Archive for June, 2013

Finding things: ideas about cities

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

In these ‘Finding things’ posts I record the paths by which I found – or didn’t find – things I was looking for online. This is inspired in part by Peter Morville’s great explanation of the ways we find things (in his book ‘Search Patterns‘.)

Diagram from book 'Search Patterns' showing how people search in different ways.

Diagram from Search Patterns by Peter Morville.


Writing presentation to introduce a film made in 1930s Shanghai – looking for information about the cultural tensions / relations between countryside and city, particularly port cities; for examples of designs which embody the state of the city and can act as touchpoints to illustrate the forces at play (economic, social, other)

Searches / finds

Failed search:

Google search gave mainly technical specialized articles, books, policy papers by urban planners of ports. Not useful. Re-formulation of specific queries (cultural history of Shanghai, modern Chinese history, etc.) produces mainly general interest, either too broad, or totally unrelated (antique store selling ancient Chinese porcelain, etc.)

Rich learning search:

Pinterest – search with ’1920′s Shanghai’ reveals a wealth of potentially interesting objects / artefacts. Saved 1920′s women’s fashion page from university course site; postcard image; various images of architectural features which could be ‘touchpoints’ for my presentation. Including:
- Jazz age portraits by Sioma Lifshitz
- publication about graphic design in China in 20′s, 30′s

Learned new terms, including names of streets and buildings and a publication and ‘qipao’, a type of dress.


NODE: NY Times article: Stealth wear aims to make tech statement
Why: I always scan the Tech section of the NY Times, to keep up with developments in interaction and media design

NODE: ‘Internet of dreams‘ blog; mentioned in the article in the context of wearable computing – future-oriented blog.
Why: The article mentions ‘untapped desires’ of people which can become new products; related to my interest in design strategy.

NODE: Re-posted blog post by Witold Rybczynski (in ‘Internet of Dreams’), ‘It’s hard to tell anymore’ about a book containing not only pictures of real building, but extremely realistic CGI renderings
Why: Perhaps interesting for an architect friend.

NODE: Witold Rybczynski’s site
After reading the original post, I notice a Book section; there I find two books that look promising:

Makeshift Metropolis

City Life

In his description of himself, Rybczynski mentions that ‘the artefacts I’ve kept longest include well-used hand tools’. Interesting – shows he may have an appreciation of the way an artefact can also be a ‘node’ revealing much about its historical context.

NODE: Amazon site, with ‘Look inside’ book function

The books focus on American cities, and aren’t quite what I’d hoped, but are definitely useful for non-professionals like me trying to find out more about cities are experienced, planned, perceived.


I once debated someone who believes that ‘traditional journalism’ – the kind of thing done by the NY Times – is dead, replaced by a flood of blogs, articles and various kinds of citizen journalism that is faster, closer to the source and more accurate.

As I ponder the way I found Rybczynski and his books, it occurs to me that this may be the answer. The combination of a heavyweight network of professionals like the NY Times journalists, and personal curation and sharing, is extremely powerful. The point is: when reading the NY Times, I always find things I need to find, whether I’m looking for them or not. And I find them quickly. And of course, the expertise and policies of the journalists guarantee a high level of reliability.

More brainy thoughts: constraints and art teaching

Saturday, June 15th, 2013

Blob of wet clay laying on table. Looks like it has been shaped a bit.

A certain type of exercise is used in the foundation courses of art and design schools to increase the creativity of beginning students. In my own training, I remember that both teachers and we students felt they were effective.

For example: you would have to make a little sculpture while holding the clay under the table surface, so you only had your sense of touch to guide you as you formed it. Another one: you would draw one hand, while not looking at it – just holding it out of your field of view, trying to draw it just by ‘instinct’, feeling what it must look like.

These exercises and their results couldn’t be described within traditional frameworks of learning objectives, rubrics and such. If you asked what they achieved, the answer was usually: ‘They make you more creative’. Or: ‘They increase sensitivity.’

I believe in the value of those exercises. I think they help us to discover and experience basic qualities of the world around us. We then develop the ability to predict, and therefore to see these qualities when we design something. These are fundamental qualities: form, light, smoothness, speed, others.

I’ve often wondered: do the exercises really work? If so, why? And how?


Listening to the Brain Science Podcast interviews with Sandra Blakeslee, Norman Doidge, Edward Taub and others, it occurs to me that these exercises had something in common: they all used constraints to shift input away from the sense we would usually have used. We would normally have sculpted based on what we saw; now we were sculpting something based on what we touched, creating an image in our mind’s eye with input from touch alone. It’s the same with drawing our hand: we would not have had only our sense of the peripersonal space as our input.

Could this have been causing new connections to be made? ‘Re-weighting’ or ‘reconnection’? (As explained by Sebastian Seung.) If so, how? And why did it seem to help us so much in discovering our own, unique signature as beginning creatives?

Another idea: constraining visual processing enables new associations

An acquaintance (professor of neuroscience) explains that these constraints probably facilitate the making of new associations that would otherwise be more difficult (he referred to the work of Gerald Edelman). It has to do with the way the right and left brain function during problem-solving activities. An explanation of the differences between the workings of the left and right superior anterior temporal gyrus in the BBC documentary The Creative Brain: How Insight Works seems to confirm this. From 15:22 to 16:00 min you can see a nice graphic illustrating how this works. At 18:00 min John Kounios explains how this ‘winking’ of the visual cortex facilitates the new connections.

This seems to mesh with my aquaintance’s explanation and support the experience we had as art and design students. Perhaps selective constraint of the visual cortex increases creativity.

Analog memory desk – how to use it?

Sunday, June 9th, 2013

Idea, inspired by Art Glenberg’s experiments with helping kids learn to read (explained in the Brain Science Podcast on Embodied Cognition).

Use this as an eating table with a small kid approaching reading age. Draw a circle where the plate will be, then write a couple words (the food that will be served). Call attention to words, then serve food (same as words). Maybe a way of doing what Glenberg calls ‘mapping the written word to their experiences’?