Creativity training for all?

A recent interview with Alan Moore caught my eye, “Alan Moore on Science, Imagination, Language and Spirits of Place”. Moore’s politics may be lumpen and wrong-headed, but much else he says makes good sense…

“Yes, when I was a child, comics and books dealing with fantasy or mythology were incredibly stimulating, but I think that has to be seen in a context of what was, for me, a far greater stimulus to the imagination, this being my otherwise complete lack of imaginative stimuli. What I’m talking about here is leaving some un-colonised space for a child’s imagination to grow into, rather than rushing in to fill that space with an insatiable desire to flog as much merchandise as possible to a malleable audience of trend-conscious juveniles.

As an illustration, when I was around seven years old and first discovering American superhero comics, I would have probably given just about anything for a set of, say, Justice League of America toy soldiers. However, such things didn’t exist in 1960, and even if they had existed, my family would not have been able to afford them. Thus, if I wanted to play with a team of toy superheroes I had to invent one myself from the motley assortment of mismatched toy soldiers, cowboys, Indians and Trojan warriors that I already possessed. This required a certain amount of ingenious re-purposing: an Indian Chief-type figure became a time-travelling medicine man with magical powers. A seven-inch tall American G.I, probably from a non-regulation set of soldiers I’d acquired somewhere, was obviously a superhuman giant, and by the same logic those tiny little Airfix military [kit] figures that used to be available could be pressed into service as heroes with shrinking abilities. A plastic Robin Hood give-away figure from a box of cereal became one of the ubiquitous masked archers familiar from my superhero reading, and as I recall the green plastic robot figure from an arcane general knowledge novelty board game – The Magic Robot – was re-cast as a more science-fiction oriented non-magical robot, possibly with a human brain. As a headquarters, I customised and decorated a cardboard shoebox, and as a principal villain I took an unpleasant bruise-coloured lump of merged and forgotten Plasticine discovered down the back of the settee, and re-imagined it as an amoebic shape-shifting alien monster from another planet, capable of engulfing my heroes and thereby somehow stealing their powers. My point is that, lacking a ready-made set of Justice League of America toys, I had to exercise my imagination by creating characters and situations of my own. Whereas I fear that kids today, assuming they or their parents can somehow scrape the money together from somewhere, can completely satisfy any imaginative whim without having to do a stroke of (actually very enjoyable) work or exhibit any creativity of their own.

In my opinion, this has been an increasing problem throughout the closing decades of the 20th century and has only been greatly exacerbated in the opening decades of the 21st. And, if I’m right, this is only likely to get worse. By not investing in the imaginative growth of the young we would seem to be setting up a massive failure of creativity, progress and imagination for the not too distant future.”

Broadly I think that the general increase in the level of pre-made mass-media stimulation is a good thing, especially for the 30% of dull children who are not very imaginative and never will be. It provides a crutch for their disability, and must at least widen their horizons a little. Far more so than was the case a century ago in the 1920s, for instance, when their imagination might have been limited to sport and its heroes. For the other 60% — the ‘mundane middle’ children — the constant media stimulation is probably no worse now than in the 1970s. It seems most dangerous when left unregulated by “can’t say no” parents and enabled by ubiquitous access to screens at all times of the day and night. This risks adding screen-addiction and premature exposure to adult content, to the older pre-existing problem of affluent children becoming ‘spoiled’ because they are given everything they want. It appears to be a real problem, and has already affected the Millennial generation in terms of their selfishness and ‘snowflake’ qualities. One might have hoped that — along the way — they would have acquired a savvy self-starting talent for ‘media dieting’, but for many ‘binging’ young consumers that seems not to be the case.

This problem of early media saturation is probably best addressed for the current generation of children by a blanket ban on screens (including TV, expect perhaps for a twice-weekly curated set of quality cartoons) until age 8, and then a ban on phones and hand-held games until age 14. If ‘long car-travel boredom’ is a real problem, then give them noise-cancelling headphones and audiobook stories instead. A good deal of ‘free-range’ outdoors activity will probably also help matters, ideally free of nagging and fussing parents, which will mean providing kids with the ‘wilding’ skills and tools to be able to enjoy such autonomous freedom.

Beyond that 30% + 60% group, I’d suggest that what Moore is really talking about is the problem for society in any early identification of the 10% of ’emerging creative makers’. But this assumes these children can be reliably spotted as young as 8-11, by teachers and parents who are not themselves creative producers and makers. Since no sit-down test will pick up that kind of tentative recombinant ongoing emergence, expect among the 0.1% of brilliant savants (who will not need a puny test to uncover their obvious talent). Nor will a test pick up the different kinds of often very-tentative emerging clusters of creativity, such as…

* curatorial systematising
* expressive translation
* adeptness at depiction
* emotional re-shaping in media
* “what if” future-mapping
* word-wrangling

Such a test would also assume that creativity emerges at a uniform early age. When we know, from biographies of powerful creatives, that their painfully-fashioned working coherence of talents only emerged years after the expected age of 11 or 12.

There would be a risk in such early identification, if this 10% can be somehow roughly identified as an emerging ‘creative class’. The state will then feel the need to play up to parental demands and provide standardised creativity training. Such a school-based approach, being easily identified and channelled into obvious and easily-delivered niches in music, dance, acting, graphic design and the like, would probably not do much harm to children who show an aptitude for such endeavours of technique and timing. Many teachers know the type well… the ones who are creative, but who are very reluctant or unable to combine this with deep reading in books.

But such training could potentially do great damage when applied to bright ‘bookish’ kids who have not yet found an expressive talent and niche, for whom Moore is suggesting the opposite approach. Moore is really talking about the more literate 3-5% who sit within this 10% of truly creative children, those who have the potential to harness the accumulated power of language to their own vivid imagination. Those who are able to freely engage in “visioning on the vacant air” (Hardy), and who can in time harness this not only to language but also to historical consciousness and future speculation. He’s saying that we might do best to just leave this group alone, and remove from them a great deal of the fully developed pre-packaged media stimuli with its torrent of words and shoddy distractions.

I’d add: also remove the inevitable bullying of such bright imaginative kids; introduce them to others with similar interests; guide them to the best stories and then align these stories with do-able real-world short-term projects. If possible, entirely remove this 5% from the stultifying conventional school system and its mundane and often-incompetent third-rate teachers. Which may also help to reduce the possibility that a fraction of this 5% might find malign and criminal outlets for their imagination, since they would not have a chance to fall in with the ‘future criminal class’ at school.

Xprize Airlines, boarding now, destination Future

Good to hear that another science-fiction anthology is on the way. Presumably it won’t be filled with gloom and pessimism, since it’s from the outstanding Xprize organisation (.mp3 talk by the founder). They’ve partnered with All Nippon Airlines (ANA) to “imagine a bold vision of the future” via science fiction. The trailer/think-tank for that new Xprize will be the launch of a new anthology of stories set 20 years in the future. Sign-ups for that are being accepted now, by the dedicated website.

Why are nearly all sci-fi movies anti-science and/or dystopia?

“When science had no shame. Part 1: Why are nearly all sci-fi movies anti-science dystopia?” (mild plot-spoilers).

The article is welcome but starts off ranty, with pictures that look rather kooky at first glance. In combination, that’ll be enough to cause 80% of casual readers to click away, before they even scroll down. But if you do scroll down, you find there’s a moderately good tabulated list of sci-fi movies ranked for their optimism and pro-science stances. The author struggles to find any really optimistic pro-science movie, of course.

Seeing the wood for the trees

A new study in the journal Science ($) claims to have detected… “increases current estimates of global forest cover by at least 9%”, by using new “high resolution satellite images covering more than 200,000 half-hectare-sized plots” in dryland areas.

“The extent of forest area in dryland habitats, which occupy more than 40% of Earth’s land surface, is uncertain compared with that in other biomes. Bastin et al. provide a global estimate of forest extent in drylands, calculated from high-resolution satellite images covering more than 200,000 plots. Forests in drylands are much more extensive than previously reported and cover a total area similar to that of tropical rainforests or boreal forests. This increases estimates of global forest cover by at least 9%”

Sounds like very good news. But I suppose there are three niggling questions here, which immediately spring to mind.

1) Is that 9% figure within the margin of variability for a sample of 200,000 one-acre plots, from an area as massive as whole of the Earth’s dryland tree-growing areas? I mean, if you made a basic Earth model in 3D and pointed a virtual camera at 200,000 random plots, what would be the variability of the results arising simply from chance? Could I re-run it with different samples, multiple times, and then pick one result from a range of -10% to +20%?

2) What proportion of this tree cover has always been there, hiding in plain sight? And to what extent is this 9% figure measuring the carbon fertilisation effect, the ‘global greening’?

3) What part of the 9% is measuring the ‘leafing out’ of the massive tree-planting efforts in the developing world? A chart from the paper, published on a short Science blog post, sort-of-helps with that, but not much…

My hunch would be that a large chunk of of the 9% is natural re-greening in Africa and Russia, plus the huge levels of tree planting in Asia which is now ‘leafing out’ in a manner which makes the saplings visible on high-res satellite images.

Sadly the paper itself is behind a paywall, so it’s difficult to ask the above questions of it. But, effectively, it appears humanity has discovered the equivalent of ‘another Amazon’ sucking down a whole lot of carbon — something which hasn’t yet been fed into the greenhouse warming models.

Moisture Harvesters for all?

I’m not easily impressed by reports of some newly invented uber-box, but a new paper in Science reveals an amazing little device from MIT: “Water harvesting from air with metal-organic frameworks powered by natural sunlight”

“… an efficient process for capturing and delivering water from air, especially at low humidity levels (down to 20%), has not [yet] been developed. We report the design and demonstration of a device based on porous metal-organic framework-801 [Zr6O4(OH)4(fumarate)6] that captures water from the atmosphere at ambient conditions using low-grade heat from natural sunlight below one sun (1 kW per square meter). This device is capable of harvesting 2.8 liters of water [5 British pints] per kilogram of MOF daily at relative humidity levels as low as 20%, and requires no additional input of energy.”

Sadly the Science paper is behind a paywall. But ScienceDaily has a good write-up.

At present, the device…

* is still only a working prototype. The “proof of concept harvester leaves much room for improvement”. But… “Rooftop tests at MIT confirmed that the device works in real-world conditions.”

* needs a mesh pad made… “of zirconium metal and adipic acid”.

* might work best when there’s direct sunlight to warm it.

* it looks like it would need to work with a bug screen and anti-fungals in a real-world deployment. Flies and mites can come in very small sizes, and in a dry environment would be attracted by the moisture: would a fine-meshed bug-screen let enough moisture in overnight?

Apparently zirconium cost about $14 per pound in 2010, according to figures I found, so it is not some incredibly rare metal. It’s also durable in the presence of moisture, since it’s apparently used to cap dental fillings. “Adipic acid” is also common, annually produced in the billions of pounds as a precursor in making nylon. It doesn’t melt before 152 degrees centigrade. The working device used about two pounds of the mixture in a pad. How long the pad remains viable isn’t stated, but the materials sound durable. If the pad can be made to last six months in a desert summer before gumming up its latices with microscopic fungi or other similar blockages, and the starter box costs $95, then it’ll sell like hot cakes. Or, in this case, like hot boxes.

As with all such world-changing devices, we probably want to be alert to unintended consequences of mass deployment as early in the development process as possible. Especially in terms of drinking water with a trace of zirconium or aluminium. Think: the Ancient Romans and their lead water pipes, for instance. But some nano-mesh or other would presumably filter unwanted metal traces out of the water.

But it looks good, very good. And is also well-timed, in terms of offering a simple technology that could help nudge along measures such as a green wall along the southern edge of the Sahara, or even help to water the smallholdings of the coming billions in Africa. It’s also simple like-a-bicycle, which means there should be lots of opportunities for home-brew tinkerer iterations of the sort that took humanity from the ungainly old Penny Farthing and ‘boneshaker’ bicycles to the perfected modern Safety Bicycle form we know today.

“Who’s The Denier Now?”

I spotted a strong lead article in the crusty old magazine of the American right, The National Review, “Who’s The Denier Now?”. The new article is a bit ‘American Politics stodgy’ at the start, but the final half is a cracker. Here are some highlights…

“Softened by years of punching down at their opponents’ worst arguments, they became addicted to asserting that “science says so,” and they are now lost when it doesn’t.” [In this context] “Statements about climate change are no longer being policed for their accuracy, but rather for the degree to which they help or harm the activist agenda.”

[Any statement which questions science’s ability to very accurately model man-made influences on the global process of greenhouse warming …] “crosses a red line for activists, because the precision with which climate models can describe what is happening links directly to the precision with which they can describe what will happen”. [And in the resulting overheated media environment … ] “The scope of viewpoints that constitute ‘denial’ is rapidly expanding to swallow all opposition to favored policies.”

There’s a lot more in the article itself, and there’s also a weightier recent article in the journal Foreign Affairs, from the same author.

I was however disappointed that Oren Cass has been suckered by the false establishment media consensus which has been generated around the recent CNBC interview. A false consensus that waves the interview snippet about as if it somehow ‘proves’ that Pruitt holds some sort of ‘anti-science’ position. Here’s Cass in The National Review article…

“EPA Administrator Pruitt confused matters greatly with comments to CNBC last month that went beyond his testimony about “precision” and “debate” and suggested that human activity was not the primary cause of recent warming”

But as I’ve shown quite carefully here on this blog, in a line-by-line fisking of the CNBC transcript, all of Pruitt’s CNBC statements were congruent with the accepted mainstream science on the process on greenhouse warming. Pruitt’s choice of words, in a snatched minute at the end of a quick-fire TV studio interview, might have been better. But he was ‘denying’ nothing in terms of the science, as far as I can see.