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Hlafordlaes
2013-May-06, 11:21 PM
It think it might be nice to share our little techniques and dark arts of the trade in research, creativity, or thoughtful endeavor.

I am referring to the methods one might use to prompt new ideas, gain new insights, or find a fun or rare perspective. It might be anything from the simple (long walks) to the bizarre (doodling with corn chips on the boss's desk.) How to you overcome writer's block? How to you overcome the long, eureka-less treks? (Getting grad students to do the work is, unfortunately, considered somewhat too obvious for this discussion, in spite of the gleeful schadenfreude.)

I'll share a tidbit of my own in my next post, but I'm hoping others have something to chip in.

And as a one-off for this first post, let's not forget the great value of the tried-and-true past-time of just plain tinkering (http://sugru.com/). (The link is to a cool new product resulting from just that, casual playing around with stuff.)

Hlafordlaes
2013-May-06, 11:24 PM
I've tried to express this tip before, but I think I have a handle now on a quick way to get it across. This is in the category of simply paying slight more attention to something you already do, for some higher returns.

The unconscious learning engine you used as a child to learn your first language(s) may not be quite as spiffy as before, but it is still humming away, and quite capable of general purpose work. Ever tried to remember a name or fact, only to have it pop out much later? You weren't thinking about it anymore, but somebody was. Breaking my own rules, think of it as your inner grad student, an eager one at that, and thankful for all the grunt work.

The recipe: Steep yourself well into the domain, issue, problem, challenge you wish to address, preferably on a Friday. Now break all contact with the topic, and engage in strenuous activity, but staying off topic. We want to forget about it and hand the work off to the kid, and dose the brain and body with some nice natural endorphins, and then relax. Now engage your conscious mind by dealing with any new, radically unrelated but rich topic. Pop the encyclopedia and browse. Whatever, but you can't skip this step. Then have a nap or a night's sleep.

Now, you can't just pull this one out of the oven. You may never notice anything. However, with a little practice, you'll find that the kid shows up with a delivery now and again. Some new angle, wider view, or twist may be the reward.

"Sleeping on it," is part of it, but even that (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9rtmxJrKwc) shouldn't be dismissed as a respectable practice for creativity.

ETA: That last link is to a longer, still good talk, but includes strong language. Here's the one I intended (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGt3-fxOvug) (shorter, too.)

Trebuchet
2013-May-06, 11:32 PM
I'm in the process of designing a new siege -- make that pumpkin -- engine. A couple of hours ago, I was told in no uncertain terms, by the cat, that it was time for us to take a nap. During that spell I mentally redesigned one of the major components and made significant changes to the main part, in addition to coming up with a minor clever detail. Note that this was not dream-designing, but just in the relaxed phase before sleep. When I dream-design stuff and manage to remember it, it pretty much always violates every known law of physics.

I also design stuff in my head while walking, or less frequently, while driving.

Solfe
2013-May-06, 11:46 PM
Some of my most creative efforts have come to fruition because people have explained a completely random, unrelated, unlooked for process, concept, or activity to me. I am always amazed by this.

Hlafordlaes
2013-May-07, 12:17 AM
Some of my most creative efforts have come to fruition because people have explained a completely random, unrelated, unlooked for process, concept, or activity to me. I am always amazed by this.

My purely speculative guess as to why a shift to a radical and rich new topic can be fruitful is that the brain gets whatever new knowledge process chemistry is involved kick-started, with side benefits.

KaiYeves
2013-May-07, 12:28 AM
Lying in bed with your eyes closed while trying to fall asleep at night is an incredibly good time for visualizing, contemplating, and just plain thinking.

NoChoice
2013-May-07, 12:34 AM
A very interesting topic. I have often thought about it and shared observations with others.

I think the rest period is very important where you don't touch the topic at all.

Example:
I play drums (drum kit), which requires rather complex coordination of my extremities and listening and feeling the music.
When I try to develop a new pattern (mostly between base drum (foot) and snare and toms (hands)) I usually don't get anywhere when I give it a first go. With patience not being my strong suit I invariably get frustrated at some point and stop practicing for a while. And I have seen it again and again that after the rest period all of a sudden I can do it. It is really fascinating.

I am strongly convinced that we are not in control of most (if any) aspects of the creative process. Famous artists have commented on this many times. Inspiration and ideas just arise out of nowhere, really. Many artists have commented on the insight that they are not actually doing any of it. Yes, it seems important to immerse yourself in the topic or the art, to play with it as it were, but inspiration or eureka moments just come (or not) and we are not really involved all that much.

I noticed that particularly strongly when I studied math a few decades ago. I was pretty good at it and would often have proofs for exercises that others in my group did not manage. And at some point I noticed that I was actually not doing any of it. "I" wasn't thinking. Often, there wasn't even much thinking involved. I would look at the problem on paper, sort of play with it a bit with a very relaxed disposition and the proof or the solution would simply arise. I honestly cannot take any credit for it. I am by no means a genius. I don't regard myself as out of the ordinary. I believe I am simply more aware of it than others may be.

Are we really doing any of our thinking? Can we control it?
Are we doing any of our emotions? Can we control them?

No. I am convinced we have ultimately no control. Thoughts and emotions simply arise. If I were really in charge I would certainly never want any "negative" thoughts and emotions. And yet, they arise at times. And there's little I can do about them. The "good" or the "bad".
Think about it: if you were in charge of your thinking, why would you ever want to have any negative thoughts? And yet, we all know they invariably arise at times...

I think people are given much more credit than they deserve and many artists (also ones I personally know and have talked at length about this) have realized this as well and have commented on it.

Swift
2013-May-07, 01:22 AM
Lying in bed with your eyes closed while trying to fall asleep at night is an incredibly good time for visualizing, contemplating, and just plain thinking.
Yes, I have had some of my most creative (or at least "ah ha") moments either when about to fall asleep or in the shower. I think it actually helps sometimes to not focus on the problem, but just let your mind wander. What I have learned, the hard way, is not to drift off to sleep thinking "I'll remember this in the morning", because you won't (or at least I don't). I've learned to get up and jot down some notes.

Swift
2013-May-07, 01:27 AM
It think it might be nice to share our little techniques and dark arts of the trade in research, creativity, or thoughtful endeavor.
The other part of doing research, at least in my mind, is just doing good work. Being creative is not sufficient, and sometimes, it is not particularly necessary for a lot of research. But you have to do well designed experiments, you have to take good notes and good measurements, do good analysis, and do a good job of writing up your work (whether for a paper or an internal company memo). As Thomas Edison said, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration".

Solfe
2013-May-07, 02:03 AM
I have a personal lifehack that I started years ago. I have a copy of every paper, complete with citation, I have ever written from 1986 to now on a pc. Grep -r (or Sherlock) is a wonderful tool. It kills me when xyz company updates software so I have to convert the files to something more modern.

For actual research, I start with a brain storm on a sheet of paper, then write an idealized outline and plot stuff out on it. Then I go find my sources. I try to limit myself to one phone call, interview or letter per paper, because primary sources drive English teachers nuts.

Noclevername
2013-May-07, 03:22 AM
Lying in bed with your eyes closed while trying to fall asleep at night is an incredibly good time for visualizing, contemplating, and just plain thinking.

Using that method is good for my creativity but terrible for my insomnia (which is bad enough even when I'm trying to get to sleep). I've learned to do my best thinking while walking.

Trebuchet
2013-May-07, 03:41 AM
As Thomas Edison said, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration".

Edison was also famous for sleeping only two hours a night, and boasted about it. What's a little less known is that he was a prodigious napper. Henry Ford used to have little "campouts" for the rich and famous, including Edison, on his estate, and had lots of pictures and home movies made. Edison is usually sleeping in his chair. In his defense, he was pretty old at the time.

He also hired most of the perspiration.

grapes
2013-May-07, 09:40 AM
Yes, I have had some of my most creative (or at least "ah ha") moments either when about to fall asleep or in the shower.

I'll second the "in the shower" and add "while driving" and like Galileo and his pendulum "in church"

Maybe the ol' mental governor is distracted just enough to allow those wild ideas to percolate through my dense gray matter

Tog
2013-May-07, 10:48 AM
+1 for "in the shower."

I'll also do press conferences or lecture halls with people that aren't there. I ask my self questions from my own characters, or from TV or movie characters with personalities I know well. Sometimes it will be the actual actor I envision in the role of my character asking for tips on how it should be played. Whichever way it comes about, the result is that I have someone who isn't real asking me questions from a point of view I wouldn't normally have. Sometimes they argue with me about my answers. Sometimes they stump me. It's usually helpful.

I worked out how the first kata in kenpo could actually be aikido techniques while explaining the difference between the two styles to someone that wasn't really there in my car. When I tried it on a real body, it all worked.

In the shower, I'll go over plots and story lines as if I'm explaining the rough idea to someone or answering questions about it. These will usually lead to a solid exchange of ideas with the voices. It's always a little disturbing when I come up with something like this that I know I'd have never thought of on my own, even though there's no one else actually involved.

One night I had a dream that there was a large metal dinosaur and we needed to determine the shape of it's skull, even though there was no way to see it from above and the lighting didn't allow using shadows. In the dream, I was with Adam and Jamie from Mythbusters. Jaime said that figuring the shape was easy, and he tossed a small steel ball up to the head. It landed on a high point and rolled over the contours, the sound giving away the steepness of the slopes. I remember being really impressed with this, knowing that would never have thought of that on my own. Then I woke up and wasn't sure how to take that.

Noclevername
2013-May-07, 10:52 AM
One night I had a dream that there was a large metal dinosaur and we needed to determine the shape of it's skull, even though there was no way to see it from above and the lighting didn't allow using shadows. In the dream, I was with Adam and Jamie from Mythbusters. Jaime said that figuring the shape was easy, and he tossed a small steel ball up to the head. It landed on a high point and rolled over the contours, the sound giving away the steepness of the slopes. I remember being really impressed with this, knowing that would never have thought of that on my own. Then I woke up and wasn't sure how to take that.

You have Mythbusters dreams too? I thought that was just me!

Hlafordlaes
2013-May-07, 11:54 AM
I'll also do press conferences or lecture halls with people that aren't there. I ask my self questions from my own characters, or from TV or movie characters with personalities I know well. Sometimes it will be the actual actor I envision in the role of my character asking for tips on how it should be played. Whichever way it comes about, the result is that I have someone who isn't real asking me questions from a point of view I wouldn't normally have. Sometimes they argue with me about my answers. Sometimes they stump me. It's usually helpful.

Nice find. Always noticed I made many new connections whenever explaining to a group, both from attempting to make order of things and resulting from left-field questions. But I never achieved that with a fake audience; somehow I need the adrenaline. Or maybe not; I sometimes address others in mental conversations while sitting around, as if already in a meeting, and even blurt a thing or two out loud (thinking myself senile). Of course, more bad jokes than good ideas come out in my case.

Tog
2013-May-07, 12:05 PM
You have Mythbusters dreams too? I thought that was just me!

Just that one and I'm not sure why.

I've had one with Jeri Ryan in her Body of Proof role. There was a body crushed under a car, like it had slipped off the jack, except the only other thing under the car was a garden hose. It was obvious that the hose had been used to hold up the car, and when the water was turned off and the hose disconnected from the spigot, the thing fell apart and the car dropped. She arrived on scene as the Chief Medical Examiner, but I didn't get far enough to see how the hose was used to hold the car off the ground.

NCIS has given me two. The first lead to a plot about a sniper. The other was a way to steal hazardous chemicals that makes it look like they weren't stolen at all. I'm not sure how to use the second one.

There was an awesome one that had something to do with Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett version) but I can't understand a single word I said into the recorder I keep by the bed. I know it had something to do with "adult" websites, but that was the decoy part. I really wits I could make out what I said.

Then there was the hotel built into an offshore oil rig I dreamed. I've most of the big bits of that drawn out. It's just waiting for a plausible excuse to be used.


I think the reason that "automatic" things like showers are so good at sparking ideas is that the mind doesn't have a lot to do, so it's free to wander. When I just sit, I'm very aware that I'm sitting, and that's distracting. When I shower, I can slip into my routine, allowing the surface part of my brain to move my limbs about and the rest gets bored. I can't really think like this at all if I'm walking or mowing the lawn. I can sort of do it while I drive, and on really good days, I can do it while I'm typing.

Raymond Chandler said he's at his best when he's going fast. Not because he's being more productive, but because the words pulling him along rather than being pushed. I've had that same feeling, though not as often as I'd like.

Tog
2013-May-07, 12:10 PM
Nice find. Always noticed I made many new connections whenever explaining to a group, both from attempting to make order of things and resulting from left-field questions. But I never achieved that with a fake audience; somehow I need the adrenaline. Or maybe not; I sometimes address others in mental conversations while sitting around, as if already in a meeting, and even blurt a thing or two out loud (thinking myself senile). Of course, more bad jokes than good ideas come out in my case.

In one draft of a story, the bad guy kidnapped victim #3. When he turned up 12 hours later, they started tracking his movements. I wrote out about 12000 words of that, and i really liked the way it flowed.

Then a character asked "Why did we wait until he was dead before we started looking for him?" I didn't have an answer for her, so I had to redo it all with a new timeline. The imaginary ones can provide an adrenaline surge. Mostly anger based.

Trebuchet
2013-May-07, 01:44 PM
You have Mythbusters dreams too? I thought that was just me!

You guys are lucky! I just still have the one about wandering the halls of my junior high in my underwear!

Meanwhile, I put off getting the stuff I came up in the prelude to my nap down on paper (or electrons, actually) until late last evening and predictably have forgotten half of it.

HenrikOlsen
2013-May-10, 05:18 PM
I've noticed that really persistent bugs in computer programs tend to get solved when you try to explain what it does so someone else.
They don't need to do anything other than listen, the glazed over eyes doesn't matter, just going through things for someone else means I have to rethink things in a different way. The glazed over eyes might actually help as they prompt for even more fundamental ways of thinking.

Strange
2013-May-10, 10:15 PM
I've noticed that really persistent bugs in computer programs tend to get solved when you try to explain what it does so someone else.
They don't need to do anything other than listen, the glazed over eyes doesn't matter, just going through things for someone else means I have to rethink things in a different way. The glazed over eyes might actually help as they prompt for even more fundamental ways of thinking.

I have even heard it suggested that the office keep a cardboard cutout of an engineer that you can use to explain things to. :)

The best debugging advice I ever read was: go home. The next morning, it will be obvious what the problem is (even if you didn't wake up in the middle of the night saying, "of course!").

iquestor
2013-May-10, 11:34 PM
I've noticed that really persistent bugs in computer programs tend to get solved when you try to explain what it does so someone else.
They don't need to do anything other than listen, the glazed over eyes doesn't matter, just going through things for someone else means I have to rethink things in a different way. The glazed over eyes might actually help as they prompt for even more fundamental ways of thinking.

YEP!

I do a fair amount of programming, and I also teach week long programming classes. Usually people starting out programming get overwhelmed by the project and forget to take it one step at a time.

When Im writing a method, function, or script, I write ALL the comments first. before I do a line a code:

// Declare variables

// Allocate and initialize

// get user input file

// check if its a valid path and file

// see if it can be opened. If not, fail.

// see if TOC can be read

...
...


// close file

// deallocate memory

end


that way I think through every little thing I need to do first. Then all I have to do is fill in the lines of code under the comments.
This works great in the classroom as it helps students focus on the task, as well as ingrains the necesity of well commented code.

SkepticJ
2013-May-11, 03:43 AM
One of the best investments of $20 is buying The Universal Traveler, by Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall.

Strange
2013-May-11, 11:42 AM
When Im writing a method, function, or script, I write ALL the comments first. before I do a line a code

Good plan: basically writing a spec. Always a god idea.

Next, before writing the code: write some tests. That will probably show some gaps in your spec / code outline that you can fix before coding. Plus you have a set of tests to run as soon as the code is finished.