Reporting Fives—Week Four

I trust this finds you in pursuit of wisdom,

Monday, 20 February 2017

Technology and the empowerment of women

At its best, technology is a great equaliser. With the Internet and the World Wide Web, we have created an environment in which more people than ever before can access vast amounts of knowledge, for the most part anonymously. Providing one can overcome the minimum economic threshold to access the network, little else matters. In principle, this creates new hierarchies established on the attributes our chosen peers value most.

Ideally, this is the domain of the mind, decoupled from prejudices surrounding race, or gender, or anything else. In an interview with John B. Kennedy, the great futurist Nikola Tesla spoke on the extent to which new technologies would first equalise the genders, then later become the catalyst for female superiority:

> It is not in the shallow physical imitation of men that women will assert first their equality and later their superiority, but in the awakening of the intellect of women.

I believe this can be applied beyond gender inequality. But first we must encourage people to think about our differences the way Albert Einstein thought about gender, in his letter to a South African girl named Tyfanny:

> I do not mind that you are a girl, but the main thing is that you yourself do not mind. There is no reason for it.

Inspired by: Brain Pickings

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Procrastination for creativity

I have yet to meet someone that does not struggle with procrastination or able to completely avoid distraction. It seems our increasingly chaotic lives rob us of focus. They tear us away from the task at hand, as Italo Calvino put it:

> There is always something to do: go to the bank, the post office, pay some bills... always some bureaucratic tangle I have to deal with.

It’s comforting to know that even the brightest among us have to deal with the same »bureaucratic tangle«, but that does little to abate the feeling that we could be working harder or smarter. In response to the question »Do you work every day or only on certain days and at certain hours?«, Calvino answered:

> In theory I would like to work every day. But in the morning I invent every possible excuse not to work: I have to go out, make some purchases, buy the newspaper. As a rule, I manage to waste the morning, so I end up sitting down to write in the afternoon. I’m a daytime writer, but since I waste the morning I’ve become an afternoon writer. I could write at night, but when I do, I don’t sleep. So I try to avoid that.

This probably sounds familiar to most creative freelancers. It’s certainly been my experience in the past but it seems the opposite problem, namely pre-crastination has its own disadvantage. In Adam Grant’s article for The New York Times he describes his struggle with pre-crastination and compulsive pursuit of flow. A student of his challenged his habits by announcing that her most creative ideas occurred after a period of procrastination. Grant wasn’t convinced, so he asked So Jihae, now a professor at the University of Wisconsin to design some experiments:

> She asked people to come up with new business ideas. Some were randomly assigned to start right away. Others were given five minutes to first play Minesweeper or Solitaire. Everyone submitted their ideas, and independent raters rated how original they were. The procrastinators’ ideas were 28 percent more creative.

Could it be that by procrastinating we may be inadvertently facilitating the second stage of Graham Wallas’ creative process? This four-stage process comprising Preparation, Incubation, Illumination and Verification champions the importance of giving the mind time to process data captured during the Preparation stage.

Jihae’s study seems to support this notion. But we must be careful at which stage of a project we procrastinate. As Grant relays:

> When people played games before being told about the task, there was no increase in creativity. It was only when they first learned about the task and then put it off that they considered more novel ideas. It turned out that procrastination encouraged divergent thinking.

So we must take immediate action when we are assigned a task, tapping into our accumulated intellectual resources. Acting on hunches, speaking with friends and colleagues to develop a position on the subject at hand. Only then can we afford to procrastinate, or as it seems, only then do we deliberately procrastinate.

Inspired by: The New York Times
Reference: The Paris Review

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

If you can’t fix it, you don’t own it

As a product nears the end of its life, be it timely or untimely, there is a range of modes by which we can respond. If a product has outlived its usefulness, first ask, can this product be upgraded or augmented to extend its life? Then ask can it be cannibalised to upgrade or augment another product. Only then should we consider recycling, with reuse always trumping recycling. But what of untimely demises? A broken display or a faulty battery are common, and yet repairability is not a principle consideration of the vast majority of brands.

There are exceptions, of course, Patagonia for one will not only repair their own products but also those that their customers have bought from other brands. But the likes of Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard or Douglas Tompkins of The North Face, who have both been known to discourage customers from buying new products, are rare.

More common are brands like Apple, which releases incrementally improved products in a tightly sealed chassis, protected with tamper-proof fasteners, adhesives and ‘do not remove’ stickers. Granted, to deliver customers ever thinner, ever lighter, ever more sophisticated products, the likes of the Apple Industrial Design Group (IDg) often have little choice but to develop inherently unrepairable proprietary solutions. But the extent to which these products are unrepairable is not a symptom of minification alone. There is also a powerful commercial motivation to prevent users from upgrading or repairing the product they buy.

We should always protect the ‘right to repair’. Otherwise, if we were to imagine the extreme, we arrive in a future where we are forbidden to resole a shoe, patch a jacket, or darn our knitwear.

Inspired by: Motherboard

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Rise of the commune

As a millennial (albeit an old one), the notion of home ownership is a distant one. In Australia, those seeking affordable housing must, for the most part, choose between a woeful owner-biased rental system or a suite of poorly constructed, highly compromised developments designed to deliver maximum profit over the cost of finish and liveability.

Fortunately, young socially minded designers are responding to this problem by developing for a collective of owners. Principle among them is Breathe Architecture with its Nightingale project. But as important as these projects are, they are not unrepresented.

In 1944, a few of Frank Lloyd Wright’s disciples from Taliesin, sought out similarly-minded people who would invest in and join a community build to Usonian principals (Introduced in Reporting Fives—Week Three) This project was unique for a number of reasons, from its circular plots to its communal mortgage. Radically, in the first decades of Usonia, members of the commune didn’t own their homes.

In the language of our time, we would call Wright’s Usonian houses open source. A vast number of houses identified as Usonian are not designed by Wright. In the same way that not every Nightingale project will be designed by Breathe.

The similarities are not limited to the openness of the design, but extend to the restrictions placed on the owners, restrictions designed to stimulate a new paradigm. The Nightingale buildings reject air-conditioning, second bathrooms and basement car-parking. These could be seen to mirror the small kitchens, open plan or carports of the lifestyle-shaping Usonian homes, each one intended to improve the lives of its occupants.

Roland Reisley, was one of the rare few whose home was designed by Wright himself. He recalls the words the great architect spoke during a trip to Taliesin:

> You’re my client. I’m your architect. I’ll redesign you house as many times as I have to until I’ve satisfied all your needs. You have to speak up, if you don’t you’ll take what you get.

Wright believed he could change the United States by changing its architecture. I believe we can change the world, so long as we speak up, otherwise, we’ll take what we get.

Inspired by: 99% Invisible: Usonia the Beautiful

Friday, 24 February 2017

Animals in Space

Long before Yuri Gagarin, and the silver suited astronauts of Project Mercury, it was non-human animals that pierced the skies aboard early rockets. First fruit flies and monkeys, then mice and the famous Soviet space dogs.

Most famous among them was a stray from the street of Moscow named Laika, who was sent into orbit aboard Sputnik 2 on the 3rd of November 1957. Laika was regretfully sent to her death, but the Soviets soon developed the technology to de-orbit, and three years later on the 19th of August 1960, Belka and Strelka returned safely to earth after spending a day aboard the Korabl-Sputnik 2.

Meanwhile, in the United States, just months away from Alan Shepard’s space flight, a rhesus monkey named Sam would be sent to the edge of space before crashing into the ocean and being thrown up against the side of a US Navy destroyer. Bob Thompson offers Eric Berger of Ars Technica an unusually colourful recount of Sam’s journey. His story stands as a reminder of the perils of space flight and the incredible bounds we made in the few years during the late 50s and early 60s.

Inspired by: Ars Technica
Reference: Animals in space