Creativity, Innovation, and Syntax

Humans and chimps both have tools and both can learn languages. Even birds can learn language, but all animals besides humans seem to be incapable of learning to master a language’s syntax. It seems even the ability to use tools and manipulate the environment seems to depend on the ability to use syntax.

If one looks at the word, syntax, one sees it derives from Greek for together(σύν) and an ordering/structuring(τάξις). It an ordering together of parts. In linguistics, it is simply how words are put together to form a sentence. One can be more abstract and just analyze formal grammars, too. These have a set of symbols (the vocabulary), and a set of rules for combining each combination of symbols. Mathematicians and physicists have recently tapped into the resource of formal grammars (more specifically generative grammars, but that’s another blog entry) to describe physical processes and system behavior.

It would make sense that a brain capable of developing the ability to understand and generate the patterns of syntax would be required to develop complicated tools. Both constructions require the ability to see the consequences of ordering or structuring things one way over another. In sentences, it dictates the nuance and directivity of meaning. In machines, it dictates the precise path of motion and allowable configurations of a specific machine.

It seems that every creative designer would use a process akin to constructing sentences, but based instead upon the specific grammar and syntax of the design paradigm they work within. Programmers embody this, since each language they learn has a specific grammar and syntax comprising a formal grammar.  Musicians too have their unique domain specific language whose syntax limits what material they are able to express in musical notation. These limitations are always being extended by additions to the language. Mathematicians have proven that proven that a formal language cannot express or prove everything, only an infinitely extensible one (Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem). I’m sure this is why language has been constantly fluid and evolving, escaping any canonicalization.

Language itself is inflexible, but the mind is infinitely more nimble and able to extend and comprehend things that are beyond it. Yet it is this capability that allows us to construct our limited language, modest machines, and determinate designs. Each revision gains more refinement and more nuance as we explore what is possible and what delineates the boundaries of reality. With each revision our mind becomes more nuanced and precise. With each revision our reality grows like a fractal and the possibilities for expression and creativity become infinite and nearly continuous, but harder to differentiate for those less experienced. The space of possible combinations and juxtapositions grows as large as the unknown universe.

Innovation and creativity prosper, all because of the brain’s capability for nuanced syntax.


A New Year’s Digest

It’s a new year. Some people seem to think it’s a blank slate to start a new, but for others that’s an impossibility. There are too many things that can tie one to the past. I’m trying not to look at those things. I’m just trying to be the best realist I can be and acknowledge that it is both a new year in which the same 12 month cycle happens again. I acknowledge that this year will be different, but there are things that are always the same: the names of the months, my general confusion about life, and human nature. A wise man supposedly once said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Of course, years aren’t “under” the sun, so they have the right to be new. Ironically, all new years celebrations are all the same. Perhaps we should have a New Year’s Mourning, in which we mourn over the death the new year brought to the old.

I also try to take the view that the new year is another opportunity to struggle against sameness. It is an opportunity to try and shake things up and defeat the deterministic nature with which life seems to process. It is an opportunity to change life’s hue, saturation and brightness (a good thing to do any day). It is a time to change the flavor, scent, texture, and timbre of life. Because of this thought, I am determined to make the most out of this opportunity for change and try an implement the following this new year:

1. Permission to be crappy.

I like Jack Kerouac’s rule #28 “Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better”. Okay, maybe crappy, and perhaps not undisciplined, but permission to be wild and raw. The reason being I am a perfectionist and have the hardest time ever just doing something when I think I’m terrible at it. In turn I will be crappy at first, but it’s a start. Mastery takes time. It takes many mistakes. It takes experience. If one doesn’t have the experience (10,000 hours), thy’re not a master. If one doesn’t have an aptitude for it, it’ll be crappy at first. Also if one has a great sense or vision of what the end result should be, anything less than an exact match is crappy. I have good news: with time and practice, mastery and excellence will come.

2. Space and time for creative process.

I have a nasty tendency to become transfixed on what ever I’m working on to my detriment. I get fatigued. I burn myself out. It takes me longer to finish the project. I need to intersperse my time with periods of otherness. Anything else: meditation, going for a walk, writing, reading, singing, playing the piano, serious music practice, and maybe just switch to a different project for a while. The benefit of taking breaks from a long task are wonderful. Since the mind works in less intuitive ways, letting one’s default circuit run is very beneficial to everything else that one does or thinks about. It helps to synthesize everything one has learned.

Creativity is an interesting beast. It takes structured/deterministic/disciplined chaos. It is the balance between order and disorder. It is a point where thought becomes multi-fractal and ideas seem to mesh together very easily. Language itself shows a balance between chaos and order. The area between order and randomness is the where there is the most structural complexity, it it also where the most statistical complexity is. If one wanted to model a certain process, the most complex model would be in the middle of order and chaos. A simple deterministic process like a rock falling out of one’s hand is described by a simple set of rules. Total randomness is also really simple to statistically model. All states of the system are equally probable, just pick one.  It has been researched extensively by James P. Crutchfield.

It is complex to try and master creativity. One needs the right pressure, space, and time.

3. Order my mind-space continuum around my space-time continuum.

I have been known to try tackling the impossible all the while expecting myself to accomplish it within an even more impossible time frame. I need to be more realistic in my perceptions of time and space. This will come in handy for doing the above two items. Managing time is essential. I suppose the best I can do with this right now is give myself permission to be crappy about it, give myself some time and space, and see how much better I can get.

4. Enjoy everything.

I think what is more to the point is: exuberantly enjoy all states of existence. If something is happening that I don’t like, I don’t need to let it effect my enjoyment of life. This is more of a Platonic ideal that exists in another realm. Any realization of this will probably piss most people off, but I can try, right?

I really want to start enjoying everything because I want to enjoy the grunt work that it takes to get somewhere and be something in life. In other words, I want to enjoy all it takes to be successful in order to enjoy my (assumed) success all the more!

Have a great new years! I’ll see you on the other side of it. I wish you a very successful 2010! Oh! Here’s to a new decade, “Cheers!”

For more information on order and complexity, check out What Lies Between Order and Chaos (PDF), Complexity: Order contra Chaos (PDF), Is Anything Ever New? (PDF), When Evolution is Revolution–Origins of Innovation (PDF), and Computation at the Onset of Chaos (PDF).

Be a Kid Again!

Recently, I’ve been wanting to be like a kid. Actually, it’s been a theme I’m been striving to emulate for over a year. It was reinforced when I saw Hideshi Hamaguchi’s page at Portland on Fire. He’s an “experienced toddler”. (He’s also an amazing person, if you get a chance to meet him please do.)

Kid’s are just amazing. They grab a hold of anything and play with it for all it’s worth. They juice amazing amounts of knowledge from playing with things. They aren’t afraid to go after whatever they want. They just want tease things and see what happens. They are probably the best specimens for seeing how the brain works in it’s most natural state. They don’t know much about their environment, but they learn tons by interacting.

Recently, it’s been exhilarating to look at the amazing potential to interact with my environment. In general, it’s exhilarating to look at the potential for anyone to interact with the environment, and those around us. A friend keeps reminding me this phrase, “We do not know what anything is for.” It’s so true. It’s the core mindset of the hacker (not to be confused with the negative side of that, see cracker). Anything can be re-purposed for anything else, but more than that, anything can be interacted with differently. Here’s an example of that:

That is a video of MIT’s Kelly Dobson and her blender, Blendie. You can learn more about Kelly here, you can learn more about blendie, here. Her field is Machine Therapy.

Seeing that video reminded me of harmonizing with a vacuum cleaner, singing into a fan just because of the awesome effect it had on the sound passing through it, and first experimenting with the harmonic resonance of physical spaces through singing and later throat singing. There are just so many cool things to do.

When it comes to inventing new ideas, interacting with objects, or doing anything, the only bad idea is one that failed. Even then, it isn’t a bad idea because of the learning involved. Just remember to bring out that inner kid everyday.

*Special thanks to Amber Case, Cyborg Anthropologist. She is responsible for leading me to that video. She post all sorts of amazing things on her website, flickr, and tumblr. World look out! She is an emerging thought leader.

Find elements, get inspired, and build great things.

Where do you find your inspiration?

Inspiration is sometimes hard to come by. Stress can get in the way. Monotonous cubicles and austere workspaces seem to eradicate inspiration. Sometimes a certain space is inspiring. Other times reading something completely unrelated to work helps rest a weary brain. Sometimes seeing the out-of-the-ordinary helps feed creativity.

If one is trapped in the workplace and needs a quick dose of raw creativity and ideas, where do they go or do? No time for a walk. No chance for a field-trip to a museum. Just stuck. This might be a good use for Elements.

What is Elements?

Elements lets one explore one image or quote at a time. It can be used to Elements has been described as a “visual twitter”. Even though it looks like twitter on the surface, it is nothing like it. Twitter lets one choose to read everything or search for specific things. It can be used as a research tool or as an asynchronous messaging service. It is a swiss army knife of communication. It really is what one makes it. In Elements, what is visible changes as one uses it. Twitter remains constant in what one can see. This article will explain the concepts behind it, but exploring Elements is really the best way to figure out what it is. You can find your elements at

The formula for elements is roughly:

Elements = Images and Quotes + Special Japanese Magic + Twitter Like Interface

When I met with Hideshi Hamaguchi, COO of, he told me more about the origins of Elements and its main difference from twitter. He drew a few diagrams in his notebook to help clarify the concepts and never thought to ask for those pages. However, I took the liberty to remake the diagrams from memory and include them here.

The systems have very different conceptual designs. In twitter anyone can send 140 Unicode characters to everyone on the system. Anyone can see everything (except private time lines) if they chose to. In Elements, what one sees is principally determined by relationships (who you follow and who follows you) and what you have liked in the past. Visually, what happens can be represented by these two diagrams:


In twitter, one’s actions cannot influence how the system interacts with you: what messages you can see or the order you see them is constant. This is represented by the circle and the arrow directions not crossing over. In Elements, what one does (following people, having followers, liking an item, or casting an item) influences how the system interacts with them — what pictures end up in their queue and what order they appear. This is represented by the figure eight and the arrows crossing over.

Each person has a queue of items they will be shown which is influenced by their relationships. Actions of people who one follows will effect what one sees more than the actions of their followers.

The concept behind Elements was inspired by the attitude of the Japanese tea ceremony, the concept of ichi-go, ichi-e (“one-time, one-meeting” commonly: “one chance in a lifetime”). There is only one time to inspire and one chance present a gift. Each of these gifts can be elements inspiring great things.

How Elements Came Into Being

Elements was inspired by the lack of methodologies to manage, harness, and inspire creativity. Hideshi says there are three distinct stages to the creation of an information/knowledge worker’s (read: creative’s) product: Collecting Disparate Elements of Inspiration/Information, Organizing and Pruning those Elements, and Creating the Final Deliverable. Here’s how it looks visually:
Elements fits into the picture on the far left at the beginning of conceptualization. One could say it is a product to fill the need for tools to begin managing creativity.

Typically, companies focus on bringing things to market more than they focus on creating ideas. In fact, the relative amounts of resources put into different parts of the creative cycle looks like this:
On the other side, when it comes to possibilities and creative license — or technically, degrees of freedom — the curve is just the opposite:
The upper diagram shows why companies seem to come up with unoriginal and non-paradigm shifting ideas. It’s not that they can’t afford the potential risk involved, it’s the undesirability to allocate resources for a creative process that they don’t know how to manage. Elements is the first step in managing the inspirational aspect. It may eventually become feasible for companies to manage the creative process in a resourceful manner.