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In his article, Groupthink, the New Yorker’s Jonah Lehrer says there are two types of brainstorming — a free-for-all exchange of ideas in a structured environment, and a random, unplanned debate. Only the second type really works.

He says M.I.T.’s famous Building 20 — which is now replaced with the Stata Center, designed by Frank Gehry— became one of the most innovative spaces in the country because it fostered the best kind of brainstorming.

MIT’s ‘Building 20’ Is Proof That Only A Certain Kind Of Brainstorming Works – Business Insider

It seems that the kind of brainstorming that is often used in creative circles may not be effective. It would be good to carefully examine this, as often we take the brainstorming style as the best creative practice. What seems to really work is random unplanned debate in close physical spaces. I tried to create this in my lab in Singapore. The administration and management people were very much opposed to my efforts to make a cubicle free open space. They seemed to love walls and cubicles in Singapore. However the physical closeness seems to be critical for creative research. The building 20 at MIT which was an accident of the war effort seems to be one of the best examples.

Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work : The New Yorker

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A few years ago, Isaac Kohane, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, published a study that looked at scientific research conducted by groups in an attempt to determine the effect that physical proximity had on the quality of the research. He analyzed more than thirty-five thousand peer-reviewed papers, mapping the precise location of co-authors. Then he assessed the quality of the research by counting the number of subsequent citations. The task, Kohane says, took a “small army of undergraduates” eighteen months to complete. Once the data was amassed, the correlation became clear: when coauthors were closer together, their papers tended to be of significantly higher quality. The best research was consistently produced when scientists were working within ten metres of each other; the least cited papers tended to emerge from collaborators who were a kilometre or more apart. “If you want people to work together effectively, these findings reinforce the need to create architectures that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interactions,” Kohane says. “Even in the era of big science, when researchers spend so much time on the Internet, it’s still so important to create intimate spaces.

Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work : The New Yorker

The more I work with the internet, and the more I do research in interactive media, the more I have realized, and seen studies, which show that interaction through internet has some basic limitation. It seems that even in today’s highly connected internet society, physical presence is critical. This study shows that for academic collaboration the best research occurs when the authors are highly physically present in the range of metres. It is my hypothesis (and this needs further academic research) that this is partly because we communicate through all of our senses (including touch, taste, and smell) and through non-logical emotions. These still cannot be communicated effectively through the internet.

Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work: The New Yorker

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Jones’s explanation is that scientific advances have led to a situation where all the remaining problems are incredibly hard. Researchers are forced to become increasingly specialized, because there’s only so much information one mind can handle. And they have to collaborate, because the most interesting mysteries lie at the intersections of disciplines. “A hundred years ago, the Wright brothers could build an airplane all by themselves,” Jones says. “Now Boeing needs hundreds of engineers just to design and produce the engines.” The larger lesson is that the increasing complexity of human knowledge, coupled with the escalating difficulty of those remaining questions, means that people must either work together or fail alone. But if brainstorming is useless, the question still remains: What’s the best template for group creativity?

Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work : The New Yorker

This very interesting article in the New Yorker succinctly summarizes why interdisciplinary fields are the most interesting in today’s society. This is because we have effectively solved most human and technology problems that are important in the industrial age of the 20th century. In the 21st century the remaining problems are very challenging, and are at the boundaries of disciplines. This is why areas such as media design are much more interesting that traditional disciplines. When I used to read some of the research output or attend some faculty talks in my Electrical and Computer Engineering department, I found most of it mind-numbingly boring. The kind of academic papers and research topics that were so incremental and of almost no interest or impact to general society. Now I find I am constantly challenged and amazed and presented with new ideas by both faculty and students who come from diverse areas such as design, business, management – and technology as myself. I still find hard core geeky hacking interesting for myself, but now I know the problems in society that all of society talks about are the most interesting and most important.

Meta Cookie

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I have been teaching a class on multi-sensory communication, with a focus on how smell and taste can be used for a new generation of communication media. Smell and taste are senses which are highly affected and cross related with the other senses such as vision and sound. This work, made in Japan, which I showed in the class changes the appearance and smell of a plain cookie, and the person can experience a different flavor.

Professor’s life

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Sometimes a Professor’s life seems to be and endless amount of tedious meetings. I often wonder whether I would have been much happier to have a much more hands on career, where I could use my hands and body to construct and build real things, rather than sit in meetings.

Valentines Day in Japan has been “Japanified” in bizarre ways.

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Valentine’s day: n. a mass-societal ritual where petrified men manufacture tangible manifestations of undying devotion and where the sinister cabal run by Hallmark, Hershey’s, and the National Restaurant Association wins out. Posted by Derek Abbott on his Wickedictionary page.

In Japan they have taken the Western ritual of Valentines day and typically “Japanified” it in bizarre ways. Similar to western countries, it is a massive commercial chocolate and sweets industry selling day.

However, it is MUCH better for men in Japan. “Valentines” day on February 14th is for women ONLY to give chocolates to men. But not just husband or lover. They should give to every man in their office also. So there is the strange concept of “true love” chocolates and “obligation” chocolates. Of course it is not labeled as such, they are all beautifully packaged. But the obligation chocolates are small and not expensive whereas the real love chocolates are more expensive. Something which I think is good in Japan is that the “highest” level of love chocolate need not be expensive. If you receive a hand made chocolate from someone then you know that person is really in love with you.

Of course as is customary in Japan, every present should be returned. So there is a “White Day” in Japan after Valentines day and this is where the man will return a gift to the woman. For colleagues, similar to Valentines day, the present will normally be small “obligatory” chocolates. However for real love gifts there is a much wider range of gifts on White day, including flowers, jewelry, etc. One good thing is you need not give obligation chocolates to your women colleagues at work if they didn’t give you one on Valentines day, so it is definitely less stressful for men. However if you received a real love chocolate you had better make a special return gift (which again may be an expensive gift or may not cost anything if you make something yourself).

Over all I perceive the Japanese take on Valentines day as showing some interesting aspects of Japanese culture, namely:

1. The concept of “honne” and “tatemae”, namely public feelings or those feelings expected by society, and true feelings (which are normally not expressed in public). All Japanese children are taught this from a young age and it allows for a smooth running society. This becomes exemplified in the “obligation” and “real love” Valentines day chocolates.

2. The cultural tradition of returning gifts seen in the ladies Valentines day followed by men returning of gifts on white day. Whether it is a birthday or wedding present one is obligated to return another gift of about half or more of the value. That is why giving a present in Japan can sometimes create more burden than pleasure, especially if it is expensive.
I once had a strange experience where I received a small souvenir gift from a colleague at work in Tokyo. I returned a small souvenir from Australia. This caused him to give me another gift, I think some chocolate, upon which I gave him another gift. To cut a long story short this gift giving escalated over several months and at the end I literally received a very expensive Japanese leg of ham, expensive sausages, and other expensive foods which I carried in a large bag to my house and took weeks to eat. I can’t remember what gift I gave in return but I think it was so big it ended that “gift war”. We almost needed Henry Kissinger to help solve the gift escalation.

3. Wabi-sabi: Although the Valentine and White Days are certainly commercial extravaganzas, there is still the concept that the highest form of showing your love is to make something with your own hands, which might not cost any money. I think this is an expression of the Japanese cultural concept of Wabi-sabi, where small, delicate, old, and natural yet imperfect things are highly valued as beautiful. Their beauty is because of their imperfect and natural state. I appreciate this concept which does counter-balance the rampant consumerism of modern society.

Clueless in Davos

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Clueless in Davos

The Atlas of Economic Complexity

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The Atlas of Economic Complexity

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