Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The observer effect for creativity

I wrote about one of my favorite routines for having ideas that consists in relaxing, abandoning myself to pleasures such as eating chocolate, smoking a cigarette (for smokers, I am not anymore) or drinking a glass of wine once I am aware of the details of an issue. And that's preferably better doing it in a familiar and private space; the bathroom if you can't find any place to stay alone. That's my theory of "Bathroom Thinking."

It's quite acceptable that to solve a problem or to get inspired for something, the mind needs to take a rest and get away from the very issue. James Webb Young wrote about it already in 1939:

Drop the whole subject and forget about it. Turn the whole problem to the unconscious mind and to what stimulate your emotions.
Out of nowhere the idea will appear. It will come to you when you are least expecting it - while shaving, or bathing or most often when are half awake, in the morning. It may wake you in the middle of the night.

So if you don't feel you are doing enough to solve your problem, if you believe that empty-mindedness will delay your creative process, then you are wrong. Actually you are on the right path. 
Salvador Dalí had his own technique described in "Fifty Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship" to generate ideas (and you won't say he was a conventional artist). According to him one should sleep comfortably sitting in an armchair and holding a heavy key between the fingers. When sleep come, consciousness is released and it's when mind starts creating, mixing and transforming. In that very moment the hand would release the key that falling into a plate would wake one up, thus enabling the subject to remember those inspiring ideas. This is what he called "Slumber with a key".

So once again: to produce ideas by looking constantly at the problem is not the most effective procedure to describe the situation and to have good inspiration. This is somehow what the "Observer Effect" states. As an example of it, to measure the temperature of a liquid by introducing a thermometer into it, liquid's temperature will change due to thermometer's mass. Or a psychologist trying to study a patient, will affect the result because of his social interaction. 
These are just examples to show that it's impossible to know the nature of a phenomenon with precision by looking at it. 

I think that looking constantly at a problem alters the perception of it, inhibits ideas generation and makes difficult for creative solutions to come out. Ideas will not appear naturally unless attention is driven away from the issue. Talking about measuring temperature, if we pretend not to measure it, it won't come to us. But with creative ideas we are luckier. Ideas use to pop spontaneously in our mind, we all have experimented our "Eureka" moment. Wouldn't you call this inefficiency at problem solving caused by obsessive trouble-shooting the "observer effect for creativity"?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Basics for problem solving. Look in front of your nose

I bought a second-hand Vespa in September 2008: summer was over, temperatures were gently dropping and hot nights were just a memory. I spent the whole autumn, winter and spring driving to and fro through Madrid. When summer was back again and I was going back from work one hot day in June, after around 7 Km and almost at home, the engine switched off while I was in the middle of the street. I got scared, I pushed the Vespa to the pavement and tried everything to kick start the engine. I had no success, then I put the helmet off and started reviewing the basics.

I know almost nothing of mechanics, but at least I know that the spark plug should receive electricity, you need gasoline, and besides gasoline, the oil tank must be full. My Vespa is vintage style, then it has a two-stroke engine. Maybe not everybody knows that two-stroke engine gets fuel from two deposits, one for gasoline and the other for oil. Maybe you have noticed those old motorcycles, mopeds or even one of the first scooters expel dense smog. Gasoline mixed to oil is the reason. That's obsolete and polluting technology, but things were this way.

I could not manage to find out where the problem was but after some minutes, ready to push the vehicle back home, I tried one last attempt to start the engine and by surprise that worked! I put the helmet on and quickly drove back home. Then, the same story every single day. Almost at home, at the damned Km 7, the engine switched off, and you know the rest of the story: wait minutes and the engine could start again. I tried everything to fix the problem but without any good result. Mechanics had no idea and neither did I.
  • I had some electronic components replaced
  • I reviewed petrol tank cap had the typical hole to let air through it and avoid vacuum effect (you know, pens have that small hole for the same reason, to enable ink flow)
  • I replaced the spark plug
  • I cleaned the carburetor and its oil and air filters
  • Meanwhile, I replaced the whole engine for other reasons
The damn Vespa got stuck at Km 7. And during four years, from June to September I was condemned to switch the engine off whenever possible, for instance when waiting at traffic lights. I knew it was something related to hot temperature, but nobody could imagine how, having replaced almost everything of the original Vespa.
This was the routine until few weeks ago. From one day to another, my beloved Vespa started behaving fine and even with torrid climate I could drive home without any further problem. What had happened? I tried thinking of what I could have done, but nothing unusual, except refilling gasoline tank and ..Eureka! I had replaced the usual brand of oil, one of the cheapest for an expensive one!

The oil I had used to refill my Vespa until that day was cheap and low quality and when the moment to refill the tank arrived, it was temporarily out of stock at the shop. Then I was obliged to go for the expensive brand. The solution in front of my nose during four long years, but nobody could have imagined that when in Madrid it is so hot, you need quality and performing oil to have your engine survive.
This experience suggests me to make sure of the following when troubleshooting a problem. 
  1. Split the problem into components (plugs, filters, gasoline, light bulb, oil..)
  2. Find out components you have been interacting with recently (oil, wrong oil was my mistake)
  3. Play with the component (that is: clean it, replace it or whatever comes to your mind)
Before studying complex and expensive solutions to your problem, look in front of your nose. Habits hide things efficiently and insidiously.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

How to fold a pocket-handkerchief

If you happen to be like me, a convinced necktie hater, you probably have thought of some alternatives to be elegant and feel free at the same time. I understand that traditions, rituals and ceremonies require some standards to be followed, and I am not against who wear that beautiful silk necktie. At least you can express your taste by choosing the color and the pattern for the best match. But I really cannot cope with that suffocating feeling of oppression around my neck.

If I am allowed to choose, I would choose a pocket-handkerchief. That's why I took some pictures to show you how to fold it the standard way. Enjoy it!