Tag Archives: creativity

Sounding Board?

I’ve written before about the serendiptous effects of background chatter in public places, but this article at Grubstreet.com made me wonder if the wooden slats you often see in area restaurants are part of this New York-born noisier-is-neater trend the article chronicles.


These boxes on the wall at Secret Time Cafe are the closest thing to slats I have handy on my camera roll (more typically slatlike boards along and behind the counter at this post).


Another place that comes to mind is Shinsui Cafe (the rounded corner between one whole wall and the ceiling is made up entirely of slats with gaps).

I don’t know. I think there’s a tradition of using wood slats in Japan, whatever the reason. I’ll ask some architect friends. In the meantime, though I often make use of the ambient indiscernable “rhubarb,” I think I’m glad I don’t live in New York.


Hearing Aid

I’m tickled Costa Rican brown that there’s more corroboration for the idea that moderate ambient coffee shop noise can be good for creativity. Better than silence, make no mistake. I wrote just one year ago about it here, and make use of the phenomenon nearly daily. It’s quite fascinating.

Boing Boing, in fact, reports on a new web service providing recorded cafe chatter, along with your own music, in the background as you work on your computer or mobile device. Similar to an idea I’ve had, it’s called Coffitivity. Coffitivity.com also happens to be just the kind of domain name I’ve been snapping up especially recently (read: they tapped into my mind), and quite similar to one I just let lapse. Boing Boing introduces it with a reference to a study demonstrating the inspirational influence of random coffee clatter. I wish I could see more than just the preview, but I don’t have 14 dollars to spend on that. On three or four mellow cafe excursions, now that’s different.

Bright Ideas

Today’s topic came to me courtesy of a light out in the shower.


I couldn’t help appreciating the economy of design in this bulb sleeve as one of those everyday ingenuities we take for granted.


Even more than the older, rectilinear box shape it replaced, this easily overlooked one-piece wrapping wonder serves its protective purpose with a minimum of material and manipulation – the bulb slips in smoothly, but not out. Simple things may amuse simple people, but this is simply neato when you think about it.

Aluminum Can Do It Better

And below, more elegant efficiency on this Packaging Appreciation Day (just made it up, though next Monday, Thomas Edison’s birthday, is Invention Day) – I happen to remember it was almost exactly 35 years ago (Presidents’ Week 1978* in Baltimore for my first college interview) I was intrigued as I held my first aluminum (not tin, etc.) soda (Coke) can with the tapered top and bottom for strength and stacking, and the revolutionary stay-on pop top. No one can know how many soles have been saved by that one. And roadsides and maybe tires, albeit at the cost of sacrificing the ability to craft lovely necklaces and chainmeal garments that, sadly, have disappeared from country fairs and flea markets across the land (sorry, I couldn’t find any tacky old-style pull tab craft photos to link to). Alas, such is the painful price of progress.


They’ve since put corrugated ripples in some tapers for added strength. And someone seems to have gone to the trouble here of designing the recyclable “alumi” logo and katakana font itself to reinforce the flexibility and lightness of aluminum.

May I suggest taking time out today to marvel at some uncredited (though surely not unsalaried) packaging designer’s work? It may give you ideas, too. Feel free to celebrate the holiday with packing peanuts and styrofoam chips in an aluminum reinforcing dip, bubble wrap for noisemakers, and your favorite canned beverage or juice box, perhaps topped off with a relaxing cappucino with extra, yep, foam.

Get My Drift

*The Blizzard of ’78, that’s being recalled as the northeast prepares for a similar winter wallop, must not have hit the southwestern part of the Northeast Corridor very hard, or cleanup was quick, because Baltimore was relatively balmy, and Washington was warm enough for filming the final scene of the movie version of “HAIR” on the Mall. Or jeez, maybe it was spring break??

And having experienced the brunt of the longer-lasting Blizzard of ’77, whose snowfall was less but whose minus 70° wind chills and super-dense 30 foot snow drifts were more paralyzing, I was surprised to see the ’78 storm (re)called the same way. If you say “Blizzard of ______” to anyone from my neck of the woods over the age of forty, it’s ’77 for sure, no matter what Googling “blizzard of” suggests.

Four Little Words

I agree with Jerry: The writer it is.

I wasactually (sorry, the space thing (peripheral touch thing) is so rampant itdsserves to be uncorrectedand shown up for what it is*) thinking to myself just the other day that the name Pop Tarts must have had some relation to Pop Art. I even checked the aisles atMeidi-Ya, after failing to find eggnog for the holidays, to see if they sold them. But as far as putting it in the blog, as I subconsciously tossed it around in my head, I was loathing making the obvious, tired reference to Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein. Now, frustrated artist that I am, I may have an opening.

I hope you could link to the video, funny as a left cheek with no right whatsoever, savagely chewing on a forked tongue in super slow motion. If you couldn’t, this will make even less sense than whatlittle ot’s making now. Anyway, what really caught my ear (and boy, is that another story for another time, via a link to be determined (you’ll see)), somehow, was Seinfeld’s use of the word “daunting.”

I began to posit sentences like “I can’t tell you how long it’s been since I daunted someone I really cared about;” “It’s not really worth daunting at this point,” “Aww, who daunted on the sofa?!” and “why don’t we daunt this out like adults?” The possibilities are… daunting.

And Jerry’s four word hypothesis is intriguing. A little tip I may try myself. There you go: “cheek,” “chew,” “savagely,” or some part of speech thereof, and “tongue.” Oh, wait. Tongue and cheek are already taken as a set. But daunt worry. I’ve got plenty of cheek where that came from. I just have to be more content with content and remember that all wordplay makes Jack a dull blogger. I did pick up this soup at Meidi-Ya, by the way.


Thank you, Jerry, for helping show there is such a thing as getting something for nothing, if not a free lunch from the Soup Nazi. Many a creative writer’s power is his or her dedication and deadline. Beyond that, where the stuff actually comes from, often no one can foretell. Kind of like canned SpaghettiOs, Spam, or Dum Dums’ Mystery Flavor.

*File it under Truth to Materials, kind of like Pop Art itself, a refusal to deny the visual milieu of the day, however banal or ugly**. People have used typewriters’ artifacts as part of “concrete poetry,” or retained drunken slips of the finger at the keyboard (Truth to Tequila), or made use of the mobile camera’s distortions, but I may be the first person in the world to deliberately make use of the iPhone 5′s sensitivity issues, which probably resulted from a verycomplex cost-benefit analysis at Apple. Just my luck this’ll be the one time people finally realize how trivial (in its inevitability) such truth to environment has become, and I’m roundly rejected as a pathetic artistic wannabe.

**O, to be in college again indeed, where the word “milieu” is never out of place.

Necessary Noise

From the Wall Street Journal via GigaOm via Lifehacker via Zite, a study showing distractions like moderate ambient cafe noise may actually stimulate creativity. I think I can vouch for that. This particular post isn’t looking very creative at the moment, but I am tapping away at a cafe as I often do, trying to fight off formidable sleepiness as well.

As an emergent phenomenon, the chatter may have a certain rhythm and randomness that nature or individuals can’t provide; A news/mood barometer you can tap into to get a feel for a sensibility of the current cross-section of society; Comforting in how it makes you feel more connected and human than being alone; Intelligent but ignorable because of its own multitude. Maybe because you can’t focus in on any one conversation, it helps you channel things out. Speech as its own silencer.

I think I should get up and take a walk so I can wake to write another paragraph. Otherwise I may drop off and find myself deleting something or dropping the phone and scrambling like a fool to catch it. The chatter’s gone now anyway.

For Those Who Can’t Speak

I’m listening to a modern dance/electronica re-use of an old Billie Holiday version of “Speak Low,” though it’s titled “Speak Love” here. There’s no indication who it’s by. It’s interesting how such a different melodic take from the original can work in its own right. I do think, short of their possibly having acquired of rights (this kind of material can’t be in the public domain, can it?), those who do such mashups of deceased artists’ performances for anything beyond educational purposes (this recording seems to be otherwise) still go to far. It’s no different from colorizing black and white films. No time here to explain it.

And speaking of those who can’t speak for themselves, Japanese researchers have developed a speech silencer that stops anyone from speaking when you point it at them. Maybe that’s what we need for the train announcers.

Human and Machine

Taking a minute now to think about yesterday’s quotes (the post’s title was a reference to Ray Kurzweil’s potentially disturbing concept of “singularity,” basically computers and humanity becoming one), I have no idea about the state of computer science or artificial intelligence, or likely future developments, but I thought these ideas were worth remembering. It was nice to see someone else was thinking the same thing.

The idiosynchratic whims and foibles of our brains, the spacing out, the lateral thinking, the intuition, the emotion, the hunches, which may best be left unexplained, could even literally be (probably not, I admit) our own natural way of navigating a multi-dimensional universe. There isn’t much doubt that though they can get us into trouble, they can also create shortcuts to new solutions. How and to what extent we can let machines take advantage of this, I don’t know.

And I don’t think we as individual humans should deny the role of our physical needs or sensations in our consciousness. It might be difficult for computers to achieve the same kind of awareness.

But it doesn’t even necessarily matter whether machines manage these capabilities or even more. Regardless of what computers end up being able to do, we can ourselves strike a balance between these more “human” traits and more strictly “logical” thinking. And we can keep an open mind as to just what, proportion-wise, that balance should be. And, as always, not think too much. Or too little. Just keep playing it by ear. Maybe if we all do that and remember that humans matter, whatever happens as far as the details, computers will have a proper place in the world.

The Importance of Being Singularly Human

Here’s a quote from an online Discover Magazine article on artificial intelligence:

The brain is actually not like a computer; it doesn’t always follow the rules. Sometimes not following the rules is the best course of action, given a specific context. The brain can act in unpredictable, yet ultimately serendipitous ways. Sometimes the brain develops “mental shortcuts,” or automated patterns of behavior, or makes intuitive leaps of reason. Human brain processes often involve error, which also happens to be a very necessary element of creativity, innovation, and human learning in general. Take away the errors, remove serendipitous learning, discount intuition, and you remove any chance of any true creative cognition. In essence, when it gets too rule-driven and perfect, it ceases to function like a real human brain.

And this from an answer to a Quora question:

…human thought is based upon a specific material embodiment that a computer does not share. Consciousness does not reside solely in the brain, but in the entire body-brain system. We think like we do because we have two arms and two legs arranged in a specific way, because we feel pain in certain areas, and because we have developed an awareness of our own mortality. Human consciousness is derived not only from mental processes or codes but from material arrangement and forms.

No time to write, so I’ll post more tomorrow. Happy National Foundation Day.

The Face-to-Face Cafe Effect

I often talk about being inclusionist, bringing people from various walks of life together to inspire and challenge everyone to do better. Here‘s an article by Fast Company’s Kevin Purdy about the need for that gathering place, the third place (first is home, second is work), to be real and not virtual. A quote follows below.

Left to our base instincts, we’d all probably spend that scheduled time, like most of our time, in front of a screen. But by forcing ourselves to meet up and talk, even if there’s no particular label or mission statement to it, we get vital exposure to the kinds of benefits that salespeople, network-savvy executives, and other people we usually try to avoid are seeking out. I’ve picked up paying work, traded contacts, sparked story ideas, and solved tech problems at those get-togethers. And I get much-needed practice at hearing others out, arguing my beliefs, and plain old face-to-face socializing.

This is why the cafe or other physical hangout spot is so necessary. It’s the spin dryer of our social laundry, the rainforest/lung apparatus of society, the synapse of our collective mind. It forces nuanced communication across boundaries and barriers whether we like it or not. Arguing helps us frame and understand our own ideas better, decision-making is improved, and unpredictable exposure to new ideas can occur without unrealistic expectations or social constrictions. The subtle capacities of intonation, body language and facial expression come to the fore. And we learn to communicate better, which always helps.

Alas, it could only be virtual given that it was with my father on the other side of the world, but a screen-sharing video chat today in which my father noticed yesterday’s buckwheat digression, ended up reminding me that my ancestors used to toil in the Buckwheat Capital of the World, Cohocton, NY.

There’s no need to feel guilty about “time out” for a cup o’ joe at the counter, even with non-business acquaintances you only see there and nowhere else. It’s not really time out. Like spacing out, it’s a crucial third space to let other mental processes that normally get supressed take over. We all know how important it is for kids’ development to socialize, so why not continue tuning our mental machinery and thinking as adults?

Actually, though my own job as an English teacher does involve impromptu face-to-face communication as well as plentiful non-work-related banter with my co-workers and students outside of class, I just realized I don’t really have an actual third place of my own. Then again, maybe that’s why I like cafes so much. But I’m more of a people watcher there. Note to self: Get out more.

In fairness, though, going to places like that is for me as a foreigner in Japan often complicated by the fact that I often can’t go to a place and just blend in, “just be there,” especially a place I go to for the first time. I’d like to be treated as a regular customer, but people feel they have to do something special or ask questions that I’ve answered too, too many times. It’s always the exact same conversation, which I’m stupefyingly sick of, and which is actually related to my job, which I’m ostensibly trying to forget in all my third-place earnestness. If their being so chatty with a first-time Japanese customer would be considered abnormal or too familiar or an imposition, then why, beyond showing a modicum of curiosity, isn’t the same thing an imposition on me, if “people are people?” I think religious proselytizors are more forward with me than other Japanese as well – one accosted me out of the blue at a McDonald’s last month. Anyway, my search for a local third place where there are also no ties to my work or students (it can be complicated, in FaceBookSpeak, if not always personally so, at some local watering holes), continues.

Cover Neutral Ground

At the barber or in a cafe (a thought – even on the road? We do “communicate” with our driving. It’s not subtle, but it’s certainly real and visceral. Come to think of it, walking in crowds is similar), you’re in the alveoli of a healthy society, the no man’s land (sorry, “person’s” doesn’t sound right) between open air and healthy bloodstream, effecting crucial exchange with every sip and sigh. You blurt out, you overhear… You blot the ink of ideas on the desk of society and decide it looks like Jimmy Durante (wow – I just realized: Ink-a-Dink-a-Do!) or an old sneaker.

So gimme another cup. Have a seat. Nice sneaks. What’s new?

IT’s Where You Find It

I’ve been writing about inspiration and creativity more recently, so here’s a bit more.

Take a look at this Salon interview (language advisory) with writer William Gibson on the occasion of the publishing of his new nonfiction book, “Distrust That Particular Flavor.” I particularly like this part (part is omitted):

I very seldom compose anything in my head which later finds its way into text, except character names sometimes – I’m often very much inspired by things that I misunderstand. Have you ever seen Brian Eno’s deck of Oblique Strategies? One of them is “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.” That’s my favorite. [At a] hotel in New York a couple of days ago, the young woman who checked me in said what sounded to me like, “Thank you, sir; my name is Tyranny. If there’s anything you need …” I’m not enough of an extrovert to go, “Your name’s what?” … For the rest of the day, I was thinking of young, benevolent female characters with the first name “Tyranny.” Possibly an Asian character, where it’s kind of an ESL issue. Those things inspire me, but what you’re talking about is a result of the process of composition having spun itself up to a certain wonderfully flaky level, where it says something that I transcribe without quite being able to understand it. I’ve learned to trust that, and it seldom lets me down. Occasionally if I look back at something I’ve written I’ll find one of those that I don’t understand, but that’s a bad thing – the unconscious has dealt me a bad hand.

Last night [fellow science fiction author] Rob Sawyer pointed out how opposite his idea of creativity was to what I describe in the introduction to this book. He said that he had to be able to decide beforehand what [a book] was about, how he was going to do it, and then as he went along, he would compare what he was composing to this directive that he had arrived at prior to the work. To me, that’s absolutely incomprehensible; the part of me that sits here having this conversation with you is incapable of doing any very original literary work. The part of me that creates stuff is right now largely offline and unavailable, and I couldn’t summon it if my life depended on it. I have to make myself available and hope it turns up. To me, that’s where the good stuff comes from. It’s like, William Gibson doesn’t get ideas for novels while I’m walking around in the world …

If you’re traveling somewhere, are you simply aware that what you see around you might seep into something you write, or do you actively seek to have experiences that may be useful?

As William Burroughs liked to say, “A writer always gets his pound of flesh.” No matter what I’m going through, I can always step back and go, “This is material.” [He pulls out his iPad, encased in a black sleeve, and calls up a picture he took of a house in Key West with strange curved shutters that open out into awning-like structures.] I could get a whole novel out of that house. That’s got some mojo going on! Not just the window, but the front door has got at least one layer of inch-thick plywood, no hinges.

Gibson’s characterization of the creative process is right on, as far as I’m concerned. Actually in my own attempts to write, I often actively avoid reading others’ work, as on the contrary it often stifles (discourages) my creative drive.

Rather than something like this (from the otherwise commendable Abuzeedo), which is an attempt to fill up some “creativity tank” with a premium blend of whiz-bang, new or unusual images or ideas, I think the best examples of being inspired are something more like what I was reading recently about someone who said they were getting inspiration from looking at old (1920′s, 30′s) pop science magazines. Or relishing the patina of rusty old signs. Or stopping to savor unstirred cream in your coffee after a walk down a city street, soaking up and bouncing off its rhythms and vicissitudes. Or scavenging mishaps like mishearing a name or ending up on a wild laundromat chase. The stimuli from without are usually in the minority, and may bear no direct relation to what you’re trying to create (not that “creating” is the only use of inspiration, either: many important endeavors can benefit from it). A little should go a long way. Not a lot of things, just the right things.