How to generate, capture, and collect ideas to realize creative projects.


Bad News for Time-Travelers, Great News for Historians

“It’s called the TARDIS. It can travel anywhere in time and space. And it’s mine.”
“But it’s… look at it, it’s…”
“Go on, say it. Most people do.”
“It’s smaller on the outside!”
“Okay. That is a first.”
The Doctor and Clara in Doctor Who: “The Snowmen”

I recently watched the 7th season of Doctor Who. If you don’t know the series: He’s a time-traveling alien and his current companion is a human who works as a nanny. Although that’s like saying “Moby Dick is about a one-legged guy trying to catch a fish” (to quote an unrelated Jack Kirwan review).

Anyway, in one scene, the kids his companion governs discover photos from her in 1983, 1974, and 1893 (images below). Not being fooled by the assertion that this person only looks like her, it exposes her as a time traveler.

doctor_who_time_travel_1.jpg doctor_who_time_travel_2.jpg
Images from Doctor Who: “The Crimson Horror”

Personally, I found the explanation of the children how they got the photos harder to believe than the idea of time travel. One kid says:

“I found it at school.”

Really? How? Why?

I think a much more believable idea would have been if the companion left her notebook open, Facebook still open and logged in, and Facebook face recognition* suggested her on photos. You would just need someone uploading historic photos, e.g., on a history page.

After all, face recognition does not care whether the photos are from 1900 or 2000. It looks for matches no matter what.

So unless the photos contain date-time information in the EXIF and the algorithms filter out those photos where a match is impossible, it would find people currently living on historic photos when they could not have been living.

Sidenote: Actually such an algorithm to filter out impossible photos would make sense, it would cut down on the amount of photos that need scanning and it would allow for better face recognition. If the date of the photo is known, it could pick those personal photos as comparison that match the age of the person. Thinking further it could fill in the blanks by using an algorithm to age/rejuvenate the person on the photos. Not sure whether it is already possible, but there was talk about such a software to find missing children. If they haven’t been found for years, you might want to know how they would look like today. Actually, using Facebook photos would be a nice way to improve those algorithms, just think about the available data …

Anyway, so given that there are no hits of people currently living on historic photos (that cannot be explained by similar looking ancestors), it does not seem that time travel is possible (yet). Or just that time travelers are very clever.

But back to a more useful topic — I wonder what will be possible in the future when archives are digitized and face recognition works almost perfectly. Just imagine wanting to find out more about your family. It could make diving into the past almost effortless. Like a time machine on its own — finding people on photos and in newspaper reports.

With all the possible problems of digital technology — that is one of the bright sides when almost all data is digitized.

* If that is still a thing, I’m not on Facebook.


Sometimes you have to first increase the distance to your goal to reach it

“Stupidity is the devil. Look in the eye of a chicken and you’ll know. It’s the most horrifying, cannibalistic, and nightmarish creature in this world.”
Werner Herzog

There is this old story about a chicken desperately trying to reach the food behind a fence. The food is just a little bit too far away for the chicken to reach it. Nevertheless, the chicken tries and tries to reach it, never succeeding, and slowly dying of starvation. It is then revealed that the fence is only a few meters long and the chicken could have easily walked around the fence to reach the food. Yet it never did.

I am no expert on chickens, they usually come deep fried, so I don’t know whether this story is true. But I think it’s a really good analogy how many people get stuck when they are trying to reach a goal. I think one of the hardest things in trying to reach a goal is to voluntarily increase the distance to it in order to reach it. Take the long way, do something else, or move away. It just seems counter-intuitive and unproductive to retreat from a goal. Yet sometimes it’s the best thing you can do.

Unless you want to end up like that chicken.


Let the Bigots Speak Freely

I think you should defend to the death their right to march,
and then go down and meet them with baseball bats.
Woody Allen, on the Ku Klux Klan

Recently I stumbled upon a video interview and an article both dealing with the same subject: Should bigots have a right to speak openly about their prejudices, or should so-called hate-speech be prohibited?

I assume people who argue against so-called hate speech think that:

  1. speech can easily transfer into action, here likely violent crimes against the victims of so-called hate speech,
  2. prohibiting it sends a strong message about what is accepted in this society, and what is not,
  3. if it is prohibited then it is not shown, and thus it might die out after a while, and
  4. unless it is prohibited, bigots will get the more followers.

Personally, I think that this is a rather naive view.

1. speech-to-action: Sure, thoughts can end up in action, there’s a whole therapeutic branch of psychology trying to influence human behavior with nothing but words (that change cognitions that change behavior). But there’s a wide gap between words and actions. Calls for violence, that’s a different issue. But stating one’s prejudices is not a call for violence.

2. formation of norms: It’s not only one message that is send — here the society does not tolerate prejudice. Another message is that there are topics which cannot be discussed, and which should be tolerated as being beyond discussion. Accepting that there are topics that may not be discussed sets a dangerous precedent for dealing with future problems. It might seem like an easy solution to deal with controversies, no matter how consequential they are, but the consequences for critical thinking are devastating.

3. dying out if not publicly shown: Personally, I do not think that prejudices die out when it is prohibited to show them. That’s a bit like arguing that society is safe because crime is illegal. It will not stop people from being bigots. Prejudices will they will fester. If it is prohibited to show them publicly, they will be shown privately. It will spread in private and while it looks like there is no problem, below the surface resentment brews that might turn into a powder keg. If a person can express bigoted views publicly, then there is a chance to identify these bigots and address the issue.

4. bigots gaining more followers: In contrast to hiding bigoted views in private, stating them publicly allows for others to challenge these views. It also allows others to avoid these bigots, because you now know who they are. It also allows you to see which people are drawn to these bigots and might allow you to find ways to stop this development.

So, I think that bigots should have every right to show their prejudices. With one caveat, calls for violence should be prohibited. Then it stops being the personal “conviction” of a person and enters the criminal territory.

But acknowledging that bigoted views exist — which does not mean agreeing to them — requires the willingness to tolerate conflict in public. The social harmony crowd rather likes to cover possible — and needed — sources of conflict with a blanket of silence and prefers to ignore that something might fester and grow below.

But conflict is not always bad — open conflict that is. Open conflict can lead to discussion and to an improvement of the views of all who are involved. Even if this does not happen, because people have made public commitments to the positions they propose, it can inform the middle ground. Yes, some will adopt bigoted ideas, which will show those members of society who have a problem with these views that they have to improve their arguments. But I think the balance will be positive for reducing prejudice.

People not only need to know that it is wrong to show prejudices against other groups, but also why it is wrong. Unless we want to have a society where people act without reflecting about what they do — because “It’s the moral thing to do.” — we need this open discussion. We need a free marketplace of ideas. We need to be able to discuss any issue.

But all this hinges on having good discussions, which includes

I have already discussed the first two, the other two are something for the next posting.


Realizing “that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”

n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

That beautiful definition above — of an often overlooked aspect of life — caught my eye when I first saw it. I wonder — how can you make people realize this basic fact of life?

I don’t know, but perhaps writing down everything that concerns you at the moment, every doubt, every fear, every hope is a way to achieve it (hint: use paper and burn it after writing). Externalizing what you feel at the moment and then realizing that this is how almost every human being on this planet feels. Not the same items, but roughly the same number and many of the same emotions.

At least for a moment it might bring this awareness, before it vanishes in the usual stream of consciousness. That everyday living where other people are only the foils or assistants in our lives.

What do you think?


Academic Twitter Recommendations

‘As a wizard, I must tell you that words have power.’
‘As a politician, I must tell you I already know.
“Unseen Academicals” by Terry Pratchett

If you are using Twitter and are an Academic, I highly recommend following these Twitter Accounts:

  • Citizen Academic
    A twitter account focusing on the positive aspects of Academia.
  • Shit Academics Say
    The more ironic and funny side of Academia. This person does in one or two sentences what PhD Comics does with figures.
  • lol my thesis
    Yup, it’s possible to sum of 3-6 years of work and up to a couple of hundred pages in one sentence.
  • PhD Forum
    On a more serious note, a Twitter account for mutual support and tips.
  • Explorations of Style and pat thomson
    Two very skilled authors/teachers who write (and tweet) about academic writing.

Of course, there are other interesting Twitter Accounts for Academics to follow. If you have a recommendation, write a comment (click on the header of this posting to have the comment field displayed).


Inspiration from Unlikely Places

“Bukowski … he any good?”
“…. Define good.”
“Beautiful Creatures”

The nice thing about our time is that we have access to so many published works. If you like a particular kind of fiction, chances are, you find a lot of works in that genre. And Amazon and other recommendation systems — digital or human — will be happy to point them out to you.

While this is nice, as you can easily escape into the worlds of fiction where you feel at home, there might be other interesting kinds of works that you miss. Few recommendations go beyond one’s own nose, make you leave your own comfort zone. You might stay very close to what you are normally reading — because it’s just comfortable. You know you like it. But what if there are things out there that you not only like, but love?

This is one reason why I think that — from time to time — it’s nice to be inspired by references in movies and books and try them out. And no matter the quality of the source, as even bad directors and authors can point to gems.

Currently I’m trying out Bukowski — and yup, due to the quotation in the beginning of this posting. Besides looking for the book that was shown in the movie (“You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense”), whose title hit a spot and which is still in the mail, I ordered “Love is a Dog From Hell”. Both as much for the title as the cover design. ”Love is a Dog From Hell” has already arrived and I was a bit surprised that it is actually a poetry collection. I haven’t read poetry for a long, long time, but hey, that’s what jumping blindly gets you, and more research would have probably thrown me off.

And so far, it’s an interesting read — and I use the term “interesting” in the literal, cognitively and emotionally stimulating sense, not in the “yawn, interesting” sense (Many people, unfortunately some of them female, get this wrong when I say it.). It’s interesting, because it’s so far off from what I usually read — in genre and style, that I have to stretch myself and wrap my head around it, and yet there are some interesting points of view. For example, take his poem “how to be a great writer” (yup, had to stumble upon that one):

how to be a great writer

you’ve got to fuck a great many women
beautiful women
and write a few decent love poems.

and don’t worry about age
and/or freshly-arrived talents.

just drink more beer
more and more beer

and attend the racetrack at least once a

and win
if possible.


Beginning of “how to be a great writer” from the collection “Love is a Dog From Hell” by Charles Bukowski (can’t post the whole poem because I think it would go beyond fair use then)

The poem continues in this style and it’s … I don’t know, it makes you feel and think, which I think (and feel) is the main point of trying out something new.

So, it’s a nice example what can happen if you follow an unlikely inspiration and try something out that is beyond your established tastes, even if it appears ridiculous … at first glance. Worked well here, worked well when having a look at the book “Starship Troopers” after seeing a … ‘freely adapted’ movie version of the story (= has almost nothing to do with the book). Which brought me to reading Robert A. Heinlein’s works, one of my favorite authors, because he also makes me feel and think.

And sure, some things books and movies point to will be wastes of time (for you), but others work really well. And there is no way of finding out which is which without trying it out and experiencing it for yourself.


Why a Creative Present is Better than an Authentic Past

Some of her choices would cause heart failure even on a Riviera beach. She believed that a woman’s costume was a failure unless it made men want to tear it off.
“Glory Road” by Robert A. Heinlein

A while ago I’ve decided to follow @AHappyFlower on Twitter, who sends around — among others — interesting photos from the 20s, 30s and 40s. The focus is mostly on clothes, but it’s an interesting mixture. My reactions usually range from “Ewwweeeee!” to “Oh, holla.“, with a strong negative skew (meaning more instances on the “Oh, holla“, side ;-) ).

Recently, another Twitter user (jimmyolsenblues) commented on one of her tweets:

wrong time

Note: The image preview is a bit … unfortunate, as it might lead to the wrong impression. The actual photo — original tweet by @AHappyFlower here — contains a … more complete picture.

However, I find this view of being born in the wrong time period a bit strange — at least, if we are only talking about clothes and the like. After all, one of the nice things today is that we have

  1. access to the designs of clothes from many different time periods (photos, drawings, descriptions),
  2. access to high-quality materials, and
  3. access to highly skilled craftspeople.

For example, a former colleague of mine regularly went to a seamstress to get custom-made clothes. And no, she wasn’t rich. In fact, she concluded that in the long run, she would pay about the same amount of money — given that she invested in high quality pieces that could easily be combined. What got her started though was actually an allergy to a frequently used material in clothes. But by getting high quality custom clothes, she now also gets clothes that really fit her body — and her style.

And the last issue applies here as well. In contrast to earlier time periods, where you had only limited access to designs, materials, and craftspeople, the options today are much, much better. Especially given that you can use some eclectic anachronism in your clothes: You can combine styles from different time periods and/or use modern materials for “old” designs. You don’t even have to go as far as Steampunk or creative anachronism. A subtle yet creative (= new and useful) combination of old and new is easily possible today. Something that fits everything you want from the style of your favorite time period, yet also fits today’s street and office environments, or “social gatherings”.

It’s a more feasible solution than wishing of having lived in the past (hey, you would then probably be dead by now) — given that time travel “has not yet been has been invented”. And it also avoids the downsides of living in another (earlier) time period. For example, the worse medical support (think dentistry), or the social problems and injustices. After all, in almost all earlier time periods, everyone, no matter whether male or female, was at the mercy of the ruling class/caste with little to no protection of the law. Not to mention that imagination and reality might be a bit off — Pleasantville (playing in part in 1958) is a beautiful movie in this regard. Highly, highly recommended if you see the past through rose-colored glasses.

And yup, I also never understood why people think that if they were born in the past they would end up as the local Cleopatra/Caesar, and not as the girl/boy who cleans her latrines. The chances are much, much higher to end up very low on the social pyramid, given that it had a very broad base in earlier times. A ‘practical application’ of the Veil of Ignorance (Rawls) that would not have worked in earlier times when things were ‘predetermined’ by God(s).

And there is the issue that if you were actually born in that time, you would not have become the person who has this feeling about the (now current) time period. You would most likely have the same feelings about either an earlier period, or the future. Unless you really think it’s a question of fit to the way you “really” are, independent of the time period you grow up in, it’s just the way you are — now. And that’s not a curse, it’s a blessing. It allows you to take a different view on the way things are and could (have) be(en). It allows you to make your own decisions, to follow your own interests, your own ideas of how things should be or could be, even if it’s (only) in personal style.

In this sense, happy researching, combining, creating, and living in your own style. :-)


Quickly Open a Text File to Jot Down Creative Ideas with Spotlight and Automator

The outside world is insane, loud, fast and dangerous – but I love that. I don’t know why, but I love it.

I’ve been using and recommending Quicksilver to quickly open files on the Mac. It looks like a Spotlight replacement, but is actually a very powerful program to control the behavior of other programs. However, I work a lot within programs and only rarely from Finder, so Quicksilver for me is like a very powerful sporting yacht if you do not live near open waters. I can appreciate its power, but not enough to be willing change my way of living.

So, after doing a clean install of Mavericks, I was unsure whether I wanted to install it again. Essentially, I needed Quicksilver for one thing only: To quickly open one specific text file to jot down ideas no matter what I am doing on my Mac at the moment.

It’s one habit I can highly recommend — do not expect to remember cool or even potentially useful ideas later on. Just jot them down in a simple text file (nothing opens and closes faster) and move on with doing what you did when you had the idea. It’s a very simple, very powerful cornerstone of my workflow.

Quicksilver did this job beautifully for me, as it remembers frequently opened files and gives me this file first. It was only a matter of pressing a keyboard shortcut, typing the first letters of the file name, and hit enter.

However, there is an easier way to do this with Mac’s Spotlight.

Normally, Spotlight searches for all kinds of files, but like said, when I want to open data files or look up names, I do it manually. The idea of using a search to open data files … it is just strange to me. While I can see the lure of treating every file ‘the same’ (except for display order), I think categories have their uses.

So I have disabled Spotlight for everything but Applications:


(Applications are the only files I want to open quickly via a search, for those applications I do not keep in my Dock.)

Then I used Automator (comes per-installed with every Mac, just use Spotlight to search for it) to create an Application and used the “Get Specified Finder Items” (and added the file I use to jot down my ideas) and “Open Finder Items” (selecting TextWrangler as application). Both are under “Files & Folders”. This creates an “Application” with the sole purpose of opening one specific file with TextWrangler (the application I use to edit text files).


After saving the file in my “Applications” Folder, Spotlight was able to find the Application and now I can quickly open my text file via Spotlight. Given that you can use any filename for the App, use one that is unique — so whenever you type the first letters of the file name it is the first hit to be shown.

It might look like a slight overkill, but consider this: I use this text file perhaps 20-50 times a day. And it’s much easier to quickly open, jot down the idea, and close it, than to have it sitting on some space. Reason being is that most ideas come when I write something else, so my fingers are on the keyboard. This way I can press “cmd + space” for spotlight, type the first letters of the file name, jot down the idea, use “cmd + s” to save it and “cmd + w” to close the TextWrangler window and use “cmd + tab” to return to the application I was in — all without taking my hands off the keyboard. No fiddling with the mouse or the trackpad which would require completely different actions.

Works like a charm. :-)


Surprise and Delight from Smartphones

“Perhaps it’s not fair to expect surprise and delight from smartphones anymore.”
Kirby Ferguson

OpenCulture pointed me to a video by Kirby Ferguson, who shows how much the iPhone took from existing technology. This technology was remixed it in a hard to beat package. While the first iPhone took a lot from sources other than smartphones or cellphones of the day (e.g., everyday objects like sliders, buttons, typewriter, etc.) and was thus surprising and delightful, the iOS7 update instead took a lot from other smartphones (Android, Windows, etc.). As a result, the update is not that surprising.

He ends the video with remarking that it has become harder to delight and surprise the user, but that taking “influences from more surprising and delightful sources would probably help”, but that “Perhaps it’s not fair to expect surprise and delight from smartphones anymore.”

Frankly, I disagree. Look at an iPhone and you see a lot of Apps. They are like bugs (the insects) — each working alone. Sure, you can access them easily and even via one speech interface and perhaps even transfer some data (à la “Open in …”), but they are separate creatures.

Now image what would happen if you could all work together on your data, your information, your goals.

Just imagine what a service similar to “If this, then that” could do on a smartphone. If you could make the apps talk to each other. Today, the creative power of the apps is separated. But if they would work together, the separated bugs would become an hive — a directed hive.

All you need are some very smart developers to open up the Apps this way and come up with APIs. And it would require a policy change at Apple (uh-oh, that would require taking a creative risk). But the things this could achieve … if done right …

Hmmm … it might just do the job of combining surprise and delight.


The Attraction of Computer Games

Then out spoke brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate: “To every man upon this earth, Death cometh soon or late. And how can man die better, than facing fearful odds, For the ashes of his fathers, and the temple of his Gods!”
Horatius on the Bridge, from “Days Of Ancient Rome”, by Lord Macaulay

If you have ever wondered why some people love to play video games, the following part of a music video drives at least the emotional aspect home (jump 19 minutes into the video). It’s part of an hour long music video by EpicMusicVn called “The Best of Epic Music 2012 – 20 tracks – 1-hour Full Cinematic”. I stumbled upon it when I was looking for some background music while programming. Somehow this music is just right when you are digging through code.

Anyway, watch and enjoy (jump to 19 minutes, the “Sol Invictus” track).

Hmm, and yes, besides a lot of jumping, shooting and hacking, the way games can convey meaning (in the world of the game) and reward achievement is hard to beat. One reason why I think that Gamification — the use of game elements in everyday (work) life (totally different from computer games or even Serious Games) — has such a high potential. If done right that is.