Zigzag Inventions

Amanda Foreman, in the Wall Street Journal, describes a list of inventions that followed a zigzagging path:

In 1875, Thomas Edison invented the electric pen. It was a motorized stylus that worked like a stencil: it could punch words through a stack of up to 100 pages. This was supposed to replace copying, which back then was really time consuming. Edison said “There is more money in this than telegraphy.” But users hated it; it was almost impossible to use.

The zigzag: In the 1890s, tattoo artists started using the pen technology for the first electric tattoo needle.

In 1860, the first mechanical carpet brush was invented. But it was horrible; it just threw dust and dirt up into the air. In 1898, John Thurman of St. Louis invented a gas-powered carpet cleaner with a canvas bag, designed to catch the dust as it was thrown up into the air. This idea turned out to be even worse; huge clouds of dust filled the room.

Hubert Cecil Booth learned about Thurman’s invention, and had the idea of turning it into a sucking mechanism instead of a blowing mechanism. This was the first vacuum cleaner.

And check out this zigzag: Thurman’s gas-powered blower became the technology behind the leaf blower.

It’s the path to all great inventions: The zigzag that transforms the original idea into something completely different.

My Omaha Accordion Adventure

I’ve just arrived in Omaha, Nebraska, to buy a collection of twelve accordions.

Why drive 1,200 miles for accordions? Because they’ve been lovingly refurbished by legendary accordion repairman Stan Galli. He’s worked for decades repairing accordions all over the United States. Now he’s retired from the business, and he’s ready to part with his collection. Accordions are too fragile and expensive to ship; driving them is the only way.

Stan offered to teach me some of his accordion repair techniques, and that’s what we’ll be doing today. My new hobby is repairing accordions, and it’s really complicated. There aren’t many people around who know how to do it. I started teaching myself because the closest shop was 250 miles away, and my own accordion needed some work. It’s just as hard as finding a mechanic for my 1982 BMW motorcycle. (The next thing you know, I’ll be writing a book called Zen and the Art of Accordion Maintenance.)

Accordion repair has nothing to do with my career as a professor and creativity researcher. I’m just doing it because it’s fun. But who knows? In my book ZIG ZAG, I tell readers you’ll be more creative if you do something totally different from your main profession. Perhaps, in my subconscious mind, the intricacies of the accordion’s internal mechanism will prompt a surprising analogy, and I’ll have a new idea about how to help organizations foster more collaborative cultures. But even it doesn’t, I’ll still have a lot of fun.

(I originally found out about Stan when I read this poignant story in the Omaha World-Herald.)

Why Educational Technology Isn’t Working

The OECD has just released a report that concludes

There is little solid evidence that greater computer use among students leads to better scores in mathematics and reading.

Researchers tracked students in 31 OECD countries (including the U.S.) and measured their educational outcomes, as well as their use of technology at home and at school (including computers, Internet connections, and educational software).

I’ve been arguing for years that most Ed Tech is useless, and it’s because the companies that develop the apps don’t know anything about the learning sciences. The problem isn’t computers, or the Internet; the problem is with the pedagogical techniques and theories that are embedded in the new software. The OECD report supports my argument:

We have not yet become good enough at the kind of pedagogies that make the most of technology; adding 21st century technologies to 20th century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching.

The report doesn’t say much about how to align new educational software with the new science of learning, and with the reformed pedagogical approaches that work best to provide students with the deeper learning and thinking skills that graduates need. That’s why I’ve created a new master’s degree to teach how to combine learning sciences research, innovation, and software development (applications are open right now!) This study shows that we have to change the way we develop educational software, and ground technology in the science of learning.

Why are there states of matter?

We all learned in school that there are three states (or phases) of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. Later, you may have learned of a fourth state, plasma; and, physicists say there various other states that emerge in extreme conditions (e.g. Bose-Einstein condensate). But let’s keep it simple, and go with three for now.

While helping my 12-year-old son with his homework, this question came up, and I haven’t been able to find the answer:

Why are there states of matter at all?

In other words, it’s easy to imagine a physical world where there are no phase transitions. In this alternate world, all matter would change continuously with temperature change. The molecules of the substance would continuously increase in space from one another, with no sudden changes in properties or structure. At the coldest temperatures, everything would be extremely solid. As the temperature warmed up, the solid would become progressively and continuously less solid, and more “mushy,” let’s say. More “liquid like” but continuously, not in a sudden phase transition. And as this liquid-ish form of matter warmed up into what we know as the “gas” state of matter, it would gradually and continuously become more fog-like–but again, with no sudden phase transition.

I have searched all over the Internet, and I haven’t found this question asked or answered. (I ended up reading some advanced stuff about energy states, and curves crossing, but that doesn’t answer the question.) Does anyone know the answer, and if you do, can it be explained in a way that regular people can understand it?

Leonardo da Vinci Artist Statement

This is hilarious, even if it’s a bit over the top. It’s from “The Artist Statements of the Old Masters” by John Seed:

If the great European artists of the past were alive today, what kinds of statements would they need to write to explain and justify their work?

Mona_Lisa_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci

I originally proposed “La Giaconda” as a non-specific vehicle to map coded and opposed systems of selfhood and gender that could be substantiated via an intertextual nexus. Through a personal discursive process, it then evolved towards a self-referential “otherness” that overlays Neo-Platonic androgyny re-defined as an ontology of the unsaid.
–Leonardo da Vinci

The Secret of Good Writing

Perfect advice by William Zinsser:

The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure who is doing what–these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”

I agree completely. I have one quibble: Zinsser should have taken his own advice and replaced “adulterants” with a shorter word. But Zinsser saved me just now: In that previous sentence, I was going to say “I have one minor quibble.” But a quibble is minor, by definition. So let’s add a rule to his list: never use an adjective whose meaning is already embedded in the definition of the noun.

Zinsser follows the above quotation by writing:

And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.

He’s taking a dig at pompous over-educated intellectuals. But this hasn’t been my experience; I’ve edited early drafts of my senior colleagues, and I’ve read countless undergraduate class papers. Everyone makes the same mistakes; I don’t think they increase with stature.

*From “On Writing Well” (1976) by William Zinsser, who died May 12 at age 92. Excerpted in today’s Wall Street Journal here.

Another View of the “Mad Men” Era

I just found these old photographs from 1965, in the Newport News Shipyard Bulletin. The Newport News Shipyard is now the largest shipbuilding company in the United States (it was really big back then, too). This is my sister Cindy (left) and me (right) sitting in front of our father, an electrical engineer who worked on the Esso New Orleans, the ship pictured at the bottom on the cover of the issue. Bob Keith and Cindy Sawyer 1965 at Esso christening1965 Shipyard Bulleting Cover Esso New Orleans