THINKER’S ALMANAC – April 15

Subject:  Memory – The Magic Number Seven

Event:  George Miller’s paper “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two:  Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” is published, 1955

And finally, what about the magical number seven? What about the seven wonders of the world, the seven seas, the seven deadly sins, the seven daughters of Atlas in the Pleiades, the seven ages of man, the seven levels of hell, the seven primary colors, the seven notes of the musical scale, and the seven days of the week? What about the seven-point rating scale, the seven categories for absolute judgment, the seven objects in the span of attention, and the seven digits in the span of immediate memory? For the present I propose to withhold judgment. Perhaps there is something deep and profound behind all these sevens, something just calling out for us to discover it. But I suspect that it is only a pernicious, Pythagorean coincidence. -George Miller (1)

Have you ever wondered why phone numbers have hyphens? What is the difference between 206-333-2435 and 2063332435?  The answer relates to the capacity we have to store short-term memories.  In a landmark study published on this day in 1955, psychologist George Miller (1920-2012) determined that when it comes to short-term memory capacity, seven is the magic number.  The magic of the hyphen in a telephone number, therefore, is that it allows us the “chunk” numbers together in groups in order to expand our capacity to remember them.

Miller’s work with memory built on the pioneering research of Herbert Ebbinghaus, who established what we know today as the forgetting curve (See THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 19).  Like water in a glass, our memories evaporate quickly if we don’t make some effort to keep them.  Ebbinghaus used himself as a subject, memorizing hundreds of three-letter nonsense words.  Doing this, he established the keys to hacking our memories:  spaced repetition and retrieval practice.  If you want a memory to move from short-term to long-term memory and stay there, you must practice recalling it numerous times over a long period of time, including recall before and after periods of sleep.

Miller’s work dealt primarily with the capacity of our working (short-term) memories. Although our working memories have limits, we can extend these limits by chunking the information and organizing it into recognizable patterns.

For example, imagine you were trying to remember the following string of 13 letters:  SRIASANAICIBF.  Normally your working memory would be exhausted at about seven letters, but you might extend this capacity by organizing the letters into recognizable chunks:  FBI-CIA-NASA-IRS.  Now instead of 13 separate items, we have just four recognizable and easy to remember items.

More than just a strategy for remembering letters or numbers, chunking is a strategy for organizing ideas and information.  When taking in a lot of information, look for ways that you might chunk it into different categories.  Not only does this make the information easier to remember it also helps us engage our imaginations as well as our memories to creatively interact with what we’re learning.  Likewise, if you are presenting information, consider your audience’s ability to take in information, and try to chunk it in a way that logically makes sense.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How does the concept of chunking help you as a learner and as a presenter/teacher?

Challenge  – Chunk the Muses: It was the Greek playwright Aeschylus who said that “Memory is the mother of all wisdom.”  In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was the mother of the nine Muses who inspired human creativity.  Do a bit of research on the Muses, and try to memorize the names and providence of each one.  Also, try to employ some chunking to make your task more manageable.

Source:

1-“The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing InformationOffsite Link,” Psychological Review, Vol. 63, No. 2, 81-97. 

2-“George Miller Publishes ‘The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. . . ‘“ History of Information.com

Tags:  Herbert Ebbinghaus, retrieval practice, spaced repetition, forgetting curve, George Miller, chunking, Memory, Muses, Mnemosyne

THINKER’S ALMANAC – April 14

Subject:  Fundamental Attribution Error – “This is Water”

Event:  The book version of David Foster Wallace’s commencement address “This Is Water” is published, 2009

. . . learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. –David Foster Wallace

On this day in 2009, David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” was published.  The essay originated as a commencement address delivered by Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005.

Wallace began his address with an anecdote:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

As Wallis continued his address, he challenged the graduates to approach their lives philosophically by thinking and reflecting consciously, paying attention to the obvious realities that, though seemingly obvious, are — like water to the fish — often the hardest to see.  The freedom provided by education, according to Wallace, is the ability to choose to pay attention and see what is hidden in plain sight.

Wallis challenges our typical perspective from which we view the world.  Each of us sees ourselves as the “absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and most important person in existence.”  This is the hard-wired, default setting we have experienced since birth, and because we are so self-centered we often become overconfident about what we “know” and about what we are “certain” is true. 

As an example, Wallis asks us to imagine going into a busy grocery store after a long work day to buy food for dinner. Standing in line at the checkout counter, Wallis asks us to contrast what we might see with our default, judgmental mindset versus what we might see if we instead choose to consider other possibilities:

. . .  if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. 

Wallis never mentions it by name in his address, but one concept he is talking about is the fundamental attribution error.  This concept from psychology refers to our innate desire to understand the behavior of others — a concept known as “attribution.”  When judging the behavior of others, we tend to make the mistake of attributing behavior to internal, dispositional factors:  in other words, we assume that the behavior of people is an exact reflection of their characters.  When judging our own behaviors, however, we turn to external, situational factors:  in other words, we cut ourselves slack by explaining our behavior based on circumstances, not our character. 

Wallis challenges us to avoid the fundamental attribution error by not assuming that people’s behaviors are a reflection of their characters.  Instead, he asks us to broaden our perspective and consider other possibilities. Like water was to the two young fish in Wallis’ opening parable, the specific circumstances of the people we encounter each day are invisible.  Wallis challenges us to become more aware “of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

‘This is water.’”

Armed with this broader perspective, Wallis gives us hope that even in the most mundane and seemingly meaningless situations, we will be equipped to something more:

It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the fundamental attribution error, and how does David Foster Wallace illustrate it in his commencement address?

Challenge – Commencement Speech:  Imagine you were giving a commencement speech.  What would be a good quotation to use to open up your speech — the kind of quotation that would inspire the audience of graduates as well as the faculty, staff, friends, and family gathered?

Sources:

1-Wallace, David Foster.  “This Is Water.”  Fsblog.com.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – April 13

Subject:  Successful Failures – Apollo 13

Event:  The Apollo 13 mission to the Moon is aborted, 1970

On this day in 1970, Apollo 13, NASA’s third lunar mission, experienced an oxygen tank malfunction that caused the mission to be aborted. The famous words from the 1987 movie Apollo 13 were “Houston we have a problem.” The actual quote was “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” The Apollo 13 mission also gave us the oxymoron “successful failure,” meaning that although the ultimate mission of reaching the moon was a failure, the secondary mission of returning the astronauts to earth safely was a success. 

The launch of Apollo 13 on June 11, 1970 (Wikipedia)

Just as Ernest Shakleton’s experienced a sudden mission change in 1915 when his ship, the Endurance, became stuck in the ice (See THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 5), so too did NASA when an oxygen tank exploded on its Moon mission.  Shackleton never made it to Antarctica, and the Apollo 13 astronauts never made it to the Moon.  Instead, both groups of explorers were forced to redefine their goals and their missions, improvising new strategies to get home and to survive.

Two days after their launch and 200,000 miles from Earth, astronauts Lovell, Haise, and Swigert realized that their Moon mission was over when the oxygen tanks in their service module failed.  No longer able to survive in the command module, all three astronauts climbed into the lunar lander, which became their cramped lifeboat. 

With help from engineers on the ground, the astronauts were able to solve their first problem:  how to filter out deadly carbon dioxide in the lander.  They successfully jury-rigged filters from the command module so that they would work in the lunar lander. The second problem was how to get home.  Again with help from engineers on the ground, coupled with their long hours of experience as pilots, the astronauts were able to successfully calculate and execute just the right amount of engine burn, maneuvering the lunar module onto the correct trajectory for return to Earth.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  Even though its main mission was a failure, why is Apollo 13 seen as a success?

Challenge – Successful Failures:  What are other examples of history where failure has been used as a springboard for success?

Sources:  

1-National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  “Apollo 13” 8 July 2009. Nasa.gov 

THINKER’S ALMANAC – April 12

Subject:  Innovation – Polio Vaccine

Event:  Announcement that the polio vaccine was effective, 1955

Life is an error-making and an error-correcting process, and nature in marking man’s papers will grade him for wisdom as measured both by survival and by the quality of life of those who survive.— Jonas Salk

On Tuesday, April 12, 1955, people all over the world exhaled a collective sigh of relief as they heard one of the most eagerly anticipated announcements in history:  a vaccine for polio had been successfully tested and had been determined to be “safe, effective, and potent.”

The polio virus is highly infectious, and because it occurs most often in infants and young people, it is especially frightening.  For 1 percent of the population, the virus can result in paralysis.  

The hero who developed the vaccine was Jonas Salk.  Rather than using live viruses in his vaccine, which was the typical approach of immunologists, Salk decided to develop his vaccine using dead polio viruses. This approach opened him up for criticism by other scientists and doctors in the competition to be the first to develop a vaccine; one of Salk’s rivals called him nothing more than a “kitchen chemist.” 

SalkatPitt.jpg
Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh where he developed the polio vaccine (Wikimedia Commons)

Salk seemed immune to his critics’ barbs, however. He worked diligently with his eyes on the prize.   In an unprecedented move, when he achieved his desired results, he did not go the typical route of vetting his results via the medical journal peer review process before making an announcement.  Instead, he announced his results on a nationally syndicated CBS radio program on March 26, 1953.

Clinical trials were conducted in 1954 on nearly 200 million schoolchildren using Salk’s vaccine and a placebo.  Finally, by April 1955 the medical community was ready to put its seal of approval on Salk’s vaccine and announce his success to the world.

Later in 1962, Salk’s rival, Albert Sabin developed an effective oral polio vaccine, and today polio has been nearly eradicated.  Salk never won a Nobel Prize for his work, but he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How did Salk’s approach to developing the polio vaccine run counter to conventional wisdom?

Challenge – Mind Over Body:  Jonas Salk is just one of the many heroes of medicine whose innovations have helped us all live better and longer lives.  Research some innovators and inventors in medicine, and identify one person who you think deserves to be recognized for his or her contribution.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

April 12, 1961:  Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first person in space.  He said, To be the first to enter the cosmos, to engage, single-handed, in an unprecedented duel with nature-could one dream of anything more?

Sources:

1-Palca, Joe. “Salk Polio Vaccine Conquered Terrifying Disease” National Public Radio 12 Apri 2005.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – April 11

Subject:  Stoicism – Seneca “Of Anger”

Event:  The film Anger Management is released, 2003

The comedy Anger Management starring Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson opened on this day in 2003.  Sandler plays a businessman who is sentenced by a judge to undergo anger management by a therapist played by Nicholson.

Anger management poster.jpg
(Wikipedia)

Although the film grossed nearly 200 million dollars, anger is not really a laughing matter.  As the Stoic philosopher Seneca explained in his work “Of Anger,” it can be one of the most debilitating of all emotions:

Some of the wisest of men have in consequence of this called anger a short madness: for it is equally devoid of self-control, regardless of decorum, forgetful of kinship, obstinately engrossed in whatever it begins to do, deaf to reason and advice, excited by trifling causes, awkward at perceiving what is true and just, and very like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes. 

In his book The Stoic Challenge, William B. Irvine recommends the Stoic approach to life as an antidote for dealing with anger and other negative emotions.  As Irvine explains, people have a misconception about Stoics, thinking that they were “emotionless beings whose primary goal was to stand there and grimly take whatever life threw at them . . “  Instead of trying to rid themselves of emotion, the Stoic approach is to embrace positive emotions and try to reduce negative emotions, such as anger, grief, jealousy, or frustration.  The Stoic prescription is a concept that modern psychologists call the framing effect:  the conscious act of mentally characterizing a situation in order to reduce negative emotional reactions and encourage more positive ones.  

Imagine, for example, that you have been waiting in a doctor’s office much longer than you should.  You find yourself growing impatient and can see yourself growing angry if you have to sit much longer without seeing the doctor. Instead of allowing the negative emotions to take over, you can instead make the conscious choice to think yourself out of becoming angry.  After all, when you get angry you are only hurting yourself.  Irvine recommends reframing the situation:  instead of a setback that leads to anger, put a positive spin on it and reframe it as a challenge that puts your resourcefulness and resilience to the test. 

Imagine another scenario:  you’re in front of a group of people, giving a lecture on anger.  As you are presenting a key point, someone walks up to you and spits in your face.  Could you possibly control your emotions enough to not get angry?  In “Of Anger,” Seneca tells the story of how two Stoics from the past reacted in this exact situation:

Someone has offered you an insult? Not a greater one, probably, than was offered to the Stoic philosopher Diogenes, in whose face an insolent young man spat just when he was lecturing upon anger. He bore it mildly and wisely. “I am not angry,” said he, “but I am not sure that I ought not to be angry.” Yet how much better did our Cato behave? When he was pleading, one Lentulus, whom our fathers remember as a demagogue and passionate man, spat all the phlegm he could muster upon his forehead. Cato wiped his face, and said, “Lentulus, I shall declare to all the world that men are mistaken when they say that you are wanting in cheek.” (Book 3, Chapter 38)

Unlike a religion, Stoicism is not concerned with the afterlife; instead, it attempts to give people strategies for living a better life here on Earth. Going to see an anger management therapist is an option, but you might just be able to take care of the problem yourself. 

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How is the Stoic approach to anger consistent with their philosophy?

Challenge – Sensible Sentences by Seneca:  Visit Wikisource and read some of the free online works of Seneca.  Find a passage you like, quote it, and explain what you like about it:

On the Shortness of Life (De Brevitate Vitæ)

Of a Happy Life (De Vita Beata)

Of Providence (De Providentia)

On the Firmness of the Wise Man (De Constantia Sapientis)

Of Anger (De Ira)

Of Leisure (De Otio)

Of Peace of Mind (De Tranquillitate Animi)

Sources:

1-Irvine, William B. The Stoic Challenge:  A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient.  New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.

2-Seneca “Of Anger.”  translate by Aubrey Stewart (1900)

THINKER’S ALMANAC – April 10

Subject:  False Assumptions — The Jury Room Fan

Event:  The film “Twelve Angry Men” released, 1957

Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in. –Alan Alda

There’s an old story about a father who taught his son a costly lesson about making false assumptions.  The father and son were in a restaurant.  As they finished their meal, the father waded up his napkin and proposed a bet:  “Ten dollars says I can get this napkin into that trash can.”  Eying the trash can, which was over forty feet away, the son doubted his father’s ability to make the shot, so he took the bet.  The father then stood up, walked across the room, and dropped the napkin into the trash can.

Another place to find lessons about the potential dangers of making false assumptions is the film Twelve Angry Men, which was released on this day in 1957.  All but a few minutes of the film take place in a hot, stuffy jury room where the 12 jurors deliberate the murder case of a young man charged with killing his father.

As the jurors begin their deliberations, they take a vote to determine where they stand as a group.  Eleven jurors vote guilty, and one man, an architect played by Henry Fonda, votes not guilty.  Frustrated with the lone holdout, the jurors ask the architect to explain his not guilty vote.  He explains that he’s not entirely sure whether the young man is guilty or not, but he’s not willing to vote guilty and seal the boy’s fate without taking some time to talk about the case and review the evidence.

It happens to be one of the hottest days of the year, and as the men begin to argue about the case, the temperature in the room rises both literally and figuratively.  One of the jurors is sitting near a wall fan; he attempts to turn it on, but when he flips the switch, nothing happens.  He and everyone else in the room assume the fan is broken.  

As the deliberations continue, a few men change their votes to not guilty but progress is slow.  As evening approaches, the jury room darkens, and one of the men turns on the lights.  Fanning himself with a newspaper to stay cool, the juror sitting next to the fan decides to attempt to get the “broken fan” working.  Flipping the on-switch, the fan whirls into action.  At that point, the jurors realize their error.  They had assumed the fan was broken when it wasn’t; instead, the power supply to the fan was cut off when the lights to the jury room were off.  If they had spent just a little time questioning their assumptions, the jurors might have got the fan working much sooner.

12 Angry Men trailer screenshot (1).jpg
Twelve Angry Men and a “Broken” Fan (Wikimedia Commons)

The fan is a powerful symbol of the kind of poor thinking that led eleven of the jurors to register their initial guilty vote.  During the trial, as they listened to the testimony of two supposed eye-witnesses in the case, the jurors assumed that the testimony was accurate.  Later, however, they realized that their assumptions were wrong.  Forced to scrutinize the testimony and the evidence further because of the architect’s insistence, all twelve jurors realized that questioning their assumptions led them to reasonable doubt.  For example, one eyewitness whose bedroom was across the street claimed that she saw the boy murder his father as she looked through their apartment window.  The jurors initially believed this testimony, but as they discussed it further, they realized that when the woman gave her testimony in court, she had indent marks on her nose that revealed that she probably wore eyeglasses.  They also remember the fact the woman had said that she was in bed when she turned to look through the window to witness the murder.  By questioning the assumption that her testimony was accurate, the jurors realized that the woman, since she was in bed, probably would not have had time to put on her glasses.  While it is true that she honestly believed she saw the boy murder his father, the combination of the distance and her poor vision led them to question whether or not she could have truly identified the boy as the murderer.

Twelve Angry Men should be required viewing for anyone who might one day be on a jury.  More importantly, it is a film that should be viewed by anyone who wants to be a better thinker.  Initially, the eleven jurors who voted guilty resisted thinking anymore about the case:  it was a hot day, they were tired, and they didn’t like being locked in a room with eleven strangers. The architect, however, forced their hand, and as they began to analyze and scrutinize the evidence they found inconsistencies.  This kind of thinking is not easy.  It’s a lot easier to go with false assumptions and hasty generalizations than to do the hard, tiring work of critical thinking.  But as the film reveals, critical thinking is often worth the extra effort, and in some cases, it can even save a life.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How does the fan in the film “Twelve Angry Men” symbolize the importance of questioning assumptions?

Challenge – Thinking In and Outside the Jury Box:  Lateral thinking puzzles are an excellent way to train your brain to identify and challenge assumptions.  For example, try this one:  What are two things you can never have for breakfast?  The word “breakfast” triggers a whole menu of possible options, but the answer to this question lies in questioning the assumption that we are talking about specific foods.  Instead, the answer lies in the names we give to the meals we eat; the answer, therefore, is “lunch and dinner.”  Research some lateral thinking puzzles, and find one that you like.  Explain the answer and how its answer challenges the solver to question assumptions.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – April 9

Subject:  Education – Twain describes the Mississippi

Event:  Samuel Langhorne Clemens earns his steamboat pilot’s license, 1859

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice.”  Perhaps no man ever exemplified this concept so clearly as the American writer Mark Twain (1835-1910).

Twain grew up on the Mississippi River in the port town of Hannibal, Missouri.  Like every boy who grew up on the river, Twain’s ambition was to become a steamboat pilot.  In his 20s, after studying the river for two years as a cub pilot, Twain earned his steamboat pilot’s license on this day in 1859 (1).

File:CLEMENS, Samuel. L. (alias MARK TWAIN) Life on the Mississippi.jpg
(Wikimedia Commons)

In his memoir Life on the Mississippi, Twain recounts his education as a cub pilot and his experiences as a steamboat pilot. In Chapter 9 of his book, Twain recalls how he first saw the river when he was just beginning his education:

I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

As he learned to read the river and as he acquired a more professional perspective as a pilot, Twain’s vision of the river changed.  He no longer saw “the grace, the beauty, the poetry” of the river; instead, he perceived the river from the perspective of a pilot who needed to navigate his steamboat safely.  The beautiful, majestic sunset he once saw was now much different:

This sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark? (2)

As we compare these two descriptions of the same river by the same person, we see the wisdom of Heraclitus, for Twain’s view of the river has changed from one of beauty and romance to one of practicality and utility.  Reflecting on this change in perspective Twain uses an analogy of a doctor, wondering if he is still able to see the beauty of his female patient or instead is confined to view her only professionally, seeing only possible signs of disease or other illness. Finally, he asks a provocative question relating to anyone who has acquired focused professional training in a field:  Has this person “gained most or lost most by learning his trade?”

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How and why did Twain’s view of the Mississippi change once he became a full-fledged river pilot?

Challenge – Knowledge is Power; Ignorance is Bliss:  We gain much through learning, but as Mark Twain reminds us, with every new perspective gained, we can lose the ability to see things as we once did.  Reflect on your own experience in an area you know well.  Try to recapture and describe how you used to see it and how your education in this specific area has changed your perspective.

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

April 9, 1626:  On this day the philosopher Francis Bacon died of pneumonia  (See THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 22). In his essay “On Death,” Bacon said, “It is as natural to die, as to be born; and to a little infant, perhaps, the one is as painful, as the other.”

Source:  

1-”Mark Twain receives steamboat pilot’s license”  This Day in History. History.com.

2-Twain, Mark.  Life on the Mississippi. Project Gutenberg

THINKER’S ALMANAC – April 8

Subject:  Creativity on Demand – Actor Dustin Hoffman asks Paul McCartney to write a song

Subject:  Death of Pablo Picasso, 1973

Life is quite mysterious and quite miraculous. Every time I come to write a song, there’s this magic little thing where I go, ‘Ooh, ooh, it’s happening again.’ I just sit down at the piano and go, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know this one,’ and suddenly there’s a song. -Paul McCartney

Pablo Picasso was one of the most prolific and influential artists in history.  In fact, he was such a powerfully creative force that he continued to inspire creativity in others, even after his death on this day in 1973.

Paul McCartney with Linda McCartney - Wings - 1976.jpg
Paul McCartney in concert with his wife Linda (Wikimedia Commons)

While on holiday in Jamaica, former Beatle Paul McCartney visited the actors Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen on the set of their film Papillon. Later that night McCartney had dinner with Hoffman, and they began talking about the creative process.  Hoffman asked McCartney how he wrote songs, and McCartney responded by saying that there was no magical formula; he just made them up.  Hoffman then asked, “Can you make up a song about anything, right now?”  Hoffman then pulled out a copy of Time magazine and opened it to an obituary of Picasso, which reported Picasso’s last words to his friends on the night that he died:  “Drink to me, drink to my health, you know I can’t drink anymore.”  Taking up Hoffman’s challenge, McCartney picked up his guitar and began strumming and singing a song incorporating Picasso’s dying words.  Hoffman was blown away by the ease of McCartney’s creative process and the experience of being a witness to the birth of an entirely new song.  As it turned out the song was not just a throwaway:  it appeared on McCartney’s next album Band on The Run, entitled “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)” (1).

Although McCartney drew inspiration from Picasso’s dying words, he might not have realized that in taking up Hoffman’s challenge, he was demonstrating the truth of some of Picasso’s other words on creativity:

The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.

As McCartney demonstrated, just about anything can be a springboard for creativity as long as the creator allows no limits.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What challenge did Dustin Hoffman make to Paul McCartney, and how did his response illustrate Picasso’s attitude toward creativity?

Today’s Challenge – Be Creative – Now!:  What is the best thing ever said about creativity?  Do some research on quotations by artists and creators.  Find the one you like the best, and explain why you like it.

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

-April 8, 560 B.C.:  Siddharth Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was born on this day.  He said, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.”

-April 8, 2014:   On this day the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness was published by Richard Thaler and his colleague Cass R. Sunstein.  In defining the key concept in their book, they say the following:  “A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”  For more on nudges, see THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 7.

Sources:

1-The Beatles Bible. “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink To Me)” 23 October 2010.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – April 7

Subject:  False Dilemma – “America, Love It or Leave It”

Event:  Birthday of journalist Walter Winchell (1897-1972)

Long before cable TV news or even television for that matter, newspaper columnist and radio commentator Walter Winchel captured an audience with his gossip-driven journalism.  Originally a vaudeville performer, Winchell — who was born on this day in 1897 — rose to national prominence in the 1930s and 40s, combining his journalism with entertainment in both a syndicated newspaper column and a nationally broadcasted radio show.

Unfortunately, Winchel’s reputation took a blow when he aligned himself with Senator Joseph McCarthy in his campaign against communists in the 1950s.  Capitalizing on rising Cold War fears, McCarthy questioned the patriotism of anyone who challenged his claims of communist infiltration of the U.S. Government.  Winchel assisted McCarthy by coining the slogan “America, Love it or Leave it,” a not so subtle suggestion that you must either be an unquestioning patriotic supporter of the United States, or you should find another country to live in.

Winchell’s slogan is the quintessential example of a fallacy called the false dilemma — also known as the false dichotomy or the either-or fallacy.  As Winchel’s slogan demonstrates, the false dilemma oversimplifies an argument, falsely presenting it as a choice between just two exhaustive and exclusive options.  In the real world, things are rarely so black or white; instead, there is usually a third, fourth, or even a fifth option.  

Winchell’s slogan resurfaced as a popular bumper sticker during the turbulent years of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam.  Although some tried to frame protests against the war as unpatriotic, many understood that it was possible, and in fact necessary, to protest America’s involvement in Vietnam as a part of one’s patriotic duty.

The false dilemma was later deployed by President George W. Bush after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  Speaking before a joint session of Congress on 

September 21, 2001, Bush proclaimed:  “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

It is true that sometimes we must choose between only two options. For example, a child who refuses to eat the broccoli that was lovingly prepared by his mother might be presented with the following ultimatum: “Junior, either you eat your broccoli, or you may not have dessert.”  Usually, however, life is not so simply broken down into such limited options.  Beware of the false dilemmas that are thrown at you by politicians, marketers, or false teachers.  An advertisement will try to convince you that you must either acquire their product or be an uncool, unhip, or unworthy person.  Don’t buy it.  Instead, look for alternative options.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the false dilemma fallacy, and how did both Walter Winchell and George W. Bush use it in political contexts?

Today’s Challenge – Exaggerating The Extremes:  In the following paragraph, Rachel Held Evans creates a false dilemma about parenting:

The word on the street was that I had two options when it came to caring for my future baby: I could either eat, sleep, drink, bathe, walk, and work with my baby permanently affixed to my body until the two of us meld into one, or I could leave my baby out naked on a cold millstone to cry, refusing to hold or feed her until the schedule allowed. Apparently, there was no in between.

Obviously, her goal here is to exaggerate the extremes for humorous effect.  Pick a topic of your own, and using Evans’ passage as a model, write your own exaggerated false dilemma.

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

April 7, 1837:  On this day Hans Christian Anderson’s classic story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was first published.  Long before the psychological phenomena dubbed “groupthink” was identified, Anderson crafted a story that illustrates its hold on people.  For more on the story, see THINKER’S ALMANAC – April 2

Sources:  

1-Sigman, Michael.  “A Brief History of Loving or Leaving America.” The Huffington Post 26 March 2012.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – April 6

Subject: Philosophers – The School of Athens

Event:  The artist Raphael is born,  1483 

On this day in 1483, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino — better known as the High Renaissance artist Raphael — was born in Italy. When he was only in his mid-20s, Raphael was invited by Pope Julius II to live and work in Rome.  In 1509, he began work on elaborate frescos for the rooms of the Papal Palace.  Although he painted three frescoes representing theology, law, and poetry in the palace, his best-known work was one that celebrates philosophy, entitled the School of Athens.

Escola de Atenas - Vaticano 2.jpg
School of Athens (Wikimedia Commons)

Measuring 17 feet high and 25 feet long, the School of Athens depicts a who’s who of ancient Greek philosophers.  Prominently featured in the center of the fresco are Plato and Aristotle.  Plato carries a copy of his book Timaeus in his left hand and points to the sky with his right hand, an appropriate gesture for a man who created the Theory of Forms and emphasized the realm of abstract ideas and concepts.  On Plato’s left is his most accomplished student Aristotle.  He carries a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics in his left hand and holds his right arm out with his palm facing down, a representation of his emphasis on empirical, concrete evidence, grounded in the physical world.

Although we don’t know for certain the identity of all the people depicted in the fresco, there is general consensus among experts that at least seven other prominent figures are depicted:  Socrates, Pythagoras, Euclid, Ptolemy, Zoroaster, Heraclitus, Diogenes of Sinope.

Like Alfred Hitchcock did in his movies, Raphael himself makes a cameo.  His self-portrait can be seen in the lower far right of the fresco, a young man looking directly at the viewer (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  Which two philosophers are featured most prominently in Raphael’s School of Athens?

Today’s Challenge – Fielder’s Choice Philosophy:  The English comedy troupe Monty Python famously produced a sketch featuring philosopher football (soccer) with German philosophers pitted against a toga-clad team of Greek philosophers.  Using the nine prominent Greek philosophers from the School of Athens (Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Pythagoras, Euclid, Ptolemy, Zoroaster, Heraclitus, Diogenes of Sinope), assume the role of a baseball manager and fill out your lineup for each of the nine positions:  first base, second base, third base, shortstop, catcher, pitcher, right field, center field, and left field.

Sources: 

1-Stewart, Jessica.  “The Story Behind Raphael’s Masterpiece ‘The School of Athens’” mymodernmet.com 6 Sept. 2018.