Archive for the ‘Creativity’ Category

Complexity and unity

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

Here’s a quote from Gene Edward Veith to chew on.

A work is beautiful to the extent that it displays at the same time both complexity and unity.

From “Acquired taste”, World Magazine, February 9/16, 2008.

Footnote to interruption post

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

In my post yesterday about interruptions I quoted Mary Czerwinski from Microsoft Research. She told me afterward that two of the applications mentioned in the interview have been released. They are publically available from the Microsoft Research download site.

I haven’t had a chance to use either of these tools yet. If you try them out, let me know what you think.

Rethinking interruptions

Monday, February 4th, 2008

If you read a few personal productivity articles you’ll run into this advice: Interruptions are bad, so eliminate interruptions. That’s OK as far as it goes. But are interruptions necessarily bad? And when you are interrupted, what can you do to recover faster?

Not all interruptions are created equal. Paul Graham talks about this in his essay Holding a Program in One’s Head.

The danger of a distraction depends not on how long it is, but on how much it scrambles your brain. A programmer can leave the office and go and get a sandwich without losing the code in his head. But the wrong kind of interruption can wipe your brain in 30 seconds.

In her interview with John Udell, Mary Czerwinski points out that while interruptions are detrimental to the productivity of the person being interrupted, maybe 75% of the time interruptions are beneficial for the organization as a whole. If one person is stuck and other person can get them unstuck by answering a question, the productivity of the person asking the question may go up more than the productivity of the person being asked the question goes down.

Given that interruptions are good, or at least inevitable, how can you manage them? Czerwinski uses the phrase context reacquisition to describe getting back to your previous state of mind following an interruption. Czerwinski and others at Microsoft Research are looking at software for context acquisition. For example, one of the ideas they are trying out is software that takes snapshots of your desktop. If you could see what your desktop looked like before the phone rang, it could help you get back into the frame of mind you had before you started helping the person on the other end of the line.

Have you discovered a tool or habit that helps with context reacquisition? If so, please leave a comment.

Task switching

Saturday, February 2nd, 2008

If you’re working on three projects, you’re probably spending 40% of your time task switching. Task switching is the dark matter of life: there’s a lot of it, but we’re hardly aware of it.

I’m not talking about multitasking, such as replying to email while you’re on the phone. People are starting to realize that multitasking isn’t as productive as it seems. I’m talking about having multiple assignments at work.

John Maeda posted a note about multiple projects in which he gives a link to a PowerPoint slide graphing percentage of productive time as a function the number of concurrent assignments. According to the graph, the optimal number of projects is two. With two projects, you can do something else when one project is stuck waiting for input or when you need variety. But any more than that and productivity tanks.

Johanna Rothman has an interview on the Pragmatic Programmer podcast where she discusses, among other things, having multiple concurrent projects. She thought it was absurd when she was asked to work 50% on one project, 30% on another, and 20% on another. Research environments are worse. Because of grant funding, people are sometimes allocated 37% to this project, 5% to that project, etc.

We’re not nearly as good at task switching as we think we are. I hear people talking about how it may take 15 or 30 minutes to get back into the flow after an interruption. Maybe that’s true if you were interrupted from something simple. A colleague who works on complex statistical problems says it takes her about two or three days to recover from switching projects. In his article Good and Bad Procrastination, Paul Graham says “You probably only have to interrupt someone a couple times a day before they’re unable to work on hard problems at all.”

10 rules for creative thinking

Thursday, January 31st, 2008

Check out Sister Corita Kent‘s 10 rules for creative thinking posted on Scott Berkun’s blog.

Six quotes on digging deep

Sunday, January 27th, 2008

Here are six quotes I’ve been thinking about related to digging deep into whatever is in front of you, making uninteresting work interesting.

Richard Feynman:

… nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough …

G. K. Chesterton:

There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.

William Blake:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

King Solomon:

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might …

James Woolsey:

If you’re enthusiastic about the things you’re working on, people will come ask you to do interesting things.

King Solomon:

Wisdom is in the presence of the one who has understanding, but the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth.

Selective use of technology

Monday, January 21st, 2008

In his book The Nine, Jeffrey Toobin gives a few details of Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s decidedly low-tech life. Souter has no cell phone or voice mail. He does not use email. He was given a television once but never turned it on. He moves his chair around his office throughout the day so he can read by natural light. Toobin says Souter lives something like an eighteenth century gentleman.

I find it refreshing to read of someone like Justice Souter with such independence of mind that he chooses not to use much of the technology that our world takes for granted. I also find it encouraging to see examples of people who do not reject electronics entirely but selectively decide how and whether to use them.

I once had the opportunity to see a talk by the father of computer typography, Donald Knuth. Much to my surprise, his slides were handwritten. The author of TeX didn’t see the need to use TeX for his slides. While he cares about the fine details of how math looks in print, he apparently didn’t feel it was worth the effort to typeset his notes for an informal presentation.

I also think of the late computer scientist Edsgar Dijkstra who wrote with pen and ink, even when writing computer programs.

If you’re reading legal briefs by sunlight, your thoughts will not be exactly the same as they would be if you were reading by fluorescent light. If you’re writing computer programs by hand, you’re not going to think the same way you would if you are pecking on a computer keyboard. (And if you do use a computer, your thinking is subtlety different depending on what program you use.) Technology effects the way you think. The effect is not uniformly better or worse, but it is certainly real.

To shake up your thinking, try going low-tech for a day.

Obscuring complexity

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

Here’s a great quote from The Logic of Failure on obscuring complexity.

By labeling a bundle of problems with a single conceptual label, we make dealing with that problem easier — provided we’re not interested in solving it. … A simple label can’t make the complex nature of the problem go away, but it can so obscure complexity that we lose site of it. And that, of course, we find a great relief.

Three quotes on originality

Saturday, January 12th, 2008

Here are three quotes on originality I’ve read recently. I’ll lay them out first then discuss how I think they relate to each other. 

C. S. Lewis from The Weight of Glory, as quoted in a blog post by David Rogstad.

No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought.

Larry Wall, creator of Perl, in his talk Perl, the first postmodern programming language.

Modernism is also a Cult of Originality. It didn’t matter if the sculpture was hideous, as long as it was original. It didn’t matter if there was no music in the music. Plagiarism was the greatest sin. … The Cult of Originality shows up in computer science as well. For some reason, many languages that came out of academia suffer from this. Everything is reinvented from first principles (or in some cases, zeroeth principles), and nothing in the language resembles anything in any other language you’ve ever seen. And then the language designer wonders why the language never catches on. … In case you hadn’t noticed, Perl is not big on originality.  

Paul Graham in the introduction to Founders at Work.

People like the idea of innovation in the abstract, but when you present them with any specific innovation, they tend to reject it because it doesn’t fit with what they already know. … As Howard Aiken said, “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

If you strive to be original, you might achieve it in some technical sense, but end up with something nobody cares about. Strive for authenticity and excellence and you’re more likely to do something valuable. But originality isn’t appreciated as much in practice as it is in theory.

Good opening lines

Friday, January 11th, 2008

Its always hard for me to decide the opening line for a paper. Here’s an opening line I ran across recently in a statistics paper.

Imagine we own a factory that produces nuts and bolts.

You had me at hello!

Here’s another great line, taken from the preface to the third edition of Theory of Probability by Harold Jeffreys.

Some points in later chapters have been transferred to the first, in the hope that fewer critics will be mislead into inferring what is not in the book from not finding it in the first chapter.