Wednesday, September 2, 2015

More Metaphors Please

The Obituaries page of The New York Times is a rich source of inspiration for the stories of people who have made a difference. Last Thursday’s page recorded the life of John Henry Holland who died age 86 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he spent his entire career at the University of Michigan where he was a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and a professor of psychology. In the mid-1980s he be became a core participant in the Santa Fe Institute which had been created by senior scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory for the interdisciplinary study of complex systems which, according to The Times, quickly became a clearing house for the most advanced ideas in the field. Holland’s work was seminal in the field of genetic algorithms, or computer codes that mimic sexually reproducing organisms which proved crucial in the study of complex adaptive systems, a field he helped create.

Why am I writing about a clearly brainy guy expert in a field I can only imagine at? I was taken by the closing paragraph of the obit: “Dr Holland often said that he picked up his best ideas by talking to people outside his field – linguists, musicians and poets. “My own idiosyncratic view is that the reason scientist burn out early is that they dig very deep in one area and they they’ve gone as far as its humanly possible at that time and then they can’t easily cross over into other areas. I think at the heart of most creative science are well thought-out metaphors, and cross-disciplinary work is a rich source of metaphor.”

Image attribute/source: John Henry Holland /

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Mysterious Dreams

We spend around one third of our lives sleeping. Among other things, sleep gives us a chance to have dreams, apparently around four of them each night. We forget most of them upon waking. Through dreams, our brains process all the information, memories and unconscious cues we pick up during the day. Sometimes they get interpreted into weird narratives that make no sense to our conscious minds, but link up perfectly in our grey matter.

If you think dreams are mysterious, here are a few facts that will add more depth to their mystery.
  • Dreams inspire and evoke creativity. Apparently Paul McCartney woke up with the tune for The Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’ in his head, and John Lennon wrote his song ‘#9 Dream’ based on a dream he had.
  • Eating different types of cheese before bedtime can influence dreams in different ways. A 2005 study found that cheddar triggered dreams about celebrities and blue cheese triggered dreams that were bizarre.
  • People who watched black and white television in their childhood are more likely to dream in monochrome, according to a study.
  • When we’re experiencing a lucid dream (which means we’re aware that we’re dreaming), we’re sometimes able to participate in the dream or possibly even manipulate an experience in our dream environment. Online gamers who have developed skills in controlling an avatar on-screen could find that these skills translate well in the context of dreams.
  • People can’t snore and dream at the same time.
Evidence indicates that dogs, cats, rats, birds and other animals dream too. A recent study found that rats dream about their desired future, such as how they might go about finding a tasty treat. Zebra finches (a type of bird) aren’t born with song melodies hard-wired into their brains; they learn them and practice them in their sleep, as evidenced by brain activity.

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Monday, August 31, 2015

Stroke of Genius

The origin of ‘genius’ is Latin, ‘attendant spirit present from one's birth, innate ability or inclination’. It implies natural ability, though the jury is still out – many would argue that genius exists in all of us. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’ he suggests that it takes 10 years or 10,000 hours of dedicated practice for people to master most difficult endeavors, a theory originally proposed by psychologist Anders Ericsson.

An opposing theory by psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton is that practice helps but it’s not enough on its own, and that intelligence is a necessary condition for creating genius. Simonton defines a genius as someone who has “the intelligence, enthusiasm, and endurance to acquire the needed expertise in a broadly valued domain of achievement.”

Thomas Frith has the whole package. He’s the stand-out star of ‘Child Genius’, a UK television series that involves 7-12 year olds competing for the title of child genius of the year.

At the age of two Thomas woke his mother up in the middle of the night to tell her he’d just counted to 503. She told him to go back to bed and do it in French, and then backwards in German. At the age of three he memorized the times tables. Now, at only 12 years of age, Thomas has read ‘Ulysses’; plays the piano, cello, trombone and bassoon; plays football, table tennis and rugby; and is passionate about double chess (playing two games at the same time).

Thomas has an IQ of 162, higher than Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein.  Mensa, the largest and oldest high IQ society, restricts membership to people with an IQ of 130 or above, which equates to around 2% of the population. Remarkably, at only 12 years of age, Thomas’ IQ means he falls in the 0.003 percentile.

“Intelligence, enthusiasm, and endurance” seems to epitomize Thomas. Far from the stereotype of a maths geek, he is described as “sunny, funny and philosophical.” Wise beyond his years, he understands the genius in storytelling. On books, he says, “Separating the world into facts lacks truth. Just stringing facts together doesn’t describe the world as people know it and experience it.”

Image attribute/source: Thomas Frith /

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Wise Words

We can’t win this World Cup by having something ordinary – we have to bring something extraordinary.

All Blacks Head Coach, Steve Hansen.


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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Dinner for One

Cooking for one doesn’t have to mean eggs on toast. Nor does it have to mean cooking something and eating it for five days straight. Nor does it have to mean the old ‘what am I going to have for dinner tonight’ chestnut, whiling away precious minutes of the day, trawling the aisles of the supermarket for inspiration. (Of course, it’s not only solo diners who suffer from this!)

I’m Chairman of My Food Bag recently we launched My Own Food Bag. It’s My Food Bag for one. Good news for one-person households, which are projected to be the fastest-growing household type, estimated to account for almost one-third of all households by 2031.

The My Own Food Bag meal options are full of seasonal quality ingredients for the single diner to cook at home, including four quick and delicious recipes to feed one adult for three nights, and to feed two adults for one night, opening the door to a weekly visitor, or a guest appearance at the dinner table, or tasty leftovers for lunch the following day. I like it.

My Food Bag now offers six different weekly food packages that cater to different households and real people and what they want and need. They worry about what you’re having for dinner, so that you don’t have to. If you’re worried about what someone else is having for dinner, My Food Bag can help them too.

The idiom ‘hit the nail on the head’ doesn’t need a lot of explanation. I think it fits the bill for My Food Bag.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Think Broader, Closer, Younger

Tony Fadell is known as the mercurial “godfather” of the iPod and described as a born tinkerer with a combative reputation. His passion for life and design is contagious. In a recent TED Talk he spoke about the little things humans notice at first and perhaps become slightly perturbed by, and then invariably stop noticing as we get used to them, through a process called habituation. As a designer, he wants to fix those little things, by trying “to see the world the way it really is, not the way we think it is. Why? Because it’s easy to solve a problem that almost everyone sees. But it’s hard to solve a problem that almost no one sees.”

The tips he offers for ‘fixing’ habituation reflect his creative approach, his meticulous attention to detail and his drive to make the world a better place through design. First, look broader. Take a step back and consider the elements of a project or problem…consider removing one or combining them. Second, look closer. Focus on the tiny details that you typically overlook. Can you fix them? Would it make a difference to the consumer? Third, think younger. What would a child ask or say? Encourage the young minds around you to contribute. Ensure they’re part of your team.

After leaving Apple and taking a break, Fadell founded Nest, which “reinvents unloved but important home products” with a focus on “delighting consumers with simple, beautiful and thoughtful hardware, software and services.” He sold it to Google last year, but not before making some serious progress towards disrupting technology in your home in the best possible way.

Fadell talks about the future of the internet in a recent article on The Wall Street Journal. “Like a library,” he says, so long as you know where to look or you know the right question to task. He predicts that soon it “will be everywhere and in everything,” helping us to make more informed decisions as we navigate our way through daily life.

For those of us who are connected to the internet (note that apparently 4.4 billion people worldwide are still offline) it’s quickly becoming one of life’s necessities, right up there with our physiological needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy. But it’s not just people who will be more connected in the future. Devices will be too. Of course, computers and phones, but also appliances and armchairs. One of the major transitions that we’re going to see is a move from a reactive approach (where the internet will do things when we tell it to) to a proactive approach (where the internet will do things before we tell it to).

The future for Fadell seems big. Why doesn’t he just sit back and bask in the already hugely successful products of his labor? “I gotta keep growing,” he says. “Because I’m old, but I’m not that old. I’ve still got a lot of years ahead of me, and I’m not just going to sit here.”

Image attribute/source: Tony_Fadell /