Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A brainless intelligent blob

It's an organism that crowdsources its intelligence. Meet Physarum polycephalum, or slime mold, which is not a mold, but an amoeba, a single celled organism, that collaborates with thousands or millions of cell nuclei to operate as a single being within a shared cell wall.

It does not have a brain, nor a central nervous system, yet through a simple vein-like communication system of pulsing chemicals, is able to behave intelligently, to learn, solve problems and make decisions.

Heather Barrett, who creates works of art with slime molds, says that human can learn a lot from them. In fact, she conducted an experiment in Holland "Being Slime Mold" whereby people, tied together with yellow ropes, went in search of food, operating as a single giant cell. No talking, just vibrations. It seems that our egos get in the way of superb collective activity, and the slime molds are more efficient at navigating.

You can find slime molds in the wild in the woods and other damp dark places. They eat rotting vegetation. But these days you can also find them in the science lab, school classrooms or even an artists studio replete with porridge oats, its favorite food. When the food runs out it goes somewhere else, often in multiple directions at the same time, and when it encounters other parts of its itself, pulls back and tries another route.

In various experiments slime molds exhibits quite amazing feats of learning. When let loose in a maze, the slime mold retreats from dead ends and places where there were no nutrients. When such experiments are repeated, the slime mold follows the shortest route available to it. In other experiments, when subjected to cold air slime molds anticipate where the cold air is coming from, or when it finds food, stays connected to

So here are some questions to explore:

1. Imagine for a moment that humans were connected as a single organism, what kinds of rules of engagement would we need to implement to be able to collaborate well together?
2. What would be the benefits of a shared human mind?
3. What might be the downsides of thinking and acting together, to being exposed to all other "thoughts"?
4. Which do you think you might prefer and why? Shared thinking/acting? Private thoughts shared only when you choose?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Fakes, forgeries and fun

It seems that we humans enjoy the real thing much, much more than a fake. We can adore a "unique" painting for decades until we discover the forgery, and then despise the object and ourselves for the deception. 

Paul Bloom, psychologist, and author of How Pleasure Works, studies how babies make moral decisions at his Mind and Development Lab a Yale. He explains to a TED audience that pleasure comes with strings attached. We don’t just enjoy a work of art, or a morsel of food, or appreciate objects, simply because of what they are. We enjoy them for their history or source. Where did the artifacts come from? How were they treated, processed or produced? Who owned them or used them, perhaps someone famous or infamous.

We value objects highly for the bragging rights, a link to a famous person, its exclusivity or uniqueness. But we also seem to prefer objects which fit our preconceived ideas about norms, appropriate or correct behavior and its pedigree.

It seems that Herman Goering was furious to learn during testimony at his War Crimes trial that a prized painting he pilfered was a fake. A famous violinist earned a mere $20 during a busking experiment, mostly from passers-by who took pity on him. And the paintings of a three-year old child prodigy painter were regarded less highly after her father admitted coaching the child.

We shun the carpet made by child labor. Or choose free range over battery fed eggs. Or fish that grow wild in preference to those farmed, as long as the fish are not endangered. We prefer wines from expensive bottles, and delectable delights from Two Michelin Hat restaurants rather than MacDonald’s. Or music from 50-year old Madonna instead of a 15-year old unknown.

We even get pleasure from the pain we enjoy, like the dangers we endure or the unusual tastes in food we eat, especially if we live to tell our stories - stories that give meaning to our lives.

So here are some questions to explore our biases around many of life's little pleasures?

1. What is pleasurable for you? What do you really appreciate or enjoy?
2. How much would you pay for Marilyn Monroe's bra or George Clooney's sweater?
3. Why would you be prepared to pay so much money for a "famous" bra or sweater?
4. How would you feel later on if you discovered the bra or the sweater was a fake?
5. You are presented with two choices. You are told one dish was produced in a five star kitchen, and the other at McDonalds, which are you likely to choose and why?
6. You are told one dish is dog and the other beef or lamb? Which do you eat and why?
7. Give an example of a time when you drank wine, ate food or experienced a work of art, which was not what you thought it to be? How did you feel?
8. Why might wine taste better from an expensive bottle? How would you know the difference between a good wine and a lesser wine?
9. What is it about knowing a person died or was killed in a house that makes us want to avoid buying that house and choose another?
10. What difference might sex make to you if the person you are sleeping with turns out to be much younger or older than you thought they were?
11. Why might the shoe thrown at George Bush during a press conference, or bubble gum chewed by Britney Spears or John F. Kennedy's golf clubs be worth more than common garden variety shoe, bubble gum or clubs?
12. Give an example of a loved object from your childhood that is immensely valuable to you because of the memories and associations?
13. Why is the value of an artwork bound up in its history and the "assumptions about the human performance underlying its creation"?
14. In what ways is the experience of a forgery different from the experience of an original work?
15. Why might the work of Marla Olmstead age three be considered more valuable when we thought she did it all on her own, than when we discovered her father was coaching her?
16. In what way is it the experience of an artistic performance different, if you know in advance, the identity of the performer? e.g. the famous violinist Joshua Bell playing his $1 million violin in the subway or at a black tie affair at the Library of Congress?
17. What's the difference between a listening to a performer play John Cage's "4'33" of silence, or just listening to silence? In what ways does how we think about it change the experience?
18. If it hurts more because you believe someone is harming you on purpose, how do you now view self-harm?
19. Give an example of how low level pain, under the right circumstances, can be transformed into pleasure, i.e. made a "heaven of hell" (Milton)? e.g eating red hot chili or riding a roller coaster.
20. Thinking about what we have learned from each other today, write down a list of four of five observations about the principles of human experience of pleasure and how it is colored by its history or source.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Living into the messiness of life

Life is messy and most of us devote much of our attention to trying to control it. As do governments, corporations and the managers of complex projects and programs. We call it problem solving, planning, regulation and risk mitigation.

But who would have thought that this desperate effort to clean up and organize the mess and "put it into a Bento box", so we feel less vulnerable, could be leading us all inexorably towards disconnection from others. It can also lead us into a world where more and more of us numb the pain of disconnection through addictions to alcohol, drugs and food.

According to University of Houston research professor BrenĂ© Brown, whose social work research focuses on connection, humans are neuro-biologically wired for it. The more we try to control and predict things, the more we develop a narrower or rigid view of the world. The more rigid our ideas the less able we are to converse and interact openly with others. And as we become less able we are to freely converse with others, we enter a dangerous cycle of shame - the fear of disconnection, and blame - how we rid ourselves of that pain.

Brown found that a sense of worthiness separates people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who struggle for it. They have a whole-hearted approach to life. They have courage, the courage to be imperfect. They have compassion, the ability to be kind to themselves first, and be kind to others. They have connection, the ability to be their authentic selves, to be who they are rather than who they think they should be. And they completely embrace vulnerability and enter into relationships, knowing there are no guarantees that it will work out. Rather than think of vulnerability as painful or comfortable, they simply see it as necessary.

Brown began her research by collecting stories - "data with a soul" - about the role of connection in the lives of people. When she asked about love they talked about heartbreak. When she asked about belonging they talked about exclusion. And when she asked about connection, they talked about dis and the fear of disconnection from others.

Brown shows that "vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but... it's also the birthplace of joy, of creativity." At the heart of shame is "I'm not good enough", and at the heart of this is vulnerability. And in order for connection to occur, we have to be really seen as who we really are. People who do not feel shame, have no capacity for empathy or connection.

We try to overcome our vulnerability by making everything that's unknown or ambiguous or mysterious more certain. We argue there is only one right answer, and everyone else is wrong, so there is no longer room for conversation. If it does not work out we simply blame others. In politics. In religion. And in the way we run our businesses. Or live our lives.

And when this does not work we numb vulnerability. We use alcohol, food and medication to try to smother/diminish our grief, our shame, our fears and disappointments, so we don't feel these emotions as much. And when we numb these, we also numb their other aspects, the joy of connection, creativity, belonging, love, gratitude and happiness.

What Brown discovered changed her life. She learned to give up some of her urge for control and order, and to "lean into the discomfort", to love the messiness.

So here are some questions for a workshop to help us explore these ideas:

1. Give examples of how your life is a mess and you love it OR life's messy and you try to control it and put it in a Bento Box.

2. What makes you feel vulnerable? And what associated emotions do you feel?

3. Tell the story of who you are with the courage to be imperfect, with your whole heart.  What will you do to be authentic, to let go of who you think you should be, and to be who you are?

4. Tell a story of a time in the future when you were able to use "wholeheartedness" to "live into the discomfort" of your life?

5. How might business, political and community leaders use "wholeheartedness" live into the discomfort of their activities.

6. How could project managers, bankers and regulators who focus on the controlling everything (and minimising risks) use "wholeheartedness" approach to do their work more successfully?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Euphoria in a single stroke

For many people a stroke means death, permanent paralysis, loss of speech or living inside a body cut off from the world of other humans. But for neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor it was ringside seat for research into euphoria.

It all began one morning when a blood vessel burst in her brain and developed into a clot as big as a golf ball, which pressed on her speech centres. What started out as a life threatening, excruciatingly scary but curiously euphoric moment became an opportunity to relate theory to practice.

At TED, Jill Bolte Taylor demonstrates we each have two clearly separate brains by showing us a real but deceased brain complete with several feet of spinal cord.

The "separateness" of the two brains is visually astonishing. Most of us just accept the seamless one-ness of our brains. But Jill Bolte Taylor explains that each brain has it's own personality and unique way of engaging with the world. Serial left and parallel right, joined together by 300 million nerve fibres across the corpus callosum and connected to our bodies via the central nervous system.

In a sense we are "energy beings" says Jill Bolte Taylor. The left hemisphere of the brain tends to define us as a unique individual - an unconscious automatic "I"-ness. The right hemisphere tends to connect us consciously to the universe in an integrated "we-ness".

The right engages with the world through pictures, sounds, tastes, smells and touch. It's the sense-making lobe that makes meaning from the constant stream of energy that floods into our senses.

The left works with language, symbols and signs. It busily organizes, categorizes and sequences activity. It is a successive processor that performs speech or motor actions for us, so we don't have to think about it.

With her language out of action Jill discovered she could not express or understand any words. The spoken word sounded like her Labrador, "woo woo woo woo" and when she tried to speak, the words came out the same way. She also struggled to recognize the printed word and numbers, so dialing a telephone number to get help became an almost impossible task.

Unhampered by the filters, rules and limitations imposed by the left hemisphere, she became overwhelmed by the energy that flowed into her brain, which hurt at first, but developed into feelings of euphoria and a sense of one-ness with the universe.

Here are some questions and activities to explore the world that Jill Bolte Taylor discovered:

1. Thought experiment one: Imagine you only have a left hemisphere brain. What would like be like if you had just a simultaneous "we" cognitive processor? No pattern detector. No processor to interpret incoming sounds, visual images, touch sensations, tastes etc.
2. Thought experiment two: Imagine you only have a right hemisphere brain. What would like be like if you had just a successive "I" cognitive processor? No categorizer. No sequences of new complex actions.
3. What is it about serial cognitive processing, categorizing etc, that might help us define us as individuals - our "I"?
4. What is it about simultaneous processing, sense making, seeing patterns etc, that helps define us as part of the whole - our "We"?
5. The brain features successive and simultaneous process. What other parts of the human body functions feature interdependent pairs. Make a list and explain how do they work together e.g. lungs, breathing in and breathing out.
6. How could you switch off one side of your brain to focus on the kind of thinking performed by the other hemisphere?
7. If you could spend more time exploring the "we"-ness of the right hemisphere of your brain, what journeys of discovery might you want to pursue?
8. Based on Jill Bolte's unintended "experiment", what is Nirvana?
9. How might Near Death Experiences be explained by Jill Bolte's "experiment"?
10. How might we more powerfully connect our inner and outer worlds?
11. What can we learn from reverse-engineering the integrated whole systems approach of our brains to better manage/control/deal with interdependent pairs of activities in our lives that we often consider unique/separate e.g. cost and quality, centralized and decentralized, incremental and transformational innovation?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Real Hyperreality

Thank you Umberto Eco for the word Hyperreality for this is what you experience when you watch this TED Talk. How some works of art can become larger and more "real" than the original.

Adrian Hohler and Basil Jones of Handspring Productions show us how to breathe life into a dead object - a puppet - so the character is larger than life.

They present two of their creations, both feats of "emotional engineering" - a puppet horse that has starring roles in the London and New York productions of War Horse and its ancestor, a hyena created for a 1995 Handspring production of "Faustus in Africa", to play draughts with Helen of Troy.

War Horse is a play based on a book of the same name by Michael Morpugo, about a young boy who falls in love with horse that is conscripted into World War I. He joins up to be reunited with his horse. On stage there are several horses, each with riders aboard, that collectively create the power and danger of a cavalry charge.

They explain that while "an actor struggles to die onstage", "a puppet has to struggle to live" and that this is "a metaphor for life".

Three puppeteers control the Joey the horse, two inside one who manipulates the tail and the other the breathing with his knees, and one who controls the head. All three puppeteers contribute to a whinny or other sounds the horse makes.

Joey's tail flicks, his ears point in different directions which is an emotional indicator of the horse, his chest heaves with breathing, he stamps his feet, gallops, rears up. It is all very convincing.

So here is a workshop to explore some of the issues Handspring raise:

1. In what ways is the hyena the ancestor of the horse? What could we learn from Handspring's process of invention/innovation?
2. If puppets are "emotional engineering" what are the features? How does the engineering relate to the emotions?
3. What is it about the horse puppet that is so mesmerizing?
4. Why do you think the puppeteers seem to disappear from view?
5. Choose from this list and describe how you might think like/act like it. Photon of light, the moon, a spider, an unborn baby, a neuron in your brain, an elephant, the wind, a cuckoo clock.
6. Make a list of unusual objects, people, creatures, etc. that it might be interesting thing to imagine thinking like/acting like. Choose one and describe how you would think or act if you were this.
7. Describe the differences between a puppet and a robot? A puppet and an animation.
8. What could it mean that "an actor struggles to die onstage, but a puppet has to struggle to live." And how is this a metaphor for life?
9. Explain how puppetry is a fusion of technology and art. What helps makes the horse puppets come alive? And how is this related to how artists interpret our world?
10. How could a horse puppet seem more real than real? How could we apply this to other human activities? e.g. product design, leadership .
11. What other art forms are a fusion of technology and art? Make a list of the tool that are used for example in opera, dance, or sculpture and then explain the rules of use of the tool e.g. chisel is used by a sculptor to remove excess stone to reveal a figure inside that previously only existed in the imagination.

Eco, U. (1967, 1986) Travels in Hyperreality. Orlando: Harcourt.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Designer as "change agent"

Paola Antonelli, a curator at MoMa, the New York Museum of Modern Art, discovered at a early age that relationships with objects were easier than with people. And so began a love affair with things.

Throughout her life she has tried to discover what is happening in the world and make the patterns explicit so others can benefit from the knowledge. 

In her role as a curator she is a "knowledge creator". Picking the trends. Suggesting better designs for a better life. Pointing towards the possibilities of low cost affordable designs, not just decoration.

Antonelli regards designers as mavericks who build bridges across the boundaries of ideas, a unique fusion or  confluence of the economic, the social, the cultural, the aesthetic and the scientific, where the result is greater than the sum of the parts. Each design makes some kind of point about what has gone before or amuses us, because it shows us the stupidity or quirkiness of past ideas that seemed a good idea at the time.

She thinks of heaven as "satisifed curiosity", a really comfortable cloud where design dreams are fulfilled. Some of the best designs are "humble masterpieces" where you discover the extraordinary in the ordinary, or even iconic, so that the design points the way to a new and better future.

She argues that designers are "agents of change" increasingly focused on inventing new ways for people to do things. So we behave differently. Remember to take our medicine. Interact more personally and joyfully. Or learn from our mistakes. It's all a kind of "civil disobedience".

Her next show will be about the intersection of science and design, our concerns and issues that design in a partnership with science csn solve, and point us in new directions.

1. Heaven is "satisfied curiosity" for Paola Antonelli. What is heaven for you?
2. If you could create a "humble masterpiece", your own private collection of extraordinary arrangements of ordinary objects, what would it be?
3. In what ways can design make a point? Or show a sense of humor?
4. If Spaniards invented the mop, Italians the pizza and Kentuckians moonshine, what iconic form was invented in your part of the world and why might that be important to you? 
5. As a designer, in what ways are you a maverick, and you pretend something never existed before, or what you create will change what people do?
6. Choose an artfect your wish to redesign. Brainstorm some new scientific aspects (materials e.g. buckbyalls, biomimicry), social aspects (emerging trends in what it means to be human, e.g. brain plasticity), economic aspects (emerging values, eg, wise application of knowledge, sustainability) and aesthetic stuff,(emergent styles, e.g, glamor at every pricepoint). And combine them all into a new idea.
7. What is the difference between design and decoration? Give examples.
8. Think of a big unsolved problem and an extreme means by which you may need to solve it. What "suit for civil disobedience" could you could employ to cause people to engage with you?
9. What could you design that has no real immediate purpose, that just seems a good idea at the time e.g a chair that protects you against radiation.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Simplicity Rules

John Maeda is the author of "The Laws of Simplicity" and founder of the Simplicity Consortium at MIT which  develops new methods and technologies in healthcare, play and communication built on these principles.

He works at the intersection of art and computing and is reponsible for much of the graphics "eye candy" that we find on the Internet today.

He wrote the book as a Simplicity 101 to help people in business, technology, design and life create simpler and better design solutions.

Here's a workshop based on his 10 laws you can use to design/develop/conceive of an artefact, product, method, procedure, service or way of seeing or being in the world.

Start with a design challenge: a product that is in need to thoughtful redesign, and follow these steps:

DESIGN CHALLENGE - What is the product, service, method or procedure that you would like to redesign? Describe it in great detail, its' features, what it does, how it does it, how it gives the customer some greater power, capability or usefulness, and what is its intent.
USER FEEDBACK - What have we learned from the customer about their experience of the product, service, method or procedure? What do they like about it? How do they feel it could be improved?
REDUCE - What can we do to thoughtfully reduce e.g. fewer buttons, shrink in size and complexity, hide some functions, embody the hidden value?
ORGANIZE - What goes with what, so the many appear fewer, or can be incorporated into a single or simpler controls, display, switch, suite of functions etc? Sort into categories, and simplify. Squint to see the forest for the trees.
TIME - How can we shrink time, or make the wait shorter, seem shorter or more tolerable? How do you inform progress?
LEARN - What metaphor could we employ so the artefact makes sense to the user by connecting to their lives, feels like they have seen it before, make a connection to a new capability, then work out how to do it themeslves? e.g. desktop giving access to folders and programs.
DIFFERENCES - In what other ways can we make the complex simple and use the emergent simplicity to enable more complexity?
CONTEXT - What's the appropriate balance between attention/focus and expansion/connection? How can it be more attuned/connected to the context?
EMOTION - What must be done to give the artefact a "life force" of its' own? Animate it, bring it alive, to which there can be an emotional connection/attachment? And for it's "being" be clearer and more meaningful, to achieve a greater return on emotion?
TRUST - In what ways can your design "think" for the user so they develop trust in and appreciation for what happens, so there is no need for an undone? But also that can be undone?
FAILURE - If, after "subtracting the obvious" and "adding the meaningful", it did not work out, what can you learn from the exeprience?
THE ONE - If all else has failed, how can you "move it far far AWAY" so more seems less, OR make it OPEN, so the power of the many outweighs the power of the few OR use less to gain more POWER, for example an in-built power source.

Maeda, J. (2006). The Laws of Simplicity. MIT Press: Cambridge