

My concept of the agents in human design arises from the design histories from the patent literature as well as other written histories of design, often by companies, or private collectors, or academic historians. But I write about human design not only because of my own “book-learning”. Design is something I do. I design on a very regular basis as a software developer, and as a biologist. I work on a much broader set of design targets than most people. I have designed software, algorithms and databases, genes, furniture and musical instruments. Some of my designs are stillborn and never make it off the paper. A few of my designs have patents and a few have become successful memes that have made it into production, with investment into scale-up and enough attention to attract both competitors and commercial investors. 

The best example of my own success in design is the molecular interaction database BIND. This has passed over the entire arc of the design process to the stage of decline and obsolescence, and even nostalgia, all in the short span of a decade. The agents in the BIND story are indeed many and their influences and outcomes were wholly unpredictable to me as a designer in the beginning. I wish it were otherwise, but today I have much more insight into the process and the unpredictability of selection. I study human design because it helps me understand the very process I undertake. 

So it is from these personal stories of design that I recognize the agents involved in other stories of human design. I will now offer the categories of agents in human design, and these will help you to understand the nature of the protagonists and antagonists amongst these agents.

There are four distinguishable categories of agents that can be identified in any example of human design: (a) Change agents (b) Prototype agents (c) Production agents and (e) Selection agents.   They are logically separable, although sometimes they may be embodied in a single person. As product complexity grows, the more numerous are the agents in each category.  

The Change agents are those who influence or otherwise innovate in the creation of novel design, or those that combine existing ideas and new ideas in a novel and interesting new design. Often the inventors listed on a patent are the Change agents. But not every design is turned into a physically real creation. Many never make it off the paper. I have not yet found an exception to the rule that Change agents make small changes to previously known designs at each stage in the process.

The Prototype agents are those individuals, often engineers or specialist fabricators, who turn the combination of new ideas into one or a handful of first examples of the product before it becomes widespread through mass production. Often the Change and Prototype agents are so tightly coupled that they reside together in one person, or work together in a close team. But even in the case of an individual there is a mental or conscious difference in the tasks involved. It is divisible into the creative thinking component, and the rote actions of construction, like drilling holes in a piece of wood, or soldering. Innovation is distinct from construction. The Change agent has the new idea, and the Prototype agent has the tools, materials and capacity to create a tangible, mostly-working instance of the idea. Change agents will seek out competent Prototype agents when they themselves are not up to the tasks required. Iterations of change and prototype may cycle many times before proceeding to mass production. Such is the case in software, as we who make it recompile only a few new lines of code, and repeat this many times before we achieve completion.

Figure 1. Four Humphreys Homeopathic Trademark Veterinary Bottles with horse head in relief. The two ponies on the right are smiling.

An example of a Change agent is Frederick K. Humphreys (1816-1900), a Homeopathic remedy vendor and Methodist Minister, who made and distributed his homeopathic horse elixir in distinctive glass bottles. I have four of these bottles in my collection, from which mould mark forensics tells the story of their manufacture and design. The Prototype agent, a mould-maker, first executes a prototype of the bottle as a wood carving, then casts a metal mould, into which the molten glass is blown into the bottle shape. The Prototype agent has no idea as to whether this elixir is real medicine or snake oil (it is the latter), but is skilled at making exactly the kind of bottle mould his customer wants. The Prototype agent does not come up with the idea of the bottle’s design, which has a picture of a horse on it, but yet has to draw it and then carve it in relief on the wooden bottle prototype. 

Equally separate, the Homeopaths in the company are incapable and have not the correct tools or training to build the prototype bottle mould, nor can they produce the bottles. The Production agents manage and operate the glass factory that uses semi-automated machines to produce the glass bottles using the mould. The mould can be brought to a different glass maker to be copied or altered and used to manufacture the same bottles on a different assembly line, this time fully-automated, and at a better price. Production agents can have different locations and completely different machines in their assembly line, and yet still achieve the goal of making copies of the glass bottle. The Production agents may copy the mould and include their corporate mark on the bottom of the bottle. One manufacturer of the bottle changed the relief figure of the horse so that it appears to smile. 

Incidentally this Homeopathic remedy company is still in business, selling bottles that contain solutions that I cannot call medicine. For example there is no clinical trial that shows a nearly infinite dilution of deadly toxins from poison ivy, colchicum, lye and a noxious weed called Bryony, can cure or effect arthritis. However a 1983 double-blind placebo-controlled crossover study published in The Lancet paper showed homeopathic solutions of poison ivy were no better than placebo, and not anywhere close to as effective as a real medication (PMID 6129459). 

Figure 2. The mould seam (highlighted with black wax) stops at the neck for the bottle on the left (at the horizontal black line) indicating the neck was hand-applied by a separate tool, indicating a semi-automatic glassblowing process. For the three on the right, the mould seams go up the neck and over the edge, indicating a full Arbogast style neck mould and a fully-automated glassblowing process.

Figure 3. The bottom marks are shown with black wax, indicating from left-to-right an unknown manufacturer (the number 6, estimated 1890-1915), the Illinois Glass Co. of Alton IL (Diamond I, 1916-1929) and the two from Whitall-Tatum Co. of Millville NJ (Triangle with WT, 1920-). The oval scar encircling the marks on the right three is the tool mark indicating they were made by an early Owens automatic glass blowing machine. All four moulds are different.

In a more modern example, these agent categories may be large teams. I recall only within the last five years that a digital camera, the MP3 music player, the Bluetooth transmitter, the GPS receiver, and the WiFi antenna were each distinct devices I owned and plugged into my computer. Today we witness them all coexisting and crammed together within the single smartphone device in our pocket. It takes a large team of Change agents to modify the design of a cellphone into a smartphone and to add in the new circuitry and software for of each of these new components. It takes a large team of Prototype agents to make a new smartphone, which is put together by subassemblies of microelectronic and optical parts. Each of these subsystems must be prototyped and tested, and produced by a different supplier. So there are many Production agents. And just as the Change and Prototype agents are most successful when tightly coupled, an emerging trend in human design is that in which Prototyping and Production agents are also tightly coupled. Prototypes are often only made from components and subassemblies that are most readily scaled up in production. 

So then, the Production Agents move the prototype of a newly designed product into a specially designed assembly line so that it may be reproduced for distribution. In this case, Production agents are involved in the human design process itself as regards tools and assembly lines. A design can be rescued from an inefficient production system by applying the design process to improve the assembly line itself. Some designs were patented decades before an efficient production facility emerged to keep up with demand, such as the light bulb, ballpoint pen and mousetrap.

A human design cannot succeed in widespread distribution without the combined efforts of all three of the agents so far described. But the design must still make it past the gauntlet of Selection. Selection Agents are the influencers that take new decisions or reinforce existing decisions about whether a produced item has a demand, will be purchased, will be complemented, should be prohibited by law, or inhibited by competition. 

Selection Agents are much more broad and diverse than the other three agents in their contributions to the success of a given design. Customers are the most obvious and potent Selection agents. A smartphone case manufacturer selects which design they will produce a case for, complementing the product with an accessory. A competitor may introduce a competing smartphone with small changes in design that inhibit sales of the other. 

Nature itself can be a powerful and unpredictable Selection agent. Many a fire has destroyed production lines housed in factories built from wood. The chance occurrence of a small spark or tipped oil-lantern is in turn diminished by incremental development of fire codes and safety regulations, and replacements of oil and gas lighting by electrical lighting. For a more recent example, before the 2011 earthquake in Japan, there was a growing sentiment about starting new construction of nuclear reactors for efficient power production without carbon emissions. But after the earthquake and resulting nuclear accidents, public sentiment took a 180 degree turn. Some governments have considered halting their nuclear power development. Another recent example is the floods in Thailand that halted factory production of disk-based computer hard drives leading to short supply and price increases that are noticeable. The decisions of computer buyers choosing between old-style spinning disc drives and faster new solid-state storage devices are affected by these price and supply situations. Here, the Thailand flood may be an agent driving customers to new technology.  

The complexity of selection is such that we cannot be sure that a particular Selection agent is the sole contributor, as it may only be correlated with selection. People often buy things they don’t need because of the awesome persuasion of marketing and peer pressure. Scientific studies have been reproducible in their proof that homeopathic remedies are nonsense and that customers are routinely duped by marketing, mysticism and the twin effects of consultation and placebo. Selection is not necessary rational or intelligent. As I described in the “Reason vs Ritual” essay, selection is truly messy and unpredictable and Selection agents are the most difficult to account for, compared to the other agents in human design. Designers have little ability to predict the large number of possible Selection agents that may arise in the lifetime of a design. 

To understand any example of human design is to understand the complex interplay and the stories of these four agents, Change, Prototype, Production and Selection. One reason why evolution is analogous to human design in miniature is because the molecular agents, the protein and nuclecic acid nano-machines of living cells, take on these agent roles. Change, Prototyping and Production agents are tightly coupled within the living cell, and the same messy and unpredictable process of Selection is the gauntlet through which each organism must pass. 

Before I expand further on the similarity, there is one more aspect of human design to consider. That is the nature of information and knowledge storage and dissemination in human design. I talked about patents here, but the changing nature of knowledge and stored intelligence requires some deeper consideration.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Reason vs Ritual: The Slow Demise of Cork.

Glass bottle closures from corks to bottle caps are small things to which we do not give much thought. But their design and deployment over the last century elegantly illustrate the competitive, messy and often unpredictable process of human design in action.

Let us start with the mechanical requirements for sealing glass bottles. The most demanding of these are sodas, sparkling wines and champagnes that require a closure that holds under the pressure of dissolved gases that bubble forth when the beverage is opened. Wire cages hold corks onto the rim of champagne bottles to resist this pressure. It can be a surprise when the mushroom-shaped cork comes out of the bottle, never to go back in because it expands so dramatically. A red or white wine does not need to resist the considerable pressure of dissolved gases, so wine corks do the job without the wire cage, and with less cork material.

Now any wine snob can tell you that corked wine is preferable to wine under a screw cap. So following that advice we have been turning up our collective noses to wines with screw caps for a few decades. The opinion is that wine tastes better under cork compared to screw caps. But is this true under a controlled experiment? One American wine producer decided to do the experiment. The slide deck summarizing the findings of Hogue Cellars Ltd. with some very nice graphs and statistics can be found here at 

(Now you may notice the wine company shares my surname. I admit the only reason I came across this bit of research was due to the coincidence, but I assure you I get no freebies from Hogue Cellars Ltd. The research itself is what interests me.)

Hogue Cellars Ltd. reports that 2% of the bottles they seal with natural cork are ruined by the displeasing taste of cork taint. Cork taint is, most simply put, spoilage due to cork failure. So the assumption that all wine under cork tastes better fails for 2% of the bottles. Yet the wine snob has a choreographed defense mechanism that guards them against cork taint, and allows them to mentally disregard this problem.

Let me explain the familiar ritual. The sommelier’s careful pouring of each bottle of wine for initial tasting starts by pouring a small amount of wine into one glass, and the taster is offered the cork to inspect. That first careful sip allows the taster to detect the taste of cork taint and if it is present, the customer can send it back for another bottle. The ritual is repeated in fine restaurants around the world. The odds are small that any individual will find cork-taint. 98 times out of 100, the ritual reverts to the more enjoyable purpose, of assessing the quality of the wine, its nose and its flavor components. And as this is more frequent, it has become the accepted motivation for the ritual amongst aspiring and established wine snobs. Those who are unaware of cork taint blame the taste defect on the wine manufacturer, not the cork material.

Now a winemaker has the benefit of a much larger statistical survey of the quality of its products than any individual customer. Hogue Cellars Ltd. knew that the economic loss of cork taint was spoiling an unacceptable fraction of their wine production. The loss of a couple of bottles out of every hundred they sealed is a failure rate that is simply never tolerated in any other mass-produced food or beverage product. So they looked for alternative bottle closure designs. 

Hogue Cellars Ltd. tested a panel of metal and artificial cork-like closures over several years of storage and then let expert taste testers be the judge. They did not design any of the closures they tested, they were making a selection by statistics and the scientific method. The fraction of natural cork closures that have no taint won the taste test. Their selection criteria sought an efficient closure alternative that best maintained the taste compared to the untainted cork-sealed bottles. They tested tin, aluminum, and steel varieties from a number of manufacturers. Their research confirms the wine snob opinion that some closures, including tin and aluminum, will dramatically alter the taste of wine over time. The winner was a steel cap with a special polymer coating that provides the gas permeable qualities of cork and allows the wine to age while preventing it from being spoiled by metallic components.

While the research at Hogue Cellars Ltd. is of 2011 vintage, the battle to remove cork spoilage and inefficiency has been raging for over a century in other bottled products. Today we live in a world where wine is the last product to be going through the transition. The gas permeable nature of cork has been difficult to design into a suitable competitor to natural cork. Yet it is the power of selection by the consumer and our ritual that keeps the cork around, even when it is so inefficient in production. Let us next consider the case of the classic soda bottle cap.

Here is a photo from a small collection of soda bottle caps I have, where you can see the underside lining of the leftmost example is made using composite or pressed cork. The rightmost examples have polymer linings. These caps are from the 1970s, and I remember most of them from my boyhood. You may be surprised to learn that cork remained a part of bottle caps as the bottle-cap liner for so long after the invention of what was called the “Crown Cork” by William Painter in 1891 (U.S. Patent 468,226 ). The second example in the photo has a disk shaped wafer of plastic overtop the cork keeping the cork away from the contents, but allowing it to seal along the rim of the bottle. This plastic wafer no doubt improved the shelf life and efficiency of the seal and prevented spoilage of the beverage by the cork. 

I remember all of these cap designs coexisting at the same time. Some searching on Google Patents shows that nearly every one of these small changes in design has an accompanying patent. I remember getting bad bottles of soda with cork bottle cap liners, and spitting out the first gulp in disgust. But to my boyhood delight, by scraping off the plastic bottle cap linings with my thumbnail, the printing underneath the liner revealed contests and promotions. Bingo games or a free bottle of soda. Of the polymer linings, you can see printing on one of them. It is a small change in design and even this small change was patented in 1966 (U.S. Patent 3,257,021) including the new purpose of promotion. 

The design of better bottle caps and seals by trial-and-error is obvious in the photo, and the changes in the U.S. Patent office tell the story quite well from first-hand accounts. But as a boy, I preferred a bottle with a contest, and the cap-liner promotions made certain bottles with such liners more attractive to me. So the incremental human design improvement from the cork to plastic liner also changed the marketing of the product. 

Change came gradually to the market, as cork and polymer liners were still in competition in the 1970s. The promotions added a speculative dimension of selection that was not related to product quality or cost. That is to say you might win something. Or you might not. The soda maker could not print a contest piece on composite cork because it would shatter when you removed it. The cork-lined bottle cap is now extinct from production, but the wine cork is still with us. Wine manufacturers could easily change the attraction of the screw-capped wine bottle in the same way, by employing the steel cap for a promotion or contest. A promotion might kill off the wine cork faster than a stack of graphs and research. However alcohol advertising and promotions are strictly regulated and many jurisdictions have laws against contest promotions of booze as it might encourage alcoholism. So another selective pressure that keeps the cork in the bottle is, perhaps not so strangely, the preservation of human health.  

The selective pressures that allow the wine cork and the screw cap to co-exist today are a messy combination of agricultural, economic, cultural and legal challenges. There are natural limits to the production of cork that makes it difficult to sustain mass production. Customers have strong opinions about wine taste under cork and have developed cultural rituals to preserve the myth that all wine under cork is better-tasting, when 2% of it is quite awful stuff. Legal hurdles prevent wineries from promoting the screw-cap to make the product more attractive compared to the corked product. There is no apparent way to separate the promotion of a wine with a certain design of bottle closure from the promotion of the alcohol inside. There seems no way to tip the balance by human design, that favors the screw-cap over the cork.

So without a means to make the screw-cap more attractive than cork, wine manufacturers are resorting to the scientific method in the hope that human reason can prevail over human ritual and bring closure to the cork era. Don't be surprised when a sommelier twists open your next bottle of wine and asks you, "Would you care for some graphs with your wine?" while pouring your first sip.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

New Series on Complexity and Evolution

This year I am starting a new blog series here in “BioImplement” with examples of human design and how they inform us, by analogy, about the origin of complexity by evolution. I will also plug our new Mechanobiology content resource ( to be released  on Jan 15th at . Today’s posting is a preview of what you can expect to be reading here about my thoughts on human design and evolution in the coming weeks and months.

As a mid-career scientist I spend my time teaching, building software, and researching topics on molecular assembly and evolution. My world of software gets more complex each year. I struggle to keep up with the latest methods, as does everyone, but I know that software grows in complexity one line of code at a time. So while I chase how complexity emerges in biology and software, I have a fascination with complex mechanical things created by the human design process. I will be posting articles and pictures here showing some of my collection of examples of human design at work. I hope to capture your interest with some better-known examples like the early stages of the Eiffel tower, and the earliest Harley-Davidson motorcycle which is still a functioning bicycle in every respect.

But I have many other strange examples you will not find on Wikipedia, including the first electronic keyboard, and a wealth of information from glass bottles and the early glass industry. Some of these examples pose contradictions about tools that seem to be essential but missing. For instance, it is easy to see that the Eiffel tower was built without a crane, but it is unexpected that the first Egyptian glass bottles were made without blowpipes.
The thread connecting these examples of human design is that each one is an analogy to biological evolution, from which evolution may be better understood by laypersons. Now by posting new examples like this, I realize that they may all be stolen by the “intelligent design” (ID) creationists to argue against evolution. My view on ID follows that most clearly expressed in the 2005 court judgment from the Pennsylvania Kitzmiller v. Dover case: “The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.” Of course a few scientists have written in defense of evolution and against ID nonsense in the classroom, the most strident of whom is Richard Dawkins. I now add my voice in support, as in his final interview with Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens lamented “It’s the shame of your colleagues that they don’t form ranks and say, ‘Listen, we’re going to defend our colleagues from these appalling and obfuscating elements.’”
So into the breach, I add my voice with some new arguments, after this small bit of throat-clearing. I will try to avoid being derivative as I come armed with my own capacity for inquiry, insight, and argument. My examples will show how ID concepts force the gerrymandering of human design history, and surround it with mystical borders to make their claims. The individual steps in human design are small, slow and absolutely require the intellectual imprinting of lessons by trial and error. Students who are led to think falsely about human design, or any complexity as having mystical origins are harmed by the diminishment of their own aspirations of creativity. We all need to understand how small steps and tools lead to human creativity and any object of complexity. I will reveal these small steps and show, where I can, the failures that led to success.
Human creativity is always applied in small increments, as has been well stated by Thomas Edison and more recently by vacuum designer James Dyson. Complexity never gushes forth in a single setting. It accumulates, incrementally over time, and can be copied as a meme and reapplied. It is always more evolutionary than revolutionary. And when it appears revolutionary, there are piles of failed, discarded or recycled prototypes behind the curtain.
Tiny incremental changes can be seen in the history of the bottle cap as it moved away from cork. Some inventions copy and mutate other designs, as was the case for Mr. Harley and Mr. Davidson. Others come from the reductive process, like the atypical case of the Vespa scooter and its last common mechanical ancestor, which was an Italian airplane. And punctuated periods in human design can be seen in glass bottles unearthed like the Burgess shale from old privy sites. We can recover the reasons why one bottle cap survived this period of strangeness, and see both lethality and efficiency as contributors to the process of its selection and success.
Evolutionary processes have wonderful analogies in human design and I will go over many cases to show that complexity does in fact always arise from small steps. And when we take human design and shrink it down to the molecular level, as I myself have done, the human design process is indistinguishable from evolution. With an incomplete theoretical understanding of protein folding we lack the knowledge for de-novo design. So we apply our intelligence to choose the tool of evolution, and apply the force of selection accordingly.
I hope to keep it interesting. Enjoy the series.