Posts tagged with creativity




For as well as complaining about the “piracy” of mechanical music, Sousa also complained about the cultural emptiness that mechanical music would create. As he testified: When I was a boy … in front of every house in the summer evenings you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cords will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.
Worx:  




The spirit of mathematics is not captured by spending 3 hours solving 20 look-alike homework problems. Mathematics is thinking, comparing, analyzing, inventing, and understanding.

The main point is not quantity or speed—the main point is quality of thought.
Geometry and the Imagination with Bill Thurston, John Conway, Peter Doyle, and Jane Gilman

(Source: geom.uiuc.edu)




The jazz educator David Baker had this to say about jazz improvisation:

You start out learning scales; modes; whole songs. You   play along with your favourite records. Then you start breaking it down to pieces—licks, long bits of solos. Gradually as you get more and more mastery of your instrument and over yourself, your control becomes more and more atomic. At the level of full mastery you are feeling, and choosing, every note, every rest. Eventually it’s every fraction of a note, or fraction of a rest, that you’re playing. Actively.

You also want to extend your range. Your body has a wide range of expression at your command. It’s not just your instrument that can make sound. Clomps, stomps, screams, claps, yelps, lip trills, Brooklyn raspberries, exhaling, inhaling, crying out—all of these are tools at your disposal. You also want to become comfortable in every range of your instrument—even very very high, and very very low, have a purpose that in expressing some emotion you may want to utilise.

The bolded part especially rings true for me much more broadly than in music performance. Free will, I feel, can be exercised to varying degrees. If I check my email in the morning, go on Facebook, check my twitter notifications, whatever, I’m yielding up my free will. I’m passively responding to things that I put in front of myself. On better days, or at least the days when I assert more atomic control over my time and choices, I actively spend time in the moment and/or ask myself what I really want to be doing, rather than rolling the wheels through the ruts of habit or letting stimuli lead me to respond.

For me the question of free will isn’t about yes/no deductions—it’s about how much, today?




[I]t is … anachronistic to apply the term artist with its modern connotation to Leonardo [da Vinci]. Artists in the sense that we understand and use the word, meaning practitioner of fine art, didn’t exist in Leonardo’s time. It would be more appropriate to use the word artisan in its meaning of craftsman or skilled hand worker.

In the historical literature ∃ a perfectly good term to describe Leonardo and his ilk, Renaissance artist-engineer, whereby one can actually drop the term Renaissance as this profession already existed in the High Middle Ages before the Renaissance is considered to have begun.

[T]he artist-engineers were … regarded as menials. An artist-engineer was expected to be a practical mathematician, surveyor, architect, cartographer, landscape gardener, designer and constructor of scientific and technical instruments, designer of war engines and supervisor of their construction, designers of masks, pageants, parades and other public entertainments oh and an artist.

The … polymath … that everybody raves about when discussing Leonardo … actually … perfectly normal … any Renaissance artist-engineer—the only difference being that Leonardo was better at nearly all of them than most of his rivals.

As far as his dissections and anatomical drawings are concerned these belong to the standard training of a Renaissance artist-engineer—the major difference here being that Leonardo appears to have carried these exercises further than his contemporaries and his anatomical sketches have survived whereas those of the other Renaissance artists have not.

Having denied Leonardo the title of artist I think it is only fair to point out that it was the generation to which Leonardo belonged who were the first to become recognised as artists rather than craftsmen and in fact it has been claimed that Raphael was the first artist in the modern sense of the word….

[an exhibition on da Vinci] emphasises the few occasions where Leonardo drew something new or unexpected whilst ignoring the vast number of scientifically normal or often incorrect drawings, thereby creating the impression that his anatomical drawings were much more revolutionary than they in reality were. Also whilst the drawings published by Vesalius in his De fabrica in 1543, i.e. a couple of decades after Leonardo’s death, are possibly not quite as good artistically, as those done by Leonardo, they are medically much more advanced.

Thony Christie (@rmathematicus)

(Source: thonyc.wordpress.com)




Several years ago I sat (after yoga class) with some Zaa Zen practitioners. As I understood the practice from doing it once, Zaa Zen basically consists of sitting in good posture, staring at a blank wall, and clearing your mind.

It wasn’t my favourite meditation I’ve ever tried. (So far my favourite was something that into the continuum introduced me to: Vipassana meditation. The way I did it was to sit outdoors in nice weather and listen to the sounds and stop thinking about my own anxiety or problems. Something much like the John Cage lecture that until a single soliton survives posted. Being aware of the world around you and “listening” or “taking in” rather than “forcing” or “pushing out”.)

But I definitely remember the conversation I had with one of the practitioners (Tony) afterwards. Tony was maybe 20 or 30 years older than me but I felt we instantly connected on some mental level. He told me he had been a failure at pretty much everything he had tried in life. How he was a black sheep of his family; how he tried to be a biologist; there were a few other things he tried and he hadn’t been very good at any of them. But in some sense it didn’t matter (remember, this is the wisdom of years talking. According to economic research people tend to mellow, their aspirations and hopes drop to a realistic level, and they become intimately familiar with the passing of time—whatever you optimise, whatever you read, however much you drink, whatever you earn, however you train, however many relationships you destroy—that passing of time always clicks, click, click, tick, steady.)  and he could always come back to his practice. A different meaning of “return to the breath”.

Anyway, we were talking about various I guess spiritual things. More like a mixture of the mental-ethereal and the sense-grounded. He was telling me how Zaa Zen was so great and I would really like it and I should read this book and so on. You know how people always do that—they’ve read a book and then they say you would love it. Well, no, I think just you liked it and I have my own stack of stuff that’s my to-read list already. So normally I would just keep that kind of thought to myself but since Tony and I had an unusual level of honesty and directness for perfect strangers who just met, I brought up what I see as the circular-logic problem of picking up any book.

  • When deciding whether I want to read a book or not, I am acting on incomplete information—and not just random incomplete information, marketing and Ising-spin-ish hubbub. I have a hazy idea of what the book is going to be like.
  • As I read the book it is going to change me.
  • "Be very, very careful what you put into that head, because you will never, ever get it out." —Thomas Cardinal Wolsey (c.1475-1530)
  • I can’t unread the book and I can’t unthink or unknow whatever ideas it gives me.
  • So even before I know what it is I have already consented to be changed.

This is why, I said, I won’t read the book you’re telling me I will like so well. From my outsider’s perspective I don’t trust enough in the Zaa Zen idea. Not to say that it is some hokey New Age crystals or whatever, but I don’t sense—from standing on the threshold—that this is a house I want to get comfortable in.

(This is also why I started reading so much mathematics. From an outsiders’ perspective it seemed like “This is where the truth is. Following Wolsey’s idea, with a hungry reification of Plato’s philosopher-kings, if I put in only veracity and earnest labour, the result should be something good.)

Tony told me this attitude was actually quite Buddhistic or Zen of me. So I felt very proud that in avoiding looking at the Zaa Zen I had apparently picked up something of it—and it’s a nice geometric shape now that I reflect on it.

 

So it’s a logical circular logic and a higher modal order than the standard model of choice—and it relates to two other themes I want to talk more about later:

  1. So many economic decisions are just like this. Beyond just knowing my edge, I need to decide whether quantitative finance is actually a thing (and not just the subject of a book by Emanuel Derman) before enrolling in an MFE. (There are various signals on the interwebs that suggest MFE’s are not a good idea. I wrote out my reasoning more fully when I was making this decision, google “DIY MFE”.) And say I spend half a decade training to be a lawyer or engineer or doctor. Then what if I don’t like it? Since young people don’t intern or work in hospitals / law firms / alongside engineers before choosing their course of study, their decision is based on folderol, disinformation, heresay, and outer appearances. If I would have loved a career in X I’ll never know it because I couldn’t possibly sample.

    On the hypothesis that most people don’t know what they want most of the time (nor do most corporations know what they’re doing or why it works, except by accident), I’d rather look at economic agents as operating at some higher order level, away from all the information. The most I feel I can do as a rational maximiser is try a lifestyle and sample how it makes me feel (although…again, I am changing both with time and changed by my own choices as I do this). Sampling from my own utility function rather than knowing it beforehand. (Or with a corp sampling from revenue & other responses.)
  2. "Dug like a river" / "Hebbian history". One of the famous models of brain development is “Neurons that fire together, wire together”. Yogis (need a link, sorry) draw the analogy to a river—as water flows from tributaries to deltas, the act of doing so cuts a deeper and deeper channel along the same course.

    These are the same idea and I think juxtaposing habit (in mathematical terms, bien sûr!) alongside personality, mood, preference, desire, intent, pleasure, happiness, goals, rank, and free will is going to lead somewhere interesting. I’ll write more about how I can exercise “second order” free will more easily than first-order.

    For example if I close this laptop and hide it from myself I will waste less time on the internet than if I leave it open and tempt myself. (On the other hand—back when I had much better time discipline from running my business I was quite better at focussing whilst at the computer. But from doing more computer stuff since then the “edges of the water” “eroded” the “sides of the channel”—and now my computer time management is spilled out like a floodplain. So very Hebbian in that story itself.) Some people pay a personal trainer so that they’re committed to work out (but couldn’t they have saved money and just worked out?). And a married man may stay away from strip clubs, red light districts, and too many drinks with attractive coworkers—and would we consider his desire to steer clear of temptation a form of infidelity?

    The jazz educator David Baker described the progression of jazz improvisational creativity this way: first you learn to copy long licks, scales, pre-formed patterns. Second you start playing with these, so that you have a coarse level of control (free will, in my “interpretation”)—splicing together the known parts. As you progress to higher levels of mastery, your control, focus, creativity become ever more atomic. A true improvisational master is present—deciding, thinking—in every millisecond of the notes, rests, articulation, and consciously chooses every aspect of what s/he’s doing and why.

    I’ve found this pattern to hold for me in areas besides jazz improv (and it even holds a lesson for maths explanations—to remember that your audience is probably not at such a fine-grained level) and I want to juxtapose as well whatever this view of personal development is pointing to, against the Lagrangian utility concept.




New paper bird sculptures by Diana Beltran Herrera.

I’m bored. What should I do? I know. I’ll make some awesome sculptures as an homage to nature.

via mydarkenedeyes, ravelet










I had nothing but ideas.

O.K., they weren’t strictly mine, in the sense that these ideas were acquired, arranged, styled, photographed, published and distributed by entities bearing no relation to me whatsoever.




People think mathematicians are brilliant because they talk about things like C* algebras or B-splines or A-modules or D-branes or … really any combination of unexplained letter with abstract noun. (Extra points if the letter is Greek!)

But when I think of really genius ideas, I think of things like:

  • stairs. If stairs don’t exist, who is going to think “I need to invent stairs”?
  • alcoholic beverages. We trivialise that somebody must have just drank some rancid stuff and thought it was good.

    But no, people had invented sophisticated methods of getting particular tastes long before modern chemistry. When natural philosophers were still talking about phlogiston, Bordeaux already had fine wine down to a science.
  • rope
  • buckets, bowls, pots
  • handles on mugs
  • screws, bolts, nuts
  • ball bearings!
  • sponges with a scratchy pad … and how do they make those scratchy pads anyway?
  • mitred joins, moulding, wainscoting
  • sewing. I guess you notice pretty quickly when you sew stuff that many small stitches are super powerful, even with a thin thread. But who’s going to never have thought of the concept of a needle and thread before and suddenly think of it?
  • weaving. Warp, weft … have you seen these old tapestry machines? They’re the predecessor of the modern computer.
  • the invention of a chair. Again, suppose no chairs exist. Who is going to think of one and how?
  • toilets.

Let me go a little deeper into several of the brilliant things about modern toilets.

  1. First of all there are the two hinged things, which are stacked in the right order. First one being — not only so your butt doesn’t touch the bowl (because they could just make a bowl with a flat ring on top of it, not make it detachable)—but so anyone who pees from a height doesn’t have to splash onto where everyone sits.

    Second hinge controls the cover—which is a great idea because not only will stuff not fall into the toilet, but residual smells will be kept in. Let’s say your toilet is clogged, for instance. Then keeping the cover down is the best thing you can do for your comfort. By the way: without looking at your toilet, try to draw a diagram for how a series of hinges could control two separate toilet covers, and be bolted into the bowl.
  2. But the true genius is putting water in a bowl. Not only does it give you a way to evacuate the crap, but it reduces the smell.
    http://fc00.deviantart.net/fs45/f/2009/132/b/a/Smelly_Poop_by_gybbi94.jpg
    Smells, of course, are volatile particulate matter that are flung off into the air from your poop, and reach your nose. (Which means that every time you smell poop, poop is getting on your towel, toothbrush, …. I don’t understand why people put showers, toothbrushes, and baths in the same room as where they poop — I mean it’s convenient for plumbing, but I would rather have my poop be as far away from my toothbrush as possible. Well, until I can design and live in my dream house, I have one of those cheapo toothbrush covers.)
    http://titusdentistry.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/toothbrush2.jpg
    So how can we cover up an entire piece of poop — it could have lots of shapes, we don’t want to have to touch it, we want to cover all of it with no errors, and we want to compress the poop particles so that they don’t fly off the turd. WATER. Yes. Next time you go in a pit toilet or port-o-let at a concert or camping, hyperventilate before you go in, cover your nose, and wish that they had poured gallons of water into the bank before everyone pooped in it.

That’s leaving aside the efficient manufacture of commodes and the sewage system, which I’m sure are both marvels of their own. You think about something like New York City, it’s a human habitation of 6 million people, each taking maybe 5-10 dumps per week (well, in good times). That’s 30–60 million pieces of crap every week that nobody wants to see or smell ever again.

Dwelling Portably 1980-1989

Imagine you just dug a hole in the side of a hill, Hobbit-style, in a natural clearing. Suppose, too, that you’re close enough to a lake or stream that you can get water to your house easily. (Or it rains enough and you bought some huge rainbarrels.) Then what the crap are you planning to do with all of the crap you generate?! That’s a conundrum for ya.




After talking to a number of PhD students, I’ve come to conclude two things. First, that many (especially in “genius disciplines” like maths or physics) are motivated by the goal of being the smartest human who ever lived—“the next Einstein”, or Feynman, or Grothendieck—not like the humans themselves, but rather like the symbols: revolutionary rarities who personally transformed some small corner of the world.

Second, I’m tentatively concluding that base hits are “actually the way forward”—that is, that home-run projects become magnum opi that never get finished because they’re not perfect, or the passionate ego-drive weakens, or the idea of expressing the ultimate moral worth of one’s psyche through academic paper-writing does not lead to successful ideas. Maybe the cure to cancer doesn’t come from a flash of insight but from a more mundane process of trying this, then that, then another thing. The dissertation that gets done comes from a concrete plan, consisting of steps, which lead to a sequence of words on a page.

The revolution, if it happens, is more likely to come from a sequence of papers which actually get written, than from an unhatched geniusling that doesn’t get written. And let’s face it: most of us aren’t geniuses, nor would we want to be, but we’re still interested in being productive.

 

In business one can think about base hits as well. My first business was a base hit. I didn’t sell for a jillion dollars, I just gave myself and some other people jobs for a number of years and didn’t fail. Which was my goal at the outset: not to be unprofitable. My plan was to copy an idea I had seen work somewhere else, make a few tweaks, and do it.

OK, so maybe it turned out to be more of a bunt and I should go for a double next time. But at least I wasn’t trying to dream up a revolutionary mobile app that will change the world, justifying paying $250k to various programmers as justified on a massively outsized conception of the “genius” of my “idea”, and ending up with something looking suspiciously like a mashup of Foursquare, Linkedin, OKCupid, and airplane reservations.

I definitely keep my left eye on acquisition prices as a way to gauge interesting spaces to enter—but I’m also thinking about what are the things I can accomplish, with the team I could reasonably assemble, the skills & knowledge I actually have, and the hours I’m actually going to want to work. What are the high-probability base hits I could string together to get from here to there?

(Just to give an example, I will not be founding the next Heroku. That got a nice bid, but the founders were engineers who knew a lot about hardware. That’s not me.)

Maybe Citadel wasn’t built from a “genius” signal using all the latest machine-learning hoopla, but from a smart (and obsessive) kid making trades he thought he could win on, and not making the other trades. And then building from there. Learning what’s a good opportunity, how long it takes to scope out a trade, how much research can reasonably be done in a month, and so on.

In short, maybe all of the “homeruns” I can think of, are actually just a sequence of small steps definitively forward.

 

In writing I find myself looking more and more for base hits as well. When I first started isomorphismes.tumblr.com, I had very, very high hopes for how awesome the material would be. (I won’t admit how high.) But now after posting 250 short bits of mathematics, I’m much more focussed on

  • write everything down somewhere, perhaps for later;
  • publish 2-3 things a week;
  • try to make them not suck.

I still think that after some unspecified amount of time, I may be able to string together a more magnum-opusy kind of work—once the pieces (short blog posts) are mostly there on the cutting-room floor. But that’s much more like stringing together a series of base hits than genius-ing out the heartbreaking work I would like to imagine I’ll create.

But what’s my rush? I’m accumulating tumblr followers every day, I’m plugging away at the craft, I’m putting out material. Looking back over a year of following that formula, I’ve put out a surprising amount of text and have a surprising number of subscribers. It’s kind of like the short-term/long-term fallacy working in reverse (working in my favour). ∫short term adds up to more than I thought it would.

Maybe Elliott Smith or Conor Oberst didn’t succeed because they were inspired geniuses who one night invented one of the best songs ever. But instead, first they learned to play the guitar, then they wrote one song when it occurred to them, then they wrote another. That’s the way Phillip Glass describes his own journey in the biopic about him.

 

Elon Musk and Larry Summers take a contrary perspective. @elonmusk says “I don’t know why all these entrepreneurs are trying to solve small problems”. Larry Summers says “It’s just as hard for an economist to think about important problems as about unimportant problems. The intellectual effort is the same, it’s just the output that’s better.”

Well, maybe they know better than I do. I still suspect in the day to day it’s about “What is the paper I can write, rather than the paper I’d like to be able to write” or “What are the practical steps I can take today to get closer to my business goal?” rather than “What do I wish for?”.

I can’t prove I’m right, this is just where my thoughts are at the moment. I think there’s a cult around genius and a cult around business superstars. Both of which do harm by increasing people’s appetites for success—feeding ambition, feeding vanity, feeding swagger, feeding overexuberance, feeding bad investments—above what’s reasonably achievable in a succession of 3,500 days.