Two Guys Walk Into a Bar . . .

September 7, 2013

theatre clipart

When Steve Martin’s  Picasso at the Lapin Agile was published in 1996, I bought it immediately, looking forward to reading this new play  by the “crazy” man whose comedy always made me laugh.    From interviews, I knew that he had been a philosophy major in college,  giving him a intellectual perspective that I admired, even in his farcical comedy.

I was disappointed, however, when I read the play with its inane dialog and never-ending non sequiturs. It took attending a production of the work this spring by the American Southwest Theatre Company at New Mexico State University to bring it to life for me.  Seeing the play made me realize the power of live performance.

Yes, the dialog was absurd and hilariously silly, but as I relaxed into the action, I began to construct a broader view of the play. I realized that I should have been a lot more interested in this work when I read it nearly 20 years ago.

There are a couple of themes in the play, and the first one is more explicit. It is about the future and the monumental changes that were afoot in the early days of the twentieth century. It may be that Martin was exploring the idea of change itself, but certainly he was thinking of the concept of the future. Set in 1904 in Paris, it posits a hypothetical meeting in a bar of two young men about town, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso. The two get into an argument over who is more talented.  To win the affections of a woman they both want, they decide to “duel” by drawing their ideas on bar napkins.

The second theme, and the one that I had missed in reading the play, is that this comedy was about the serious subject of genius and creative talent. Martin was exploring the nature of creative ability. Broadly speaking, the play implicitly poses the question, “Is creativity the domain solely of the artist, or can the term apply equally to scientists, inventors, philosophers, and, possibly even, entertainers?” Throughout the play we see examples of ordinary people being creative and examples of those who are creative geniuses. We see the courage that is necessary to express one’s unique creativity.  We also see that everyone makes his own evaluation of the creativity of others, and that thoughtful judgment of creative products is important.

While there are still those who think only of the arts when they think of creative achievement, apparently Martin (along with the psychologist Howard Gardner and others who study creative-thinking styles) saw similarities in the thinking of both Einstein and Picasso.  Both used visual imagery in the problem-solving that led to their highly creative products.

Like Arthur Koestler who saw creativity as a process of putting together existing ideas in new and interesting ways, Martin showed the similarities in their ways of thinking. This can be seen in Picasso’s fractured images and in Einstein’s famous “thought experiments.” Both Picasso’s and Einstein’s ideas existed in four dimensions, and thus were difficult to show on bar napkins. Both spoke passionately about their work in visual and aesthetic terms.

There are several of other interesting characters of the play.  One, Gemaine, is a down to earth barmaid who shows great insight about the value of art.  She is one of the few in the play who can imagine the future. Another, Schmendiman, is a foolish inventor who tries to sell his product that nobody needs, “an inflexible and very brittle building material” made from asbestos, kitten paws, and radium. Mistaking mere newness for creativity, he wants to be seen as a mover and shaker, but when he shares his take on the creative process he says, “Follow the path of least resistance.” Most intriguing is the shocking creativity of a mysterious man from the future whom the audience recognizes to be none other than Elvis Presley. He speaks of inspiration and the joy of creation.  His view literally transforms a mundane painting above the bar into Picasso’s famous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, but only Picasso (and the audience) can see the changed painting.

Entertainers, Martin seems to say, can also be creative geniuses who shake and shape the world around them.  In the case of Steve Martin, this is certainly true.

Destined for Success?

May 2, 2010

Lately I’ve been reading a couple of books about how successful people grow up to flourish and show their creativity, while others do not.  These two books that have some similarities, but also some important differences.

They’re both written by journalists who excel at making scientific information accessible to the general reader.  They both treat the subject of personal achievement in society and how it emerges.

  • Both David Schenk’s The Genius in All of Us and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers advocate the virtues of practice, perseverance, and steadfastness.  Both debunk the myth of the gifted loner who by her special gifts is easily able to surpass all others. And both stress the importance of societal supports for creating a level playing field for achievement.
  • Both also devote significant attention to the Louis Terman “genius studies,” their results (disappointing) and their methodological shortcomings (among them the selection of participants, and defining giftedness as intelligence.)
  • Another similarity is in the fact that both push back on two different types of “predestination” theories that attempt to explain success and failure.  Schenk’s book is an extended essay debunking the notion that genes alone (or even genes and experience) combine statically to determine ability.  He maintains (and documents his point of view with a section of backup resources that amounts to about half of the book) that it is the dynamic interaction between the two: nature and nurture, plus the efforts of the individual through practice and self improvement to overcome weaknesses and strengthen abilities.  Gladwell is so interested in the social and cultural aspects of the nurturing of talent that he nearly suggests that the poor and under stimulated have very little chance of success in modern life.  This point of view is nearly as discouraging (or excusing) as the pure genetic explanation of success and achievement.

Outliers emphasizes how idiosyncratic, simply lucky, events can affect future success. In an interesting section he makes a case for the importance of date of birth in the emergence of the talent of hockey players. Gladwell puts an emphasis on all of the aspects of the environment around the achiever to make his point that it isn’t intelligence alone, or even pluck and perseverance, but having ability, being at the right place at the right time, and having mentors or others to support and encourage you that make the difference.

Schenk, likewise, points out the importance of having familial, cultural, and societal support for those persons able to create outstanding work. He gives tips for parents, teachers, and for individuals with a passion, for strengthen and developing that ability.

After reading both books, I developed a few takeaways from the two that seem important to me:

  • Whatever your level of ability, trying hard is important.  Both books stress how important is the passionate practice of your favored activity.  Especially for people for whom many pursuits are easy, the notion of trying hard on something is not immediately apparent.  But for truly outstanding results, many long hours of practice and trying hard are essential.
  • Giftedness as an explanation for achievement has outworn its usefulness.  There are too many people whose promise of giftedness has not been manifest in their creative products or their life achievements for those termed “gifted” to rest on their laurels, or for those not so classified to be discouraged or give up.  The proof of one’s giftedness is not in one’s abilities or scores on an exam, but rather in one’s products: what one actually makes, does, or achieves.  But, at the same time, until all children are given the support to help them pursue and develop their passions, attention to gifted education is important.
  • There is a persistent and increasing value accorded by the world in general to both the concept of creativity and the value of its practice – in child-rearing, education, management, and invention.  Though we may not all be termed “gifted,” we may all make of our lives creative expressions of our values and our passions. We may even become gifted through our own efforts.

Hooray for the Olivator!

April 20, 2010

an olive stuffer extraordinaire

The Olivator

I recently received a terrific little gift.  It is the perfect thing for the person who has everything, or for somebody who likes to play with her food.  This product is a good example of the added value that you can achieve with excellent design.  The Style dimension of this product really sells it! Read more

The Inventor of Air

December 4, 2009

Johnson, Steven (2008). The Invention of Air: The Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York, Riverhead Books, 254 p.

Last summer I posted an article here about the personal characteristics of inventors. It was called “Look in the Mirror. Do You see an Inventor?” I got to thinking again about that piece because I’ve just finished reading The Invention of Air. This is terrific book for any inventor about Joseph Priestley. It is not a “how to” book, but rather, a biography of someone whose name you might not remember, but should. I got to wondering how Priestley would stack up using the list of characteristics in the earlier article. I’ll “rate” him on those attributes after I tell you just a bit about him.

Joseph Priestley was a philosopher, a scientist, a Unitarian minister, an inventor, a prolific writer, an educator and someone who put his two cents in on every political issue that came his way. He was also a stirring public speaker. A little too stirring; given the fact that his speeches stirred a conservative mob to burn down his home and his church. Does this sound like a contemporary rebel? It does seem to me that Priestley shows a rather modern character. But he lived from 1733 until 1804!

If you think that a man of that era would have nothing to say to us today, think again. Not only was he friends with Adams, Franklin and Jefferson, he also had been a leading light in the coffee house culture of London before his fortunate quick exit to what would soon become the United States. A flaming liberal, his fiery sermons made many English people of the era question his religious, as well as his political views.

But since the subject here is creativity and invention, not politics and religion, I’ll tell you more about Priestley as an inventor and as a creative person. (By the way, he invented fizzy soda water. I bet that you thought that the inventor of soda water was Schweppes, but, in fact, Jacob Schweppe patented the process for making and bottling the stuff and became rich by improving on and commercializing Priestley’s idea.)

In the original piece there were nine characteristics noted. I’ll designate matches with those characteristics by boldfacing each attribute. Inventors are Problem-Solvers, Motivated, Creative, Curious, Optimistic, Self-confident, Resourceful, Hard-working, and are sometimes considered Eccentric.

If you know anything at all about this man, you may remember from high school chemistry that Priestley is often credited with discovering oxygen, which he called “dephlogisticated “ air, based on an erroneous understanding of the properties of the gas. Actually, he was one of several people who had been experimenting with the gases that allow human life to be sustained on earth. Lavoisier was also working on this problem, and actually named oxygen. And another early experimenter, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, actually predated Priestley’s discovery when he isolated the gas, but he hadn’t published any reports of his findings. This little incident tells much about Priestley, and illustrates several characteristics of inventors that I wrote about over the summer.

First and foremost, Priestley was creative. He read widely, thought deeply, and was interested in everything. He lived in an era when science was the big new idea and when amateurs were able to make contributions to the growing knowledge. We’ve seen many instances where the non-expert eye can see new possibilities better than the established authorities.

Empiricism captured his attention and he uninhibitedly set about to learn more about everything in the natural world. The world was his laboratory and his diverse interests also brought him to question the accepted truths of, not only science, but also religion and political theory. He was open minded and forward thinking, causing some conservative and traditional people to scorn his point of view.

He was also a problem solver, and like Levy in the earlier piece, could be said to be “looking for trouble.” He was not only a problem solver but a “finder” of problems. He tried to find out why a mint plant lived or died in a certain environment, and why a mouse in the same environment perished or thrived. He had to invent the apparatus to do the experiments that he concocted, and built his lab equipment from things he found around his home – especially the kitchen and the laundry room. He was resourceful.

Priestley was a hugely curious fellow. He was somewhat childlike in his curiosity about nature and the world around him. When he was a child, Johnson relates, Priestley pulled the legs off spiders, and as an adult he asphyxiated mice. But these operations were not sadistic torments. They were real experiments in the era that was beginning to differentiate science as a separate endeavor from philosophy.

His huge output of writing is just one example of his self confidence. He marched to his own drum and never gave up the beat. He held fast to his conviction about not only political matters, but also, unfortunately, to his theories about phlogiston. Because he was curious, he was also highly motivated. Dare we say driven? He was like a dog on a bone when it came to his experiments, his opinions, and proving his theories.

Over one interval of eight years (from 1772 and 1780) Priestley isolated ten different gases: nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitrous oxide, hydrogen chloride, ammonia, sulfur dioxide, silicon tetra fluoride, nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon monoxide. He also invented the apparatus to create his experiments, and wrote and published to disseminate his findings. If this isn’t evidence of motivation, consider it evidence of hard work.

Priestley was considered a bit eccentric, but eccentricity is in the eye of the beholder. Because his interests were so diverse, he had opinions about everything. And because he questioned authority he attracted both positive and negative attention. He loved to talk about his experiences and swap information about his experiments with members of his social clubs, first in London, and later in Birmingham. This may be seen to be at odds with the secrecy of many inventors, but nowadays many are highly collaborative. Priestley was just ahead of his time (by two centuries)!

This network of mutual support helped him clarify his views, and pointed him to new possibilities. He wrote, almost compulsively, about his scientific quests and was not secretive about his discoveries. He gained confidence as he was accepted by the London group of intellectuals, and in Birmingham used his network to fund his research.

We see his nearly childlike optimism in his support of democratic ideals, and in his confidence that science would and could improve the lives of regular people. He wrote strongly, stridently, about the need for improvements in the political system, and after he moved to America, he optimistically sought to build a community of researchers and open-minded thinkers in his locale in Pennsylvania.

As you read Johnson’s engaging book you’ll develop an affection for this quirky radical. Considered at once a genius and a heretic, Priestley was a unique and important person in the history of science and invention.

George Kembel

August 16, 2009

I’ve finally found time to post some comments about the talk that George Kembel made on Friday morning at Chautauqua, entitled “Awakening Creativity.” I was blown away by it. I may just become the first-ever-George-Kemble-senior-citizen groupie. His presentation was just about perfect in my estimation. It was like a feast of ideas, all of which support and nurture creativity.

Kembel capably serves the role of liaison between his university program and the public at large. He handled himself with confidence, and with an obvious respect for the Chautauqua audience. The d-school design thinking method is built on empathy, and Kembel showed it for the audience. Empathy writ large. Hmmm… We’ve heard a lot during Week 7 about empathy and compassion.

Another feature of design thinking is story-telling. Again, Kembel soared. His whole talk was a series of stories of the challenges and successes of … the school?? … no, the successes of his students at providing life-enhancing contributions to our larger society, in locations as different from each other as a NY City radio news station and a remote village in the mountains of Nepal.

His first story began after we had a chance to demonstrate that perfect pitch is pretty rare in an English speaking population. Some in the audience did have it, but that wasn’t the point. He said that this special talent is found in only about 1 in 10,000 people of an average population of English speakers. He cited studies by Diana Deutsch, who showed that speakers of Mandarin (a tonal language) had much higher levels of this ability to identify particular tones than are found among most English speakers. Why? Because they need this special skill to manage their communication in an environment where the meanings of three different concepts may be represented by a nuanced verbal differentiation based on one’s tonal levels in speaking.

He asked and answered three questions about awakening creativity. I’ll paraphrase them: Is creativity normally distributed? ie. Can everyone be creative? He says, and we agree, that much creativity lies latent because we misunderstand what it is, educate our children out of it, and misunderstand its nature, not believing that “creativity thrives on constraints.”

His second question was to wonder whether or not this latent creativity can be awakened when it is nurtured? and the answer was “yes.” Here he stressed the value of the design thinking process and noted that it is important to use the process on as many real projects as possible so that the learner can begin to trust the process, while tolerating the times of deep uncertainty and ambiguity.

The third question Kembel explored was about how an individual’s transformation to more creative behavior can scale to the larger level of the work-team or the organization. He stated that it is possible to extend this improved creative performance, but that it is necessary to train for the skills of group process and to find like-minded individuals to work with in an organization that may not seem initially to offer many creative opportunities.

Throughout the talk Kembel frequently showed and discussed his concept of reiterative “low resolution” prototypes. These “quick and dirty” prototypes are used to help think through the problem, and to communicate one’s understanding of it at any given time. Although these low-res prototypes are not intended to be successful on the first go-around, he commented about how much courage it takes to put out your design for testing because we are trained to believe that unfinished work reflects poorly on our ability.

The truth is that it will take many design iterations, and much empathetic testing to thoroughly solve the problem. Here he stated that “the crummier the prototype, the better” because the stakeholders will feel so sorry for you that they’ll want to help you improve it through their own empathetic evaluation.

Because they allowed for this vulnerability, and other reasons, I was so pleased with the work of Martha and Robin who, in one short week, explored their product idea, put a low-res prototype together, tested it, and got feedback on it. This week’s work was only an approximation of design thinking, but it clearly demonstrated the principles that we heard discussed in the Amphitheater on Friday morning.

If you missed it, or would like to review it, go to for the archived video.

Imagine that …

"low res" Prototype: Plate Mate

August 13, 2009

Martha made her Plate Mate in pottery class to solve the problem of having to chase those last grains of rice around the plate. After having rated her design with the CPSS, she’s thinking of some changes to the design.

"low res" Prototype: Fold-up Cookbook Stand

August 13, 2009

Robin used coat hangers to help her express her idea for a portable fold-up cookbook stand. Then we rated her design with the CPSS.

Inventions and Chautauqua

August 9, 2009

Now that I’m settled into my lodgings at Chautauqua, I’ve been
reflecting on the concept of Chautauqua and inventing. Chautauqua
Institution itself was the educational/social/religious/cultural
invention of two late 19th century inventors: Lewis A. Miller, the
inventor and manufacturer of many agricultural innovations to improve and mechanize the harvesting process, his most famous invention being the Buckeye Mower and Reaper, and Bishop John Vincent, an innovative leader in the Methodist Church.

Vincent was an innovator himself, having adopted Miller’s model for
the Methodist Sunday Schools, where children start their services in a
large group for worship, break into small age-appropriate groupings for activities, and come together at the close of the Sunday-school hour for closing exercises.

The era of the genesis of the Chautauqua movement was one rich in innovation. This mechanical age was marked by a burgeoning number of patents and by the optimism that with technology and education, all was possible. Chautauqua championed the idea of adult education with an emphasis on religion and culture. It featured the tolerant acceptance of many of the prominent religious sects of its day, and fostered a somewhat more reflective and rational view of religious practice than the typical “camp meeting” religious services that were more common, especially in rural areas.

The most well known inventor with a Chautauqua connection was, of course, Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of the incandescent light, the motion picture camera, and the phonograph. His second wife, Mina, was the daughter of Lewis Miller. In 1922 Mina was one of the first women to be elected to the Board of Trustees of Chautauqua Institution, and Edison himself frequently visited Chautauqua.

A third, less famous, but once ubiquitous Chautauqua connection is the “Chautauqua Desk.” I just learned about this early educational apparatus since arriving at the Institution. This was a desktop device for allowing children to do school work at home, at their own pace, by scrolling through content on a roll inserted in the case. They could also store pencils and papers in the case; a built-in blackboard allowed children to practice writing and drawing. These were sold door to door at the turn of the 20th century using the same pitch as encyclopedia salesmen used: that one’s children would be left behind if their education was not supplemented by the chance for school practice and reinforcement at home. The desk I saw, and an accompanying monograph explaining its history, was donated to the UU House at Chautauqua by Joan A. Smith who authored the monograph, which is offered for sale at the Chautauqua Bookstore.

Look in the Mirror: Do You See an Inventor?

July 24, 2009

In making small talk last weekend with the friend of a friend, I mentioned that I was interested in invention and inventors. He looked a bit surprised, and then he said that he had five patents. I was interested, of course, so he went on to explain that he had worked for a while at a couple of engineering firms. He stated that he had invented several devices — different kinds of pumps, mostly — five of which had been patented. He also admitted, with some regret, that they were filed under the company name, not his own.

This got me thinking about what makes someone an inventor. Is it the number of patents that you hold in your own name? Is it simply the number of patents you hold, regardless of whose name is on the form? Do you have to be working independently, slaving away alone in your basement or garage after a full day of work at your regular job like Dr. Robert Kearns, the inventor of the variable speed windshield wiper, and protagonist of the movie, Flash of Genius?

No one will deny that Art Fry is an inventor. He is widely credited with the invention of Post-it® Notes, but neither he nor his boss claims that he did it all by himself. He was part of a team that spent part of their work time exploring possibilities for the new adhesive materials available to them at 3M. Another scientist, Dr. Spencer Silver, had developed the stick-um, but Fry found a good use for it. Read more