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?

Artificial Swarm Intelligence: There Will be An Answer, Let it Bee

Honey Bee on Willow Catkin", Image by Bob Peterson

“Honey Bee on Willow Catkin”, Image by Bob Peterson

In almost any field involving new trends and developments, anything attracting rapidly increasing media attention is often referred to in terms of “generating a lot of buzz”. Well, here’s a quite different sort of story that adds a whole new meaning to this notion.

A truly fascinating post appeared on TechRepublic.com this week on January 22, 2016 entitled How ‘Artificial Swarm Intelligence’ Uses People to Make Smarter Predictions Than Experts by Hope Reese. It is about a development where technology and humanity intersect in a highly specialized manner to produce a new means to improve predictions by groups of people. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it, and then pose a few of my own bug-free questions.

A New Prediction Platform

In a recent switching of roles, while artificial intelligence (AI) concerns itself with machines executing human tasks¹, a newly developed and highly accurate algorithm “harnesses the power” of crowds to generate predictions of “real world events”. This approach is called “artificial swarm intelligence“.

A new software platform called UNU has being developed by a startup called Unanimous AI. The firm’s CEO is Dr. Louis Rosenberg. UNU facilitates the gathering of people online in order to “make collective decisions”. This is being done, according to Dr. Rosenberg “to amplify human intelligence”. Thus far, the platform has been “remarkably accurate” in its predictions of the Academy Awards, the Super Bowl² and elections.

UNU is predicated upon the concept of the wisdom of the crowds which states that larger groups of people make better decisions collectively than even the single smartest person within that group.³  Dr. Roman Yampolskiy, the Director of the Cybersecurity Lab at the University of Louisville, has also created a comparable algorithm known as “Wisdom of Artificial Crowds“. (The first time this phenomenon was covered on The Subway Fold, in the context of entertainment, was in the December 10, 2014 post entitled Is Big Data Calling and Calculating the Tune in Today’s Global Music Market?)

The Birds and the Bees

Swarm intelligence learns from events and systems occurring in nature such as the formation of swarms by bees and flocks by birds. These groups collectively make better choices than their single members. Dr. Rosenberg believes that, in his view there is “a vast amount of intelligence in groups” that, in turn generates “intelligence that amplifies their natural abilities”. He has transposed the rules of these natural systems onto the predictive abilities of humans in groups.

He cites honeybees as being “remarkable” decision-makers in their environment. On a yearly basis, the divide their colonies and “send out scout bees” by the hundreds for many miles around to check out locations for a new home. When these scouts return to the main hive they perform a “waggle dance” to “convey information to the group” and next decide about the intended location. For the entire colony, this is a “complex decision” composed of “conflicting variables”. On average, bee colonies choose the optimal location by more than 80%.

Facilitating Human Bee-hive-ior

However, humans display a much lesser accuracy rate when making their own predictions. Most commonly, polling and voting is used. Dr. Rosenberg finds such methods “primitive” and often incorrect as they tend to be “polarizing”. In effect, they make it difficult to assess the “best answer for the group”.

UNU is his firm’s attempt to facilitate humans with making the best decisions for an entire group. Users log onto it and respond to questions with a series of possible choices displayed. It was modeled upon such behavior occurring in nature among “bees, fish and birds”. This is distinguished from individuals just casting a single vote. Here are two videos of the system in action involving choosing the most competitive Republican presidential candidate and selecting the most beloved sidekick from Star Wars4. As groups of users make their selections on UNU and are influenced by the visible onscreen behavior of others, this movement is the online manifestation of the group’s swarming activity.

Another instance of UNU’s effectiveness and accuracy involved 50 users trying to predict the winners of the Academy Awards. On an individual basis, they each averaged six out of 15 correct. This test swarm was able to get a significantly better nine out of the 15.  Beyond movies, the implications may be further significant if applied in areas such as strategic business decision-making.

My Questions

  • Does UNU lend itself to being turned into a scalable mobile app for much larger groups of users on a multitude of predictions? If so, should users be able to develop their own questions and choices for the swarm to decide? Should all predictions posed be open to all users?
  • Might UNU find some sort of application in guiding the decision process of juries while they are resolving a series of factual issues?
  • Could UNU be used to supplement reviews for books, movies, music and other forms of entertainment? Perhaps some form of “UNU Score” or “UNU Rating”?

 


1.  One of the leading proponents and developers of AI for many decades was MIT Professor Marvin Minsky who passed away on Sunday, January 24, 2016. Here is his obituary from the January 25, 2015 edition of The New York Times entitled Marvin Minsky, Pioneer in Artificial Intelligence, Dies at 88, by Glenn Rifkin.

2.  For an alternative report on whether the wisdom of the crowds appears to have little or no effect on the Super Bowl, one not involving UNU in any way, see an article in the January 28, 2016 edition of The New York Times entitled Super Bowl Challenges Wisdom of Crowds and Oddsmakers, by Victor Mather.

3.  An outstanding and comprehensive treatment of this phenomenon I highly recommend reading The Wisdom of the Crowds, by James Surowiecki (Doubleday, 2004).

4.  I would really enjoy seeing a mash-up of these two demos to see how the group would swarm among the Star Wars sidekicks to select which one of these science fiction characters might have the best chance to win the 2016 election.

Terahertz Spectrum Technology May Produce Major Increases in Wireless Network Speeds

Communications Hardware", Image by Tom Blackwell

“Communications Hardware”, Image by Tom Blackwell

Remember when upgrading from a 14.4 baud modem to a 33.6 baud modem felt as though you had moved from bicycle to Indy racing car online? What about when you had DSL installed and you had never experienced anything like it? How about when you next had a T1 line at the office and then a cable modem hooked up at home? All of these drastic jumps in transmission speeds helped to fuel the exponential growth in the web’s evolving architecture, rich and limitless content, and integration into nearly every aspect of modern life.

While the next disruptive jump in speed has yet to occur, researchers and developers are currently working on technology to exploit a still little used area of the electromagnetic spectrum called terahertz (“THz”) waves. Should this come to pass, wireless bandwidth rates could potentially increase by 100 fold or more over today’s WiFi and mobile networks. Beyond increasing the velocity at which videos of cats playing the piano can be distributed and viewed, this technology could have a major impact on the entire world of wireless access, services and devices.

Nonetheless, despite the alluring promise of THz wireless, some key engineering challenges remain to be solved.

The latest significant advance in this early field was reported in a most interesting article posted on Phys.org on September 14, 2015 entitled Physicists Develop Key Component for Terahertz Wireless. (No author is credited.) I will summarize, annotate and pose some of my own questions derived from the blog-wave portion of the spectrum.

A team of researchers from Brown University and Osaka University have developed the “first system for multiplexing terahertz waves”. This is, by definition, a technological means to share multiple communication streams over a single resource such as a cable simultaneously carrying multiple TV channels or phone calls. (However, it is distinctly different from the multiplex movie theaters currently showing a dozen or more of the latest movies at time along with offering way overpriced snacks at the concession stands.) Another device often needed to reverse this process is called a demultiplexer.

The development team’s work on this advancement was published in the September 14, 2015 online edition of Nature Photonics in a paper entitled Frequency-division Multiplexing in the Terahertz Range Using a Leaky-wave Antenna by Nicholas J. Karl, Robert W. McKinney, Yasuaki Monnai, Rajind Mendis & Daniel M. Mittleman. (A subscription is required for full access.)

The “leaky wave antenna” at the core of this consists of “two metal plates place in parallel to form a waveguide“. As the THz waves move across this waveguide they “leak out a[t] different angles depending on their frequency”. In turn, the various frequencies can disperse individual streams of data riding on these THz waves. Devices at the receiving end will be able to capture this data from a unique stream.

According to the researchers, their new approach has the advantage of being able “to adjust the spectrum bandwidth that can be allocated to each channel”. This could be quite helpful if and when their new multiplexer is added to a data network. In effect, bandwidth can be apportioned to the network users’ individual data needs.

The team is planning to continue their development of the THz multiplexer. This includes integrating, testing and improving it in a “prototype terahertz network” they are building. A member of the team and co-author of their paper, Daniel M. Mittleman, hopes that their work will inspire other researchers to join in developing other original THz network technologies.

Assuming that THz wireless networks will be deployed in the future, my questions are as follows:

  • Will today’s wireless service providers adapt their networks if THz technology proves to be technically and economically feasible? Will new providers emerge in the telecom marketplace?
  • What new types of services will become enabled by THz?
  • Will it bring broadband transmission rates to underserved geographic areas around the world?
  • How will providers model and test the elasticity of the pricing for their THz services? Are current pricing schemes sufficient or are new alternatives needed?
  • What entrepreneurial opportunities await for companies developing THz systems and those leveraging its capabilities for content creation and delivery?
  • As more advertising continues to migrate to wireless platforms, how will marketing and content strategists use THz to their advantage?

Book Review of “How Music Got Free”

"CD", Image by Dean Hochman

“CD”, Image by Dean Hochman

It is nearly impossible to compete in a consumer market when a previously lucrative product is suddenly available for free. This phenomenon adds a whole new meaning to the notion of “priced to sell”.

No industry illustrates this tectonic disruption brought about by the Net more than the music business during the last 20 years. While there has been an ocean of ink and a quantum of bits expended telling this story, I have come across none more compelling, thorough and entertaining than How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy by Stephen Witt (Viking, 2015). This is a great story well told with clarity, precision, style and humor.

While the tales of Napster and the other peer-to-peer sharing networks, the lawsuit by Metallica and other litigation by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to stop them, and precipitous drop in CD sales since then have all been previously told at length elsewhere, the author takes us down some new and alternative narrative paths. Witt has accomplished this skillfully weaving together the stories of the German engineers who created the MP3 format, a prolific music pirate, and a music industry mogul. The intersection of their activities in the music downloading revolution makes for hours of absorbing and instructive reading.

The book succeeds simultaneously as a business case study and a human interest story. It deftly leverages all three main plot threads in a narrative that heightens the reader’s interest as the events steadily crisscross the real world from rural Kentucky to Germany to New York City, and then likewise online across the web. Any one of these stories would have made for engaging reading on their own. Yet they are carefully fitted together by the author in a manner that relentlessly propels the all of them forward.

He also wisely wastes none of his text on superfluous side trips. Rather, he maintains a consistent focus throughout on how the music biz got turned upside down and inside out by a series of fast-breaking developments it neither fully understood nor had any viable alternatives ready to counter it.

A roster of A-List Hollywood writers and talent agents could not have possibly done better in creating the members of the real life cast. There are many useful lessons to be learned from them about business strategy, marketing, competition, and the strength of the human character in the face of the unprecedented and massive disruption* of what had been such a highly leveraged and lucrative market.

First and foremost among them was Benny “Dell” Glover. The details of his online and offline exploits read as though they were extracted from deep inside the You Can’t Make This Stuff Up file. He worked in a rural CD manufacturing plant and that afforded him access to the latest releases by music industry’s top acts. Often a month in advance of their commercial debut, Glover would smuggle them out of the plant, encode them using the MP3 format, and upload them for free distribution online through Napster and a host of other peer-to-peer networks. He was also part of a larger band of well-organized, tech savvy and daring digital music pirates who referred to their collective activities as the “Scene”.  Glover was likely responsible for the largest volume of free music that ever got digitally disbursed.

Second was Karlheinz Brandenburg, the lead engineer and inventor of the MP3 technology. He ran the group that devised MP3 technology without any intent whatsoever of how it eventually ended up being used. It was a technological accomplishment that at first drew little attention in the audio industry. There were other competing compression formats that were gaining more traction in the marketplace. Nonetheless, through perseverance, superior technical skills and a bit of favorable circumstances, MP3 began to find success. This was first in the broadcast marketplace and later on as the tech of choice among the music pirates and their audience. Brandenburg’s transformation over time from a humble audio engineer to an experienced business executive is deftly told and threaded throughout the book.

Third was Doug Morris who, during the events portrayed in the book, was the CEO of Universal Music Group (UMG). While Glover’s and Brandenburg’s parts in this narrative make for some engrossing reading, it is Morris’s meteoric rise and determination in the music industry that pulls the entire story together so very well. Not only does he reach the pinnacle of his field as a top executive in the largest music companies, he does everything in power to try to keep UMG economically competitive while under siege from freely downloadable MP3s recorded by his deep and wide talent bench.

While he did not have a hacker’s understanding of MP3’s technical ministrations, he fully understood, reacted and resisted its profound impacts. His initial line of attack was litigation but this proved to be ineffective and produced much negative publicity. Later he successfully monetized UMG’s vast trove of music video by forming the hosting and syndication service on Vevo. He is the most resourceful and resilient player in this story.

These three protagonists are vividly brought to center stage and fully engaged in Witt’s portrayal of their roles and fates in this Digital Age drama.  Just as the superior acoustics in a musical venue can enhance the performances of musicians and actors,  analogously so too does the author’s reporting and expository skills animate and enliven the entirety of events across his every page of his book. Indeed, “How Music Got Free” completely fulfills its title’s promise and, clearly, hits all the right notes.


At the time of the events portrayed in How Music Got Free, there was widespread fear that it would become increasingly difficult for artists and entertainment companies to ever profit again as they had done in the past. As a timely follow-up exploration and analysis how this never quite came to pass, I very highly recommend reading The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t by Steven Johnson, which was published in the August 23, 2015 edition of The New York Times Magazine.  (Johnson’s most recent book as also reviewed in the January 2, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “How We Got to Now”.)


*  The classic text on the causes and effect of market disruptions, disruptors and those left behind, read The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen (HarperBusiness, 2011). The first edition of the book was published in 1992.