Being a child again

Last Thursday I was sledging with some friends from our sports club, for the first time in my life. At my home country the terrain is not that hilly where I grew up, so sledging was never really an option. Actually, I had never even held one before. But at my current home there are plenty of places for sledging.

We had very good weather with the temperature a few degrees below zero centigrade and a clear sky with nearly full moon. You could see well even without any artificial lighting, although the torch was required to see the terrain before you clearly. Since we were sledging on a road that had clear spots without the ice cover, it was necessary to see those spots in advance to avoid a sudden stop and a following nose dive to the ground.

Speeding down the icy village roads under a clear night sky, having the road go through a patch of forest every now and then, it was all simply amazing. It was like being in a movie, when the children are out, playing and racing with their sleds. My friends were also very helpful and made sure that I got the hang of steering and breaking and did not lose the group. As the roads made their zigzag down hill through the sparsely housed landscape, one could have taken the wrong turn on a couple of intersections, had the others not waited for everyone to arrive and made sure that everyone took the right turn.

The sled that was so kindly lent to me by a friend from the sports club was a bit small for me, so during the forty-five-minute ride my quadriceps and hip flexors received an intensive workout as I had to hold my legs bent and just slightly touching the ground to steer and break.

The whole experience reminded me that first, simple things can be really fun and second, that in order to stay playful, creative and energetic, in order to stay childlike, we have to do things that children do and the way children do them. We have to play, be open and spontaneous, we have to let go of certain inhibitions and just do things.

Learning how to model

For a few weeks now I have been taking the Coursera course Model Thinking. The course teaches modeling in general and also introduces specific models that can be applied in a variety of cases. The goal is to improve own thinking by using models to understand phenomena, parameters affecting them, being able to collect and interpret data and compare options in decision making

Until now, I have been introduced with segregation models, peer models, diffusion models, percolation models and economic growth models. Additionally, decision-making, be it rational, behavioristic on rule based has also been discussed to show that the human factor can be difficult to model.

It has been eye-opening to see what kind of different models there exist even on the simplest level and how these models can be used to analyze daily information and make sense of the world in general.

For example, the concept of variance and linear models was already familiar to me from my university times. However, only now did I grasp the idea of a linear model explaining a certain portion of the total variance in a set. Before I had just used the formulas and blindly evaluated whether the R^2 of a model was high enough for a linear model to show a meaningful correlation. But during this course it was very simply explained how R^2 is calculated: it is simply one minus the quotient of the total variance of the model when divided by the total variance of the observed set, or

variance explained by the model = 1- (total variance of the model) / (total variance of the set)

Maybe I have slept during the lectures back at the university or not done my homework or just been sloppy, but for me this definition was enlightening and new. It provided me with a new ability of reading statistical models and interpreting them.

I will try to make use of the models I learn during the course. Even if I do not find direct applications at my work, I will try to read the daily news through a new set of lenses, interpreting stories and conclusions with a new mind set: what is being assumed by the writer? what kind of model is he using? what are the models implications and limitations? how does the model behave with extreme values or at discontinuities?

I am about half way through the lectures now. Among the next topics are Markov processes to which I am really looking forward to: another concept that I know by name and can roughly define, but which I have never been able to really apply. Learning is fun.

What is creativity and where it lurks?

During the Christmas holidays I watched a BBC documentary on the differences in the brain between men and women, their implications and the reasons for possible differences. If any differences between the female and male are to occur, the next question is obviously, if the differences are genetical or arise from culture and social behavior. In search of the answer to this question, professor Alice Roberts interviewed a group of British teenagers on their favorite school subjects and career plans. As the stereotypes would have it, the boys mentioned careers like doctor, programmer and so forth, while the girls mentioned wanting to do something creative.

On hearing the somewhat stereotypical answers from the interviewed teenagers, I was struck with a series of questions:

  • Aren’t mathematics and science creative fields of occupation?
  • Is not everyone creative at their job (or occupation in general) to some degree?
  • Do not art, literature and dance build on existing concepts, thus also borrowing and lending previous ideas and results?

I find it a bit worrying, to say the least, if creativity is perceived to exist only in art, literature etc. while mathematics and science are seen as a mechanical process. In general I would argue that creativity is present in our daily lives: sometimes creativity is merely applying some existing concept or object in a slightly new, quite obvious way. In his informative and entertaining Tedx talk from 2006 Ken Robinson discusses creativity and how our school system educates children away from their innate creativity, an unfortunate claim I can verify based on my own experiences.

Research questions on creativity

To answer my questions on the relationship between art, science and creativity, I defined for myself new questions to be answered:

  1. What is creativity?
  2. Why is creativity important, if it is important?

Definitions of creativity

Wikipedia defines creativity as the formation of something new and somehow valuable. The creation may be either tangible or intangible.

As summarizes, creativity is not only thinking and pondering on something new but also implementing that thought and bringing it to life. Creativity is also a process and skill that can be learned, similar to sports, by mastering the basic skills, practicing them and applying them in new situations.

Clayton M. Christensen has studied creativity and in his book The Innovator’s DNA he claims creativity to consist of:

  • Associating and drawing connections
  • Questioning present knowledge and thought
  • Observing human behavior to identify new ways of doing things
  • Networking and meeting people to exchange ideas
  • Experimenting to test ideas and uncover responses to new approaches

Why does creativity matter?

If we accept the above definition(s) of creativity, it becomes clear that creativity is a requirement for progress. If we are to advance our society, technology, religion or anything else, we need to bring about something novel or new, be it something tangible or intangible. Therefore creativity could be said to be at the center of our modern society that aims to improve the human life without having adverse side effects, or at least with minimal such effects.

Definition of science

Science is about using the scientific method to create, test and improve hypotheses and theories about the world and thus increasing our knowledge.

In science new ideas are based on drawing connections, questioning present knowledge, observing phenomena, exchanging ideas with colleagues and testing hypotheses. These five characteristics are those mentioned by Clayton M. Christensen characteristic of creativity. In this respect science is definitely something creative.

However, science is also something else than just creativity. Science aims to achieve reproducible results and construct refutable theories and models that are in line with the reality. When creating something, we might end up with unique pieces that are hardly reproducible. A creation is also not necessarily refutable, e.g. a painting is hardly refutable in a way a scientific theory might be.

Definition of art

Art is, by one definition, the human activity of creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts that show the creator’s skills and are in  some sense beautiful.

We see that at least this definition of art is also in line with our definition of creativity and that art is something that entails creativity. This definition also pertains to many forms of art, equally well to visual arts, music and dance. In a broad sense literature may also be included. Interestingly, we can also observe in the definition of art the absence of the word “new”. I would argue that as well as science, art is very much progressive in the sense that it builds on the past, not necessarily always providing breakthroughs to completely new areas.

In the definition of art we see the word “beautiful”, which goes undefined. I will omit this aspect as it is not at the center of my argument, namely that science and art are both creative activities.

Art, science and creativity

Comparing the brief definitions above it should be clear that both art and science are creative acts. Engaging a career in science does not preclude creative work. Likewise, engaging in art does not always end up with completely new forms of expressing oneself of producing something unforeseen. It should also be clear that creativity needs to be fostered in the daily life to bring it to its full potential. Since creativity is also a process and skill, it is clear that mastering this process takes time and practice.

Being creative daily

Two concrete methods are provided in an old article from Psychology Today for fostering personal creativity on a daily basis:

  • Break your routine and do one thing differently, be it a different route to work or preparing your breakfast differently.
  • Count how many times during your day and in what context you are exposed to something. E.g. make a mental note each time you come into contact with water, be it in a drinking glass, walking through a mist, observing a waterfall.

Both approaches should help you see the ordinary in a new light and gain new thoughts and perspectives on the common things, helping you to hone your skills in applying the creative process.

Final thoughts on creativity

The HP motto from their annual report of 1999 is a down-to-earth representation on leveraging creativity.

Believe you can change the world.
Work quickly, keep the tools unlocked, work whenever.
Know when to work alone and when to work together.
Share – tools, ideas. Trust your colleagues.
No politics. No bureaucracy. (These are ridiculous in a garage.)
The customer defines a job well done.
Radical ideas are not bad ideas.
Invent different ways of working.
Make a contribution every day. If it doesn’t contribute, it doesn’t leave the garage.
Believe that together we can do anything.

To actually create something means also doing something, doing work. Creativity is not just a bunch of nice thoughts. Creativity is also testing those thoughts, bringing them to life and giving them form, so that they are of value. Creativity also requires believing in yourself and working together persistently towards the goal, every step of the way. 

Winter is finally here

The winter at my home region has been dark and somewhat depressing. Usually there is snow already in November, but his winter, like the two before it, has seen hardly any snow, until last weekend. On Friday, January 15th 2016, came the first snow, but the temperature was around zero so I was a bit skeptical whether the white cover over the landscape would last. On Sunday, we finally got more snow, with the temperature below zero and trucks driving all around trying to keep the streets clean.

It was a completely different feeling going out for a Sunday walk when there was snow on the ground and more falling from the sky. I saw snowmen either already standing at yards or being crafted by children with their parents. I saw families enjoying the snow and winter, children in sleighs and just frolicking in the snow. And the added daylight in the morning and evening is sure to cheer up everyone, while we still have to wait for some weeks before the sun starts to get higher and stay a bit longer in the sky. Meanwhile I will enjoy the winter while it lasts. The spring may not be too far away.

About trust, yoga and economics

In my last blog post I wrote about fear and trusting each other to build a better future. Pretty quickly I almost fell prey to that very fear and mistrust.

During the holidays I checked when my yoga studio would continue with the regular Saturday sessions after the holiday season.  I saw that they would be open right after New Year’s. Reading a bit further, I also noted that they had increased their prices by a few percent. On seeing the new prices, which were still on par with the market, I instinctively took a defensive stance and started thinking about the impact on me and my consumption behavior: Why were the prices increased? Should I reduce my visits accordingly to keep my spend on yoga constant? Should I reduce my visits to imply that I disapprove of the price increase?

Having had a few days to think about it before the first yoga session last weekend, I noticed that I was fearful and mistrusting. I was afraid that the price increase would have a negative impact on my well-being, though I am far from living at the subsistence minimum. I was also mistrusting me yoga instructor on increasing the prices for “the wrong motives”, although the content of such motives were not quite clear to myself either.

Taking my thinking a bit further I realized that such fears may also be a significant factor for the lagging economy in Europe. If we do not trust each other, or ourselves for that matter, we become paralyzed. We do not dare to take action, but prefer to evaluate and mitigate all possible risks and drawbacks. If we mistrust each other, cooperating becomes difficult, because we will be concentrating on outwitting each other, or at least avoid being outwitted, instead of concentrating on the future and our goals.

The economic problems in Europe are certainly more complex than this, but I think that not seldom more action and less analyzing would be of benefit. If we want to avoid the wrong step, we will not take even the first one.

To build a better future – Trust and be bold

During the holidays I read couple of science fiction novels, including Olaf Stapledon‘s Last and First Men. Based on the first twenty pages and Star Maker, the previous novel from Stapledon I read, I expect philosophical text that will make me reflect on the current and near-future course of the human race.

During the first twenty pages of Last and First Men Stapleton describes the demise of the First Men, Homo Sapiens, and the events leading to it. Two underlying factors leading to the cascading events are fear and mistrust. Nations start fearing, among other things, that scarce natural resources will be used up by rivaling nations, while also mistrusting each other in striving for the common goals of global peace and well-being.

Although Stapledon wrote his lines already in 1930, to me they seem very current. With the multiple war zones in Middle East, refuge-seeking people leaving their homes and many European countries restricting freedom of movement and building fences, I cannot help feeling a bit fearful: Are we heading down the path Stapledon described over eighty years ago? Have we learnt nothing from the past?

The more we have to lose, the more we tend to fear losing the very things so precious to us. The more we mistrust each other, the more we tend to build barriers to protect us from the perceived threats.

Maybe we should help each other overcome our hardships before anyone has to run for their lives, leaving their home in the middle of a bombed down city. Maybe we should build together a good future instead of setting up fences each on our own and hoping to preserve the present. Maybe, with a bit more openness and sharing, we could trust and be bold instead of shivering in fear and mistrusting each other. Maybe, if we had less to lose as individuals, we would have all the more to gain as humanity.