Feat First: New Findings on the Relationship Between Walking and Creativity

"I Heart New York", Image by Gary McCabe

“I Heart New York”, Image by Gary McCabe

New York is an incredibly vast and complex city in a multitude of ways which, despite its extensive mass transit system, also makes it a great place to walk around. Many New Yorkers prefer to travel to their destinations by foot purely for the pleasure of it. I am proudly one among them.

Whether it is on the streets of NYC or anywhere else across the world, bipedal locomotion is a healthy, no cost and deeply sensory experience as you take in all of the sights and sounds along your route. It also gives you the opportunity to think to yourself. Whether it is pondering the particulars of “When am I going to get the laundry done?” up to and including “E=MC²”, plus a gazillion other possible thoughts and subjects in between, putting one foot in front of another and then starting off of your way will transport you to all kinds of intriguing places inside and outside of your head.

Researchers in US universities have recently found compelling evidence that walking can also be quite conducive to creativity. This was the subject of a most interesting article on Quartz.com posted on April 10, 2016, entitled Research Backs Up the Instinct That Walking Improves Creativity, by Olivia Goldhill. I highly recommend reading this in its entirety. I will summarize and add some additional context to this, and then pose some of my own pedestrian questions.

Walking the Walk

"Walk", Image by Paul Evans

“Walk”, Image by Paul Evans

In an earlier article posted on the Stanford University News website on April 24, 2014, entitled Stanford Study Finds Walking Improves Creativity, by May Wong, researchers reported improvements in their test subjects’ Guilford’s alternate uses (GAU) test of creative divergent thinking and their compound remote associates (CRA) test of convergent thinking, conducted during and immediately after walking. The report itself is called Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking, by Marily Oppezzo, Ph.D. and Daniel L. Schwartz, Ph.D.. I also recommend reading both of these publications in their entirety (but please walk, don’t run, while doing so).

The effects seen upon the test subjects’ levels of creativity were nearly equivalent whether they were walking outside or else on a treadmill inside while facing a wall. It was the act of walking itself rather than the surroundings that was responsible.

Dr. Schwartz said that the “physiological changes” related to walking are “very complicated”. The reason why walking benefits “so many thinkers” is not readily apparent. However, he thinks “that the brain is focusing on doing a task it’s quite good at”. As a result, walking relaxes people and enables them to think freely.

While it is scientifically well-known that exercise can improve an individual’s mood, the underlying reason remains unclear whether, in its “more intense forms”, exercise has the same effect when compared to walking. (For the full details on this, the article links to a report entitled The Exercise Effect, by Kirsten Weir, which was the cover story in the December 2011 edition of the Monitor of Psychology, Vol. 42, No. 11.)

Walking the Talk

"Coming and Going", Image by David Robert Bliwas

“Coming and Going”, Image by David Robert Bliwas

Barbara Oakley, is an engineering professor at Oakland University and the author of A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), (TarcherPerigee, 2014), about effective learning. Her text includes the beneficial effects of walking. In an interview, she took the position that it is incorrect to assume that people are only learning when they are “focused”. Rather, she believes that walking enables us to “subconsciously process and think in a different way”. This has helped her in her own work when she has become “stuck”. After she takes a walk for 15 minutes, she finds that her ideas begin to flow again.

Some therapists have also recently tried to use the benefits of walking outdoors while conducting sessions with their clients. For example, Clay Cockrell, a therapist in New York, believes that this activity permits “more free form thinking”. He sees 35 to 40 clients each week using this approach and has found them grateful for the opportunity to do so.

Mr. Cockrell believes that New Yorkers mostly travel from destination to destination and, as he says are “never just outside out and about”.

[I respectfully disagree on that last point as I stated in my opening.]

My Questions

  • In order to achieve the full benefits of increased creativity while walking, is it necessary not to have other distractions, specifically mobile phones open, at the same time? That is, should we put away the smartphone?
  • Alternatively, does listening to the music streams or podcast downloads on our phones have any effect upon our creativity while walking?
  • Does walking and talking with other people have a positive or negative effect upon creativity? Should walking be kept to a solo activity when specifically done to spend time thinking about something?

The New York Times Introduces Virtual Reality Tech into Their Reporting Operations

"Mobile World Congress 2015", Image by Jobopa

“Mobile World Congress 2015”, Image by Jobopa

As incredibly vast as New York City is, it has always been a great place to walk around. Its multitude of wonderfully diverse neighborhoods, streets, buildings, parks, shops and endless array of other sites can always be more fully appreciated going on foot here and there in – – as we NYC natives like call it – – “The City”.

The April 26, 2015 edition of The New York Times Magazine was devoted to this tradition. The lead off piece by Steve Duenes was entitled How to Walk in New York.  This was followed by several other pieces and then reports on 15 walks around specific neighborhoods. (Clicking on the Magazine’s link above and then scrolling down to the second and third pages will produce links to nearly all of these articles.) I was thrilled by reading this because I am such an avid walker myself.

The very next day, on May 27, 2015, Wired.com carried a fascinating story about how one of the issues’ accompanying and rather astonishing supporting graphics was actually done in a report by Angela Watercutter entitled How the NY Times is Sparking the VR Journalism Revolution.  But even that’s not the half of it – – the NYTimes has made available for downloading a full virtual reality file of the full construction and deconstruction of the graphic. The Wired.com post contains the link as well as a truly mind-boggling high-speed YouTube video of the graphic’s rapid appearance and disappearance and a screen capture from the VR file itself. (Is “screen capture” really accurate to describe it or is something more like “VR  frame”?)  This could take news reporting into an entirely new dimension where viewers literally go inside of a story.

I will sum up, annotate and pose a few questions about this story. (For another other enthusiastic Subway Fold post about VR, last updated on March 26, 2015, please see Virtual Reality Movies Wow Audiences at 2015’s Sundance and SXSW Festivals.)

This all began on April 11, 2015 when a French artist named JR pieced together and then removed in less than 24 hours, a 150-foot photograph right across the street from the landmark Flatiron Building. This New York Times commissioned image was of “a 20-year-old Azerbaijani immigrant named Elmar Aliyev”. It was used on the cover of this special NYTimes Magazine edition. Upon its completion JR then photographed from a helicopter hovering above. (See the March 19, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled  Spectacular Views of New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas at Night from 7,500 Feet Up for another innovative project inject involving highly advanced photography of New York also taken from a helicopter.)

The NYTimes deployed VR technology from a company called VRSE.tools to transform this whole artistic experience into a fully immersive presentation entitled Walking New York. The paper introduced this new creation at a news conference on April 27th. To summarize the NYTimes Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jake Silverstein, this project was chosen for a VR implementation because it would so dramatically enhance a viewer’s experience of it. Otherwise, pedestrians walking over the image across the sidewalk would not nearly get the full effect of it.

Viewing Walking New York in full VR mode will require an app from VRSE’s site (linked above), and a VR viewer such as, among others, Google Cardboard.

The boost to VR as an emerging medium by the NYTimes‘ engagement on this project is quite significant. Moreover, this demonstrates how it can now be implemented in journalism. Mr. Silverman, to paraphrase his points of view,  believes this demonstrates how it can be used to literally and virtually bring someone into a story. Furthermore, by doing so, the effect upon the VR viewer is likely to be an increased amount of empathy for certain individuals and circumstances who are the subjects of these more immersive reports.

There will more than likely be a long way to go before “VR filming rigs” can be sent out by news organizations to cover stories as they occur. The hardware is just now that widespread or mainstream yet. As well, the number of people who are trained and know how to use this equipment is still quite small and, even for those who do, preparing such a virtual presentation lags behind today’s pace of news reporting.

Another journalist venturing into VR work is Newsweek reporter Nonny de la Pena’s reconstruction of the shooting in the Trayvon Martin case. (See ‘Godmother of VR’ Sees Journalism as the Future of Virtual Reality by Edward Helmore, posted on The Guardian’s website on March 11, 2015, for in-depth coverage of her innovative efforts.)

Let’s assume that out on the not too distant horizon that VR journalism gains acceptance, its mobility and ease-of-use increases, and the rosters of VR-trained reporters and producers increases so that this field undergoes some genuine economies of scale. Then, as with many other life cycles of emergent technologies, the applications in this nascent field would only become limited by the imaginations by its professionals and their audiences. My questions are as follows:

  • What if the leading social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook (which already purchased Oculus, the maker of VR headsets for $2B last year),  LinkedIn, Instagram (VR Instgramming, anyone?), and others integrate VR into their capabilities? For example, Twitter has recently added a live video feature called Periscope that its users have quickly and widely embraced. In fact, it is already being used for live news reporting as users turn their phones towards live events as they happen. Would they just as likely equally swarm to VR?
  • What if new startup social media platforms launch that are purely focused on experiencing news, commentary, and discussion in VR?
  • Will previously unanticipated ethical standards be needed and likewise dilemmas result as journalists move up the experience curve with VR?
  • How would the data and analytics firms that parse and interpret social media looking for news trends add VR newsfeeds into their operations and results? (See the Subway Fold posts on January 21, 2015 entitled The Transformation of News Distribution by Social Media Platforms in 2015 and on December 2, 2014 entitled Startup is Visualizing and Interpreting Massive Quantities of Daily Online News Content.)
  • Can and should VR be applied to breaking news, documentaries and news shows such as 60 Minutes? What could be the potential risks in doing so?
  • Can drone technology and VR news gathering be blended into a hybrid flying VR capture platform?

I am also looking forward to seeing what other applications, adaptations and markets for VR journalism will emerge that no one can possibly anticipate at this point.

Mapping the Distribution of Mobile Device Operating Systems in New York

“Busy Times Square”, Image by Jim Larrison

Scott Galloway, a Clinical Professor of Marketing at NYU Stern School of Business, consultant and entrepreneur, recently gave a remarkable and captivating 15-minute presentation at this year’s Digital Life Design 15 (DLD15) Conference. This event was held in Munich on January 18 through 20, 2015. He examined the four most dominant global companies in the digital world and predicted those among them whose market values might  rise or fall. These included Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook. Combined, their current market value is more than $1 trillion (yes, that’s trillion with a “t“).

The content and delivery of Professor’s Galloway’s talk is something that I think you will not soon forget. Whether his insights are in whole or in part correct, his talk will motivate you to think about  these four companies who, individually and as a group, exert such monumental economic, technical, commercial, and cultural influence across the entirety of the web. I highly recommend that you click-through and fully view this video.

Towards the end of his presentation, Professor Galloway clicked onto a rather astonishing slide of a heat map of New York City encoded with data points indicating mobile devices using Apple’s IoS, Android or Blackberry operating systems. This particular part of the presentation was covered in a most interesting article entitled Fun Maps: Heat Map of Mobile Operating Systems in NYC by Michelle Young on UntappedCities.com on March 31, 2015. The article adds three very informative additional graphics individually illuminated the spread of each OS. I will briefly recap this report, provide some links and annotations, and add a few comments of my own.

Professor Galloway interprets the results as indicating a correlation between each OS and the relative wealth of different neighborhoods in NYC: IoS devices are more prevalent in areas of higher incomes while Android appears more concentrated in lower income areas and suburbia.

However, Ms. Young believes this mapping is “misleading” and cites another article on UntappedCities.com entitled Beautiful Maps and the Lies They Tell, posted on February 20, 2014. This carefully refuted a series of data-mapped visualizations that were first published and interpreted as showing that only wealthier people used fitness apps.

Furthermore, there have been a series of Twitter posts in response to this heat map stating that the colors used for the heat map (red for IoS, green for Android and purple for Blackberry), might be misleading due to some optical blurring in the colors and geotagged tweets from 2011 to 2013. (X-ref to the March 20, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Studies Link Social Media Data with Personality and Health Indicators, for other examples of geotagging.) In effect, there may be a structural bias whereby “If Twitter users tend to be on Apple products”.

The data and heat maps notwithstanding, as a New York City native and life-long resident, my own completely unscientific observations tell me that IoS and Android are more evenly split both in terms of absolute numbers and any correlation to the relative wealth of any given neighbor hood. The most obvious thing that jumped out at me was that each day millions of people commute all around the city, mostly into and around Manhattan. However,  this does not seem to have been taken into account. Thus, while User X’s mobile device may show him or her in a wealthier area of Manhattan, he or she might well live in, and commute from, another more working class neighborhood from a considerable distance away.

Rather than using such static heat maps, I would propose that a time-series of readings and data be taken continuously over a week or so. Next, I suggest applying some customized algorithms and analytics to smooth out, normalize and intuit the data. My instincts tell me that the results would indicate a much more homogenous mix of mobile OSes across all or most of the neighborhoods here.

Spectacular Views of New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas at Night from 7,500 Feet Up

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Image by kconnors

[This post was originally uploaded on January 14, 2015. It has been updated below with new information on March 19, 2015.]

Even as a lifelong New Yorker, I believe that each day always brings many new things to see and to learn about this great place. Indeed, no one can ever quite know it all or live everything it has to offer. Such vastness and diversity are two its many enduring charms.

I just experienced that sense of wonder on an even greater scale upon viewing nine extraordinary images that have been posted today (January 14, 2015) in a story on Mashable.com entitled What a Night in New York City Looks Like from 7,500 Feet by Max Knoblauch. This display and accompanying text is about the photos taken by Vincent Laforet, a Pultizer prize-winning photographer, from a helicopter at 7,500 feet above Manhattan on the night of November 8, 2014. These were taken as an assignment for Men’s Health magazine. He is quoted here about how he accomplished this and the challenges it posed. As also linked to within in the article is the full set of Laforet’s dazzling photos from this project on a site on Storehouse.com entitled Gotham 7.5K as well as a 3.5 minute video of how he does this high altitude urban photography. I, well, highly recommend clicking through and viewing both of these.

Also, I would just like to add a few bits of navigation to the photos as they appear on Mashable for those of you who are not familiar with New York:

Photo 1:  Broadway and Times Square looking east to west, in an ocean of LED signage everywhere. (For further information about the technology of this illumination see the August 11, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Times Square’s Operating System.)

Photo 2: All of Manhattan looking north to south starting at Battery Park at the bottom center of the image. To the right are Brooklyn and Queens. To the left is New Jersey.

Photo 3: Midtown Manhattan from the Hudson river on the very left to the Est River on the very right. Broadway, again, is the very brightly lit street appearing diagonally from the upper middle left to the lower middle right. The brightly lit circular building to the middle left is Madison Square Garden.

Photo 4:  The new World Trade Center and to the right is the Wall Street area.

Photo 5:  The Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge spanning, not surprisingly, Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Photo 6:  Another view of Manhattan very similar to Photo 2, this time more of a southwest to northeast perspective. Notice also the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges from Photo 5 above, seen here in the middle right of the picture.

Photo 7:  Moving from top to bottom are the point further south in Manhattan where Broadway and Sixth Avenue intersect each other. The Empire State Building is to the middle right.

Photo 8:  Midtown.

Photo 9: A Reverse POV from Photos 2 and 6, this time going river to river from north to south. Central Park is the rectangular area in the lower middle right, the World Trade Center is in the upper middle area, and the bridges are off to the left. Brooklyn is to the left and New Jersey is to the right.

For another astonishing panoramic of New York from way up, please also see this cover of the March 17, 2014 issue of Time that was taken from the very top of the antenna on the World Trade Center and the accompanying story of how it was done.

March 19, 2015 Update:

Today’s (March 19, 2015) edition of The New York Times carried a very informative report with more detail about Vincent Laforet’s aerial photography, this time of San Francisco entitled Capturing The Night in Digital Photos, Spectacularly by Farhad Manjoo (the regular writer of the NYTimes’ always excellent, imho,  State of the Art column). It was accompanied by four of his remarkable photos of the City by the Bay from waaaay up high at night. I highly recommend clicking through for the full-text of this story and its eye-popping graphics. I will briefly summarize some of the extra information in this piece not covered in the Mashable.com story above.

Mr. Laforet has been able to capture New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas in his truly original nighttime photography because of the dramatic advances in the digital cameras and the software he uses such as Adobe Lightroom. To demonstrate the possibilities, he took Mr. Manjoo along for a photographic session from a helicopter over San Francisco. One of the images he took, the third of four in the article, makes this city appear as “an orange-and-blue microchip”.

When Mr. Laforet’s photo’s of New York were first published in Men’s Health, he was let down by the relative lack of response they received. However, when he uploaded the images to Storehouse.com (linked to above), they proceeded to go viral across the Web. This new link on Storehouse.com contains his photo galleries of New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas. I believe they will leave you in absolute wonder at their beauty.

Mr. Laforet has developed a series of technological and physical techniques in order to steady himself and his imagery under very challenging conditions. He also takes a large number of photos during each of his sky-bound photography adventures in order to capture numerous perspectives while employing a variety of cameras and lenses.

Massive amounts of kudos to Mr. Laforet as an artist doing truly original and imaginative work.

“I Quant NY” Blog Analyzes Public Data Sets Released by New York City

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Image by Justin Brown

[This post was originally uploaded on October 24, 2014. It has been updated below with new information on February 3, 2015.]

Using large data sets that local government agencies in New York City have made available by virtue of the NYC Open Data program, a visiting college professor at Pratt Institute, statistician and blogger named Ben Wellington, has been taking a close quantitative look at some common aspects of everyday life here in the city. He was a guest on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC radio in New York on October 16, 2014 to discuss four of his recent posts on his I Quant NY blog presenting the results of several of his investigations and analyses. The nearly 13-minute podcast entitled We Quant NY: Stories From Data is absolutely fascinating as Wellington describes his subjects, results and supporting methodologies.

(X-ref to this Subway Fold post on April 9, 2014 post, in particular to the fourth book mentioned entitled Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia by Anthony M. Townsend about other endeavors like this. As well, an article entitled They’re Tracking When You Turn Off the Lights by Elizabeth Dwoskin was published in The Wall Street Journal on October 20, 2014 [subscription required] about current efforts by researchers in New York and elsewhere to place “municipal sensor networks” around the city to gather and study many other data sets about the how the city operations and its residents. Townsend is also quoted in this story.)

The posts and analytics that Mr. Wellington discussed on the radio and online included:

  • Why it is nearly impossible to purchase or refill a MetroCard to pay your transit fares in such an amount that it will have $0.00 left on it. There always seems to be some small amount left no matter what payment option you choose at the vending machines.This irks many of my fellow New Yorkers.
  • Fire hydrants that generate the most tickets for parking violations.
  • The gender difference among the customer base for the Citi Bike sharing program. That is, Citi Bike riders in midtown Manhattan tend to be more male while riders in Brooklyn tend to be more female. Why is this so?
  • Which building in Manhattan is the farthest from the subway. (In his October 23, 2014 blog post, Mr. Wellington has studied and found the residence in Brooklyn which is the farthest from the subway.)

I believe that Mr. Wellington’s efforts are to be admired and appreciated because his is helping us to learn more about how NYC really operates on a very granular level. This can potentially lead to improvements in municipal services and other areas he has explored on his blog such as affordable housing, restaurant chain cleanliness (based upon the data generated by the NYC’s inspection and letter grade rating system), and the water quality and safety of the local swimming areas. I hope that he continues his efforts and inspires others to follow in this citizen’s approach to using publicly available big data for everyone’s benefit.

February 3, 2015 Update:

How interesting could the subject of laundromats in New York possibly be? As it turns out, these washing/drying/folding establishments generate some very interesting data and analytics about the neighborhoods where they operate. Who knew? Let’s, well, press on and see.

A few weeks ago, after Brian Lehrer had guests on his show to discuss President Obama’s State of the Union Address and then New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State Address, he then had a segment of his show where he asked callers about the state of the own streets. This was a truly hyper-local topic about a city with a great diversity neighborhoods across its five boroughs. One of the callers to the show from the Upper West Side of Manhattan called in to say that as a result of ongoing real estate development on her street, all of her local laundromats had gone out of  business.

As it turned out, Ben Wellington of the I Quant New York blog (above), heard this and went to work on an analysis to see what the city-wide data might indicate about this. He then returned as a guest on The Brian Lehrer Show on January 28, 2015, to discuss his findings. The podcast available on wnyc.org is entitled Following Up: Are Laundromats Disappearing? Mr. Wellington’s post on his I Quant NY blog, also posted on January 28th, is entitled Does Gentrification Cause a Reduction in Laundromats? I highly recommend clicking through and checking out both of them as remarkable examples of how a deeper look at some rather mundane urban data can produce such surprising results and insights about New York.

On the podcast, they were also joined by author and photographer Snorri Sturluson who wrote a book entitled Laundromat (PowerHouse Books, 2013), and later on by Brian Wallace who is the president of the Coin Laundry Association, a trade group. Mr. Sturluson’s book is a photo album sampling many of the hundreds of laundromats across the entire city. (All ten of its reviews on Amazon.com are for the full five stars.)

The ensuing discussion began with the fundamental question of whether the increased affluence and real estate development in a neighborhood directly leads to a decline in the number of local laundromats. As it turns out, a more nuanced and complicated relationship emerged from the geocoded data. In Mr. Wellington’s mapping the results indicate (as shown on both the podcast page and his blog post), that population density is more likely to be the main determinant of the concentration of laundromats. Affluence in each neighborhood is also a factor, but it should also be evaluated in conjunction with population density. The mapping also shows that certain neighborhoods in Queens such as Astoria and Jackson Heights, have the highest concentrations of Laundromats.

Callers to show raised other possible consideration such as whether there are higher numbers of recent college grads in an area, the emergence of online services that offer full laundry services including pickup and delivery, and even the social acceptability nowadays of going to a laundromat. Here are my follow-up questions:

  • Is population density in this analysis more particular to New York than other cities or, if similarly mapped elsewhere, would the distribution of its impact and statistically weighting appear to be similar in other comparably large cities?
  • What other types of businesses, government agencies, scientists and universities might be interested in these results and in testing such data in other locations?
  • Are there additional patterns of businesses that cluster around laundromats such as supermarkets or restaurants and, if so, how to whom might these data sets and analytics be useful?
  • Will the eternal mystery of where socks lost in the laundry go to ever be solved?

Times Square’s Operating System

I am a native New Yorker. I have always loved my hometown and taken great pride in being from here. I have seen this place at its best and at its worst and everywhere in between during my life. No matter what, whenever I see the city’s skyline from further away and when I am in the city itself, my own [I] Heart [NY] beat a little bit faster.

It was with great interest that I read a terrific article posted on July 31, 2014 on Gizmodo.com entitled How Times Square Works by Adam Clarke Estes. He reports in great detail how all of the massive LCD signage works. As any visitor to Times Square has seen, you are surrounded by a very sophisticated and extensive array of brilliantly colored and often animated displays for a multitude of products, places and entertainments. The author has done a masterful job of explaining how the underlying technologies operate and integrate, some of the tech and advertisers involved, the principals of their design and placement, and the massive coordination needed to keep everything in sync on a 24/7 basis. He also provides some very colorful history, facts and photos about the area and its modern symphony LCD displays. This piece is quite, well, enlightening for any tourists as well as NYC residents.

In any telling of the history of Times Square, what always emerges is the total transformation of the area since the early 1990’s. For many years prior to that, the area’s reputation was more for its crime, dirty streets and overall seediness. I had a first-hand view of this when, for several summers, I had a job in a music store (remember those?) right in the heart of this place. I had a great deal of fun working in the store but was always somewhat afraid venturing out on the streets whenever I arrived, had lunch or left.

Fortunately, through better planning and policies as well as the NYC’s rapid economic growth, this urban blight was excised and replaced with something much better in every possible way. It now lives up its global reputation as truly being the Crossroad of the World.