Notes on the random talks I attend, ideas that I have and photos that I take living in London

Want to be creative? Stop watching TED talks.

I spent my Saturday morning this week at Selfridges, which if you know me is unsurprising.  Well there was one surprising thing about this particular visit, I was hanging out with Neuroscientist and University Professor Vincent Walsh thinking about creativity and my brain. Is that surprising? Maybe not.  Anyway.

Walsh, a passionate taker of naps, lover of Arnold Schwarzenegger and player of trumpets started with some good news – there is no such thing as a creative person.  We can all be creative.  Scientifically speaking there’s also no such thing as the left brain/ right brain view on the world.  In fact he believes that we can all be creative if we bring something together in a new way that is measureable.  If we are to be creative, it’s likely we will be passionately obsessed about the topic and that the act of creativity will take courage, preparation and knowledge. 

He asked the audience to give him examples of creativity.  A couple of lame (authors note) examples followed before he shared his favourite, simple example: Muhammed Ali’s invention of the rope-a-dope. The rope-a-dope meant he could take on a whole heap of punches from the biggest puncher in the world at the time George Foreman (of George Foreman Grill fame) and win the bout.  I would agree that this is creative and is an example of how expert knowledge of subject – boxing – can help you work out how to do something in a new way.

According to Walsh, there are four key stages to creativity:

  1. Preparation – this is the grind where you gather the knowledge you need to become an expert on whatever problem you are trying to solve
  2. Incubation – you never solve a problem when you are thinking about it really tricky problems need to simmer.  The answer will probably come to you when you are out for a run
  3. Illumination – that aha moment
  4. Verification – the cold light of day when everyone poo poos your aha moment.  This can go on for a while.

Creativity is very difficult to measure, so it remains a highly subjective judgement as to who or what is or isn’t creative. Walsh is slightly sport mad so most of his examples of the uber creative, bar Arnie and Albert E, were sportspeople.  On this point, I’m not sure I would have said that Andre Agassi or the William’s sisters were particularly creative.  Yes absolutely experts at tennis, but not bastions of creativity. I’d suggest that in these examples he has mixed up the definition of expert with creative.  But I’m happy to be wrong, as per point 8 on the list below.

Walsh’s key tips to becoming creative, Chief Creative Officers of Fortune 500 companies take note:

  1. Have bad hair – all you need to be creative is a base level IQ of 120. There is no evidence to suggest that being smarter makes you any more creative than having mad hair
  2. Be a little crazy - but not too crazy no maiming or killing a la  Muybridge
  3. Sleep a lot – sleep improves brain function. It just does.  I don’t know how those executives I meet who boast of only getting 4 hours a night function. Presumably other people think for them
  4. Know your stuff – be an expert first, then get creative. As we all know Einstein was average at school and he didn’t start making history until he found his passion much later in life
  5. Be prepared – inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy and creativity is not always a eureka moment, sometimes it’s a slow burn. So do your homework and be patient
  6. Dare to be simple –  take your lead from Richard Fyneman, simple is beautiful , complexity means you have something to hide
  7. Be courageous – you are going to be challenged.  This is why it helps to be prepared and know your stuff
  8. Be wrong – experiment, practice and improvise in the right way.  Embrace failure.  If you are not failing you’re not trying hard enough.  Practicing and failing in the right way is the key to creative success.   

There are two key things that get in the way of creativity, which I absolutely agree with.  The first is the external setting of goals, which is all the rage for executives and others who think monitoring their own performance is beneath them.  If you are going to be creative, you need to define your own problem space. The second is giving people the wrong kind of reward.  There are thousands of studies, mostly in the behavioural economics space, that show that cash incentives are great if you are a digger and your employer wants you to dig more holes faster.  Cash incentives are not the right reward for creativity, in fact most of the time they worsen creative performance by focussing their eye on how they can get the big cash reward, rather than the best way to solve the problem.

So why should we stop watching TED talks? To Walsh’s mind science isn’t entertainment - its deep thought.  Also rather creepily he pointed out that they all speak at the same cadence (I checked a few out and for the most part this is true) and all we get is some received wisdom rather than a conversation. He also doesn’t like how they dress. Having said this, Walsh looks and dresses like Simon Cowell.  He also auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent.  On these grounds I am invoking the people in glass houses rule. 

Looking forward to Glastonbury already 

Looking forward to Glastonbury already 


Love this David Foster Wallace on leadership, in gorgeous felt-on-felt typographic artwork by Debbie Millman. Available as a print, with 100% of proceeds benefiting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 
Transcript and a beautiful reading here.


Love this David Foster Wallace on leadership
, in gorgeous felt-on-felt typographic artwork by Debbie Millman. Available as a print, with 100% of proceeds benefiting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 

Transcript and a beautiful reading here.

(Source: explore-blog, via creativemornings)

Winter wonderland 2013

Winter wonderland 2013

Romance, sadness and joy

After failing on a number of occasions, I finally made it to the exhibition celebrating Isabella Blow at Somerset house on Saturday. I’m so glad I did – how many exhibitions include outsized, yet elegant, Swarovski crystal lobster necklaces.

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The exhibition really shows her life though the lens of the designers she worked with.  In her years as a fashion muse and stylist she discovered and no doubt inspired, Philip Treacey, Julien McDonald and Hussein Chalayan, but it seems that the exhibition and perhaps she truly belonged with Alexander McQueen.  

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She first saw McQueen’s work at his RCA fashion show and even though it was well beyond her means, she bought his entire collection on the spot. He remembers “she came marching through with these great collapsed black organza horns on her head.  I just thought she was incredibly fab. She bought the entire collection, and after that she was well in with me! McQueen demanded £300 per item, which after commenting how expensive that was for a new designer promptly began paying him a retainer of £100 per week.

That first collection from McQueen, an East London boy, claimed to be inspired by Jack the Ripper.  You can see it and not just in his early works. So many of his works incorporating off center shapes, fringes and tortured lace, that covers one side of the body leaving the other side lopsided and exposed. Rather like his Jack the Ripper would have done.  She claims what attracted her to McQueen was “the way he takes ideas from the past and sabotages them with his cuts to make them thoroughly new and in the context of today. It is complexity and severity of his approach to each cut that makes him so modern”.

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But I think it was simpler than that.  They just seemed to get each other.  I imagine it would have been a challenge to even start to look for someone who truly gets you when you are known for your idiosyncrasies like she was.  The exhibition told a couple of stories in words to illustrate these idiosyncrasies.  She was known for cleaning her desk at Vogue with bottled Perrier. But the real story was of course the clothes. The story the clothes told was of an intellectual, almost academic woman with a punk rocker’s anarchic sense of presentation.  The collection of outfits was altogether unlike anything else in the world, befitting of someone described as “the most interesting person” Philip Treacy had ever met.

Warrior sea anemone, meets Roswell resident, with a dash of ostrich tartan princess. Her outfits made use of glitter, crystal, glass, feather, leather, lace, paper, wire and I presume anything else on hand at the time. I would have loved to have met her. I’m wondering what I would have asked her if I did. She’s another one who makes me think, I wish I had enough guts to live my life like that - to jump in fully, rather than playing around the edges.  But as with all lives, hers came with caveats.

She had a long history of manic depression and when she died in 2007, Treacy and McQueen staged a Collection in her honour titled La Dame Bleue. It was a mix of feathers, leather, corsets, trailing skirts and of course intricately crafted hats. But the exhibition fails to mention, with good reason that at the time she died, all three weren’t on the best of terms with difficulties reported to go back to 1996 when McQueen hit the big time and she perceived that he failed to secure a role for her a Givenchy.  If the exhibition is anything to go by, I imagine that their difficulties would have faded over time.  McQueen also took his own life in 2010.

My memory of the videos that dotted the exhibition, memory was a mix of feathers black eyeliner and purple glitter. Isabella used to wear Fracas.  If you’ve never heard of it.  I went through a Fracas wearing phase in my twenties.  Wearing it used to make me feel glamorous, but it’s a strange smell. Very distinctive, full of tuberose and almost musty. You just can’t find it anywhere anymore. 

Light, physics and sandals

Light is a lofty topic for a talk but who better to tackle such a broad topic than a sandal wearing ex Anglican Priest, with a degree in Physics and Theology and a PhD in Philosophy.

How do you begin such a conversation? By asking them what they think of when they think about light to gauge the intelligence/ physics qualifications of your audience.  It is a proven fact that individual responses to that question will usually reveal a hidden PhD in Astro Physics.  This is important to do if you are about to embark on a crash course in the science, perception and philosophy of light. For those of you looking to put me in a box, I said light is the opposite of heavy.  I, of course, was in the minority with that response.

The definition that he went with, to set the tone for the talk was, that light enables us to see, but we don’t actually see it.  Oh a sign of things to come.  Further the scientific aspect of light allows us to see things differently, for us to be enlightened, if you will.  If it wasn’t inappropriate for people over 30 to use smiley faces, I would have used one after that sentence. 

Physics is the most accurate science known to man

We started with the physics of light, running through the work of: Aristotle; Newton; and Maxwell. It’s at this point that I learn that quantum physics is the most accurate science known to man.  Given my limited IQ, I have no way of validating the accuracy of this statement.  Further, physics envy is defined as scientists and other lay people who wish that their area of expertise was as accurate as physics.  Again, with my brain and in my line of work, I don’t have this issue, but I sympathise with those, such as our fearless lecturer, who do.  Given, this physics envy, he most definitely deserved a hefty round of applause for dealing with the topic of light on so many levels. I am not going to comment any further on the physics of light, for the aforementioned IQ related issues.

But humans mess it up by never truly seeing anything objectively

As humans, we are incapable of seeing things objectively.  I’ve never thought about it before, but for us to make use of light to physically see, we require some understanding of the context or environment within which we are seeing.  Think about it, even our language tells us this, for example we never say, my eye saw, rather, I saw.   It’s not just our eyes, rather our whole brain seeing. This is something explored by Sartre in his works, nothing has a value in and of itself, we assign value or context to what we see based on our own culture, traditions and experiences. This is why there is really something to be said for a great artist, who truly changes your perceptions of what you see. Or why I would say that I saw that the sea in Greece is blue, but that there is no word in Ancient Greek for blue.

During the two hour session we were awarded a 5 minute peanut break.  Typically this is a good opportunity for those who consider the talk to be bullshit to slip out unnoticed. But not to our theological guide!  Who named and shamed every person who left in the interval.  Lucky for them, most had just gone out for a smoke - although eternal damnation obviously awaited those who did actually leave. I thought Priests had an inner light and were somewhat impervious to the dark lord of self-doubt.  Knowing this makes me feel bad about leaving church early at Christmas all those times.  I’ll stay right to the end this year.  Even though the service always finishes with Away in a Manger – my least favourite carol.

That’s why we need ‘enlightenment’, to expand our otherwise narrow horizons

While it is true, we ‘see’ a combination of what our society, experiences and brain hemispheres allow us to see, there are some noble creatures among us who believe that we can ‘transcend’ these filters to achieve true enlightenment. Essentially, awakening yourself to possibilities other than what you have always know to be true.  Kant describes true enlightenment as: not accepting something just to be true, rather daring to know something for yourself; and then once you have convinced yourself that this thing is true, putting it to the test of public opinion.  To illustrate this, we spent a long time talking about Plato’s cave

Plato’s cave is a long story, but the idea is that there are a group of people fixed at the bottom of a pit, trapped by a combination of circumstance, apathy and fear of the shadow people on the wall.  One day, say one of the pit dwellers is released or the curiosity of what goes on beyond the pit wall, becomes too much for one pit dweller, who decides to climb over the wall and up and out if the pit.  Having done so, she makes various painful discoveries, including fire - it hurts her eyes - other humans who are using the fire and their bodies to cast the shadows on the wall and eventually sunlight, outside the cave.  Having made these discoveries, she chooses to follow Satre’s definition of enlightenment and returns to the pit to put her findings to the court of public pit dwelling opinion. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work out well for her.  Watch the video

So it seems to me that we are all trapped, up until the point where we choose to be freed – or enlightened.  Simply freeing ourselves is painful and difficult, but the second step, the test of public opinion, can be downright deadly. Plato’s cave applies to our lives in so many ways, one of which being via physics, where the analogy put forward by one of the participants to describe the cave - of course there was a physics analogy - is the idea of being ‘able’ to see the world in 2D, 3D, 4D etc.

I don’t mind maths, but words are better 

You can’t argue that maths, physics and geometry bring light to many situations, by explaining things that we can’t use our spoken languages to explain.  I think that it is fair to say that the expansion of the scientific field has stilted progression of the other obvious definition of light, enlightenment.  Apart from Slavoj Zizek and Alain De Botton are there any other rock star philosophers out there working today?  Well Alain is actually more of a pop star, but the point is that we just don’t seem to spend the same amount of time just thinking or revere those who do - if not in the name of a particular problem that needs solving.  Philosophy, it seems, has become the domain of 1st year university students and jailed oligarchs. And that’s a shame. 

The fair at London Fields. Fun for hipsters young and old!

The fair at London Fields. Fun for hipsters young and old!

Thoughts on humiliation courtesy of the most awkward man on the planet

This is the second time I’ve seen Jon Ronson speak publicly and he continues to be the most awkward man on the planet – well, out of all the men on the planet that I have observed anyway.

There is something about him that is so self conscious it’s almost physically painful to be in his presence.  Luckily, or maybe because of this, he has some great stories on humiliation.  Traditionally his own humiliation.  However, now he is also researching the humiliation of others as part of his new book. 

He’s currently trying to understand, why it is that some people can literally die of shame while humiliation, seems to slide right off others . He started thinking about humiliation during the research for his previous bestseller “the Psychopath test” – a must read for any amateur psychologist.  He was interviewing a corporate restructurer, called Al Dunlap(chainsaw Al), who had an almost Teflon response to shame or remorse.  Jon was desperate to put Al into a box labelled psychopath.  In reality whilst Al is technically not a psychopath,  he does seem to have less of a shame and remorse response than the average bear.

Humiliation, shame and guilt are big topics for us humans.   We hate to be humiliated ourselves, but we love to watch others being humiliated. Reality TV, gossip mags, admitting to watching neighbours, we love it!  It’s an incredibly strong driver and barrier in our lives. 

We know we should do better and use our time more productively, but we are also fascinated by our own fallibility.  Seeing celebrities without makeup makes us feel alive/ less ashamed about how we look when we go to the shops or roll out of bed. 

Jon told a story, one you may have heard, about James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who, in the 1970s was tasked with reducing the huge amount of violence taking place in state prisons in Massachusetts. He interviewed thousands of prisoners and they told him the same thing: they had died inside the day they killed someone; and more violence was the only way for them to feel anything at all. At this time, many of these prisoners either continued to be violent inside prison or take their own lives.

James found that in response to violence from prisoners  the prison officers often took it upon themselves to administer justice, by way of humiliation and that the ridicule and humiliation that these prisoners suffered at the hands of prison officers, far from shaming them into stopping, ate away at their self respect to the point where they were so ashamed of themselves that they gave up caring about the guilt and shame and acted out even more.  It was only when prisoners were given ways to rebuild their own self-respect that the violence and suicide rates fell.

The use of shame or humiliation as a formal disciplinary tool, has been almost universally derided. Remember the criticism of that Harvard shame guy, who suggested that petty thieves wear placards around their necks as penance for their crimes.  But at the same time it is still ok for Prosecutors to use their prosecutorial discretion to push very hard to make an example of people. 

One area where they are pushing hard to set a precedent is cyber crime – even in cases that are crimes to some, but freedom of information to others.  Regardless, in the realm of cyber copyright related crimes people are being humiliated and in some cases going to jail.  One of these characters is Kim Dotcom.  The FBI claims he is the biggest profiteer from piracy around.  Commenting on his recent arrest he said: ‘Prosecuting me is like putting a hand in a river. You can’t stop a river with your bare hands. Water just flows around them’.  

This response from Dotcom to prosecution contrasts dramatically with the story of Aaron Schwartz, the brains behind RSS and the founder of Reddit.  He killed himself in 2012, when it looked likely that he would be sent to prison, for a maximum of 35 years, for releasing copies of MIT journal articles in bulk that were already freely available on the internet.  The Attorney General who prosecuted him, sought to make an example of him.  But to what end?  Surely she hadn’t intended to drive him to suicide, but most people that I’ve spoken to about the situation believe that the level of persecution, did not fit the crime.  

So it seems that some people who are publicly shamed are scarred and broken, while others, like Kim Dotcom and “chainsaw” Al Dunlap turn out fine. 

Brad Blanton is a radical psychologist who claims that you can learn how to avoid humiliation.  He even runs a course on it, the essence being that you have to humiliate yourself before anyone else can.  Firstly by revealing a secret about yourself that you’d never revealed before to a group of strangers.  The stories revealed in the course?  One hit and run murder and another proclivity for bestiality.  And these are the people who want to learn to not be humiliated!

If I have to murder someone to cure myself of the risk of humiliation, or have sex with my cat, I think I’m ok with just being easily humiliated.  I really hope Ronson’s book offers some reasonable, alternative solutions to minimizing our humiliation.  However, given that Jon describes himself as a bower bird, patchworking all the interesting bits that he hears together into one big sensationalist quilt - it probably won’t.

Finding that one thing that captures your attention, to detail

 
One of the main reasons I moved to London was to get rid of my freckles.  Another was to have the chance to study or even just breathe the air at institutions such as LSE and Central St Martins. I just finished a 10 week graphic design course at Central St Martins.
 
What I found interesting is that even over 10 weeks it seemed that I - along with many of my peers - had a style starting to emerge. Mine, weirdly enough being one with a huge attention to very small details.  Why weirdly, well traditionally I have terrible attention to detail.  At least I thought I did. Or maybe I’ve just never been interested enough to care.  
 
I’ve added some photos below of what was my favourite assignment.  1 topic, 50 ideas related to that topic represented visually and curated to show the connection between the 50. 
 
I started with my topic in the centre and then mapped out 50 ideas one by one. Linking or connecting each new idea to one or two of the existing ideas.  Once I had my 50, I thought about the different ways that they connected with each other mapping this out a couple of times until I was happy with the flow.
 
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Then I chose a symbol - circles - as a base to help my to turn my ideas into mini infographics.  Then drew them out firstly on post it notes, then on small cards which were laid out to show the connection between each of the ideas.  What was most satisfying about this assignment was the use of circles, far from limiting me actually helped me to use visuals to explain the reasons why, in my head, each of the ideas were connected.
 

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For example the link between data and knowledge, or economy and work.
 
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The process of mapping out the ideas, has also started me thinking about how these ideas could be segmented and developed further into a paper on change and it’s impact on the economy.  More to come.
 

Data, knowledge interpretation and misinformation

 
The first thing I notice about Nate Silver is that he is wearing a tie.  Odd. I thought nerds of his calibre were specifically anti-tie.  Then I notice the brown shoes, reassuringly paired with his black suit.  Nate Silver is the analytics shaman who correctly predicted the outcome for 50 out of the 50 states during the 2012 Presidential election. I saw him at RSA plugging his book the Signal and the Noise. Despite being named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world and a top agent of change by Rolling Stone, Nate is keen for people to understand that what he does is nothing special.  Rather, something that we could all do, if we put our minds to it.  One of the reasons why he might be comfortable suggesting this, is that his primary driver is to inform the public and let them make their own decisions.  Unlike the pundits, it’s not his goal to change the debate.  

Looking at the data, rather than making shit up 
He claims he correctly predicted the outcomes of the election using the same information and technically the same tools that are readily available to all of us.  Realistically only those of use who are analytically inclined.  No special algorithms, no direct line to God, just looking at the data rather than making shit up.  He even claims to be tolerant of Fox News. In a somewhat condescending manner, he referred back  to his career as a Professional poker player when he described the role that Fox and others play in the provision of information to the masses:  you don’t berate the fish, because the reason that you play poker is to take money from bad poker players

90% of the data that is available to us today was created in the past 2 years 
But it is certain that 90% of the best information in the world was not created in the last two years. We have no concept of how to sift though all of the data that is available to us today.  Organisations who think that big data is a new trend, what can I say, it’s not.  You’re late. The upshot is, there is a lot of data available for us to sift through. I think this perhaps is why we rely on so called experts to help us to synthesise all of this data.  We look to these people to signal to us what is knowledge and what is noise.  Otherwise it would all just be too overwhelming.  But here comes the scary part: a recently published 20 year study, cited in the Signal and the Noise on the success of so called expert judgements over time, found that on average, experts made predictions that are no better than random. One of the reasons for this inaccuracy may actually be, that the experts in question were all hedgehogs. 

The fox versus the hedgehog in a cage fight
A hedgehog is someone who has a big theory, a higher cause or calling and assembles data in a way that supports their overarching theory.  Hedgehogs are 100% sure of their theory and if you are 100% sure, no data can convince you either way.  In this way they are rather immovable Marx, Malcolm Gladwell or Cheney-esq creatures.   Unfortunately, these hedgehogs aren’t very good at making long term predictions.  Foxes are better at predictions. The fox is more of a scrappy creature, who doesn’t have a big theory preferring to scrounge around for data and make decisions based on empirical evidence.  Over 20 years , foxes make better predictions than hedgehogs.  So don’t trust people with an overarching theory.  Including Nate.  I think that the RSA has this quote on record. What is interesting is that there are more hedgehogs in some fields than others.  For example politics.  I understand this, as it is somewhat of a nessecity for you to harbour the view that your perspective is perfect  if you are going to survive the media onslaught. 

Generally people are bad at probability 
As has been proven by Danny Kahneman and others in the field of decision making and behavioural economics, our intuition is solid when we apply it to everyday situations.  Tie your shoelaces, get to work, cross the road.  But when it comes to rare or complex events, we just aren’t good at using intuition to make predictions.  This may be part of the reason why we are so crap at macro economic forecasts.  The other part is the pure complexity of the calculation.  To put it into perspective, the Federal Reserve tracks 72,000 economic variables.  What do they tell us? Hmm we aren’t quite sure. 

We just aren’t as smart as we think we are 
Nate reckons that we just aren’t equipped to accurately forecast things as complex as macroeconomic movements beyond a 6 month window. But that it is really hard and uncomfortable for us to admit that we don’t know the reason, it’s just randomand accept that this uncertainty is just a part of complex forecasting.  I would tend to agree. In accepting that uncertainly is part of complex forecasting, Nate made reference to Bayesian theory.  This theory enables reasoning with propositions whose truth or falsity is uncertain by specifying a prior probability, which is then updated in the light of new, relevant data.  This theory is a help given the amount of variables we have to take into account when making predictions in 2013.  However it is not a total solution as it is well know that when working with statistics, assumptions do matter and it is fallible people who make these assumptions, more often than not, guided by experts – aka hedgehogs.

Currently, noise triumphs over reliability or quality as far as data is concerned 
But as we get a better grasp on all of that new data,  quality will become a differentiation and the role of bloggers, pundits, analysts, hedgehogs, politico, drudge, fox news and others in the business of misinformation will hopefully come under question.  Now, many of these people can get away with only half of the story because there is so much data and so much noise, that people don’t know any different.  But they will.  You might say that the success of Nate’s blog is the first of many examples of people seeking out  reliability and quality over noise. Ultimately, those who use data to push their agenda on the left and the right might find that the death of empiricism and the rise of the pundit is irrevocably detrimental to public trust in conservatives and democrats alike.  Today, a code of conduct for statisticians and those who peddle data is still under discussion.  From Nate’s perspective, it shouldn’t be that different to the code of ethics for journalists: be truth oriented; and be transparent how you came to a conclusion. Sounds like a good ethical decision making framework period. This is the best bit about Nate Silver, he changes the debate seemingly without even meaning to - so much for never trusting anyone with an overarching theory.