Plight of the Loner

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At the turn of the last century, a brilliant young inventor, Philo T Farnsworth, learned the hard way some endeavors are too big to go it alone. Farnsworth had an incredible vision—one that changed the way we live. From childhood, Farnsworth was brilliant and precocious. He constantly fiddled with electronics and gizmos. As a child, he converted his mom’s sewing machine from a manual one into an electric one. Then there was one fateful day when he was fourteen.  On that day, he was struck by a vision of genius while working on the family farm. The parallel rows of potato fields in front of him prompted a moment of insight for transmitting rows of electronic information that could be reassembled to form an image. At that moment, Farnsworth conceived television.[i] That moment should have also ensured Farnsworth a place in the pantheon of great scientists, but it didn’t. Instead, it signaled the beginning of a lifelong battle of frustration.

Farnsworth was a loner and wouldn’t relinquish control of his invention to a large corporation. For this, he doomed himself into a revisionary tale of David and Goliath in which David lost. Farnsworth didn’t understand the complexities of bringing such a device to market, and he was outdone by the president of RCA, David Sarnoff. Sarnoff had the money and resources that large corporations do, and Farnsworth had little. Farnsworth had to do everything himself—even legal work. One of the saddest instances of Farnsworth’s troubles was when Sarnoff came to visit Farnsworth’s main laboratory in San Francisco, and Farnsworth wasn’t there. He was instead in New York combating a frivolous lawsuit. It could have been his chance to woo RCA’s media titan. Instead, what happened is that Sarnoff left San Francisco relatively uninterested and made a low offer for Farnsworth’s patents which Farnsworth turned down.[ii]

There are numerous occasions like this where Farnsworth either missed an opportunity or was not qualified for what he was doing, such as arguing a case before Congress. In front of Congress, he rambled endlessly.

In general, Farnsworth misunderstood how he needed others to help his invention succeed.  He thought it was clear that he invented Television, and therefore, should always be the King of Television. But as more and more creative endeavors go, television needed resources to come to fruition. There were many parts to it. What he invented was the part that brought it to life. It was expensive, and it was a race. As Farnsworth worked on his image dissector, many others were developing similar technology. Farnsworth just happened to be in the lead at the moment. When RCA engineer Vladimire Zworykin finally filed a patent in 1931 for the iconoscope—his version of the TV camera—there were at least six similar patents from five different countries being filed at the same time. Farnsworth couldn’t keep up and, in 1939, witnessed RCA’s televised coverage of the World’s Fair in which Sarnoff introduced both President Roosevelt and Albert Einstein before claiming television as his own.[iii]

[i]  Gladwell, Malcolm.”The Televisionary.” The New Yorker, May 27, 2002: 112-116.

[ii] (Gladwell, The Televisionary 2002, 112)

[iii] (Gladwell, The Televisionary 2002, 116)

I’ll Be Speaking in Augusta on December 9th

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I was privileged to be asked to juror the Greater Augusta Arts Council’s current exhibition, Icon. Augusta is fortunate to have such a wonderful organization and also to have such talented artists living in this area. The reception for Icon is Friday, December 4th.

Additionally, I’ll be speaking for GAAC’s Aspirations series about the works in the exhibition. In that presentation, I’ll discuss my unique views on critique and praise. If you are in the area of Augusta, GA, please come by. The talk will be in the gallery at 600 Broad Street, Wednesday, December 9th at 5:30pm.

For more info, click here.

How Curious People Visit Museums

Security Guard and Elementary Students at Art Gallery

Security Guard and Elementary Students at Art Gallery

One of the more surprising and intriguing studies related to curiosity is “Strategies for the Curiosity-Driven Museum Visitor” by Jay Rounds.[i] In his article, Rounds reveals strategies and motivations behind the peculiar behaviors which a curious person may demonstrate in their effort to have an enjoyable visit to a museum. The article begins with a quote from The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (first published in 1759):

Could a historiographer drive on his history, as a muleteer drives on his mule, straight forward; for instance, from Rome all the way to Loreto, without ever once turning his head aside either to the right hand or to the left, he might venture to foretell you to an hour when he should get to his journey’s end; but the thing is, morally speaking, impossible: For, if he is a man of the least spirit he will have 50 deviations from a straight line to make with this or that party as he goes along, which he can no ways avoid. He will have views and prospects to himself, perpetually soliciting his eye, which he can no more help standing still to look at than he can fly; he will moreover have various accounts to reconcile; anecdotes to pick up; inscriptions to make out; stories to weave in; traditions to sift; personages to call upon; all of which both the man and his mule are quite exempt from (Sterne 1967, 64-65).

Among the other “ages” in which we live, we definitely live in an age of standardization. Students take standardized tests. The schools have standardized assessment. And employees are evaluated using standardized rubrics. It is like we are taking what is most interesting about humanity, diversity, and eliminating it in an effort to eliminate risk. Subsequently, we eliminate much of what is remarkable about us. We are normalizing humanity. Curious and creative people don’t fit that mold well, and I would suggest that no one really fits any mold. Strangely enough, though, even our museums have become part of this normalization process. We see more and more blockbuster shows that are attractive to a wide range of society. And subsequently, they contain fewer and fewer items of controversy. Museums have created larger, more informative placards and even offer headphones for guided tours to ensure that we don’t misinterpret the creative expressions of artists. Walking through museums these days one will see people as engrossed in the information provided for a work of art than the work itself.

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Due to their design, Museums are often cold, cavernous structures that are as intimidating as fascinating. Long periods of time dedicated to viewing each item on display can be exhausting and leave one more worn out than energized. Still, museums are our repositories of culture, and they are filled with many wonderful exhibits that curious people enjoy. But according to Rounds, “if Shandy’s ‘straight line’ is the path through the exhibition that has been carefully designed to maximize learning, then few visitors seem destined ever to reach Loreto at all.”[ii]

It does seem obvious that a disciplined use of an exhibit would beget greater learning. And it is easy to argue that exhibitions are most effective “if a visitor decides to carefully attend to any of the exhibits, using them in a comprehensive manner.”[iii] Moving deliberately through each component of an exhibit should create a more edifying experience. And it was uncovered that those approaching exhibits with a focused strategy did obtain a greater level of mastery than those who were moderately focused or unfocused.

Contrary to this logic, however, museum-goers don’t necessarily proceed in such an orderly manner. A great number of these visitors are “drifters” who don’t appear to be following commonsense methods as they meander through exhibits. They fail to use the way-finding aids or other instructional materials for gaining that most effective museum experience. In fact, an analysis of 104 studies on visitor behaviors in exhibits, J. H. Falk and L.D. Dierking found that visitors generally view between 20% and 40% of an exhibition. And less than 1% actually stop at every component of an exhibition. From these figures, a person viewing only half of an exhibit is considered “diligent.”[iv]

Curiosity driven museum-goers are anticipating new experiences—to have their curiosity piqued. They aren’t looking to ascertain every bit of information displayed. This, however, directly contrasts what curators plan for them—to learn subjects in depth. Furthermore, curiosity driven visitors develop strategies for “piquing and satisfying” their curious nature. Just having a goal of “piquing and satisfying” in itself is quite irregular. Goals usually are a means to an end. Piquing and satisfying is more of a means to more. This is also problematic for curators in that using an exhibit to pique and satisfy might have little to do with the curator’s intended purpose of the exhibit itself other than it being an agent for something else—a catalyst.

Contrary to prevailing logic, the Shandean strategy as described by Sterne is actually clever and fitting for those seeking novel stimuli because, in general, the purpose of the curious museum-goer is the process of learning, not the value of learned material. One could easily imagine the following exchange between an information-seeking visitor and a curious visitor:

Curious: I wonder if the artist were standing or sitting while painting that.

Information Seeker: Why do you ask?

Curious: Just curious.

Picture By Jim Wileman 24/01/2012 Generic images from Exeter's Royal Albert Memorial Museum. The museum and Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery will be amongst Arts Council England’s Major partner museums. The two South West museums are working as a consortium and are one of 16 nationally who will receive funding as part of the Arts Council’s Renaissance programme for regional museums.

Picture By Jim Wileman 24/01/2012 Generic images from Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum.

What would be seen to curators as a traditional visitor, one who is seeking information, is extrinsically motivated to acquire knowledge from which they can benefit. It’s a practical goal. Conversely, the curious visitor has a goal of acquiring knowledge for which there is no apparent use, merely for the sake of learning. As discussed in the section on foraging, acquiring great quantities of “useless” knowledge can actually be useful—even aid in survival: “A species would not survive long if it did not find pleasure in processing information.”[v]

 

Similar to the information foraging described earlier in this chapter that leads to the success of an animal finding food, a curiosity-driven museum visit is more about the overall experience while in the museum than any particular interaction with specific exhibits. And the task is fairly ambiguous being that the visitor does not know what is ahead or around the corner. Therefore, a set of “fast and frugal” strategies are needed to (1) locate interesting exhibits, (2) know when to focus and when to browse, and (3) limit wasted time on boring exhibits.[vi]

Knowing that not all exhibits are equal, a curious museum-goer is motivated to stay away from the lackluster exhibits or risk boredom. Briefly consulting guides or maps helps to familiarize one with the territory. Then the rule is to get moving and start scanning.  Walking through the exhibits, one should take note of individual items within exhibitions, not the overall exhibit. General things aren’t interesting, specific things are. And the final rule for scanning is to follow the crowd; wherever people are gathered, there is a good chance that something interesting is nearby. However, there is a risk that these people aren’t curious and they are looking at a dull exhibit, so the curious museum-goer should be willing to leave any exhibit that doesn’t live up to expectations.

When to stay and when to go is the next lesson. Rounds says, “follow your nose.” If it doesn’t pique your interest instantly (smell good), then leave.  And don’t hang around exhibits that take a lot of warm-up time. If an exhibit is difficult to understand or takes effort to appreciate—leave. Not heeding this rule could mean wasting valuable time in humdrum exhibits. Lastly, in the category of attention rules is to “Satisfice.” Remember from the section of information foraging, smaller food sources are better over the long haul than waiting for the big catch. So, “don’t look for the best solution, look for a satisfactory one.”[vii]

The final set of rules for the curiosity driven museum-goer are related to quitting. Knowing when to leave an exhibition is just as important as knowing which ones to focus on. As stated earlier, if an exhibit isn’t interesting from the beginning, don’t stay around—move on. Also, when moving from individual exhibits within a large exhibition, it’s the three strikes and you’re out rule. Don’t stay to see if the next one is a good one. Museums are normally large and exhausting, especially if one were to see all the exhibits, so don’t. Once you feel full, it is quitting time. Don’t feel obligated to keep looking at more.

Acting as a curiosity driven museum goer is strangely rewarding. Additionally, piquing and satisfying curiosity is unexpectedly educational. However, there is an odd sense of guilt that looms when you skip large portions of exhibitions. It’s as if you aren’t paying the proper respect to the institution of high-culture. Large museums in major metropolitan areas are the best for experimenting with this approach. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is my favorite. Book stores with a large magazine sections work for this approach too. On your next visit to the bookstore, scan the magazine racks with the same strategies as the curiosity driven museum-goer. Look at what strikes your interest and put it down once satisficed. Then move on to the next interesting magazine cover.

 

[i] Rounds, Jay. “Strategies for the Curiosity-Driven Visitor.” Curator 47, #4 2004: 389-412, http://0-vnweb.hwwilsonweb.com.library.scad.edu/hww/results/results_single_ftPES.jhtml.

[ii] (Rounds 2004, 389)

[iii] (Rounds 2004, 390)

[iv] (Rounds 2004, 390)

[v] (Rounds 2004, 391)

[vi] (Rounds 2004, 397)

[vii] (Rounds 2004, 398)

Don’t Believe Miss Liberty. A Talk with Edgar Heap of Birds

My latest publication with ArtPulse Magazine is now up. You can find it on their Facebook site. The title is “Don’t Believe Miss Liberty: A Talk with Edgar Heap of Birds.” Click on that link it you’ll see it. Edgar is a fascinating artist questioning many of the cultural roles we play. The intro is below.

 

Edgar Heap of Birds with Wheel, 2005, sculptural installation at Denver Art Museum. Courtesy of the artist.

Edgar Heap of Birds with Wheel, 2005, sculptural installation at Denver Art Museum. Courtesy of the artist.

 

In the national conversation on racial inequity, one group is continuously left on the sideline-those who were here first. Given that Native Americans precedently inhabited America, one would think their inalienable rights should at least match those of any settlers. But as history demonstrates, they don’t.

Of the many atrocities against Native Americans, the thousand mile death march known as the Trail of Tears is probably the most recited. But throughout U.S. history Native Americans have suffered numerous injustices, many of which have left our collective memory. Even the Great Emancipator, President Lincoln, isn’t clean. His order to execute Dakota Indians in Minnesota resulted in the largest mass hanging in our country’s history.

Edgar Heap of Birds is a provocative artist bringing attention to the sad irony which is the plight of Indigenous Americans. Cheyenne by blood, his work utilizes contemporary conceptual and postmodern tactics to expose some of the less civil accounts of American history, ones that get little attention in today’s press. From large scale celebratory sculptures like “Wheel” to road-sign-looking text based installations, his work addresses the issues of land ownership, displacement and cultural imperialism still haunting those of Native American descent.

Recently, I spoke with Edgar about his life, his art and his views of contemporary culture. During our conversation, what struck me most was the level of compassion and generosity coming from an artist making such aggressive, politically charged work. As you will see, he embodies the core value by which Cheyenne chiefs are defined, generosity.

How Creative Acts Are Different

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Creative acts are not all the same. They vary by magnitude, originality, influence and intention. The following are types of creativity and novelty as described by psychologist Stephen Smith.[i]

Types of Creativity and Novelty

  • Individual versus social definitions of creativity
  • Deliberate versus non-intentional creations
  • Goal-defined creativity
  • Subjective sense of novelty
  • Degrees of novelty
  • Continuousverses discontinuous problem solving

Individual versus Social Definitions of Creativity:

Every quarter students make new discoveries. They have moments of enlightenment that dramatically change their understanding of the world. These breakthroughs don’t change the world, but they do change the person. During my time teaching high school, a student described his discovery in the field of mathematics.  While doing his math homework the night before, he had invented a new way of solving his equations. Slump shouldered later in the day, he told me how his math teacher explained it was centuries old. His discovery was creative non-the-less. It didn’t change the domain of mathematics in any way. But it did change his understanding of the subject. This is an example of individual creativity: particular to the individual.

 

So a particular act “may be novel for all of humanity, for a specific social-cultural unit, or for an individual.”

Deliberate versus non-intentional creations:

Often times, inventors consciously work toward their inventions as lifelong pursuits. However, many times they are not deliberate. Take, for example, party conversations. Informal conversations go in any number of directions that are not premeditated. They just flow. Each participant in the conversation freely and effortlessly adds to the progression of thought. Since the conversation is novel it is creative. In these creative acts, it is not the intention of each participant to be original. Therefore, they are not deliberate. Maybe the best example of non-intentional creativity is the verbal development of a young child. Kids experience an amazing rate of development as they learn to talk.

Goal-Defined Creativity:

Being deliberate implies working toward a goal. One sets a goal and then works to achieve it. Problem solving situations are goal oriented and they involve creative acts. Searches for solutions are novel because the problems to be solved are novel. If the problem weren’t’ in some way new, it wouldn’t be a problem. As each incremental discovery is made on the path to solving a problem, the nature of the problem changes and therefore new creative acts emerge. All problem solving situations have some relevance to past experiences and require the transformation of that past knowledge so that it may be applied to the present task.

For example, when Amy Windom was restrained during a home invasion in Atlanta, she needed a novel way to free herself. Her solution was to “toe-type” an instant message call for help. Obviously, this was an unusual experience for her. The perpetrator tied her up and had taken her digital camera, phone, iPad, and car. The thief didn’t take her laptop because she was able to convince him it was outfitted with a tracking device. After several hours, she said in an interview with The TODAY Show, she decide to use her feet to open her bag: “I thought, I’ve got nothing to lose so I’ll give this a shot, and I pulled the laptop over and propped it up on top of the down comforter at such an angle I could see both the keys and the screen.” She gripped the end of the power cord with her feet and started tapping the keys. Eventually, she was able to communicate with her boyfriend to call the police.[ii]

In this situation, creative problem solving led her down a goal- oriented path (to get free) that culminated in a solution that was new to her. Each stage of advancement led to a new problem solving situation. Her laptop was not outfitted with a tracking device; she told him that so he would leave it. Even though the cord is not used for typing, she associated its properties as similar to something that could.

Subjective Sense of Novelty:

The novelty of our acts is not always as apparent as you might think. Going back to the party conversations, each conversation, or more specifically, each phrase, is a creative act. No one in the conversation has experienced that exact situation before, nor will they again. Therefore, each phrase is new—novel. Trying to “get the phrase just right” is more deliberate. By consciously constructing phrases or arguments, we become aware of the process and the novelty of the act. An even more deliberate approach would be to plan a speech or presentation. And the scale goes up from there in intentionality. Frequently, we are more of aware of the novelty produced by others than ourselves.

Degrees of Novelty:

Creativity is mostly associated with “truly novel” acts. But the less revolutionary acts that make up our day to day existence can also be creative. It could be said that in some way, everything we do is novel to a degree. Each day is different and we react to new situations as they arise. Disparities between strikingly creative acts like inventions are easy to differentiate. Differences in more habitual acts like getting ready for work in the morning are more difficult to distinguish. Both big and small creative acts, however, are creative.

Continuous verses Discontinuous Problem Solving:

Some problem solving instances require that a continuous series of problems be solved until the final goal is achieved. The lady toeing her way to freedom on her laptop is an example. She was literally “bound” and determined to get free.

Other times, a period of rest or incubation occurs once or several times before a final solution is found. Epiphanies in the shower relate to ongoing problems we have yet to solve. During the day we take in new information. Having a problem at work or with a girlfriend, or more commonly now, Facebook, that doesn’t seem to have a good solution is considered off-and-on throughout the day. During the relaxing environment of the shower, attention is taken away from the problem. This period of rest allows the subconscious to organize the data and decide on a novel solution.

Creativity is in everything we do. In its smallest form, it helps us get through the day. In larger applications, it makes the world a better place. But the best thing about creativity is that it is teachable. Anyone can do it better. I know, I teach it to students all the time. With the new understanding of creativity that researchers are bringing to light, it is no longer such a mystery. It is a process for improvement.

[i] Smith, Steven M. The Creative Cognition Approach. MIT Press, 1995.

[ii] Rothman, Wilson. “Tied-up woman uses toes to IM for help.” MSNBC.com. MSNBC, August 4, 2010.

 

 

 

Creativity Lesson from the Stoics: Practice Virtues

Argument

Think of a time when someone really pushed your buttons—when some jerk was rude, broke in line or did something totally inappropriate.  What was your reaction? Did you treat it as an opportunity?

Going back to the times of Ancient Greece, we find a group of people who did think these moments were opportunities. They were the Stoics. To a Stoic, a time of adversity is an opportunity to practice virtue. To the Stoics, virtue is similar to excellence. And as a good citizen, you practice being virtuous. I lifted a list of these as described by John Stobeaus from UC Davis’ website. They are below.

  • Prudence: (concerns appropriate acts) knowledge of what one is to do and not to do and what is neither
  • Temperance: (concerning human impulses) knowledge of what is to be chosen and avoided and what is neither
  • Justice: (concerning distributions) knowledge of the distribution of proper value to each person
  • Courage: (concerning standing firm) knowledge of what is terrible and what is not terrible and what is neither.

So what does this have to do with creativity? It’s about seeing opportunity where no one else does. To most of us, we see problems as problems—things to be avoided. But in a pursuit of excellence and practicing virtue, a Stoic engages with problems as a means of practicing virtue.

Let’s take temperance for example. Say, a stranger comes up and says you’re an idiot for blocking the sidewalk while waiting to cross the street. Then, instead of firing back an insulting a jab of your own, you decide to temper your response and counter with a witty comeback humorous in its approach to engage that person in a moment of reflection. You might not change that person’s mind, but you practiced changing people’s attention to a topic of your choice.

That kind of skill might come in handy during a pitch. Often times in pitches, committee members make off the cuff or rude comments. And you should be ready for those situations. Real pitches are not the time to practice skillful retorts, those are the times to capitalize on them. Having practiced temperance in the past can help you skillfully seize on the opportunity to turn an insult into insight.

Next time you run into adversity, practice a virtue.

Thinking About Thinking

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Do you ever think about how you think? You should; it can help you be more creative.

It’s surprising how we sometimes come to conclusions. Frequently, my conclusions are drawn from mere associations. I’ll witness two events happening in quick succession, like hearing a noise and then seeing a person walk around the corner. And I’ll assume the first caused the second—the person made the noise. You probably do the same. At other times, I overthink situations and get nowhere—the ole paralysis of analysis. I dwell so much on a topic, I never move one. To help us be better thinkers, we should contemplate how our ideas come about.

Thinking about thinking is called metacognition. It’s an empowering higher order of cognition aiding in the learning process. Metacognition is concerned with how we know stuff. By reflecting on how we come about what we know, we gain a better idea of whether or not we really understand our surroundings. Is Johnny a liar, or does he just look like one?

I’m mainly interested in metacognition because it helps with creativity. Creativity starts with a problem. And like many other things, if your starting point isn’t a good one, it’s more difficult to get to a good finishing point. Questioning and revising the initial problem helps to generate a more creative final solution.

Here’s an example:

Back in the year 2001, young people were breaking laws by the thousands. They were sharing MP3 files through an online file sharing service called Napster. Their actions were illegal because they weren’t paying fees to record companies. It was amazing how many people instantly turned criminal. To punish these nefarious people, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began suing them. They even sued a twelve year old girl.

Being a typical corporate organization of the time, the RIAA didn’t reflect much on the larger issues, nor did they look for opportunities within this problem. But someone else did. His name was Steve Jobs.

Jobs thought the whole scenario was messed up, and he saw an opportunity. Instead of thinking those people to be bad, Jobs rethought the problem and decided he could eliminate the wrongdoing by designing a better system. He believed that if people had a better way of doing things, they would stop being criminals. So, instead of saying “how do I catch and punish these thieves.” He decided to improve their listening experience so much they wouldn’t want to steal songs. The first iPod held 1,000 songs and fit in your pocket. It also would easily download songs for 99 cents each. You know the rest of the story. Apple is still making tons of money from Job’s insight.

To solve this problem, Jobs rethought the problem. Therefore, he could create a better solution.

One of the best methods for artists and designers to become better thinkers and build their skills of metacognition is through process books. Process books are idea journals. They show step in the evolution of a project. I urge students to create them in a story-like manner so when they look back on it, it makes sense. They are structured like this.

  • Cover sheet
  • Project goal and problem statement
  • Variations of problem statement
  • A calendar listing all events from start to finish
  • Ideation strategies
  • Research
  • Reflections on research and ideation
  • Preliminary designs
  • Design revisions
  • Variations on a selected design
  • Final design
  • Final reflection on whole project

Process books help students better understand what made the final product possible. Without the documentation of their process, students regularly don’t understand where their ideas came from. But with a process book, it’s very clear that a lot of work took place to bring about a situation where that idea could be generated. Knowledge in this case really is power. It is because once you see what led you to an idea, you can replicate it again and again.

Let’s Teach Students How to Guess

Guessing-The-Rosters

Here’s a true story, kind of. I changed it slightly for confidentiality.

Problem:

A lotion manufacturer seeks new technology for dispensing hand lotion in the work place. They are doing well in the home market, but they want to expand their business through stores like Staples and Office Depot. The goal is to develop patented technology associating their brand with commercial use.

Solution:

After noodling it for some time, a friend and I decided dispensers weren’t the issue. We thought it to be a conceptual problem, not a technological one. So, instead of inventing a dispenser, we designed a unique line of office organizers centered around sanitation with the manufacturer’s lotion as the anchor. We submitted the design. The client loved the idea, and we got paid.

How’d we get our idea? We guessed.

Surprisingly, guessing works pretty well for solving complex problems – especially ones less clearly defined. To the dismay of many, guessing is actually a form of logic; one that isn’t talked about much in school though. But it should be. It goes by the term abductive reasoning. You could say it’s reasoning through inference.

When thinking about reasoning or logic, deduction and induction are the types that pop up most. Deductive reasoning leads to definite conclusions. Inductive reasoning leads to probable conclusions.

Deductive example:

All bachelors are single > Sam is a batchelor > Sam is single

Inductive example:

Atlanta, GA is the city with the most mosquitoes > Sam lives in Atlanta > Sam has been bitten by a mosquito

While Sam is definitely single, there is a chance he’s never been bit by a mosquito, even though Atlanta has a lot of mosquitoes.

How, you might ask does guessing qualify as reasoning. Well, it gets you get started and helps you arrive at a better hypothesis. It also helps you draw conclusions leading you in a direction. I’ll give you an example.

Sherlock Holmes often used it. For instance, in the case of “Silver Blaze,” he figured out who stole the horse.  In this exchange Sherlock, explains to a detective how he solved the mystery of a stolen racehorse which should have been guarded by a dog.

Detective: “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Detective: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

How did that help Holmes?

Holmes: I had grasped the significance of the silence of the dog, for one true inference invariably suggests others… A dog was kept in the stables, and yet, though someone had been in, and had fetched out a horse, he had not barked enough to arouse the two lads in the loft. Obviously the midnight visitor was someone whom the dog knew well.

There are many reason a dog might not bark. By guessing however, Holmes jumped quickly in a direction from which he could draw better conclusions. Without guessing, Holmes wouldn’t have gotten far. And without it, he also couldn’t do that annoying thing where he told a people their life story by judging the smudge on their collar or a torn piece of luggage.
Abductive reasoning is especially good for artists and designers. Their problems are rarely simple. Usually, they are vague. The studio model in which art and design classes are taught promotes this well. Students are regularly give vague problems like, express your feelings. These problems are are actually structured like real-life situations in that figuring out the question is half the problem.

The Most Creative Painting…Ever

Roy Lichtenstein Bananas and Grapefruit

Have you ever thought about which paintings throughout history are most creative? It’s a tough call, unless you are a computer.

Not long ago, a curious colleague of mine started a similar debate among faculty concerning the best work of art, ever. Shortly after considering the matter, it became obvious my decision would be harder than first presumed. It’s tough separating personal interests from overall quality. In general polls, many of my favored paintings wouldn’t even make a top ten list of Twentieth Century paintings. Cy Twombly and Terry Winters are a couple of artists who connect with me. But stacked up against Matisse and Picasso, they are mere drops in a bucket. It’s interesting how my personal preferences can sway my views.

Eventually, I settled on Marcell Duchamp’s toilet which is referred to as Fountain. Much to the annoyance of my colleague. Duchamp signed it “R. Mutt.” My reasoning was Fountain has influenced the direction of art more than any other single work—at least according to me. However, it’s not even a work that interests me. Also, it was rejected for inclusion in the only exhibition in which it was entered. All works in that show were accepted if the artist paid the application fee, which Duchamp did. And it was still rejected.

Objective questions are tough for us because we humans are human; we have many personal biases. But computers don’t. They do what we tell them. And recently a computer was put to the task of determining the most creative paintings in history. Researchers Ahmed Elgammal and Babak Saleh at Rutgers University developed an algorithm defining creativity as “the originality of the product and its influential value.” They applied their algorithm to databases including tens of thousands of paintings. The X axis is a timeline. the Y axis is the creativity rating.  The higher the rating, the more creative the work.

3047438-inline-i-fig-1 (1)

According to the algorithm, Roy Lichtenstein’s Bananas and Grapefruit #1 is extremely creative. See the article by Mark Wilson at Fast Company, History’s Most Creative Paintings, Determined By Algorithm. The actual study is here.

So, did the computer get it right?