The Write Noise

Recently on Twitter I was discussing writing in noisy environments with fellow writers. Jennifer mentioned she had managed to finish a draft whilst sitting in a particularly noisy cafe. You would think this would be the most distracting place to try and be creative in.

I’ve noticed that there is a certain amount of noise needed or not needed. Too much noise and it’s annoying, too little noise and it is distracting, and urgent noise like a truck reversing siren gets your heart pumping too much. That’s why I’ve been successfully able to work in cafes, airports, and buses, but have found libraries and open-plan offices too distracting.

It appears that there is some science to this sweet spot.

optimal-noise-level

The research suggests that most people reach peak creative performance at approximately 70dB. This is about the noise of a person talking on their phone on the train, or how loud your neighbours are during sex after you’ve just broken up with your partner. The reasoning as to why this level of noise isn’t distracting isn’t fully understood. But the authors reckon that:

We theorize that a moderate (vs. low) level of ambient noise is likely to induce processing disfluency or processing difficulty, which activates abstract cognition and consequently enhances creative performance. A high level of noise, however, reduces the extent of information processing, thus impairing creativity.

In other words, if you need to have a high level of focus for something requiring accuracy, detail, and/or linear reasoning, then silence can help make that happen. But it can be a distraction if you need to let your mind wander in that creative zone. Maybe you want to make several careful and precise cuts to a piece of leather as you make a woman suit, that requires quiet and not the distracting sounds of a small dog, so you lock the dog in your basement. However, if you wanted to write a compelling serial killer novel, you probably need a bit of noise to help you think.

Okay, put on some tunes and creative masterpiece here I come?

Not quite.

Why would a cafe level noise be conducive to concentrating but the co-workers in the next cubicle who are discussing how busy they are just makes you want to throw a stapler? Because it is about the sort of noise. It needs to be a constant background noise such that any one sound is mashed up with any other sound into a meaningless wall of sound. This means that music doesn’t really fit the bill and can be a distraction for creativity.* If you’re hearing lyrics or a cool riff, you’re trying to pick out the words or instrument and losing focus on what you’re meant to be… SQUIRREL! Better to have quiet library noise conditions.

But before you rush out and buy yourself a white noise generator or invite your child’s classmates over for a playdate, it is worth noting that this is pretty preliminary research. The study itself only used 65 participants. I’d want a lot of repeat experiments finding the same results before drawing any strong conclusions. It’s also worth noting that while there appears to be notable research on creativity (e.g. another paper from the same researcher), this aspect hasn’t been investigated further.

So while this research appears to confirm the anecdata of myself and other writers on Twitter, it’s hardly settled science.**

Hat tip: Jane Friedman.

* Although, many would argue that music can help creativity. I personally find it distracting. If I like the music, I’ll be listening to it and not focused. [Insert EDM or Pop joke here that doesn’t make me sound too old]. I’ve previously discussed a study showing music hurts your ability to be creative.

** Which is all too common in these studies on artistic endeavours. I’ve previously discussed how many wild claims are made from either marginal data, misrepresentations, or feelpinions.

Kids and Sport

A couple of years ago, I made the very popular argument that sports are not actually that popular and that we should be funding more recreational physical activities. I was particularly critical of the way funding goes to team sports as populist pork-barrelling.

Recently I stumbled across an American survey of children’s sports participation that suggested kids are playing less sports, less regularly, and that Armageddon must surely be upon us if this isn’t immediately addressed*. Obviously, I was terribly concerned and immediately emailed my local senator, before realising I’m Australian and think they are concerned about the wrong thing.

While sports, particularly team sports, make up a significant proportion of the organised physical activity of kids, this rapidly declines with age. The two biggest reasons for this change are people having a lack of time to be involved in organised activities, and injury and health issues (from people’s mid-thirties onward Source). Almost as if contact sports might result in injuries. Amazing.

I think the obvious solution is to stop placing such an emphasis on sports and instead focus on the activities we are much more likely to be able to do throughout our lives. But since kids are too young for sex, best to encourage them to go to the gym, go walking, riding, or running.

Now, being Aussie, I’m more interested in Aussie stats: call me a patriot. Our stats are slightly different from the US, showing that there has actually been an increase in kids playing sports, lead by increased participation in soccer and dance. Eight times as many girls doing dance, but boys are starting to get the hint about how to meet girls.

Here is a similar Australian sports survey to the US one was done by AusPlay which looked at what people were doing for physical activity, and it matches with other data from the ABS and Roy Morgan.

top 20 activities
Source

This table hasn’t changed much, particularly when it comes to the top 3. Sometimes these tables are presented with jogging, athletics, running, and track and field separated, such that swimming comes out higher. But that’s just to confuse people or make swimmers feel like that aren’t painfully alone, staring at an endless black strip at the bottom of a pool, chlorine itching their skin, as they struggle toward their next breath. Regardless, it shows that the vast majority of interest is in fitness activities, not sports.

But those figures are for all Aussies. Kids have a different emphasis. Caring parents are desperate to turn out well-rounded offspring with plenty of torn ligaments, broken bones, and early stages of CTE by having them play sports. As a result, kids tend to ignore going for walks in favour of bouncing a ball off of their foreheads. But this quickly declines as kids enter their teen years, continues to drop into their twenties, then levels off until another rapid decline after 40.

child participation by age
Source
sport with age
Source

This isn’t the whole story, of course. As I noted in my previous article, participation is usually measured annually. Regular participation tells a slightly different story. Most kids are physically active at least weekly**, while adults are trying for three times a week. Or put another way, kids get dragged to sport on a Saturday morning (and maybe once after school depending on how mum is feeling after cocktail hour) and adults manage to go for a walk three times a week when the dog starts bouncing off the walls with energy.

adult frequency
Source
child frequency
Source

Likewise, the motivations for physical activity are also tied to what people actually do – namely health and fitness. The differences come in with enjoyment and socialising being higher for sports versus activity. Obviously, everyone loves having their ribs mashed into their lungs as they are tackled to the ground during a friendly game of football***, so it is completely understandable that people would rank these highly for sports. But I would argue that non-sports activity is potentially fun/enjoyable and can be very sociable. If you don’t believe me, go to any university gym and see how much fun the gang of dudes pretending to look swole in stringer singlets are having hogging the bench press.

reasons
Source

Attitudes are changing.

“If you go back in the old days, competition was probably the key driver of the sports,” Mr Fairweather said. “Now it is all about health and fitness, whether you are playing sport or physical activity.” Source

So with that change in attitude and lifetime participation, I think it is time to change our focus away from sports. Whenever these surveys are reported it is always couched in terms of how we need to encourage people back into sports – with pictures/videos of football players and fat kids lying on a couch gaming. But that is missing the point entirely. People are shifting away from sports for a reason. People actually prefer physical activity. We’re pushing kids to be involved in sports instead of setting up good physical activity behaviours for life.

Trying to increase sports participation isn’t the solution, it is the problem. Setting up kids to be physically active for life is the solution, and that requires a rethink and a reallocation of resources. We could start by not calling these sports surveys “sport” surveys. Unless we want to keep pretending walking is a sport.

*As opposed to the very concerning rise in the pastime of shooting US kids.

**Kids are generally more active than adults, though. This is something lost in these surveys due to the way activity is defined. An adult might go to the gym and have an intense 30 minutes of telling other gym goers about their new diet, but kids will spend several hours chasing each other around the playground in an attempt to ruin yet another pair of sneakers. The former will be counted as physical activity, the latter won’t.

***The type of tackle and how many ribs that end up broken will greatly depend on the most popular code in your area. Not every football code is wimpy enough to wear padding and not every code allows proper tackling instead of tripping.

Update: Physical education people are starting to come around to my POV.

More stats: https://www.clearinghouseforsport.gov.au/research/smi/ausplay/results/sport

Why it is (almost) impossible to teach creativity

File 20181119 44274 v4jiya.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Relishing the independence of the mind is the basis for naturally imaginative activity.
Shutterstock

Robert Nelson, Monash University

Industry and educators are agreed: the world needs creativity. There is interest in the field, lots of urging but remarkably little action. Everyone is a bit scared of what to do next. On the question of creativity and imagination, they are mostly uncreative and unimaginative.

Some of the paralysis arises because you can’t easily define creativity. It resists the measurement and strategies that we’re familiar with. Indisposed by the simultaneous vagueness and sublimity of creative processes, educators seek artificial ways to channel imaginative activity into templates that end up compromising the very creativity they celebrate.

For example, creativity is often reduced to problem-solving. To be sure, you need imagination to solve many curly problems and creativity is arguably part of what it takes. But problem-solving is far from the whole of creativity; and if you focus creative thinking uniquely on problems and solutions, you encourage a mechanistic view – all about scoping and then pinpointing the best fit among options.

It might be satisfying to create models for such analytical processes but they distort the natural, wayward flux of imaginative thinking. Often, it is not about solving a problem but seeing a problem that no one else has identified. Often, the point of departure is a personal wish for something to be true or worth arguing or capable of making a poetic splash, whereupon the mind goes into imaginative overdrive to develop a robust theory that has never been proposed before.

For teaching purposes, problems are an anxious place to cultivate creativity. If you think of anyone coming up with an idea — a new song, a witty way of denouncing a politician, a dance step, a joke — it isn’t necessarily about a problem but rather a blissful opportunity for the mind to exercise its autonomy, that magical power to concatenate images freely and to see within them a bristling expression of something intelligent.

New ideas are more about a blissful opportunity for the mind to exercise autonomy.
shutterstock

That’s the motive behind what scholars now call “Big C Creativity”: i.e. your Bach or Darwin or Freud who comes up with a major original contribution to culture or science. But the same is true of everyday “small C creativity” that isn’t specifically problem-based.


Read more:
Creativity is a human quality that exists in every single one of us


Relishing the independence of the mind is the basis for naturally imaginative activity, like humour, repartee, a gestural impulse or theatrical intuition, a satire that extrapolates someone’s behaviour or produces a poignant character insight.

A dull taming

Our way of democratising creativity is not to see it in inherently imaginative spontaneity but to identify it with instrumental strategising. We tame creativity by making it dull. Our way of honing the faculty is by making it goal-oriented and compliant to a purpose that can be managed and assessed.

Alas, when we make creativity artificially responsible to a goal, we collapse it with prudent decision-making, whereupon it no longer transcends familiar frameworks toward an unknown fertility.

We pin creativity to logical intelligence as opposed to fantasy, that somewhat messy generation of figments out of whose chaos the mind can see a brilliant rhyme, a metaphor, a hilarious skip or roll of the shoulders, an outrageous pun, a thought about why peacocks have such a long tail, a reason why bread goes stale or an astonishing pattern in numbers arising from a formula.

We pin creativity to logical intelligence as opposed to fantasy.
Shutterstock

Because creativity, in essence, is somewhat irresponsible, it isn’t easy to locate in a syllabus and impossible to teach in a culture of learning outcomes. Learning outcomes are statements of what the student will gain from the subject or unit that you’re teaching. Internationally and across the tertiary system, they take the form of: “On successful completion of this subject, you will be able to …” Everything that is taught should then support the outcomes and all assessment should allow the students to demonstrate that they have met them.

After a lengthy historical study, I have concluded that our contemporary education systematically trashes creativity and unwittingly punishes students for exercising their imagination. The structural basis for this passive hostility to the imagination is the grid of learning outcomes in alignment with delivery and assessment.

It might always be impossible to teach creativity but the least we can do for our students is make education a safe place for imagination. Our academies are a long way from that haven and I see little encouraging in the apologias for creativity that the literature now spawns.

My contention is that learning outcomes are only good for uncreative study. For education to cultivate creativity and imagination, we need to stop asking students anxiously to follow demonstrable proofs of learning for which imagination is a liability.
The Conversation

Robert Nelson, Associate Director Student Experience, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book Review: Humans Need Not Apply by Jerry Kaplan

Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial IntelligenceHumans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Jerry Kaplan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

ABS brakes were the first step. The last will be us humans in observation cages next to the monkeys.

Jerry Kaplan is an expert in Artificial Intelligence and Computational Linguistics and attempts to guide the reader through what impacts AI and Robots will have on our future. In doing so, he raises many of the economic, ethical, and societal problems we are going to have to start addressing.

I first became aware of this book via CGP Grey’s short documentary of the same name (see below). To say there is a storm coming is an understatement. Kaplan guides us through the technological aspects of this topic with knowledge and skill. Where this book falls down is in his blind adherence to free-market solutions – ironically whilst pointing out several examples of where the free-market has failed in the past.

For example, some of his ideas about education are problematic. What he proposes with “job mortgages” is essentially traineeships and cadetships* that in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations were paid for by employers, with his modern twist being that employees should take out a job mortgage for. In other words, all of the cost and risk is moved from employers to employees.** How can anyone suggest that sort of thing as though they aren’t talking about slavery or indentured servitude?*** Sci-fi has been imagining that sort of scenario for decades and they weren’t calling it a good idea.

His comments about how rich people being in charge isn’t all bad, like back in ancient Eygpt… Because monarchies worked so well for everyone, who was a monarch.

Another gem was the idea that the free market could be in charge of wealth redistribution… Because it does such a great job of that right now. Now, in fairness, his plan was actually pretty good, but there were built in assumptions he didn’t really question despite laying out the framework with his discussion of automation taking our jobs.

Kaplan spent most of his book outlining what amounts to a post-scarcity world, a world where human “work” would essentially cease to exist, and thus cost, value and products become meaningless. How can you maintain our current economic system in that world? Don’t we need to be rethinking about what utopia we wish to design and the machines that will make that happen?

The final chapter has some interesting questions and ideas about what role humans can play in a world that the robots run and own. Whilst the ideas aren’t new, since science fiction has been prodding that topic for the best part of 70 years, he has grounded them in reality. If there is one takeaway from this book, it is that we all need to start planning the future now.

Overall, this was a fascinating book that is well worth reading.

* A point he acknowledges he is updating to be free-market and more “beneficial”
** It could be argued that this has already happened and Kaplan is just taking it one step further.
*** Again, a point he acknowledges with reference to AIs becoming free of ownership.

https://www.reddit.com/r/Futurology/c…
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2…

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Are good books made into bad films?

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The short answer is no.

The longer answer is Berkson’s Paradox/Fallacy applies.

The even longer answer is explained in this video from Hannah Fry and Numberphile:

Comparing the book to the movie has been a long-standing blog topic of mine, which made this maths video pretty cool*. I’ve since developed a category list that relates to what Hannah discussed in the video about what gets made into movies.

  1. It is very unlikely that your novel will be published.
  2. It is very unlikely that your published novel will be optioned to be made into a movie (or TV show).
  3. It is very unlikely that the movie adaptation will actually be made.
  4. Most movies are average, so it is very unlikely that the movie adaptation will be above average.
  5. If the movie is above average, it is very unlikely that the movie will bear any resemblance to the book it was adapted from.
  6. Pointless arguments will ensue from the previous two points.

The Metacritic vs Goodreads analysis mentioned in the video is interesting and worth a read.

hickey-datalab-bestadaptations

*As always, I’m working from a definition of cool that includes the nerdy stuff I like.**

**Did you know that cool has always been cool?***

next_essay_chart
Source.

*** Well, unless you use Ngram Viewer to check Google Books for word usage over time like some sort of nerd…

Ngram Cool

Economics of medicine

Recently I was reading an article in Aeon Magazine about the challenges faced by the medicine industry – commonly referred to as Big Pharma or Big Pharma written in one of those fonts with blood dripping from it and a syringe being stabbed into a baby. One of the big changes in medicine development discussed was the patent period that allowed monopolies on new drugs, which in turn saw orphan drugs – not drugs for Oliver “please sir, can I have some more” Twist, but drugs for rarer conditions and illnesses – become more popular/profitable to develop.

It’s an interesting issue and the article is worth reading. But it got me to thinking about something a little tangential. No, not whether Oliver Twist needs a remake set in south-east Asian sweatshops. I wondered how much money is actually spent on things.

Take for example this:

screen-shot-2015-02-11-at-9-03-17-am
Source.

Drug development appears to take a backseat to marketing. But this depends on what section of the market, how big the company is, and other factors. Clearly, medicine development is still a big expense, but how much is spent on research and development overall?

Worldwide pharma R&D $
Total global pharmaceutical research and development spending from 2008 to 2022 (in billions of U.S. dollars) Source.

That global pharmaceutical research spending is quite large at $165 billion. Or is it?

Rank Country Spending
($ Bn.)
% of GDP % of World share
World total 1,739 2.2
1 United States United States 610.0 3.1 35.0
2 China People’s Republic of China 228.0 1.9 13.0
3 Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia 69.4 10 4.0
4 Russia Russia 66.3 4.3 3.8
5 India India 63.9 2.5 3.7
6 France France 57.8 2.3 3.3
7 United Kingdom United Kingdom 47.2 1.8 2.7
8 Japan Japan 45.4 0.9 2.6
9 Germany Germany 44.3 1.2 2.5
10 South Korea South Korea 39.2 2.6 2.3
11 Brazil Brazil 29.3 1.4 1.7
12 Italy Italy 29.2 1.7 1.7
13 Australia Australia 27.5 2.0 1.6
14 Canada Canada 20.6 1.3 1.2
15 Turkey Turkey 18.2 2.2 1.0  sourceoriginal

Suddenly the amount spent on medicine research and development seems rather small. The USA government alone could easily cover the expense of medicine research if it decided to change priorities, since it spends 3.7 times that much on defence.*

Would it be a good idea for governments to have a Department of Pharmaceuticals that researched, developed, and sold medicines? Would that be money better spent than stockpiling tanks in a desert? Certainly, it would address several of the issues raised in the Aeon Magazine article around how the profitability of drugs, rather than the consumer needs, drives research and development.

This sort of thinking could be applied to many industries. The reality is that there isn’t actually a shortage of money but a lack of incentive to invest money in some areas in favour of others. The solution doesn’t have to be the government taking over, nor does it have to be about private companies not being profitable. But maybe it does have to be about rethinking what we spend money on.

Richard Denniss made similar arguments in his Quarterly Essay Dead Right about the Australian economy.

So maybe it is time to stop accepting the argument “we can’t afford X” and start having the discussion about how we spend for the most good. Or not, I’m not your boss.

*To be clear, I’m not suggesting we stop all spending on something like defense, or that there aren’t reasons for spending money on things like tanks. But as Richard’s video suggests, we are making value judgments and assumptions without really questioning them.

Book review: Astrophyics for people in a hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysics for People in a HurryAstrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oppose the gravitational force with your phalanges if you value science.

Science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson understands that most people don’t have time to read physics books – plus they are hard work to read. So he decided to package together some of his essays into a book that covers the major aspects of astrophysics in a way anyone could enjoy and learn from.

While reading this book I had a revelation. Could there be an explanation other than Dark Matter and Dark Energy for the gravity and expansion of the universe?

I’m going to propose Pratchett’s Theorem as an alternate hypothesis for the expansion of the universe and gravity. Since the universe is flat and there are unexplained gravity and expansion, I postulate that this flat universe is riding on the backs of four large elephants. This explains the gravity pulling everything down. These elephants are riding on the back of a large turtle who swims through the multiverse. The elephants are slowly moving away from one another – which explains the expansion – and walking down the curved shell of the turtle such that each step is larger than the last – which explains the increased speed of expansion.

This, of course, raises the questions of whether it was the elephants who were the prime movers behind the “Big Bang”, whether the elephants will keep walking down the shell until they fall off tearing the universe to shreds, or whether the elephants will eventually decide to walk back toward one another for a reunion? Do they also walk directly away from one another, or do they walk around the shell, such that the universe rotates? Given everything within the universe rotates, it would only make sense that this rotation is caused by the elephant’s motion.

Anyway, NDGT’s book was a good read. It doesn’t dumb things down, nor use too many lay terms, which was refreshing. But as a scientist, albeit in a completely different field, it felt like the book was aimed at a more general audience, particularly those who aren’t familiar with many of the topics discussed. Which made it only a good but not a great read for me.

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