Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

18 JANUARY, 2012

Woz on Creativity: Work Alone

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Groupthink, the origin of originality, and why most inventors are like artists.

Last week, we took a look at what a 1962 Candid Camera elevator experiment reveals about the psychology of groupthink. More than vintage comic relief, however, groupthink can be the archnemesis of creativity, because creativity by committee is no creativity at all — just ask Stephen King, who famously advised aspiring authors to “write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” In his modestly titled memoir, iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It, computer legend Steve Wozniak, better-known as Woz, makes a bold case for the importance of intellectual independence in the creative process:

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me — they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone — best outside of corporate environments, best where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee… I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

This, of course, should be ingested with caution — when taken out of context, it could easily become a distorted extreme. As Steven Johnson argues in Where Good Ideas Come From, innovation happens when ideas collide with one another, which can’t happen in isolation — an environment conducive to such collisions is essential for combinatorial creativity. But at the heart of Woz’s insight seems to be a prompt to silence groupthink and bake just enough quiet time into the creative process for the ideas that we’ve acquired through our interactions with the world and other people to collide and fuse together into something new, something “really revolutionary.” At least that’s how I’d like to interpret it.

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18 JANUARY, 2012

A. A. Milne on Happiness and How Winnie-the-Pooh Was Born

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On rainy days and the simplicity of happiness.

Though Alan Alexander Milne (1882-1956) is best-known for authoring the Winnie-the-Pooh book series, among the most beloved children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups, A. A. Milne was also a prolific poet. In 1924, two years before the first Winnie-the-Pooh book, he penned When We Were Very Young — a collection of poetry for young children, illustrated by E. H. Shepard. In the 38th poem of the book, titled “Teddy Bear”, the famed Winnie-the-Pooh character makes his first appearance. Originally named “Mr. Edward Bear” by Christopher Robin Milne, Milne’s own son, Winnie-the-Pooh is depicted wearing a shirt that was later colored red for a recording produced by Stephen Slesinger, an image that eventually shaped the familiar Disney character.

The third poem in the book is a short gem titled “Happiness” — a wonderful meditation on how little it takes to find happiness. (And, clearly, a giant missed opportunity for Apple.)

John had
Great Big
Waterproof
Boots on;
John had a
Great Big
Waterproof
Hat;
John had a
Great Big
Waterproof
Mackintosh–
And that
(Said John)
Is
That.

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17 JANUARY, 2012

The Greatest Grid: How Manhattan’s Famous Street Map Came to Be

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What Edgar Allan Poe, the Dead Rabbits, and Charles Dickens have to do with New York’s defining feature.

For the first two hundred years of Manhattan history, the Collect Pond, a lovely, spring-fed reservoir that bubbled up on the border of what is now Chinatown and the Financial District, was the main water source for most city dwellers. The streets grew up organically around it, private roads bounded by a vacant, rocky, wasteland to the north, from what is now 23rd to 90th streets. These were the city-owned Common Lands, and after the revolution they were something the debt-ridden city needed to parcel out and sell fast.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the Collect Pond had turned into a quite literal cesspool, and the the city paved it over to accommodate a booming population. Five streets came together over the newly-filled pond, which still seeped though the cobblestones, and at the heart of this intersection grew a infamous slum, ruled by gangs like the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys. When Charles Dickens visited in 1842, the scene shocked him:

Poverty, wretchedness, and vice….all that is loathsome…narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking every where with dirt and filth.”

(That same year, he rather excitedly wrote of returning to Broadway in his diary, noting in a matter-of-factly manner the curbside intermingling of pigs, hogs, and well-dressed ladies.)

Where streets converged, so did humanity, proof positive that right angles could mean the difference between utopia and bedlam.

A 'South East View of the City of New York in North America,' ca. 1763, by Thomas Howdell. The tallest spire is Trinity Church. (Museum of the City of New York)

The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011, based on the current exhibition of the same name at the Museum of the City of New York, tells the story of the city’s right angles. The Commissioner’s Plan of 1811, the map and surveying scheme that set the blocks at 200 by 800 feet all the way up the length of the island, was an audacious gamble on growth. From 1790 to 1810, the population of New York had tripled, and the commissioners predicted that by 1860, New York would have almost the same population as Paris, then home to half a million people. (They were wrong, of course — New York would top nearly 800,000 by then.)

The Commissioner's Plan of 1811, by John Randel, Jr. (Courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives)

The grid was far from simple to achieve. “Mannahatta” translates to “island of hills,” and the rocky wasteland to the north had to be surveyed to perfection, and private roads, farms, and pastures wrestled into order by a ruthless eminent domain. This meant plenty of opportunity for graft, personified by William “Boss” Tweed, who would pocket city officials and buy up lots just as they opened city streets.

A map from 1835 of property belonging to Clement Clarke Moore in Chelsea. These newly subdivided lots eventually came to be worth fortunes. (Museum of the City of New York)

View of Second Avenue looking up from 42nd Street, 1861, by Egbert L. Viele.

There were problems with the plan: a lack of public parks and open space, constant congestion, overbuilt lots, no vistas or urban openings for important civic buildings. The only open space the Commissioners allowed was a parade ground in the vicinity of present-day Madison Square. But the grid system allowed for these cut-throughs to happen later, in the form of Broadway, Central Park, Rockefeller Center, Columbia University, and the thousand smaller parks and plazas easily carved out of the 1811 plan.

Aerial View of Madison Square, 1894, by J.S. Johnston. (Museum of the City of New York)

The grid was easier to implement on the flat East side than on the hilly West. By 1860, streetcars could only travel up 8th avenue to 84th street before the terrain became impassable. Huge outcroppings of rocks, the kind that are found in the Ramble in Central Park, blocked the way for most development. Small mountains had to be blasted apart or cut through, and the hundred foot changes in elevation around Morningside Heights and Inwood has created a strange and magical neighborhood of apartments perched on peaks and valleys, still for the most part obeying the grid.

Rocks at 81st Street and 9th Avenue, December 1886, by Robert L. Bracklow, (Museum of the City of New York)

In the 1840s, at the still rural intersection of 84th and Broadway, Edgar Allan Poe rented a room at the Brennan Farm House, the likely location where he wrote “The Raven.” The farm was on a rise from the dirt Broadway road, and from his window Poe could witness nature give way to the city:

These magnificent placers are doomed. The spirit of Improvement has withered them with its acrid breath. Streets are already ‘mapped’ through them, and they are no longer suburban residences, but ‘town-lots.'”

The Greatest Grid, a fine addition to our favorite books about maps, is a catalog of development and destruction, the end of nature and the beginning of urban living. When the grid eventually overtook the Brennan farmhouse, it too was destroyed. All was not lost for Poe, however. In the 1980s, the city council wanted to mark the writing place of the now famous author—they named the street after him.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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