A look at what – and who – is pushing the future in new directions

Thinking

Brain Food: Procrastination, Superman, and the Very Obvious

Without further ado, your Brain Food round-up for the week, dear readers. (Hi, Mom.)

An Interactive Scale of the Universe (Discover Magazine)
This beautiful, interactive, sliding tool shows the relative sizes of everything in the universe, from the largest galaxies we know of down to quantum foam. We at Push were immensely disappointed to find out that, in fact, we are not the center of the universe.

30 Conversations on Design
Thirty of the world’s greatest design thinkers were asked what one thing inspires them the most and what one problem design needs to solve next. I’m a fan of Erik Spiekermann’s answer that the invention of the alphabet was the most amazing piece of design ever.

What We Can Learn From Procrastination (The New Yorker)
A great article from James Surowiecki on why we procrastinate even though we really don’t want to. (Fun fact: each year, Americans waste hundreds of millions of dollars because they don’t file their taxes on time.)

MIT Media Lab Medical Mirror (Popular Science)
A graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program recently proved that, by installing a reasonably cheap webcam in a mirror, one could monitor their heart rate simply by standing in front of it. Next steps: respiration, blood pressure … more?

Search for the Obvious
The Search for the Obvious is a global contest that encourages participants to find everyday objects and services that have made life better for people across the world, and then apply the concepts toward eradicating poverty.

Waiting for Superman
If you haven’t watched Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary on the state of the American school system yet, it’s a must-see. Also, by texting “Possible” to 77177, you’ll recieve a $15 credit to donate to a local school. It takes about 10 minutes — at the most — to get online and pick a school and put the code in. (And, really, go see the movie. I only cried approximately eight times during it.)

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Brain Food: Scott Pilgrim vs. Minority Report, Seeing in the Dark

This week, Brain Food ran the gamut. We had motion-sensing computers, comic book heroes and the weather – not necessarily in that order. Without further ado …

Gesture-based computing takes a serious turn (New Scientist)
As much as the computers in “Minority Report” have been touted as the future of online interaction and digital interface, the G-Speak system from Oblong Industries is as close to a full realization as I’ve ever seen. I could wax poetic, but the video below is probably more to the point.

Back Story: Books vs. E-Books (Newsweek)
Who will win in the epic battle between bound books and electronic downloads? Hardcover books sold over 200 million more copies than electronic books last year. Still, with more readers coming out, the latter’s reach will only be extended. Do you side with Team Jobs or Team Gutenberg?

Seeing with Sound (New Scientist)
By using a tiny microphone attached to a pair of sunglasses, Peter Meijer is letting the blind see – with sound. The vOICe system utilizes sound waves, much like a bat, helping the blind person  navigate via a sort of echo-location.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The Animation (Adult Swim)
“Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” might be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen and is definitely one of the most fun. It inspired me to shop for electric guitars and seek out the original source material. Will my axe skills push the future of rock ‘n’ roll? Doubtful … but it may push future roommates to the brink of insanity.

A Location-Aware Music Video (PSFK)
Lissie’s music video for “Cuckoo” might be the first geo-specific music video ever made; it’s at least the first one I’ve ever heard of. (Maybe not as much of a litmus test as I think it is?) When you go to the Lissie’s website, you will be asked if it’s all right for them to locate you. If you say yes, the music video will play – backdrop specific to the weather you’re experiencing.


The House of Fairy Tales – The Serious Business of Having Fun

The House of Fairy Tales - Our TaleTextbook-based learning is great and all, but I highly doubt that my current worldview or creative inclinations were inspired by an American History textbook. Despite many wonderful teachers, this is the system. It can be more or less interesting depending on the ship’s captain, but it is still very “checklisty.”

Rather, I like to think that my path (whatever it is) was set by my dad reading “The Gods of Mars” to my brother and I before we went to sleep, by the radio plays my brother and I taped onto cassette when we were little, and the horror movies I stayed up late to watch under my parents’ noses …

The House of Fairy Tales is an artist-led initiative in the UK, focused on creating “parallel worlds where learning is play and play is directed learning.” Through a sort of interactive, traveling roadshow; the artists, philosophers, storytellers, educators, filmmakers and other creatives who make up House of Fairy Tales spin yarns and engage both young and old in stories and spontaneous creativity.

Why fairy tales?

The House of Fairy Tales“They allow children to explore the complex minefield of these hopes, dreams and fears on a self-lead journey. Fairy Tales are, in short, a perfect vehicle for our educational principles!”

The House of Fairy Tales fits into the right-brain-centricity espoused by people like Daniel Pink, who believe that the more well-rounded, more prepared individual will also be more creative. The ability to tell a story, engage an audience and connect with others on an richly emotional level transcends age, race, nationality and gender.

If advancement is only limited by the breadth of our imagination, then we need people who are willing to put the time and energy into stretching it.

When you really get down to it, having fun is pretty serious business.

(via Forgotten Hopes)


Money Can’t Buy Me Happiness

The Beatles - Can't Buy Me LoveWhen Paul McCartney penned “Can’t Buy Me Love” in early 1964, he touched on a topic that scientists continue to discuss more than 40 years later. It was not a new idea; hundreds of years ago, Beast learned the hard way that all the money in the realm can’t convince a beautiful belle that she loves you.

In much the same way that money cannot buy love, it seems to fail in purchasing happiness. In a recent article for Scientific American, entitled “Can Money Buy Happiness?” Sonja Lyubomirsky discussed the mounting evidence that money actually prevents us from feeling happy. She notes that, once we can pay for more than simple pleasures, we often find ourselves looking for the next high.

This may explain the growing pile of books in my “to-read” list, currently gathering dust on the floor. Books I was thrilled to find for sale at Magers & Quinn or Booksmart quickly lose their intrigue and sift to the bottom of the pile under new books that I just had to purchase.

When going to the library was thrilling, I usually tried to read what I was bringing home before going back for more. Still, for the record, I do plan to read all those books …

Like higher and lower pleasures in Mills, once we’ve tasted new books, it’s hard to be as happy with those new books when they’re old. Once you’ve had Surly, it’s hard to enjoy a Miller Lite.

As Lyubomirsky points out, “having money raises our aspirations about the happiness that we expect in our daily lives … Unfortunately, raised aspirations don’t only lead us to take things for granted and impair our savoring abilities. They steer us to consume too much, tax the planet’s resources, overspend and undersave, go into debt, gamble, live beyond our means, and purchase mortgages that we can’t afford.”

In short, spending becomes a high that we just can’t get enough of. Consumption becomes the joy, not the actual product.

So what makes us happy?

That’s exactly what documentary filmmaker Roko Belic has spent the last four years or so trying to determine. “Happy – The Documentary” should be coming out soon, but as a non-profit project, can always use help from generous investors. You can donate to the cause on the project’s website, or simply enjoy the trailer.


Brain Food: 3D Roller Coasters, Positive Posters and Real-Life X-Men

Kody Thompson - Positive Posters SubmissionWelcome to the very first Brain Food Roundup on the Push blog. If you’re a Facebook fan, you may recognize the links included below as those we share throughout the week on our page.

The weekly Brain Food Roundup will serve as a way for us to collect the five stories we post every week in a single, easily-accessible location. We’d love your feedback and constructive criticisms. Otherwise, we hope these inspire you to engage in some free form thought!

Mad Scientists Develop Wolverine-like Healing Factor (DVICE)
Joint regeneration would be a major milestone in medical science, not to mention an enormous boon to the United States’ aging population. At the University of Columbia, scientists were able to successfully implant a “scaffold” of sorts into injured rabbits. The implant served to guide cell growth around the joint, essentially rebuilding it. While Wolverine-esque, at the least, we wouldn’t recommend pushing it …

Opportunities for Talent in Ugandan ICT Firms (Africa Interactive)
ICT (Incormation and Communication Technology) services are most often associated with countries like India, where many formerly-internal jobs in America have been relocated. One place you might not think of is Uganda, though business there is close to booming – and if it’s not, interest is.

Roller Coasters Get Multi-Touch, 3D Treatment (Mashable)
This is not the sort of thing you’d ever catch me on, but it is pretty amazing how this Japanese roller coaster combines roller coasters with 3D technology and multi-touch surfaces. If anything, it shows how different technology might live together in unexpected places. For me, the Back to the Future ride and Universal will continue to be enough.

Positive Posters
Since 2009, the Positive Posters challenge has asked graphic designers from all over the world to look on the bright side, and then share the view with others. Founded by Nick Hallum and operated out of Melbourne, the annual competition gives designers two months to create a poster based on that year’s chosen theme. The winning poster is printed off and distributed throughout Melbourne.

Get Lamp
“Get Lamp” is looks to be a documentary focused equally on the technological aspect of early, word-based computer games and the pure creativity of those who created and lived in them. Before EA was producing computer-generated athletes that looked even better than the real thing, early adopters were imagining worlds confined only by the size of their dreams.

(image via Kody Thompson – Positive Posters)


Yahoo’s Purchase of Associated Content and Journalistic Industrialization

Journalistic End Times, Pre-chewed Food for Thought

The new rules of content are simple:

  • The content must be SEO-friendly.
  • The content must be available for every topic imaginable.
  • The content must be cheap to produce.
  • The content must generate ad buys.

Yahoo’s purchase of Associated Content last week, for a whopping $90 million, highlights the growing race for ad dollars going on among the Internet’s biggest players. The best way to get those ad buys is to offer companies highly-targeted content that will attract a niche audience. The best way to get the most esoteric content in the shortest amount of time is to prioritize quick and dirty efficiency over expression.

The result is something akin to an online industrial revolution, with content sweatshops churning out cheap, choppy, but sufficient bullet point lists and how-to videos. Like most physical factories, the emphasis is on making money, not producing quality work.

Sure, the content has to hold up, but it’s far from thoughtful exploration. The fact that I’ve been working on this post for about four hours (I wrote the end first) would make me worth less than $4 an hour to Demand Media.

Demand Media advertises itself as the leader in social media, claiming:

“Every day Demand Media makes it possible for people to create and publish valuable content, for millions of Internet users to engage around passionate communities, and for thousands of websites to grow with social media features their audiences want.”

Demand Media

The idea of “social media” has been through more mad libs than I can count, but there are still surprises to be had by the liberties taken at its expense. Media is media, but affixing the word “social” implies that there is some emotion, some modicum of unprovoked human expression involved.

Or it seems it should be that way. Phrases like “the death of journalism” have been thrown around for years, but if you were looking for the smoking gun, here it is.

The goals of companies like Associated Content and Demand Media are light years different than those of the Star Tribune or Los Angeles Times. Both need money to survive, but while content factories produce useful content solely to sell ads, we have to believe that most writers at these newspapers still want to tell a story.

But it takes too long, and it’s too inefficient. Major newspapers across the country now rely on this Sam’s Club model to fill the empty space by writers they could no longer afford to keep on staff. In turn, many of these writers now find themselves absorbed into the very system that is working hard to replace their brethren, churning out 30-minute articles and videos on how to draw horses or steep green tea.

We want content, we want it now and we want it pre-digested.

In 2009 Wired covered Demand Media in depth, dubbing it “The Answer Factory,” and the nickname is scary accurate.

Content Sweatshops, Algorithm-based Ideation

Companies like Demand Media employ a huge number of freelancers, producing content in bulk for pennies per piece. These are the “how-to’s” you find on sites like eHow, and each one pays about $15 if you’re a writer – $20 if you’re a videographer. You get paid even less to proofread.

The process is more machine than human, a journalistic terminator of sorts – intent on subjugating search results through esoteric optimization and algorithm-based imperialism, while struggling to portray a human facade.

Contributors operate more like factory workers than content creators, fitting blocks of information into prescribed patterns without much creative flexibility, racing towards mindless efficiency. It’s not a commentary on the creators themselves, but the system they’ve been left to create within.

How to Make Christmas Cat Treats | eHow.com

With Demand Media, it’s all about the idea-generating algorithm. Computers analyze user searches, ad buys and competitor content to find holes in the material that’s online – ranging from semi-general (kayaking) to very specific (origami frogs) – and spit out keywords.

Another algorithm then determines what context these keywords might be queried within and regurgitates a meatier, but jumbled lump of search-optimized  phrases terms. Finally, a human editor picks this up and, for 15 cents, turns the mess into something resembling a title.

Then it’s creation, editing, plagiarism-checking and posting. Someone, somewhere, will now be able to find a tailored article detailing the fine art of constructing a pirate hat out of construction paper. Perhaps they will also click on an ad for a trailer of the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean while they’re at it.

And it’s not just about content that people will want to read – it’s about content that advertisers will want to pay to have their ads placed on. Most of the money generated by these companies comes from PPC-based ad buys. To get make more money, you’ve got to have more ads – to get those ads, you have to have content to attach it to.

So the machine continues to turn. In the near future Demand Media hope to produce one million pieces of content a month. Sooner or later, traditional journalism will seem like John Henry racing the steam engine.

Mass Production Gone Mainstream

Demand Media isn’t alone in this quest for content, either. AOL’s Seed system, introduced last year, operates in a similar fashion, and Yahoo’s recent purchase of Associated Content highlights the search engine’s desire to join the fray.

In light of Yahoo’s recent partnership with Bing, the move makes sense. With Bing handling search and Yahoo taking over the ad network, it’s no wonder Yahoo is looking for ways to produce more advertising revenue. For $90 million, Yahoo now has a stable of 350,000 contributors shelling out content based on algorithms designed to maximize ad buys.

Even Google has dipped a toe, using video content from Demand Media to pursue more ad buys on YouTube. Google also powers ads on sites like eHow, so while they’re not yet in the content game they seem more than content to dine at its table.

For those of us who still like our answers with inflection, there are places to go, but how far are you willing to dig. Are you prepared to siphon two-three pages of Google search results to find something worthwhile?


Economic Development, in Word and Deed

I’d been familiar with his work for some time, so I was excited to hear Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto speak at the University of Minnesota’s Great Conversations program on Tuesday.  I’m in love.

de Soto asserts that the rule of law is what allows rich countries to prosper, and that the lack of it keeps poverty entrenched in the developing world. For de Soto, the rule of law begins with a fundamental distinction: property rights. Give people a deed for land and you have documentation of their right to it. If you have documentation, you can keep records, and with records, an accounting can be made, and with accounting comes accountability, the exercise – and protection – of one’s rights.

Implicit in accountability is a value for truth-telling, since a written record of transactions (and contracts) allows verification of an agreement. Further, it allows verification of value, the central construction for a functioning economy which must, necessarily, be rule-based.  That’s the only way to ensure that the value of something is real and can be compared to other similar products/services (else-wise known as transparency), the very basis of a market economy.

Feudal landlords kept records; they collected rents and taxes. When the time came to overturn that system (in the case of post WWII Japan) or start from scratch (as was done in the U.S.), it was relatively easy to turn around and issue deeds for land (to former serfs and peasants). Land is a basic form of capital, deeds ensure rights to it, and so capital formation can grow and be leveraged by the individual landowner.

It’s a very compelling argument, which de Soto makes with great passion and charisma. His point: it’s futile to address economic development without establishing property rights first. Without it, there is no way to curtail corruption and the shadow economies that flourish alongside it.

de Soto has long held the U.S. as a model of how property rights done right, and their benefits. Americans like to think that their prosperity springs from a Protestant work ethic, status as a chosen people, an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit, and the good fortune of abundant land and resources. “Fooey!” says de Soto (my expression, not his). Many countries share land and resource wealth, and the ingenuity of their people; what they lack, relative to the U.S., are property rights.

Yet, the recession of 2007-present that hit the U.S., he attributes to the same fancy financial instruments that created such huge cash flow — derivatives and the like — which became ‘toxic’ precisely because record-keeping failed. The paper trail that typically tracks mortgages > second mortgages > rating schenanigans (i.e. you call those assets?!) > derivatives, etc. failed, and no one knows the real value of what they hold. This exposes us to unimaginable vulnerability because if you can’t account for what is/isn’t there, you can’t fix it. Worse, says de Soto, the derivatives effectively made confetti of the paper and now it’s scattered all over the world. The result: you don’t know whose hand is in whose pocket, nor do you know that when they remove their hand, what they actually hold. A crisis is just a pocket-full of confetti away (Exhibit A: Greece).

The good news, says de Soto, is that it’s fixable. Return to what you/we already know: accounting. Put everything on the table again, determine what’s toxic, what’s not, and take the bad stuff out of circulation. The TARP program was supposed to have done this, but it instead made us all shareholders in the banks that hold the debt which means that we now own shares of their debt. The problem: if the bank collapses, it hurts a whole lot of people. Rather than face it head on, the answer has been to print more money under the naive and dangerous rationale that if people have more money, they’ll spend more money, confidence goes up, allowing consumption to kick-start the economy again. Not only is this like putting a bandage over a pothole (structural failure), it’s what’s called inflation.

Doing the right thing, as always, requires courage. This could be handled within the efforts on financial reform but, unfortunately, accountability is what everyone (legislators and regulators, politicians, Wall Street execs, and voters) is trying to avoid.

de Soto is a great story-teller, and he makes his case with terrific clarity.  He’s a must-see/read/listen to thinker. Start with the video above and, if you want to hear the presentation he gave this week, you’ll find it in its entirety here: http://www.cce.umn.edu/media/greatconversations/atwood_desoto/player.html


Japan Plans Mind-controlled Robots for the Masses by 2020

Honda mind-controlled robotIn the era of mind-controlled consumer electronics, epic battles will be waged over who controls the television. In Japan, home to seemingly all significant advancements in the field of robotics, scientists and engineers are hoping to have consumer-ready, mind-controlled robot helpers and other consumer electronics within the next decade.

According to sources cited in Popular Science, these thought-controlled robots would use the brain’s electrical signals and blood-flow to interpret thoughts. As any diligent science fiction aficionado would imagine, users are expected to employ  a sensor-loaded headset, probably looking like something out of  X-men, to control devices.

It shouldn’t be too hard to think of potential problems with robots or electronic devices that react to your thoughts. Hot for teacher? Leave the helper robot at home.

Of course, there are more practical – and acceptable – uses for such technology. Helper robots for the elderly or disabled, for example, could be a huge boon to families that need help caring for relatives.

And at any rate, errant thoughts shouldn’t be a problem – at least initially. The fact that such robots and devices will likely be controlled using a helmet should keep most from unintentionally causing trouble.

Still, in 15-20 years? It’s not hard to imagine such robotics being controlled via chip implant. Late last year, Popular Science covered HP‘s plan to do just that. By 2020, the same year Japan’s mind-controlled robots are supposed to roll off the assembly line and into homes, HP hopes to be marketing chip implants that allow users to control electronics via thought.

Sure, the ability to produce isn’t always equal to the public’s willingness to purchase, but the simple fact that this technology is becoming a reality … it’s not science fiction anymore and Kansas is miles away, fading fast.


Drawing on Thoughts … Thoughts on Drawing

http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/e-jist/docs/Vol5_No2/Image15.gif

They say, “A picture is worth a thousand words … “  Nowhere is that more true than in the case of the following chalk-talk with renown designer and illustrator Milton Glazer. Here, Glazer, Fulbright Scholar and founding partner of the celebrated Push Pin Studios, discusses the codependent relationship between drawing and thinking while sketching a portrait of William Shakespeare.

In his book, Drawing is Thinking,” Glaser suggests that all art is a form of meditation and that drawing is “a primary way of encountering reality.” He addresses societal reticence around the arts and the individual’s resistance to drawing (“Oh, I can’t draw … my drawings look like they were done by a 3rd grader … “) as missing the point, asserting that the value in drawing is not about “making things look accurate,” but rather drawing is a way of becoming more conscious of what one is looking at and expressively interpreting the world. “

Comments on Glaser’s theory hearken back to the cave drawings of primitive man,

“ … art started as a way of noticing things, focusing on them, fixing them in our minds, … that when our ancestors drew animals on the walls of caves, it was a kind of sympathetic magic … If they could draw them, they knew them, and they could control them. “

Fast forward to the digital age, where Michale Sankey discusses the effects of changing nature of “visual literacy” as it applies to education and curriculum design,

“In contemporary western culture, particularly the youth culture, visual mediums and genres are becoming increasingly popular at the expense of other mediums, in particular the written word (schirato & Yell 1996). Others suggest that the constant bombardment by visual images from so many quarters is already shaping [the youths] lives, influencing their attitudes and tuning their responses. As media simulations become more popular and persuasive they will increasingly encroach upon life experience to the extent that new senses of reality will be formed and media representations will in fact become our first order reality (Walker & Chaplin, 1997).”

New York Times Weekend columnist Brad Stone (1/10/2010, p. 5) observes that his three-year-old daughter’s world view and life will be shaped by myriad technological advances and gadgets, “ … digital books, Skype video chats, … toddler-friendly video games on the iPhone … she’ll see the world a lot differently from her parents.”

Stone goes on to discuss current research which suggests that “the ever-accelerating pace of technological change may be minting a series of mini-generation gaps, with each group of children uniquely influenced by the tech tools available in their formative stages of development.”

This phenomenon could only raise questions around Glaser‘s dynamics of drawing and foster an increased impact on what our own Cecily Sommers describes as our “associative fluency” – taking in information in multiple ways (seeing, hearing, moving) – a mechanism which serves as the foundation of creativity and innovation. The act of drawing or dancing or interacting with digital media (?) opens new pathways in the brain, shaking things up and creating opportunities for new connections to form. Until the age of eight or so, children are able to learn and absorb large quantities of information, forging extensive neural networks to handle the massive influx.

Conversely, over time, under-trafficked neural connections, thought processes and information that see little action, are unceremoniously closed down. Eventually the adult brain winds up using only the most well-trodden neural pathways as a short-cut default system (read: old people stuck in their ways). It continues to be our challenge then, to maintain ample neural capacity such that we are able to “encounter our reality” with resolution and vigor… lest we find ourselves in the cross-hairs of a virtual Wooly Mammoth with only a sharpened pencil to our name.


Nature's Orchestra

font,letterform,listen,silence-c24f59dc91ee4536872533b9ba92c908_h“If we don’t take the opportunity to form a baseline understanding of natural soundscapes, we’ll lose part of our own humanity. These sounds taught us to dance, and they’re part of our language. I think we owe them something.” – Bernie Krause

Western culture has long favored sight over hearing. Bombarded with thousands of visual images every day, we pay very little attention to the subtle sounds that enter our ears. Middle school sleepover games of “Would You Rather?” always resulted in a unanimous group decision that being blind would be, like, WAY harder than being deaf. American bioacoustician Bernie Krause thinks otherwise and has devoted the last 40 years of his life to recording the earth’s rapidly disappearing “biophony” — a term he coined to describe what the world sounds like in the absence of humans.

He believes that biophony is unique all over the world; nowhere in nature sounds anything like anywhere else. He also believes that in a biophony, animal groups each communicate at a different frequency so they don’t interfere with one another’s voices. When the pitches are mapped out, it ends up looking like a musical score, with each instrument in its proper place.

The problem with this lovely orchestra concept is that man-made noise (anthrophony) greatly intrudes on this natural symphony. The noises of machinery and cars interfere with a part of the sound spectrum already in use and suddenly some animal can’t make itself heard, which Krause has proven can have a significant impact on evolution.

Today, there are fewer and fewer places on Earth where man-made noises don’t prevail — over 40 percent of his original field-recording locations have been lost due to increasing habitat degradation and human noise.  To combat that, Krause is making it his mission to compile the largest private archive of natural sound anywhere — fittingly named Wild Sanctuary. The collection of sounds represents over 3,500 hours of wild soundscapes and nearly 15,000 species. Even more intriguing, Wild Sanctuary’s Internet home base is Google Maps and Google Earth, an innovative bridge between the virtual and the natural world that allows you to click on any location you’re interested in and hear exactly what it sounds like.

It’s easy to see ecological problems. Now we need to learn to listen to them as well. Should we be focusing on developing quieter, as well as cleaner, technology and machinery? Would more noise ordinances benefit animals in nature? There isn’t really an answer — it’s just about using all of your senses when trying to make sense of the world around you.


Google Makes Us Smarter (Whew!)

After so much wailing about how computers are dumbing down a whole generation, comes evidence that it’s the older generation that may benefit most: turns out that computer activity helps keep dementia at bay.

Mental stimulation is the name of the game when it comes to keeping our wits about us, and the simple act of searching for information online (“Googling”) is great for keeping those synapses snapping. Even more than Sudoku or crossword puzzles, searching for new information online is a continuous learning experience.


Now You See Outside

dalifigurewindow There’s no question that the input we receive affects the world we see. I mean, how can you see it if you don’t … well, see it? The fact that I spent 6th grade through junior year of high school reading Stephen King’s entire library probably has something to do with the fact that I now seem to pick up terrible horror films as if I were trying to physically manifest BadMovies.org.

You’ve been warned.

Luckily for all of us, there are people out there enlightening those around them with more than the special edition of C.H.U.D.

One of them is George Ayittey, champion of Radio Free Africa – a non-profit organization with the goal of facilitating the flow of information on the continent. Specifically, the group is most interested in the sharing of ideas and supporting public watchdogs to expose criminal and political wrongdoing. Though an equally large undertaking is the creation of a viable network for spreading said information.

Knowledge is the ability to create change – voice is the ability to share it. Opening the lines of communication leads to the ultimate open source community. Only, instead of building iPhone apps, it’s building the future. The iPhone app store is a good example, though, in the sense that it shows how the empowered masses will always move things forward more quickly than the entrusted few.

I remember taking “The History of Mass Communication” in college (almost as stuffy as it sounds) and discussing the role of the colonial press in the birth of the nation. It’s hard to imagine this rebel press as a very big deal because we already have things like Consumerist.com and FactCheck.org. At this point, we truly seem to live in a country where the watchdog is thriving.

In fact, I can barely picture a world where I don’t have access to the outside through my computer, iPhone, coworker … etc. I am empowered and the fact that I’m even writing this post is proof that I have the potential to spark change, or at least Diggs, outside of my own, immediate sphere.

Radio Free Africa is picking things up at a different stage because this freedom of information – this flow of ideas – does not exist in Africa, or at least not to the extent that it does here.

ayitteyspeakingRadio Free Africa is currently focused on:

  • collecting current events and news articles relating to free press and violations against it
  • collecting information on similar grassroots programs
  • academic and policy review
  • legislative outreach
  • technology outreach – penetrating hard-to-reach locales through the use of tools like mobile phones and services like SMS, in order to create a framework for engagement and free media
  • identifying areas where free speech is under attack and developing plans to intervene

In short, the visionaries at Radio Free Africa are building the reservoir, developing the pipeline and determining where to plant wells.

Meanwhile, across the pond, Luis Soriano Bohorquez and his donkey have worked out a system that – while not quite as expansive – is no less inspiring. Instead of connecting a continent through free media, Luis gets on his “biblioburro” every weekend in order to deliver books to the surrounding towns and villages.

With a few thousand books haphazardly piled in his home and at friends’ houses, it’s a little hard fill requests. And to think I groaned at having to use a card catalog once!

But, in the same way Radio Free Africa is seeking to open the lines of communication to and build community, Luis is broadening the horizons of the children around him. The children are becoming stronger readers – developing the tools to communicate on a much broader level.

Said one child, “It’s important because, when your parents ask you to read them a letter that they don’t understand, you can read it to them.”

Not only are they developing technical skills, but they are learning how to dream bigger, and through these books, they are allowed to step outside of their own worlds.

There’s a good chance that I’ll never see half the places I’ve visited in books. But I’m certainly better for all the places I’ve dreamed. It’s a question of scope. It allows me to dream bigger in the world I do exist in.

If we believe that change literacy is written in the language of dreams, then both Luis Soriano Bohorquez and George Ayittey should be thanked in the dedication.

Without their faith and support, this [insert dream/change/invention/cure/work of art/etc.] would not have been possible.


"Hybrid thinking"? … Think again.

Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man"; di Vinci is often described as the archtype of the Renaissance manObama lauds innovative spirit … Future economic prosperity depends on building a new, stronger foundation and recapturing the spirit of innovation.” 

Historically, tough economic times have catalyzed surges in innovative thinking - Hewlett Packard and Polaroid were formed after the Great Depression, MTV came close on the heels of the recession in the 1980′s, and Apple’s iPod (developed during a sharp decline in sales and margins of consumer electronics in 2001) joined the “pantheon of game-changing innovations born of hard times, alongside Depression-era breakthroughs such as nylon and the jet engine.” (HBR, July/Aug. 2009) If history repeats itself, the current economic downturn is the perfect storm of opportunity for innovation.

The rustling in the bushes is all there – at the 2009 International Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer suggests that, “Companies and industries that continue to pursue innovation during tough economic times will achieve a significant competitive advantage and position themselves for growth…” … And, “… companies investing countercyclically in R&D (biz-code for innovation) during downturns tend to outpace their competitors on the upswing.” (HBR)

What all this means is, between random jolts from the Federal Reserve and the pitch and yaw of consumer confidence, companies and industries around the world are rifling through drawers, combing executive profiles, and making the mad dash into the ethers in search of both survival and triumph in the huge pot of gold at the end of the Next Big Innovation. Suddenly, the fluffy and elusive x-factor of creativity/innovation/design has become the imperative “it-force” behind economic recovery and prosperity. From Washington to Wall Street, everyone is using the “I” word, rushing into the vortex with new takes on how to pin down and quantify innovation.

Dev Patnaik, founder and chief executive of Jump Associates, a Silicon Valley growth strategy firm (clients include Nike, Target, and Hewlett-Packard) discusses the underpinnings of innovation in this month’s Fast Company, ”Forget Design Thinking and Try Hybrid Thinking.” Fast forward to his point, Patnaik suggests that there is a unique role that designers and their skill-set/way of thinking can play in making everything — products, services, experiences, and industry-specific entities such as finance, education and government — better.  He then pushes beyond that thought to propose that something bigger is going on in the minds of successful innovators:

“… something bigger is going on, more powerful than the adoption of a single school of thought. The secret isn’t design thinking, it’s “hybrid thinking “: the conscious blending of different fields of thought to discover and develop opportunities that were previously unseen by the status quo …”

We’re not talking about “multi-tasking” here … True hybrid thinkers (you know who you are) traffic in the cracks between traditional areas of expertise and are able to ”connect the dots between what’s culturally desirable, technically feasible, and viable from a business point of view.”  The new face of innovation demands that we “see the world through multiple lenses and draw meaning from seemingly disparate points of data.”

According to Patnaik, “hybridity” matters now because the problems we need to solve are too complex to be handled by any one skill-set. Gone are the good old silo days where depth in a single field trumps breadth in multiple areas. Audiovox design executive Lou Lenzi asserts that those who want to innovate, must be “one part humanist, one part technologist, and one part capitalist.” 

Well, “hybrid thinking” might be a catchy modern phrase, but it isn’t a new concept. In the spirit of “Everything old is new again,” hybrid thinking can march to the back of the line behind lava lamps, lime green and liberal arts.  Two words for Dev: 1. da; 2. Vinci.


When's the Last Time You "Carded" Yourself?

At one point in our lives, we’ve all been forewarned that collecting credit cards is a bad habit to get into, but what about collecting ID cards? No, I’m not talking about fake IDs, but rather your real, government issued ID. It’s a proposal that doesn’t seem so uncanny when we live in a world where people live and work so transiently, yet its complications are many.

Take this example:

Earlier this month, Britain unveiled their new take on the national ID card to much public dissatisfaction. Their decision to respect the identity rights of Irish Nationalists living in Northern Ireland (as decreed by the Belfast Agreement) was done in a way that inflamed the rest of the UK population: there will be no union flag featured on the card design. Instead, a shamrock, daffodil, thistle, and rose will represent the four countries of the UK.

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Although I don’t doubt that the intention of the British government was well-aimed in allaying the concerns of the Irish Nationalists (specifically those who remain armed), but they have forgotten that the Unionists of Northern Ireland are also armed and expect adequate representation from their government. As reported by the UK’s Daily Mail, DUP Northern Ireland Assembly member Iain Paisley Junior remarked, “I can’t imagine anyone would want a so-called national identity card if it expunges the symbol of our national unity, which is the union flag.”

Further complicating matters, those living in Northern Ireland who identify themselves as Irish will only be able to use the UK national ID card as a “personal ID.” If they wish to travel outside of the country, the must be issued an ID from the Irish Government. In essence, British, Irish, and those claiming dual citizenship are able to reside in Northern Ireland; you may carry both forms of identification, but you can only use certain ones in specific circumstances. If it sounds like an identity crisis, that’s because it is.

Most of us have dealt with this dilemma in some small form, like when you’ve finally lived in a new place long enough to start telling people you’re from “Colorado” instead of wherever your parent’s house is – confusing at first, but not inexplicable. However, for those who live in disputed places, it may be that the land they identify with is altered or no longer even exists. When I studied in Northern Ireland, for example, whether my hometown was called “Derry” or “Londonderry” was an ongoing battle. To get by, I soon learned to spit it out quickly enough so that no one could determine which one it was that I said.

A way of getting around this is to identify yourself in hyphenations. This is a choice that is most common to the United States and is frequently interpreted as a “cultural-national” identity, i.e.) “Mexican-American.” “Jewish-American.” “Hispanic-American.” If you travel elsewhere, you will find a whole new set of examples to describe identity such as “negro, mulatto, mestizo, indigenous” – primarily associated with race.  The case of Northern Ireland is an anomaly in that where a person’s identity is generally viewed as compilation of both cultural, national, and racial elements, Northern Ireland’s dispute does not fit this stereotype. Everyone is Anglo-Saxon, their cultural histories run relatively parallel, but the dilemma of what they should call themselves still remains.

What’s in a name? Apparently everything. It is fascinating to dig into the connotations behind identity because they invite questions that we should all be asking about ourselves. It is important to address the different meanings and associations your identity holds for you as well as the varying perspectives it might to convey to others. It will help you to stamp-out short-sightedness in any venture  that you choose to pursue. Here are a few appetizers to get your started:

What is your identity?

National, ethnic, cultural?

How important is it to you?

Is it fixed or fluid?

Is it government ordained or a personal choice?

How does your identity influence your decision-making?

How does your identity shape your relationship with others?

If you’re still stumped, don’t worry – it’s a complex issue. Take it from Dr. Seuss:

“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You!”



Intro to design

dylan_poster-v2-202x300So, this is the first in a series of blogs on and around the topic of “design.”  The first in a series of anything is always tough … it hangs out there, with no real context or reason for being.  This first blog is going to be like that clunky riff of small talk at the beginning of a real conversation. We size each other up, make our introductions, set up some unspoken expectations, and plunge into whatever comes next.

The plan for this forum is to present a design find — something immensely informative, enlightening, inspiring, entertaining, or even enraging (which can be fun); do some thinking, pondering, ruminating, conjecturing, and reflecting on it; and then, open up a dialogue around the issues that need to be raised and the questions that need to be asked.

In this exploration, I’m hoping we’ll get close enough to touch the elephant, but also back-off to a broad enough perspective that we can behold the bigger animal. As for tone, look for something between academic and improv. Note: I am totally aware that chances are good that you will know a whole lot more about all of this than I do, which begs the open invite to step up and share your thoughts, wisdom, snark, whatever. Me blog es su blog.

Design defined — A nice tight definition of terms can be a good way to wade into a broader discussion — except that the concept of “design” is so elusive and complex that even the ubiquitous resource Wikipedia had trouble nailing it down. Design is a noun and it’s a verb, it’s a philosophy, it’s subjective, and it’s omnipresent. There’s applied design, graphic design, industrial design, fashion design, interior design, information design, process design, interactive design … good design, bad design, provocative design, and “designs on you.”  Some random perspectives that speak to design defined include:

  • “Design is the planning that [provides] the basis for the making of every object or system … as a verb, “to design” refers to the process of originating and developing a plan for a product, structure, system, or component with intention … as a noun, “a design” is used for either the final solution/plan or the result of implementing that plan in the form of the final product of a design process … more recently, processes have also been treated as products of design, giving new meaning to the term process design.”  — Wikipedia (See what I mean?)
  • “Design implies a conscious effort to create something that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing.” — more Wikipedia
  • “Design is about doing something — a process more than a product. Design is about identifying problems, asking good questions, and finding better answers.” — betterbydesign.org.nz
  • “Great design is deceptive … it looks so simple and obvious. Great design only works — only happens — when it goes right down to the heart and soul of the [entity] that produces it.” — Rod Oram, Journalist and Adjunct Professor at the New Zealand Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship
  • “To design is to communicate clearly by whatever means you can control or master.” — Milton Glaser
  • “… to inform and delight.” – more Milton Glaser
  • “Design is thinking, materialized in objects and environments, inscribed in patterns of use, and addressed by analysis and planning.” — Ellen Lupton, Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
  • “About half my designs are controlled fantasy, 15 percent are total madness and the rest are bread-and-butter designs.” — Manolo Blahnik

Ok, so, maybe a pithy definition of design isn’t going to help us as much as catching design in action — design created in the minds of people – revered icons, dewy-eyed students, purists, practitioners, … folks from all walks of life, trafficking in different disciplines and realms of influence, and impacting aesthetic and material experience in all corners of the globe.

Look for some of that in the blogs ahead.

 


Give me your chocolate, your plants, and your Prius

If we erected a Statue of Sustainability today, her placard would undoubtedly read: give me your chocolate, your plant-based products, and your people-powered Priuses; at least, that’s what the latest innovations from Toyota, Coca-Cola, and the NASCAR racing industry would imply…

* Toyota released a behind-the-scenes preview of their 2010 Prius commercial that is choreographed and constructed entirely out of people. It looks like a scene straight out of a Dr. Suess book made for TV! Love it. Have a look at the video below where the production team describes the innovation and logistical challenges behind its debut.

* Despite Coca-Cola‘s tarnished human rights image abroad, they are making important strides in sustainability at home with their partnership with the World Wildlife Fund. The Atlanta Coca-Cola headquarters has put out a fully-recyclable bottle prototype that is made entirely out of plant-based plastic. Traditional PET bottles are made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource, but the new plant bottle is made with  up to 30 percent plant-based materials.

“The Coca-Cola Company is a company with the power to transform the marketplace, and the introduction of the PlantBottle(TM) is yet another great example of their leadership on environmental issues,” said Carter Roberts, President and CEO of World Wildlife Fund, U.S. “We are pleased to be working with Coke to tackle sustainability issues and drive innovations like this through their supply chain, the broader industry and the world.”

*Last, but obviously never least – race cars are always in the lead – is the introduction of a plant-powered Formula 1 race car from the Warwick Innovative Manufacturing Research Centre as a part of their WorldFirst project. The Vegetable Car boasts a carrot-based polymer steering wheel, wing mirrors made of potatoes, and a bio diesel engine that – I kid you not – runs on “waste chocolate.” And the sustainability measures do nothing to compromise speed, the Vegetable Car can still hit upwards of 125 miles on hour!

“Following the recent turmoil in Formula 1 arising from the high costs of running competitive motor racing teams, and doubts in sponsors’ minds over the commercial value of their involvement, the viability of motor racing is being critically questioned,” the WorldFirst website explains. ” We are seeking to prove to  the motor industry that it is possible to build a competitive racing car using environmentally sustainable components.”

Move over Mother Liberty, the call for sustainability is getting louder and more creative every day.


Daydreaming is a Sign of Productivity, Not Procrastination

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Never stop wandering.

The irony does not escape me that the day after I graduate from college, a new PNAS study is released stating that mind-wandering is actually beneficial to brain activity. I could have definitely used this excuse for the first 22 years of my academic career or when trying to convince my parents that “off the beaten path” does not necessarily mean “off the rails.”  Alas, I’ve got at least 30 years of the work world ahead of me – so I guess for me and you both, research showing the daydreaming and mind-wandering are actually beneficial to your health comes better late than never.

Scientists Kalina Christoff of UBC and Jonathon Schooler of UCSB both created a project based on “experience sampling” to capture daydreaming through the use of an fMRI machine. Participants in the study were given an extremely tedious task to complete and when their minds began to wander, fluctuations in their brain activity were monitored. The results show that mind-wandering actually institutes a unique mental state that allows for other parts of your brain to work in more tight-knit cooperation, thus making you more productive. This level of productivity is most pronounced when you are not even aware that you are daydreaming. Not bad.

Jonah Lehrer is an important contributer to the daydreaming=productivity scene. On his blog, he notes that daydreaming actually helps us with problem-solving because were are allowed to hypothesize “what-ifs” and engage to “mental time travel” in search of solutions. Lehrer condemns the association of procrastination and daydreaming with laziness, arguing that abstract thought is often the way that many great inventions are made. (He cites the Minnesota born Post-It note as an example).  “The hard part is maintaining enough awareness to catch your creative insight when it happens [and change it into something productive]“, he states.

The PNAS study also reflected that while for years, daydreaming was thought to be a “resting state” and a distraction to our day-to-day thoughts and tasks, it is actually one of the more predominant and productive modes of the human mind. This makes me feel a bit better about the time I just spent staring out the window while trying to write this blog. Sigh.

Even more intriguing – the brain doesn’t stop at daydreaming either. Take a look at Jill Bolte Taylor’s story if you really want to push your boundaries. She is a brain scientist who was able to experience her own stroke and live to tell about it. Her talk gets a little kooky when she attempts to describe what it’s like to no longer be able to define the boundaries of her own human body and her subsequent time spent disconnected from her left brain chatter, a state of mind which she refers to as “la-la-land,” but her insights are incredibly valuable. There is still so much we don’t know about the brain so it’s silly we’ve attached a stigma to daydreaming.  It’s ability to  unwittingly spark imagination and innovation on an abstract plain makes daydreaming one of our most crucial tools for creativity.


My Search Engine Special Requests

Wolfram Alpha is the talk of the town in the online world. There are whispers that it may be Google’s usurper or at least, it’s number one contender. Set to launch this month, the Wolfram Alpha search engine strives to compute any kind of question you throw at it in a matter of moments. Instead of offering suggested web pages for further browsing, as Google does, it simply gives you the answer. Like that. The presence of British mathetmetician Stephen Wolfram as the brains behind the design of this super-powered calculator is fitting. A peek at his website will show you that he is the epitome of overachievement.  [Spoiler alert: He joined the ranks of Oxford University at the age of 17!]

Anyway, although I am curious to see if Google has finally met its match, I’m really not that impressed. There is still a lot of ground that needs to be covered in search engine progress and quite frankly, I’m waiting. Just for sport, here are two suggestions for new search engine development that once implemented, could easily rival Google by sheer necessity.

1. SongSluta search engine that enables you to find out the artist and title of that song that has been stuck in your head since fifth grade. The one that continues to haunt you in your sleep…you know what I’m talking about. If you hear it, you never catch the artist or the song title on the radio – something always happens – you go through a tunnel, your mother calls, or the DJ doesn’t indulge. You Google the few lyrics you know, but they’re so non-specific that the results always prove fruitless. You query your friends and relatives, but you’re all in the same boat. Nobody knows. By the time you’re twenty two, you’ve heard it 357 times and you’re convinced that if you don’t find out soon, you may slowly go insane.  For me, it was this song…

All I knew for fifteen years of my life is “do do do da da” part. Ahhh – can you imagine my agony?! With SongSlut, everything would’ve been okay. There’s my testimonial.

2. KeyJanglera search engine for locating your keys. Like Google Earth, but instead of locating your house, it would find your keys. Of course, this would require GPS in all of our keys, a slightly more expensive investment, but considering how much time it would save you – I think well worth it.

If you can think of more annoying knowledge gaps that need to be filled, by all means, let me know!

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Mein Kampf: The New Business 101 Primer

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As PUSH advocated at our 2005 conference feature “Lessons from Deviants” and more recently in our “Diamonds in the Rough” post, more often than not, there is a method to one’s madness and that method is worth studying. Indian business students have certainly caught onto this strategy, as demonstrated by the recent increase in demand for Adolf Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf. In the last six months, sales of the book surpassed 10,000 copies in New Delhi alone.

The owner of a Mumbai-based bookstore explained the phenomenon as such: “They [Indian business students] see it as a kind of success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it”. In other words, however twisted that vision was, his business plan to execute it was not. The passage of time may now have finally afforded us enough distance to critically study the methodology behind Hitler, Goebbels, and others that created such an impressive force to be reckoned with… And the fact that Indian business students are the ones with enough savvy to recognize his logistical merit is a nice little jab of irony for Adolf. It just proves you don’t have to Aryan to be smart.


A Preview of A Global Dinner Party

This Monday, I had the opportunity to attend a test dinner of the Push Institute’s much-anticipated Global Dinner Party (now in its pilot phase) at the home of Sam and Sylvia Kaplan. The guest list included four lawyers (from corporate to entertainment to constitutional/security-torture-rendition, our mayor, a singer, a serial entrepreneur, a college student in need of a free meal/younger blogger (me), and others. The three-course dinner featured matzoh ball soup and salad, a Middle Eastern main dish, and chocolate meringue for dessert, but the conversation undoubtedly proved to be the main affair – so much that, I confess, I rather slacked off on taking notes. Like a good meal after a long day (when you don’t stop to wipe your face until you’ve cleaned your plate), I became so engrossed in the conversation that I did not pause to take notes for fear of missing the debate.

In our review of the evening, Cecily explained that “The aim of A Global Dinner Party is to bring people together over food and ideas, to share and challenge thinking about where we’re headed. We’re creating a 3-course menu of questions on topics such as energy, immigration, life expectancy, worldviews, exploration of space and ocean, morality, and other such juicy stuff.  If the conversation broadens and inspires people’s thinking, all while having fun, then the dinner is a success.  Ultimately, these are the kinds of experiences that ultimately impact how decisions are made — which is how change is made — and that’s what we’re after!  Share a dinner, create community, and change the world — what could be better?”

Discussion for the evening focused on (which) factors that create a stable and robust society. I’m not sure that we arrived at any answers, though there was agreement that a malleable framework (ability to identify and adapt to change) was indeed a key aspect. Some thought that framework depends on the soft stuff of trust and community, while others leaned toward the hard stuff of social institutions, i.e. government, constitution, laws, banks, schools, health care, philanthropy, etc.  It’s a chicken-egg/nature-nurture dialogue, but consensus wasn’t the goal, rather this group preferred to describe how a stable and robust society feels, looks, behaves. Terms used included safety, diversity, education, resilience, identity, production of goods and services, access to opportunity, common good, and leadership. Tom Wiese, my partner in the one-on-one discussion even argued that lazy people were an important aspect of society because the ambitious are motivated by others lack of action. – Interesting take!

The conversation then moved to encompass the benefits of our increasingly open-source government. With the introduction of interactive internet tools, more people are able to weigh in and hold sway. Nate Garvis of Target Corporations argued, “We have been suffering from a failure of creativity. We tend to throw the government and military at every problem. We use old tools for the new age when what we really need is more social innovation. The internet tools we now have allowed us to expand greatly in the world of social innovation.”

I could continue, but it doesn’t merit much for me to give you a play-by-play. It is our hope that every global dinner party will have its own unique face, but all will offer the opportunity to engage.

“The dinners are by design,” Cecily says. “It’s a way of humanizing ourselves.”

“I think we are surrounded by messages that drive us apart,” Nate adds. “We need to focus more on what we have in common and what better place to bring us all together than over the dinner table?”


We Are Not Alone…No, Seriously

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The complete IMF World Economic Outlook was released this week with much anticipation and inevitably, disappointment as the  conclusion was made that a recovery by next year is highly unlikely. With headers such as “Sovereigns Under Stress” and  “How Did Things Get So Bad So Fast?”, we might as well add, “Oh Holy #$%@ What Are We Going To Do Now?!” Fortunately, astronomers at the the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (of England) gave us the answer on Tuesday: we can move. Where to? Your choice: Planet Gleise 518 e or Gleise 518 d. Neither has quite the ring to it as “Earth”, but they may very well be the next hospitable planet in our vicinity.

“This discovery is absolutely extraordinary, ” Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkley explained to the Associated Press. While Gliese 581 e appears to be too hot for life, it demonstrates that nature has made small planets similar to our own. (Gliese 581 e is only 1.9 times the size of earth, the first planet discovered closer in size to Earth than to Jupiter.) Many more planets are likely to exist in the “hospitable zone”, a distance from the sun that allows for water to be present on the planet. Gliese 581 d, discovered in 2007, also lies within this range. Research so far suggests that Gliese 581 d is a rocky planet, but the potential for a deep ocean, still undiscovered, is present.

Astronomers released their findings at this week’s European Week of Astronomy and Space Science. Gliese 581 e was first located using the European Southern Observatory’s telescope in La Silla, Chile. This telescope comes equipped with a special instrument that splits light in order to find wobbles in different wavelengths. These “wobbles” can then unveil the existence of other planets in other galaxies. Absolutely fascinating stuff.


I'd like an iced myelin cafe latte to go please, hold the sugar

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What? You haven’t tried the iced myelin cafe latte sans sugar yet? And you call yourself hip? Well…you are, because it actually hasn’t been invented yet. Yep. I just made that drink up, but trust me, it’s in the near future. A bevy of recent scientific studies suggest that if my fictional latte ever was invented, it would be the best brain-based barista concoction on the market. Here’s why:

-  Technology Review recently reported that scientists have discovered that myelin is the key component of how brain mash becomes intelligence cash. Myelin is the layer of fat that coats the neural wires that are responsible for transmitting electrical messages from cell-to-cell in your brain. It works like insulation in that it prevents leaks from occurring in your message transmission. Not only does a thicker myelin layer mean better message movement, it also significantly boosts the speed of your cell-to-cell dialogue – improvements that serve to encourage a higher IQ level.

The myelin factor wasn’t an easy find either. Previously, scientists have been focusing on the grey matter of brains, but recent developments in magnetic resonance imaging have given rise to the study of the so-called “white matter.” If you’re lost, take a peek at this basic brain breakdown from New Scientist’s Instant Expert. Basically, grey matter is the clusters of neutral cells that make up the brain and white matter is the system of myelin-laced tracts that connect these clusters. Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) is the name of the new mapping mechanism that has helped track white matter by measuring the diffusion of water molecules through tissue. (And you thought this post was about a new espresso drink, right?! Stay with me.)

So putting this all together, a current study of 92 fraternal and identical twins using the DTI scans has shown that the more white matter you have, the greater your potential is for a higher IQ. Point being, whether it’s white or whether it’s grey – it matters.

And what about the ice and sugar you ask? Researchers are working on that too. Doctors have long observed that cooling patients (specifically, their brains) after a heart attack or stroke make them less susceptible to brain damage. Bridgett Harris, a PHd at the University of Edinburgh, is currently working on a helmet that does just that. Neurologist Scott Small of Colombia University has also published a new report concluding that avoiding sugar can decrease potential memory lapses as you get older. So I guess what I’m saying is that the ice and sugar are really just a way to cover all your bases. If you get the ice and happen to have a stroke shortly after, your brain will already be on its way to a safe, chilled state and if you cut out the sugar, you may actually remember when you put your latte on the roof of your car before pulling into the nearest lane. :)


Essence Exposed: When the economy breaks, what happens to the soul?

If you can get past the stuffy British accents, this discussion panel on whether the free-market model has created a moral vacuum (put together by the Guardian) is definitely worth the listen. (It’s only about five minutes long.) It includes insights from Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury; Richard Sennett, a sociologist; and Susie Orbach, a writer.

Dr. Williams starts off by pointing out that the current economic crisis is just as much about pride as it is about greed. People share “the absolute terror of not being in control, the need to always be setting the agenda” and when people don’t have that, they tend to freak out. To put this in a business perspective, Cecily states, “There’s a human tendency to want to have everything figured out before taking action. For example, you often see people whose work life isn’t satisfying, yet wait to know exactly what they want to do before making a change. But you can’t really figure things out in your head; experience is the only way to really know what works and what doesn’t.  That’s not to say that thorough research and preparation aren’t needed, but it is a reminder to not suffer the ‘paralysis of analysis’.  The best one can do is to set a direction and just start moving.”

As it is, there are plenty of parallels between what the individual is feeling and what a business experiences in a time of recession. Richard Sennett points out that “modern capitalism reconfigured things like careers so that it’s no longer a meaningful concept for people to perform short-term jobs.” Short-term investment became much more popular than long-term gains and views, and when put in this kind of short-term regime, both people and businesses suffer.

Why does this happen? Orbach argues it has a lot to do with identity. “We now have this thrust…for a self that is so fractured that it can only be experienced through the latest accomplishment…” she explains. Their is an immediacy to our well-being, we tend to view our lives in terms of a checklist and when we’re in between checked boxes, we have a total loss of who we are. Orbach touches on the fact that we lack a sense of continuity and fluidity in what it is that comprises us. “It”, that feeling of self-satisfaction, simply comes and goes in such short-term wavelengths that it’s difficult to process. Our lives have become so external that we forget how to nurture our own identities.

“That is why branding is so important,” Cecily says. “A well-defined, deeply rooted sense of purpose should drive business strategy. As we know, conditions and trends can swing wildly, yet purpose is constant. Purpose is what makes a brand resilient and adaptive. In traumatic times, such as we’re in, it’s important that decisions be guided by the basics, ‘Is this who we are? Is this what we do? Does this fit?”

A brand, done well, is a distillation of purpose and personality. Branding is a process of translating that subjective, squishy stuff into objective terms. It’s an interesting process; the aim is to find language, metaphors, archetypes, style that moves seamlessly from subject (company) – object (brand) – subject (consumer) – object (purchase). A brand that resonates across all channels is a brand that has successfully articulated its purpose and meaning.  This is why it is also the seat of strategy, the cause of resilience, and the driver of loyalty.  – Pretty important stuff.

We do this as individuals too. Take Facebook, for example. We have objectified our identities in the form of the page and by adding you as a friend, joining groups, and exchanging information, we’re saying to one another – “Hey, I like who you are! I like what you’re about!”  It’s all about bonding and belonging which, when extended through a community of like-minded people gives a sense ‘tribe.’  Essentially, that is the same relationship a business should have with its clients, even though it usually doesn’t play out in such obvious terms.

“Remember, no one else can ‘do’ you,” Cecily says. “It’s you, your brand, your identity. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others. Just stay true to you, then use that sense of conviction to guide you through the rest.”


Future of cars uncertain, Honda reveals its side-project: a mind reading robot

Scientists at the Honda Research Institute have been doing a lot of thinking lately, and they’re never just your run-of-the mill thoughts. As of yesterday, Honda thoughts now have the power to move robots. Japanese scientists introduced Asismo this Tuesday. Asismo is a bipedal, humanoid robot that has a 90% success rate of reading its operator’s mind, then carrying out one of four commands.

With mind-control technology, the idea is that eventually we can take the teapot off the stove when we’re in the other room or warm up the car without even having to go outside. Honda scientists explained the “brain-machine interface” as having sensors that pick up electrical signals in the scalp and the ability to translate them into the appropriate actions. There is obviously a bit of a processing time-delay – probably the same amount of time it would take for you to get up off the couch and complete the task yourself – but hey, who am I to knock on something so scientifically progressive, high-tech, and trendy? I know if I were still seven years old, I would be begging my parents for an Asismo for Christmas. The amount of time I spent dreading washing dishes would’ve given me plenty of time to think through the whole affair and delegate the responsibility to my pet robot.

Honda stressed that Asismo is still a baby, not yet ready for introduction to the market. The unpredictability and diversity of a person’s day-to-day thinking makes it difficult for Asismo to function universally. A brain must be analyzed for up to three hours prior before taking a trial run with the robot. If Honda is really smart, however, when Asismo is finally ready for market, they should change its name to Wall-E. The fans would go wild! (Myself included.)