October 29th, 2016

Colourless peripheral vision? Yup.

Did you know you have no peripheral colour vision?
Look straight ahead. Without moving your eyes, take note of objects in your peripheral vision. You will see them in colour, right? But that’s an illusion.
You’re thinking: WTF?
Well, yeah, you can’t see colour peripherals because you have (virtually) no colour-sensing cells (“cones”) in the regions of your retina that receives peripheral light. That’s a fact.
So, how is it that you think you can see peripheral colour? Easy: you’re brain automatically adds colour based on colour information it gathers at those instants when you look more centrally to the side.
There’s a simple experiment you can perform with a friend to prove this:
  • Give a friend of yours three cards of the same size but of different solid colours.
  • Have him randomly select two cards, but have him hide that from you.
  • Have him put the two cards one on top of the other and show you one side. In other words, you’ll now know one of the colours – of the card facing you – but not the colour of the card in behind it.
  • You now sit still and stare straight ahead.
  • Have your friend hold the card by your ear (either one) so that you can just see the card peripherally, such that the colour you know is visible to you.
  • Tell your friend to slowly move the front card away, exposing the other one to your peripheral vision, at some time of his own choosing.
  • Your job is to notice and tell him when you see the colour of the card change – without moving your head or eyes.
  • You will not see the colour change at all, because your brain doesn’t know what the other card’s colour is. Even after your friend has moved the first card completely away, you will still see the same colour.
  • Turn your eyes toward the card and suddenly it will change colour as light reflecting from it finally reaches cones in your eye.
  • You will then feel a shiver run up your spine as you think of just easy it is to fool your eyes.
  • Now think of how important it is to accommodate these weird behaviours of human bodies when you design stuff – like control panels, warning lights, coloured signage, and so on.
Recently, quite by accident, I managed to recreate this experiment while on the way home from work.
I was on the northbound Yonge subway. The upcoming stations were College (which has brown walls) and then Wellesley (which has green walls). But I had been distracted by what I was reading, and as the train pulled into the “next” station, I didn’t know which station it was – College or Wellesley.
When I looked up, and straight ahead, my location was such that I could only see out the train’s window peripherally. I saw movement outside as we pulled into a station as the station walls zipped past. The walls were grey (no colour vision peripherally, so I was seeing in black and white).
Then I turned my head to the window, and suddenly the walls of the station turned green. It was a sudden change that coincided precisely with a saccade – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saccade – those sudden, jerk like movements of the eye that we perform automatically to gather visual information. One moment the walls were grey; the next they were green. One saccade oriented my eyes well enough that some cones detected the green colour of the walls and my brain did the rest, filling in everything in my vision that was “wall” with that colour, plus memories I had of Wellesley Station. And it was all automatic, without any conscious help at all from “me.”
Cool, eh?
June 23rd, 2016

Reflection makes experience meaningful

I wrote a post on my other blog about the importance of reflecting on your life as a feature of learning. If you care about your education, you need to reflect on what you’re learning.

June 11th, 2016

You should watch this movie

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana
Robert-Redford-the-CandidateYou may think things are pretty messed up these days, but in many ways they’re actually better. We have gotten kinder and less violent, for instance. There have also been tremendous strides forward for equality, all prefaced on the very simple realization that there is no necessary connection between skin colour, sex, (dis)ability, or culture and the quality of one’s character.
Of course, things still aren’t perfect, and we may yet make ourselves extinct thanks to gross consumerism, religious extremism, political corruption, and overall ignorance. We still need to move forward.
But which way is “forward”? How do hedge our bets that whatever decision we make will make things better and not worse again?
One part of the answer to that question is to do as Santayana says and know your history.  Here’s a tiny slice of history that you will likely enjoy learning about: politics in the US in the 1970s, as embodied by the movie The Candidate. Released in 1972, the movie stars Robert Redford as Bill McKay, a young, charismatic activist in California who is targeted by the American political machine as a great candidate for Senate. The movie follows the beginning of his political career. In true 1970’s style, the ending is ambiguous, but the movie itself is a fantastic lesson in how things worked back then. You can see the beginnings of all kinds of attitudes and beliefs that are now taken – rightly or wrongly – as gospel truth. And you can see how pathetic “conventional” life was back then for so many people. We’ve certainly come a loooong way since the 1970s, and that’s good. It should motivate you to do even more to make your future even better.
I highly recommend this movie to all students, not because it’s a good movie, but because it will help you understand why things are as they are today. And knowing where we came from as a society is absolutely essential to deciding where we want to go next.
March 5th, 2016

The art of taking notes

To my students:

Taking notes by hand (i.e., with pen & paper) has been shown to correlate strongly with better learning.

Just to show you what notes can look like, here’s some of my notes from high school.


And just to prove that I wasn’t quite the nerd you might think I am, here’s a page from my dad’s notes from his university calculus course.  My dad was an olympic-class swimmer in the butterfly stroke, a regional champion graeco-roman wrestler, and… well, was known for getting into trouble fairly often.


Read ’em and weep.

December 21st, 2015

Why the “Oxford Comma” matters

When you write a sentence that includes a list of items, the last one typically starts with “and.”  A question that has been vexing people for centuries now is whether that last clause should start with a comma – i.e., “, and” rather than just “and.”

That last comma is called the Oxford Comma.  Some people love it. Other people hate it.

I love it, and here’s three reasons why.  In the image below are three sentences that probably don’t mean what their authors meant – all because the Oxford Comma is missing.


Long Live the Oxford Comma!

November 18th, 2015

The art and science of googling (and some design too)

A colleague that I greatly respect and admire recently used the image below in a lecture, as an example to discuss sources of accidents.

DumpTruckOopsSomeone asked if my colleague knew what actually happened. He responded that he didn’t know and that he couldn’t even remember where he’d found the image.


First, I tried a Google Image search for: truck caught on highway sign. There were many similar pictures – frighteningly many, in fact – but that particular one wasn’t listed.

Then I tried: truck hits highway sign. And there it was, on the second screen’s worth of images.

I clicked on the image. That took me to http://pragmatos.net/2009/03/05/for-obvious-reasons-thats-wrong/, which linked to http://www.courant.com/news/local/hc-truckrescue0305.artmar05,0,731492.story, at the Hartford Courant (local newspaper) website. But that story no longer existed.

So then I copied the Courant URL and went to https://archive.org/, the so-called Internet Archive, an organization that has as its goal to document every web page ever – even the ones that have been deleted.  Currently, it archives over 445 billion web pages.  Sure enough, I asked it to search for the missing Courant URL and it found several copies. I selected one of the earliest, and while it doesn’t have the image, it does have the rest of the article.

So between the Courant article in the Internet Archive and the image from the pragmatos website, I could reconstruct the entire story – at least insofar as it was originally reported.

Total search time: 5 minutes, at the most. Thanks Google!


In case you’re wondering about my own interpretation of what happened to the truck, here’s what I think.

Let’s start with three details of the photo that you may have missed.

First, look at the highway sign. Some highway signs span all lanes of a roadway (like most of the ones on Highways 400 and 401 in Toronto). But this sign is different; it clearly doesn’t span the roadway – you can see the end-cap! So this sign came up from the side of the road and stretched out over only part of it.

Second, look at the lane markings painted on the road. I see a typical dashed line in the foreground, very near the bottom of the photo. But the line painted just by where the truck is is solid.  It looks like the truck is on the shoulder of the road. Additionally, the traffic lane to the immediate left of the truck appears to be narrowing from right to left; that is, it appears that lane is the merge lane onto the highway from some other street.

Thirdly, using the lane markings painted on the road as a visualization guide for depth, try to imagine how far out into traffic the green sign actually extends. Look at the sign’s end cap and imagine a vertical “plumb” line dropping down to the road; where would that line hit pavement? It looks to me like the sign extends over but not past the merge lane.

This jibes well with what is reported in the story – that the driver had just dropped off his truck’s load at a construction site, and was getting back on the highway (probably from a temporary construction entrance off the shoulder of the actual highway). Had the truck managed to merge (right) into traffic a little bit faster, it could well have missed the sign. Of course, that just opens the possibility of another, more serious accident – the truck is still in the raised position, remember – when the rig was going faster. But it also opens the possibility of affording the driver more time to notice the truck was raised and to get it lowered before a more serious accident could happen….

Is it the driver’s “fault” that this accident happened? Not even the newspaper story tells us enough to be sure. And in any case, design isn’t so much about “fault” (which inherently about the past) but rather about “opportunity” (which is about the future). We can’t undo the accident that has already happened. But we can act to help ensure that this kind of accident doesn’t happen again. What can we do to prevent future occurrences? To answer this question, it is important to understand “cause,” but that’s entirely different from “fault.”

(Exercise for the reader: Why are “cause” and “fault” inherently and very significantly different?)

Consider this analogy to my car. I drive a 2015 VW Beetle*. It has an unfortunately many automated gadgets and gizmos. If I switch the radio to “media” it immediately tells my phone to start playing music. The wipers adjust speed from fully off to high speed based on some kind of rain-meter. The headlights decide whether they need to be on or off based on ambient conditions. At night, the inside rear view mirror dims automatically to prevent headlight glare of the cars behind me from blinding me. All kinds of systems turn on and off automatically when I lock and unlock the car. When I start driving, the doors lock themselves; when I put the car in park, the doors unlock themselves.

It’s really quite decadent.

If we can do all that for a not-especially-expensive car out of little more than a desire to convenience the driver (because – let’s face it – all these automagical systems are only about convenience), why can’t we come up with ways to convenience the truck driver?

Exercise to the reader: How many ways can you think of to help the truck driver not wander off with his truck raised?

* They say it’s painted “Tornado Red” but I just have no idea what that means as I’ve never seen a red tornado.  Bloodnado, perhaps?

November 15th, 2015

Do you want to be strengthened or coddled?

Granted this is a distinctly American perspective on things, but it still raises some very interesting questions that all students need to ask themselves (and answer!)

September 4th, 2015

How they sell condos in Milan

I was recently in Milan for a conference.  One day, while walking around one of the suburbs, I saw a new condo development. Near the street was a large billboard advertising the condos that were being built.

EcoCondoMilan2015Here’s the billboard.  The development is called ECOLife Nature.  Just above the rendering of the building is a well-placed logo indicating that the building is certified by Klima Haus, a variation/combination of LEED and Passivhaus eco-construction methods.

To the right of the rendering is a list of key selling features.  Translating:

  • earthquake proof structure
  • air-conditioned (because most buildings in Italy are so old they predate central A/C)
  • PV solar generation
  • Estimated power consumption 9.56 kWh/m2a (notice how precise they are, and how they expect their clients to actually understand units like kiloWatt-hour-per-metre-squared-year)
  • heated access ways and garage
  • remote-controlled shades and shutters
  • electric automobile recharging stations
  • green roof
  • lots of green space
  • guaranteed market value
  • fully warrantied mortgages
  • assumed land mortgage (i.e., the builder actually owns the land – there’s a bit of a problem in Italy of builders putting up homes on land they never actually bought….)

Notice the most important points – the points near the top of the list – regard safety, comfort, and sustainability.  The economics and financial stuff is relegated to the bottom of the list of “features.”

Question: Look at an advertisement in Toronto for condominiums.  Consider the differences.  What do you think that says about the differences of culture?

August 23rd, 2015

An Interesting “downspout” design

I was recently in Milan and visited some relatives there.  At their house, I noticed that they have what I think of as very unconventional downspouts – even though they told me this design is quite common in that area.


IMG_20150802_184626 IMG_20150802_184618In the first photo, you can see the overall downspout. It’s just a set of chains (four, in this case) that run out of the eavestrough down to the ground.  In the second photo, you can see what happens at the ground: the chains run into a concrete basin filled with decorative stones. There’s a whole at the bottom of the basin that runs into a dedicated water line that leads to the sewer system (or that can be then reclaimed as grey water for other uses).

Water running out of the hole in the eavestrough remain “attached” (due to surface tension) to the chain, so instead of splashing all over the place, the water runs straight down into the basin.

The advantages of this approach are maintainability and aesthetics.  It’s easier to replace the chains than to replace a downspout, and the chains hold a certain aesthetic appeal, regardless of their condition.  (We all know how crappy an old, dented, and rusted out downspout can be.)

This is also an example of design by inversion.  Instead of constraining the water from the “outside,” as with a regular downspout, the chains go on the “inside” and the water runs on the outside of the shape.


April 30th, 2015

The “good ol’ days” really sucked

Every once in a while, someone complains about modern life and speaks wistfully about the “good old days.”

I’m so over the “good old days” – because they really weren’t good at all.  In fact, they were, for the most part, pretty sickening.

Don’t take my word for it.  Consider the current refugee crisis in Europe; thousands of refugees are trying to enter Europe because their lives are absolutely miserable in their countries of origin.  But this isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened.  There was the case of the Vietnamese “boat people” back in the 1970s and 1980s.

Listen to this archival radio program from CBC.  It’s only about an hour long, but if you are really pressed for time, then skip to minute 31.

If you’re a decent human being, you will be red-faced with shame by minute 35.  The appalling ignorance, isolationism, and sanctimony of some of the speakers should be enough to turn your stomach.

Please note that this radio broadcast is from 1979, two years after the first Star Wars movie came out, 10 years after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, and 18 years after I myself was born.  When I think that I lived in a time of such disgusting inequality and racism, I thank my lucky stars that I no longer live in the “good old days.”

And so should you.

April 18th, 2015

The importance of composition

Some students quibble with me about the weight I give “composition skills.”  This usually happens at the end of the semester when I grade the team design reports.

Composition is more than just spelling or grammar.  These days, a computer can handle most if not all spelling and grammar concerns.  All it takes on the student’s part is the presence of mind to actually use the available tools.  If a computer can do it, it can’t really be that hard.  Composition, on the other hand, is always hard.  It’s the “art” of constructing a concise, precise sentence that communicates clearly.  Poor composition skills mean either a lack in one’s education, or a lack of clarity in thinking.  There’s a famous quotation: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”  Whether Mark Twain or Blaise Pascal penned it, it’s a good one.  The point is this: it takes time and effort to compose good prose, and the benefits of good prose are significant.  Not only does it let you get your point across accurately and convincingly, it also demonstrates to others that you have expertise in an area and respect for your audience.

Case in point: in October 2014, I participated in a meeting of the International Standards Organization, which is setting up standards on biomimetics.  There were various sessions focussed on different areas of the field, some of which I have some expertise, and others in which I don’t.  During one of the sessions in which I did NOT have expertise, the work involved resolving problems with the text of a working document.  Notwithstanding my nearly total lack of knowledge of the topic, I was about to contribute significantly to the work, simply because I know about english composition.  Indeed, a number of other participants thanked me afterwards for my contributions, saying that the document was that much stronger and better for my efforts.

Let me say it again, just to be clear: even though I had no idea what the subject matter was, I was still able to help improve the document because I know about english composition.  That’s how important composition skills are.

February 11th, 2015

English is funny

There is no egg in the eggplant, no ham in the Hamburger and neither pine nor apple in the pineapple.

English muffins were not invented in England; French fries were not invented in France.

Quicksand takes you down slowly, boxing rings are square, and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

If writers write, how come fingers don’t fing. If the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn’t the plural of phone booth be phone beeth?

If the teacher taught, why didn’t the preacher praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what the heck does a humanitarian eat!?

Why do people recite at a play, yet play at a recital? Park on driveways and drive on parkways?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language where a house can burn up as it burns down; in which you fill in a form by filling it out.

What is it that when the stars are out they are visible, but when the lights are out they are invisible. And why it is that when I wind up my watch it starts but when I wind up a story it ends?

Do infants enjoy infancy as much as adults enjoy adultery?

Why is a person who plays the piano called a pianist, but a person who drives a race car not called a racist?

Why are wise men and wise guys opposites?

Why do overlook and oversee mean opposite things?

If horrific means to make horrible, does terrific mean to make terrible?

Why isn’t 11 pronounced onety one?

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December 24th, 2014

Who says academics don’t have a sense of humour?

I.J. Good was, despite the name, a real person who worked with Alan Turing and researched the logic of evidence for decades.  He also had a great sense of humour.


And if you’ve had the misfortune of never being exposed to the humour of Groucho Marx, try https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0fmC0hVIa4.

July 1st, 2014

Find what you love to do

Recent research suggests strongly that the odds you’ll succeed improve if you’re intrinsically motivated; that means you want to do something for its own sake, because you feel a deep desire to do it. Extrinsic motivation – wanting to do something for some other, external reason (e.g., better salary, fame, etc.) – can actually impede your success.

What this means is: the odds of succeeding in University increase if you really just want to be here, and not if you’re just here as a stepping stone to a career.

The same can be said about engineering. If you don’t really just want to get an engineering degree, then you’re better off finding a degree you really do want.

June 13th, 2014

Why Solidworks?

Some students ask why we use solidworks in our programs.  The answer is simple:

  • It’s the most affordable general CAD package for us;
  • It’s well-known to be particularly easy to learn compared to most other CAD packages;
  • It’s very popular in all kinds of different industries.

Some students will occasionally challenge that last point based on their own anecdotal experience; they’ll tell me that as they look for work, they find AutoCAD, not Solidworks, is required. Unfortunately, even though anecdotal evidence may seem indisputable to those who experience it directly, it is not sound evidence.  If you look here, you’ll see that Solidworks is very popular, but not enough information is given about the nature of the survey to know if the statistics gathered are robust.  So then, look here, and while I would never expect you to fork out the $2,500 for the full report, the key result is given for free: “The key vendors dominating this market space are Autodesk Inc., Dassualt [sic] Systemes SA, PTC, and Siemens PLM Software Inc.”

Dassault Systemes is the parent company of both Solidworks and CATIA.

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May 17th, 2014

You’re not studying enough

MacLean’s published an article by Stephanie Findlay in 2010 that highlights a basic problem with University students: they don’t study enough anymore.  Students generally spend 60% as much time studying now as they did 50 years ago.

April 16th, 2014

What were you doing in 2005?


Now think about this: in less than 10 years, SD card storage has improved 1000 times.
Imagine what the next 10 years will bring!.

March 26th, 2014

The crew of USS Enterprise reacts to Miley Cyrus


March 25th, 2014

w-ln|ap^2H + e^(ar)| = ln|y|-ln|N|

That’s how you wish a mathematician a Happy New Year.

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March 18th, 2014

Correlation vs causation: the danger of stats

So…. Getting rid of IE will stop murders. Right?

I’ve always thought that statistics is one of the most important, yet underrepresented, cores of engineering.  Stats matter.  But there’s a Great Danger in using stats naively – the danger of confusing correlation and causation.

March 16th, 2014

Why am I such a hard-ass?

Some students complain that I’m quite harsh with regard to certain “rules.”  Here’s my thoughts about that.

February 2nd, 2014

Want to learn better? Take notes on paper.

I have blogged elsewhere about new research that shows learning is better if you take notes on paper rather than on a computer.

That’s right: if you want to do better in school, use paper, not plastic.

January 27th, 2014

So, what is Wikipedia?

Ever wonder how we got to have Wikipedia?

CBC has a great episode (I think) of “Ideas in the Afternoon” on encyclopaediae and Wikipedia in particular.  It goes into the history of Wikipedia, its structure (not software, but the organization), the connection to Wikis in general and Ward Cunningham’s original work, the introduction of Linux, as well as the broader social implications of crowd-sourced knowledge collection and collaborative interactions.

It’s the best piece of radio I’ve heard in a long time.

January 18th, 2014

MEC222: A “real life” instance of “oblique views”

Oblique Views, courtesy The Doorland Group (http://www.doorlandgroup.com/)

I’ve told you in MEC222 lectures that engineer’s don’t use Oblique Views, and that’s true.  But it’s also nice to see that such views are relevant in a number of industries.  Here’s an instance of how Oblique Views are used in industry.  This is part of a large poster on the wall of a custom door manufacturer in the GTA.

An Oblique View gives a “true view” of the profile (the cross-section) of the item (in this case, baseboards) which is important for installers.  It also provides a sense of the actual appearance of the outward facing side, which is important for the customer.

December 21st, 2013

Why I’m 9.25 times older than my first-year students

Sometimes, I get the impression that my students think that I don’t really know what “life is really like.”  I’m going to use some simple math to suggest that they’re wrong.

Let me explain.

November 20th, 2013

Ryerson Mech design team – world’s best!!!

As reported by Prof. Vincent Chan:

“I’m proud to inform you that the ASME Ryerson student team (Alex Simpson, Alexei Semine, Robert Poskrobko and Anthony Brinias) just placed first in the Student Design Competition at the ASME World Congress being held in San Diego this week.

November 16th, 2013

So, you think your computer is slow and expensive? HAH!

A GFLOPS (i.e., a gigaFLOPS), is a billion floating point operations per second, and is a standard measure of the speed of calculation of computers.

These days you can put together, made from off the shelf parts, a computer that will run at almost 7 TFLOPS (teraFLOPS) – that’s 7,000 GFLOPS.  That amounts to $0.16 per GFLOPS.

Now, the year I was born, 1961, you would have had to spend $8.3 trillion (in 2013-adjusted U.S. dollars) to generate just 1 GFLOPS of speed.  That means that in the last 50-ish years, the cost of computing has decreased by on the order of one hundred trillion times.

So.  Stop complaining that your computer is too slow.  Instead, complain about how bloated modern software is.

(Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FLOPS#Hardware_costs)


October 5th, 2013

Life lessons by Tim Minchin

Tim Minchin was recently awarded an honorary doctorate.  Here’s his address to the other recipients of PhDs from the University of Western Australia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NyBvbot3emM.

Listen carefully: he’s completely right about all of it.  Thar be wisdom ‘ere!

October 2nd, 2013

Why I’ve been so tired (and fat) lately

Some of you may have noticed I’m especially lethargic these days.  And a little wider than I used to be.  Some of you are looking at me funny, so I figure I owe you an explanation, lest you think I’m moonlighting as one of The Avengers or something.

September 29th, 2013

Maths in design?

Some of you may be wondering how math figures into design.

There’s lots of ways, but Prof. Terry Love does a particularly good job of describing one of those ways in a recent post to a design mailing list in which a colleague with a background in graphic design questioned him on exactly that point.   You can read Prof. Love’s responses here and here.