Time, from A to Z (Zimbardo, that is)

May 22, 2010 at 11:31 pm | In creativity, education, health, ideas, leadership, social_critique | Comments Off on Time, from A to Z (Zimbardo, that is)

If you haven’t seen Philip Zimbardo‘s 2008 presentation, The Time Paradox, at California’s Commonwealth Club, do yourself a favor and take the time to watch it now. If you do, you’ll understand why it’s a good idea to stop waiting for your ship to come in…

Zimbardo‘s analysis of how we parse time (how we value it, how we picture it to ourselves, what we tell ourselves about time) obviously provides insights for individuals. But he also has a lot to say about its ability to shape social groups and even economic trends.

Regarding the latter, check out this screen shot, nearly 50 minutes into his talk:


It says:

Current Financial Meltdown on Wall Street and Elsewhere

Is caused by motivated collective GREED that

interferes with wise, future-oriented decisions of

need for reserves and cautious loans and


for short-term present-focused quick gains,

failure to discount future costs against immediate

taste of the $$Marshmallow$$


Zimbardo is talking about present-oriented perceptions of time (centered on immediate gratification), which dominated the time leading to our current economic crisis. For example, in 2002, one in fifty loans were sub-prime; by 2008, it was one in three: that pervasive culture of risk-taking hadn’t been socially acceptable in earlier generations. $$Marshmallow$$ refers to an experiment with children, testing their ability to delay gratification (those who could delay correlated with more socio-economic success as adults while those who couldn’t correlated with riskier behaviors, including drug use, and socio-economic drawbacks). And by “the commons dilemma,” Zimbardo refers to despoliation of a common good (the commons) for individual short-term competitive gain (he specifically refers to the Monterey sardine fishery, now defunct because of over-fishing).

There’s lots more in Zimbardo’s talk (see also The Time Paradox website). From insights regarding how different members within my family perceive time (and what that does to inter-personal dynamics, or to issues relating to attitude, depression, and even energy), to how the place I live in has a different (and often habitually crippling) perception of time and therefore also toward change (which has immense political implications, especially here), Zimbardo’s insights are remarkably rewarding.

Blogging as gleaning?

April 26, 2010 at 10:15 pm | In creativity, just_so, writing | 4 Comments

Gleaning, as every good art historian schooled in 19th century French painting knows, “is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest.”

The painting on the left, by Jean-François Millet, is the Gleaners (1857), with its bleak Old Testament mood of “you shall earn your bread by the sweat of your brow” and Book of Ruth lessons about “how the poor shall be with you always.” More solid than the massive haystacks on the horizon, these gleaners will be here for all eternity.

And so, while Millet monumentalized the poor, his approach was however appropriately enough re-thought by more progressively socialist-minded painters (Pissarro, eg.) who maybe weren’t entirely satisfied with “naturalized” pictures of poverty because those representations weren’t really going to change anyone’s mind about the nature of poverty anyway – or the social status of the poor.

During the last week, yours truly must have been working the fields a bit too hard, for I’ve been dealing with the most annoying pulled muscle back pain for almost 6 days.

Earlier today, I figured out why my back hurt and thought I’d just write a little post about that (the pain).

But looking first for images under “back pain,” I found this:



And finding that cartoon, “Back-Ache by Millet,” which satirizes The Gleaners, gave me something else to think about.

First, here’s how I think I hurt my back: I’ve set myself the task to blog daily, but I’m busy doing other things during the day, so I often don’t get to writing my blog post until later in the evening. At times I’m really down to the wire as I scramble to finish the entry before midnight (deadline!), lest I leave a gap in the calendar.

(I think I’m getting a bit obsessive about this self-imposed schedule…)

Sometimes, because I’m writing at night, I try to be “social” about it, meaning: I write while curled up (read: hunched) in an upholstered chair in the living room. Other family members might be in the living room, and if I write in the same room with them, I’m being social by being available to them (that’s my theory, anyway).

Sometimes, I go to my desk to write (especially if it’s already closing on midnight, the deadline hour). But by then all my bad habits kick in and I could just as well have stayed curled up in that too-soft upholstered chair with my legs tucked under me. At my desk, I put my feet up on the desk (and I cross them at the ankles, too), lean back in the swivelly chair, laptop on lap, body torqued to maximum, shoulders hunched. And then I start writing.

For some reason, I always think that sitting like this is far more comfortable than sitting in an ergonomically-correct position – until, that is, I try to get up. Then I realize that I’ve thrown everything, from spine to shoulders to knees, out of whack. Ouch.

I was going to describe all this as my insight of the day (seriously: it didn’t occur to me until today that I have only my own slouching habits to blame for the really terrible back pain I’ve endured for nearly a week). I was going to add that I might cut back on the blogging a bit, until I can improve my habits.

But then I saw that cartoon! Naturally, I can’t resist writing that blogging has lately felt for all the world like gleaning: pecking out the bits of value in an ocean of sensation and information, trying to make a meal out of nothing much at all.

Except that it’s not entirely true. If I’m a “field” worker, my injuries are completely self-inflicted, and my field is infinitely rich, not a meager stubbly patch. Unlike starving peasants, I can’t complain about a dearth of anything, least of all material.

My back, though, is still killing me. 😉

All in my head?

December 7, 2009 at 10:29 am | In creativity, ideas, johnson street bridge, just_so, local_not_global, politics, victoria | 1 Comment

I’ve written quite a few blog posts in the last months. Unfortunately, the ones destined for this blog all stayed in my head.

As I’ve mentioned on my Twitter stream, I’m deeply immersed these days in a local issue.

How the local has chipped away at my confidence in assessing any kind of global perspective (including my own “place”) could itself be the topic of a blog post, however. From where I’m standing right now, local politics are much “heavier” than national or global politics. You come to know in your bones how local politics will dis-lodge you. Mess with global issues and you can always return to your nest at the end of the day. But local politics infiltrates your “place,” shows you that your hold is both tentative and atavistic, a throwback that can’t last because immortality (including the pretended one of blowhard politicians) is illusion…

I think most people ignore local politics for that very reason, even though affecting local politics is in some ways easier and more rewarding than tilting at national or global windmills.

Some national and global issues might be starting to give us a foretaste of how they’re going to affect us locally.

In the US, health care issues are a beginning of a confluence between local and national. Climate change will probably bring global to local.

We live in interesting times.

Urban density and social media tools

June 8, 2009 at 9:40 am | In cities, creativity, innovation, land_use, social_networking, urbanism, victoria | Comments Off on Urban density and social media tools

It won’t come as news to those of us who love and defend cities, but it’s nice to have scientific research backing up what we espouse as urban positives: High population density triggers cultural explosions, according to a new study by scientists at University College London. The study was published in the journal Science; see also UCL’s page here (h/t Richard Florida/Creative Class blog).

The study reports that “complex skills learnt across generations can only be maintained when there is a critical level of interaction between people.”

I wonder how current social media tools mimic the benefits of density, or augment it in places that are emerging.

For example, I live in Victoria, BC, a medium-sized city that is approaching good density levels in the core neighborhoods, and I’m continually amazed by how social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, and a local forum on Vibrant Victoria have allowed a speedier dissemination of ideas. The dissemination doesn’t necessarily produce “instant” results, but how much more bereft we would be without the various platforms for those conversations.

While web-based tools can’t replace actual rubbing-up against people, they do facilitate transmission of ideas as well as complex skills, particularly if those skills aren’t manual. Yet even in the realm of manual skill or physical production – say, vegetable gardening or backyard chicken-raising – I’m likely to turn to the internet to find instructional videos or a local group. Digital natives will always go there first (and I’ve been an immigrant several times over, so I consider myself fully “naturalized” here, too, thank-you!).

Online social media tools absolutely augment the benefits of “real” population density. Thinking about online density and actual urban density (and its benefits) together, as being of a piece, seems important.

Drug use as side effect of suppressing innovation and risk-taking?

December 13, 2008 at 12:20 pm | In addiction, comments, creativity, education, ideas, innovation, social_critique | 4 Comments

The other day Rob Randall posted an entry, Amsterdam cracks down on prostitution, cannabis: lessons for Victoria?, on which I left a long comment.

Rob’s post was about how Amsterdam is reconsidering its liberal laws regarding drugs (and prostitution). My comment wasn’t about Amsterdam or about liberalizing drug laws (as such), but more discursive, “thinking-out-loud” about our factory school system, the artificial extension of childhood into late teens, and how we rather systematically suppress creative risk-taking and innovation in young people. I went so far as to suggest that maybe that’s why we have such a big drug-use problem in the first place.

Here’s my comment:

Permissive approaches to what we quaintly used to call “vice” don’t work if there’s a network – an entire ecosystem – of crime behind the behavior. Anyone who tells me that we should just legalize everything, and that this would get rid of the criminal element, is (imo) delusional. For one thing, what’s legal in one jurisdiction (say, Amsterdam) is not going to be universally legal everywhere (say, Afghanistan), which means you can’t get rid of the criminal element.

Further to that, when people compare our current social problems that are caused by interdicted drugs to the organized crime problems we saw during the era of alcohol prohibition, I also think they’re totally mistaken. Why? The two substance categories are apples and oranges – nay, apples and rocks: totally different.

Yes, alcohol can kill, it can derange people’s lives, destroy families, and turn (some) individuals into addicts (alcoholics). But it’s in no way as quickly and massively and universally disruptive and corrosive as cocaine, crack, crystal meth, heroin, and so forth are. Otherwise, every social drinker or everyone accustomed to drinking a glass or two of wine with their dinner would be saddled with the same problems that addicts of those other drugs have.

Yet they aren’t. Why is that? It’s not because alcohol is legal while drugs aren’t. It’s because those drugs really truly are bad for you, they alter your brain chemistry, and there’s no way – except in a ritualistic, quasi-annual or seasonal Saturnalia kind of way (think Mayan ritual) – that they can be integrated into well-functioning social routines. (And, um, the Mayans mixed their rituals with heavy-duty mayhem that no one would really be cool with today…)

So I wish people would stop with the “let’s legalize this and solve the problems that way” BS.

What’s the answer? Everyone keeps coming back to “education”: that if we educate our kids to the dangers of these drugs, they won’t do them.

Yet our kids are doing drugs anyway. So what’s going on? Maybe ‘education’ means a bit more than just warning people about the dangers. Maybe there has to be more authoritative parenting – note: I don’t write (or mean) authoritarian, but authoritative.

What does that mean, from where I’m sitting? Well, a bunch of things. First off, parents should be parents – they should damn well pay attention. For another thing, speaking as a parent, I wouldn’t (and I didn’t) send my kids into the factory school system. Pink Floyd said it best on their album “The Wall”: you’re just another brick in the wall. Schools as they exist today are by and large set up to babysit kids, to get them out of their parents’ hair so that the parents can go to work, and they’re designed like factories, where it’s “one size fits all,” and you’re a cog in the machine. Whatever drive you have to take risks, to be creative, to pursue your own dream (unless it fits in with the system) is drummed out of you by the curricula you’re obliged to follow, with bells that go off every 50 minutes to tell you to move on, irrespective of any desire on your part to continue pursuing a subject you just got interested in. It’s modeled on the factory, and a factory it is. It’s the opposite of a system conducive to innovation and creative risk-taking.

It’s a system that’s designed to kill whatever entrepreneurial or innovative spark you have, and it typically channels all your adolescent desire for proving yourself and for taking risks into the most inane and puerile (immature) behaviors of the peer group.

I’ve been reading and thinking about innovation (Canada hasn’t been particularly welcoming or conducive to innovation, by the way, as we don’t celebrate risk-taking here). I’m also thinking about how the drive to innovate, to undertake (i.e., entrepreneurialism), and to take risks is tied to biology and age: in the Renaissance, 14-year-olds (if they were born into the right families) ran city-states (Florence, eg.) or became apprentices so that by the time they were 18 or 19 they were called “masters.” (This was true for boys. Girls’ options were extremely limited: they undertook motherhood, an option tied solely to biology but not skill or inclination, and one that can gravely limit all other options, especially when embarked on so young. Luckily, we don’t encourage that any more, but there are still “buts”…)

Today, we extend childhood – which is just another way of killing or subduing or controlling the natural instinct to take risks. Hell, if having sex and procreating isn’t the ultimate risk, risking your very self to keep the species going, what is? And what’s typically of interest to many young people? If they’re sexually active, they’re not doing it to bug their parents, they’re doing it because it’s bred in the bone, it’s in the DNA: you have to do it (or at least have your attention aroused by it), it’s a drive, regardless of how much you think about it. (Of course, extensive or excessive cerebration has an effect on the drives, as the Surrealists well understood – which comes out in many of their visual works.)

I have to wonder whether drug use isn’t a by-product (so to speak) of the factory school system, which (imo) tends to throttle the natural (and good) inclinations of adolescents to take risks, to innovate, to undertake (entrepreneurialism). Put a couple of hundred frustrated teens into a factory, er, excuse me, school, and add some heavy dollops of crappy absentee parenting and a home-life where no one is paying attention to anything (it has to be said: parents have a lot to answer for!), and bingo-presto, you have a setting for a nihilistic peer culture whose creativity is thwarted, and which too often doesn’t have mature outlets for risk-taking. (And remember, I’m arguing that risk-taking, contrary to some research on the teenage brain, isn’t a medical condition or a question of incomplete neurological development: I’m arguing that it’s part of our DNA, and essential for an entrepreneurial and innovative and creative culture. But we deny it.) In a “perfect storm” type scenario (absent parents, no proper outlets for creativity, immature peer group, bad role models/no leadership models), those kids will do drugs, whether legal or illegal. They will seek them out, explore them, pour their energies into them.

After all, their own parents have been doping them up since they were babies, often with Ritalin or other behavior-modifying junk. So why shouldn’t they try some little extras to help them get through the asininity of their extended, risk-free/ un-innovative, endless childhoods?

In other words, I’m arguing that substance abuse and a badly suited education system (the factory model, based on 19th and early 20th century Fordist & Taylorist principles) and the suppression of (as well as the absence of a proper object and outlet for) innovation/ creative risk-taking / independent thinking must be thought of as pieces of the same puzzle. That’s something that should be tackled at social policy level (see also Judy Estrin‘s new book, Closing the Innovation Gap.)

I’m also arguing that the other big piece in that puzzle is absentee – or outright bad – parenting, which is relatively new as a mass phenomenon insofar as it has been created by recent generations who are themselves the product of an education system that’s outdated/ innovation-killing (or, worse, who are themselves drug-users), and who most certainly are boxed into the at least partially absent parent role if they’re trying to make their career mark, or just working as much as they can to keep up with …well, with keeping up (whatever that means in each case – in many cases, basic means: keeping a roof over one’s head and food on the table).

Everything is an ecosystem, a web.  You can’t tinker with stuff in isolation and expect to avoid consequences along the way.  This makes me think that the much-lauded concept of a track (career track, education track, policy track, etc.) is as artificial or outdated as other mechanical (factory model based) ways of thinking.  You can’t put careers on tracks or put kids on tracks or put your life on tracks or put social policy on tracks/ fast track policy without accounting in some way for the effects “your” tracks have on the ecosystem overall.  It’s not “isolatable” in the bigger sense, which means we need to keep big- and small-picture views in focus.

On Creativity

October 14, 2008 at 9:34 pm | In cities, creativity, just_so | Comments Off on On Creativity

I have to reblog and repost the entry I just read on CEOs for Cities.  Called In Detroit for Creative Cities Summit, Carol Colletta has this to report on what she learned about creativity and economies (emphasis added by me):

“Creativity is the only inextinguishable resource we have.”

There are 3 principles of the creative ecology from John Howkins:

1.  Everyone is creative.
2.  Creativity needs freedom.
3.  Freedom needs markets.

Creativity does not equal the arts. Creativity is not the same as innovation.

Creativity needs freedom of expression, dialogue, collaboration, education and learning, cities and clusters, and acceptance by family and society.

Creativity is not deferential.  You don’t do it (creativity) because something thinks it’s a good idea.  Otherwise, it becomes the repetitive economy.  The creative economy thrives on novelty and meaning.

The creative economy is an economy of failure.  It we skirt that truth, we are back to repetitive economy.

The creative ecology is niche where diverse individuals express themselves in systematic and adaptive ways, using ideas to produce ideas and others support this even if they don’t understand it.

It’s easy to build a building.  It’s hard to fund creativity.

Diversity -> Change -> Learning -> Adaptation

Education is only important if it enables learning.

Cities must ask, “How big is our learning capacity?”

I know there are people who will poo-poo this, but for me it strikes a chord.  Maybe because I’m all about failure, or maybe because I’m all about doing stuff that isn’t deferential. For example, you want something like a DemoCamp?  You really want a DemoCamp?  Just friggin’ hold one then. (This goes for anything worth doing. Rinse and repeat: anything worth doing!)  And don’t worry about ownership.  Who cares?

There’s a great song by Abbey Lincoln, a vocalist, composer, recording artist I admire totally.  It’s called Throw It Away.  There are often days when Lincoln’s songs provide a palimpsest for what I feel most deeply.

Throw it away / Throw it away / Give your love, live your life / Each and every day // And keep your hand wide open / Let the sun shine through / ‘Cause you can never lose a thing / If it belongs to you   (Album source)

Maybe it’s weird to go from CEOs for Cities to Abbey Lincoln, but it makes sense to me.  Creativity is the blues, but what a great shade of blue it is.  As Colletta posted (above), “The creative ecology is niche where diverse individuals express themselves in systematic and adaptive ways, using ideas to produce ideas and others support this even if they don’t understand it.”

“…even if they don’t understand it.”  Trust, keep your hand wide open.

Diigo Bookmarks 08/05/2008 (p.m.)

August 5, 2008 at 5:30 am | In cities, copywrong, creativity, innovation, links | Comments Off on Diigo Bookmarks 08/05/2008 (p.m.)

Douglas Magazine in Victoria: letter to the editor

July 21, 2008 at 10:34 am | In business, creativity, DemoCampVictoria, innovation, urbanism, victoria | 3 Comments

I bought a copy of Douglas Magazine yesterday — it’s a slim publication, but full of interesting articles relating to Victoria’s economy.  Too bad it’s not online, but maybe one day?

The current July/August issue includes a useful article by Dan Gunn, “Growing the tech talent pool,” which made me want to write a letter to the editor in response.  I wrote:

I enjoyed Dan Gunn‘s article, “Growing the tech talent pool,” (July/August ’08), and found it a good complement to Ken Stratford‘s “Owning your own business,” which deftly busted some Victoria economy myths.

Gunn observed that our technology sector has to grow and expand, and suggested several ways we can plan for its future growth.  He also noted that “Greater Victoria has a very tight-knit technology community.”  Let’s not forget that “tight-knit” often also means “insular” or “locked in silos,” a condition that’s anathema to innovation.

Hence I feel prompted to suggest another way to plan for tech’s future growth: encourage synergistic cross-pollination between the various industries.  Propagate the knowledge that technology is part of the “creative cities industry,” which includes not just artists, marketers, or creative urbanists, but also technologists, coders, entrepreneurs — in a word: innovators.  Spread the word that innovation and entrepreneurship add value to a city’s economy, and good ideas emerge when folks rub up against one another rather than staying within a tightly-knit tribe.

Douglas Magazine helps get those ideas out there, as do specific events.

For an additional example of how events play a role in connecting people and ideas, recall last April’s first-ever DemoCamp Victoria (and we’re planning a second one for Autumn), or take a look at events like Pecha Kucha (started in Japan, now world-wide, including Vancouver).

We have so much potential here — and if we can work to break down the silos and get more interactive (literally, with one another), we’ll be hopping.  Everyone I talk to in the arts and in tech wants to see this happen, and wants additional platforms for connecting with other people.  Geographically, we might be an island, but with technology and talented people, we don’t have to be on islands creatively.

“Forgotten Architects,” and some thoughts on the creative class

April 1, 2008 at 1:53 pm | In architecture, comments, creativity, ideas | 1 Comment

Here’s a great blog post by BLDGBLOG‘s Geoff Manaugh, Forgotten Architects, where he details Myra Wahrhaftig‘s research project on German Jewish architects who were suppressed and banned from practicing in Nazi Germany. Some of Wahrhaftig’s work is now published by the Pentragram Papers (and here); there is also a German-language lexicon with 500 biographies, Deutsche juedische Architekten vor und nach 1933 — Das Lexikon.

In his commentary (and do surf over to BLDGBLOG to see the fabulous illustrations), Geoff Manaugh nails it when he writes “…frankly, it seems impossible not to look at these images and judge 20th century Germany in light of the catastrophic stupidities that led to its murderous exile of the creative classes, whether those were physicists, novelists, abstract expressionists, or even architect members of the Bauhaus.”

Invoking the phrase “creative classes” conjures Richard Florida, who we might think “discovered” the creative class as a slightly more recent phenomenon. But clearly there’s much to learn about the “creative classes” and their role in society by studying the consequences of Nazi Germany’s actions, too.  In effect, it modeled for the world what it really means to squeeze the creative class from a country’s economy and culture. “Purity” (in Nazism’s case, “Arian” purity) is the opposite of all those vital “Ts” that Florida advocates for (talent, technology, tolerance). To aim for a “purely German” architecture or science or math is as absurd as to label any architecture, science, or math “Semitic,” yet that’s what the Nazis tried to do. Stalinists of course also believed, like Nazis, that there could be Soviet technology or art. Absurdly, they all thought they were being creative in some “new,” virile way.

These histories teach the need for a more complex approach: we can’t get out of having to evaluate, case by case, whether something contributes or is creative …and it involves choices and judgments as to what individuals and societies believe is worth contributing to. As someone who intensely dislikes Nazi-style “purity” (or ideologically prescribed “correctness” of any kind), I (like so many others) have sometimes not been disinclined to court the opposite view: namely, that anything fun and freaky must be (should be?) good or creative. But sometimes fun is just …well, fun. And sometimes freaky really is a freakish temporary blip that doesn’t deserve sustained attention. (Tell that to the attention economy, though…) In other words, the opposite of Nazism (to use an umbrella term) isn’t “anything goes,” but understanding — of creativity, of what works, of tolerance, talent, and technology.

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