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Mar
3rd
Sun
permalink

Rolf Fobelli: News is to the mind what sugar is to the body

   image

"We humans seem to be natural-born signal hunters, we’re terrible at regulating our intake of information. We’ll consume a ton of noise if we sense we may discover an added ounce of signal. So our instinct is at war with our capacity for making sense.”

Nicholas Carr, A little more signal, a lot more noise, Rough Type, May 30, 2012.

"When people struggle to describe the state that the Internet puts them in they arrive at a remarkably familiar picture of disassociation and fragmentation. Life was once whole, continuous, stable; now it is fragmented, multi-part, shimmering around us, unstable and impossible to fix. The world becomes Keats’s “waking dream,” as the writer Kevin Kelly puts it.”

Adam Gopnik on The Information and How the Internet gets inside us, 2011

"Our brains are wired to pay attention to visible, large, scandalous, sensational, shocking, peoplerelated, story-formatted, fast changing, loud, graphic onslaughts of stimuli. Our brains have limited attention to spend on more subtle pieces of intelligence that are small, abstract, ambivalent, complex, slow to develop and quiet, much less silent. News organizations systematically exploit this bias. News media outlets, by and large, focus on the highly visible. They display whatever information they can convey with gripping stories and lurid pictures, and they systematically ignore the subtle and insidious, even if that material is more important. News grabs our attention; that’s how its business model works. Even if the advertising model didn’t exist, we would still soak up news pieces because they are easy to digest and superficially quite tasty. The highly visible misleads us. (…)

  • Terrorism is overrated. Chronic stress is underrated.
  • The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is underrated.
  • Astronauts are overrated. Nurses are underrated.
  • Britney Spears is overrated. IPCC reports are underrated.
  • Airplane crashes are overrated. Resistance to antibiotics is underrated.

(…)

Afraid you will miss “something important”? From my experience, if something really important happens, you will hear about it, even if you live in a cocoon that protects you from the news. Friends and colleagues will tell you about relevant events far more reliably than any news organization. They will fill you in with the added benefit of meta-information, since they know your priorities and you know how they think. You will learn far more about really important events and societal shifts by reading about them in specialized journals, in-depth magazines or good books and by talking to the people who know. (…)

The more “news factoids” you digest, the less of the big picture you will understand. (…)

Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News items are like free-floating radicals that interfere with clear thinking. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. (…)

This is about the inability to think clearly because you have opened yourself up to the disruptive factoid stream. News makes us shallow thinkers. But it’s worse than that. News severely affects memory. (…)

News is an interruption system. It seizes your attention only to scramble it. Besides a lack of glucose in your blood stream, news distraction is the biggest barricade to clear thinking. (…)

In the words of Professor Michael Merzenich (University of California, San Francisco), a pioneer in the field of neuroplasticity: “We are training our brains to pay attention to the crap.” (…)

Good professional journalists take time with their stories, authenticate their facts and try to think things through. But like any profession, journalism has some incompetent, unfair practitioners who don’t have the time – or the capacity – for deep analysis. You might not be able to tell the difference between a polished professional report and a rushed, glib, paid-by-the-piece article by a writer with an ax to grind. It all looks like news.

My estimate: fewer than 10% of the news stories are original. Less than 1% are truly investigative. And only once every 50 years do journalists uncover a Watergate.

Many reporters cobble together the rest of the news from other people’s reports, common knowledge, shallow thinking and whatever the journalist can find on the internet. Some reporters copy from each other or refer to old pieces, without necessarily catching up with any interim corrections. The copying and the copying of the copies multiply the flaws in the stories and their irrelevance. (…)

Overwhelming evidence indicates that forecasts by journalists and by experts in finance, social development, global conflicts and technology are almost always completely wrong. So, why consume that junk?

Did the newspapers predict World War I, the Great Depression, the sexual revolution, the fall of the Soviet empire, the rise of the Internet, resistance to antibiotics, the fall of Europe’s birth rate or the explosion in depression cases? Maybe, you’d find one or two correct predictions in a sea of millions of mistaken ones. Incorrect forecast are not only useless, they are harmful.

To increase the accuracy of your predictions, cut out the news and roll the dice or, if you are ready for depth, read books and knowledgeable journals to understand the invisible generators that affect our world. (…)

I have now gone without news for a year, so I can see, feel and report the effects of this freedom first hand: less disruption, more time, less anxiety, deeper thinking, more insights. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.”

Table of Contents:

No 1 – News misleads us systematically
No 2 – News is irrelevant
No 3 – News limits understanding
No 4 – News is toxic to your body
No 5 – News massively increases cognitive errors
No 6 – News inhibits thinking
No 7 – News changes the structure of your brain
No 8 – News is costly
No 9 – News sunders the relationship between reputation and achievement
No 10 – News is produced by journalists
No 11 – Reported facts are sometimes wrong, forecasts always
No 12 – News is manipulative
No 13 – News makes us passive
No 14 – News gives us the illusion of caring
No 15 – News kills creativity

Rolf Dobelli, Swiss novelist, writer, entrepreneur and curator of zurich.minds, to read full essay click Avoid News. Towards a Healthy News Diet (pdf), 2010. (Illustration: Information Overload by taylorboren)

See also:

The Difference Between Online Knowledge and Truly Open Knowledge. In the era of the Internet facts are not bricks but networks
Nicholas Carr on the evolution of communication technology and our compulsive consumption of information
Does Google Make Us Stupid?
Nicholas Carr on what the internet is doing to our brains?
How the Internet Affects Our Memories: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips
☞ Dr Paul Howard-Jones, The impact of digital technologies on human wellbeing (pdf), University of Bristol
William Deresiewicz on multitasking and the value of solitude
Information tag on Lapidarium

Jan
22nd
Sun
permalink

The Rise of the New Groupthink. ‘Without great solitude, no serious work is possible’

          

"The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. No big laboratory is needed in which to think. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born. That is why many of the earthly miracles have had their genesis in humble surroundings.”

Nikola Tesla, Serbian-American inventor, mechanical engineer, and electrical engineer (1856-1943)

"Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in. 

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

One explanation for these findings is that introverts are comfortable working alone — and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck observed, introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.” In other words, a person sitting quietly under a tree in the backyard, while everyone else is clinking glasses on the patio, is more likely to have an apple land on his head. (Newton was one of the world’s great introverts: William Wordsworth described him as “A mind for ever/ Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”)

Solitude has long been associated with creativity and transcendence. “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible,” Picasso said. A central narrative of many religions is the seeker — Moses, Jesus, Buddha — who goes off by himself and brings profound insights back to the community.

Culturally, we’re often so dazzled by charisma that we overlook the quiet part of the creative process. (…)

In his memoir, Mr. [Steve] Wozniak offers this guidance to aspiring inventors:

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

And yet. The New Groupthink has overtaken our workplaces, our schools and our religious institutions. Anyone who has ever needed noise-canceling headphones in her own office or marked an online calendar with a fake meeting in order to escape yet another real one knows what I’m talking about. Virtually all American workers now spend time on teams and some 70 percent inhabit open-plan offices, in which no one has “a room of one’s own.” During the last decades, the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010.

Our schools have also been transformed by the New Groupthink. Today, elementary school classrooms are commonly arranged in pods of desks, the better to foster group learning. Even subjects like math and creative writing are often taught as committee projects. In one fourth-grade classroom I visited in New York City, students engaged in group work were forbidden to ask a question unless every member of the group had the very same question.

The New Groupthink also shapes some of our most influential religious institutions. Many mega-churches feature extracurricular groups organized around every conceivable activity, from parenting to skateboarding to real estate, and expect worshipers to join in. They also emphasize a theatrical style of worship — loving Jesus out loud, for all the congregation to see. “Often the role of a pastor seems closer to that of church cruise director than to the traditional roles of spiritual friend and counselor,” said Adam McHugh, an evangelical pastor and author of “Introverts in the Church.”

Some teamwork is fine and offers a fun, stimulating, useful way to exchange ideas, manage information and build trust.

But it’s one thing to associate with a group in which each member works autonomously on his piece of the puzzle; it’s another to be corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite from the noise and gaze of co-workers. Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted. They’re also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu and exhaustion. And people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it. (…)

Privacy also makes us productive. In a fascinating study known as the Coding War Games, consultants Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister compared the work of more than 600 computer programmers at 92 companies. They found that people from the same companies performed at roughly the same level — but that there was an enormous performance gap between organizations. What distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies wasn’t greater experience or better pay. It was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said their workspace was sufficiently private compared with only 19 percent of the worst performers. Seventy-six percent of the worst programmers but only 38 percent of the best said that they were often interrupted needlessly.

[Learning] Solitude can even help us learn. According to research on expert performance by the psychologist Anders Ericsson, the best way to master a field is to work on the task that’s most demanding for you personally. And often the best way to do this is alone. Only then, Mr. Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class — you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.”

Conversely, brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity. The brainchild of a charismatic advertising executive named Alex Osborn who believed that groups produced better ideas than individuals, workplace brainstorming sessions came into vogue in the 1950s. “The quantitative results of group brainstorming are beyond question,” Mr. Osborn wrote. “One group produced 45 suggestions for a home-appliance promotion, 56 ideas for a money-raising campaign, 124 ideas on how to sell more blankets.”

But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” wrote the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

   

The reasons brainstorming fails are instructive for other forms of group work, too. People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure. The Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that when we take a stance different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection. Professor Berns calls this “the pain of independence.”

The Internet: a place where we can be alone together — and this is precisely what gives it power

The one important exception to this dismal record is electronic brainstorming, where large groups outperform individuals; and the larger the group the better. The protection of the screen mitigates many problems of group work. This is why the Internet has yielded such wondrous collective creations. Marcel Proust called reading a “miracle of communication in the midst of solitude,” and that’s what the Internet is, too. It’s a place where we can be alone together — and this is precisely what gives it power.

My point is not that man is an island. Life is meaningless without love, trust and friendship.

And I’m not suggesting that we abolish teamwork. Indeed, recent studies suggest that influential academic work is increasingly conducted by teams rather than by individuals. (Although teams whose members collaborate remotely, from separate universities, appear to be the most influential of all.) The problems we face in science, economics and many other fields are more complex than ever before, and we’ll need to stand on one another’s shoulders if we can possibly hope to solve them.

But even if the problems are different, human nature remains the same. And most humans have two contradictory impulses: we love and need one another, yet we crave privacy and autonomy.

To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone. Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.

Before Mr. Wozniak started Apple, he designed calculators at Hewlett-Packard, a job he loved partly because HP made it easy to chat with his colleagues. Every day at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., management wheeled in doughnuts and coffee, and people could socialize and swap ideas. What distinguished these interactions was how low-key they were. For Mr. Wozniak, collaboration meant the ability to share a doughnut and a brainwave with his laid-back, poorly dressed colleagues — who minded not a whit when he disappeared into his cubicle to get the real work done.”

— Susan Cain, The Rise of the New Groupthink, NYT, Jan 13, 2012. (Photo source)

See also:

William Deresiewicz on solitude
The power of lonely. What we do better without other people around, The Boston Globe
William Deresiewicz on multitasking and the value of solitude

Sep
2nd
Fri
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Vagabonding - the act of leaving behind the orderly world to travel independently for an extended period of time

   
                                                                                Rolf Potts, Vagabonding

"Vagabonding involves taking an extended time-out from your normal life - six weeks, four months, two years - to travel the world on your own terms.

But beyond travel, vagabonding is an outlook on life. Vagabonding is about using the prosperity and possibility of the information age to increase your personal options instead of your personal possessions. Vagabonding is about looking for adventure in normal life, and normal life within adventure. Vagabonding is an attitude - a friendly interest in people, places, and things that makes a person an explorer in the truest, most vivid sense of the word. (…)

It’s just an uncommon way of looking at life - a value adjustment from which action naturally follows. And, as much as anything, vagabonding is about time - our only real commodity - and how we choose to use it. (…)

Vagabonding starts now. Even if the practical reality of travel is still months or years away, vagabonding begins the moment you stop making excuses, start saving money, and begin to look at maps with the narcotic tingle of possibility. From here, the reality of vagabonding comes into sharper focus as you adjust your worldview and begin to embrace the exhilarating uncertainty that true travel promises.”

Rolf Potts, travel writer, Vagabonding, Villard Books, 2002

From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.

Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts new places. Introspective reflections which are liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape. The mind may be reluctant to think properly when thinking is all it is supposed to do.

At the end of hours of train-dreaming, we may feel we have been returned to ourselves - that is, brought back into contact with emotions and ideas of importance to us. It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. (…)

Instead of bringing back 1600 plants, we might return from our journeys with a collection of small unfêted but life-enhancing thoughts.”

Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel, Pantheon, 2002

Rolf Potts: Time = wealth



His zeitgeist defining book is not just how to travel the world on a shoestring, but, more importantly, the mindset you need to take with you.

Rolf Potts, a travel writer, his travel advice book Vagabonding, which has been translated into several foreign languages, is in its tenth printing. In 2010, he traveled around the world in six weeks with no luggage or bags of any kind, Time = wealth, Do Lectures

See also:

Stefan Sagmeister, The power of time off, TED.com, July 2009
Rolf Potts on Vagabonding, Authors@Google (video) , Aug 2007
Pico Iyer, Why We Travel, World Hum, 27 Apr 2009
MOVE (video) - 3 guys, 44 days, 11 countries, 18 flights, 38 thousand miles, all to turn 3 ambitious linear concepts based on movement, learning and food, 2011

Jul
16th
Sat
permalink

Keri Smith on ‘How To Be An Explorer of the World’


                                                           (Click image to enlarge)

"Artists and scientists analyze the world in surprisingly similar ways."

Science – “The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”

— Oxford American Dictionary, cited in ibidem, p. 199.


p. 1

"[The residual purpose of art is] purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life - not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”

John Cage, cited in ibidem, p. 104


p.116


p. 75

“Sometimes a tree can tell you more than can be read in a book.”

Carl Jung cited in ibidem, p. 138.

Keri Smith, author, illustrator, guerilla artist, How To Be An Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum, Penguin Books, 2008.

May
27th
Fri
permalink

The Creative Power of Thinking Outside Yourself

New research suggests we generate more creative ideas for other people than for ourselves.

                                             

The ‘box’ that the expression refers to is the implicit one formed in your mind by the dots. To get the solution you have to ignore this implicit box: you have to, as it were, think outside it. (If you’re stuck in the box, google the ‘nine dots’ puzzle for the solution.) (…)

66% of people got the answer right when told it was a nameless ‘prisoner’ who was stuck in the tower. But when told to imagine they were stuck in the tower themselves, only 48% got it right. (The answer to the problem is: the rope is divided in half width-ways rath. (…)

When the ideas were analysed, participants who were thinking up ideas for socially distant others were most creative. The other two conditions lagged behind.

The reason this happens is to do with the way the mind represents problems like this. When we think about a ‘nameless other’ or the prisoner in the high tower, our minds tend to think more abstractly. In an abstract frame it becomes easier to make creative leaps because we aren’t stuck thinking about concrete details.

So perhaps the old and tired expression “thinking outside the box” should be replaced with the new, evidence-based expression “thinking outside yourself”.”

The Creative Power of Thinking Outside Yourself, PsyBlog, 23 May 2011.

Mar
21st
Mon
permalink

Jonah Lehrer on which traits predict success (the importance of grit)

                            

"The sweet spot: that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions." — (Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code: Unlocking the Secret of Skill in Sports, Art, Music, Math, and Just About Everything Else, Bantam Books, 2009.)

"The intrinsic nature of talent is overrated – our genes don’t confer specific gifts. (There is, for instance, no PGA gene.) This has led many researchers, such as K. Anders Ericsson, to argue that talent is really about deliberate practice, about putting in those 10,000 hours of intense training (plus or minus a few thousand hours). Beethoven wasn’t born Beethoven – he had to work damn hard to become Beethoven. As Ericsson wrote in his influential review article “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” (pdf): “The differences between expert performers and normal adults are not immutable, that is, due to genetically prescribed talent. Instead, these differences reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance.” (…)

Talent takes effort. Talent requires a good coach. But these answers only raise more questions. What, for instance, allows someone to practice for so long? Why are some people so much better at deliberate practice? If talent is about hard work, then what factors influence how hard we can work?

And this leads me to one of my favorite recent papers, “Deliberate Practice Spells Success: Why Grittier Competitors Triumph at the National Spelling Bee.” (pdf) The research, published in the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science, was led by Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at Penn. (Anders-Ericsson is senior author.) The psychologists were interested in the set of traits that allowed kids to practice deliberately. Their data set consisted of 190 participants in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, a competition that requires thousands of hours of practice. After all, there are no natural born spellers.

The first thing Duckworth, et. al. discovered is that deliberate practice works. Those kids who spent more time in deliberate practice mode – this involved studying and memorizing words while alone, often on note cards – performed much better at the competition than those children who were quizzed by others or engaged in leisure reading. The bad news is that deliberate practice isn’t fun and was consistently rated as the least enjoyable form of self-improvement. Nevertheless, as spellers gain experience, they devote increasing amounts of time to deliberate practice. This suggests that even twelve year olds realize that this is what makes them better, that success isn’t easy.

Why were some kids better at drilling themselves with note cards? What explained this variation in hours devoted to deliberate practice? After analyzing the data, Duckworth discovered the importance of a psychological trait known as grit. In previous papers, Duckworth has demonstrated that grit can be reliably measured with a short survey that measures consistency of passions (e.g., ‘‘I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest’’) and consistency of effort (e.g., ‘‘Setbacks don’t discourage me’’) over time using a 5-point scale. Not surprisingly, those with grit are more single-minded about their goals – they tend to get obsessed with certain activities – and also more likely to persist in the face of struggle and failure. Woody Allen famously declared that “Eighty percent of success is showing up”. Grit is what allows you show up again and again. Here are the scientists:

Our major findings in this investigation are as follows: Deliberate practice—operationally defined in the current investigation as the solitary study of word spellings and origins—was a better predictor of National Spelling Bee performance than either being quizzed by others or engaging in leisure reading. With each year of additional preparation, spellers devoted an increasing proportion of their preparation time to deliberate practice, despite rating the experience of such activities as more effortful and less enjoyable than the alternative preparation activities. Grittier spellers engaged in deliberate practice more so than their less gritty counterparts, and hours of deliberate practice fully mediated the prospective association between grit and spelling performance. (…)

Success in the real world depends on sustained performance, on being able to work hard at practice, and spend the weekend studying the playbook, and reviewing hours of game tape. Those are all versions of deliberate practice, and our ability to engage in such useful exercises largely depends on levels of grit. The problem, of course, is that grit can’t be measured in a single afternoon on a single field. (By definition, it’s a metric of personality that involves long periods of time.) The end result is that our flawed beliefs about talent have led to flawed tests of talent. Perhaps that explains why there is no “consistent statistical relationship between combine tests and professional football performance.” We need to a test that measures how likely people are to show up, not just how they perform once there.

The second takeaway involves the growing recognition of “non-cognitive” skills like grit and self-control. While such traits have little or nothing to do with intelligence (as measured by IQ scores), they often explain a larger share of individual variation when it comes to life success. It doesn’t matter if one is looking at retention rates at West Point or teacher performance within the Teach for America program or success in the spelling bee: Factors like grit are often the most predictive variables of real world performance. Thomas Edison was right: even genius is mostly just perspiration.

Taken together, these studies suggest that our most important talent is having a talent for working hard, for practicing even when practice isn’t fun. It’s about putting in the hours when we’d rather be watching TV, or drilling ourselves with notecards filled with obscure words instead of getting quizzed by a friend. Success is never easy. That’s why talent requires grit.”

Jonah Lehrer, Which Traits Predict Success? (The Importance of Grit), Wired Science, March 14, 2011. (Picture source)

See also: Malcolm Gladwell on success

Jun
1st
Tue
permalink

The Mathematical Art of M.C. Escher

"For me it remains an open question whether [this work] pertains to the realm of mathematics or to that of art." — M.C. Escher



— BBC-4, 2005

Douglas R. Hofstadter on M. C. Escher’s drawings

"To my mind, the most beautiful and powerful visual realizations of this notion of Strange Loops exist in the work of the Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher, who lived from 1902 to 1972. Escher was the creator of some of the most intellectually stimulating drawings of all time. Many of them have their origin in paradox, illusion, or double-meaning.

Mathematicians were among the first admirers of Escher’s drawings, and this is understandable because they often are based on mathematical principles of symmetry or pattern… But there is much more to a typical Escher drawing than just symmetry or pattern; there is often an underlying idea, realized in artistic form. And in particular, the Strange Loop is one of the most recurrent themes in Escher’s work. Look, for example, at the lithograph Waterfall, 1961 (Fig. 5), and compare its six-step endlessly falling loop with the six-step endlessly rising loop of the J.S. Bach's "Canon per Tonos". The similarity of vision is remarkable. Bach and Escher are playing one single theme in two different “keys”: music and art.

                                               Figure 5, M. C. Escher, Waterwall, 1961

Escher realized Strange Loops in several different ways, and they can be arranged according to the tightness of the loop. The lithograph Ascending and Descending, 1960 (Fig. 6), in which monks trudge forever in loops, is the loosest version, since it involves so many steps before the starting point is regained.

                          Figure 6, M. C. Escher, Ascending and Descending, 1960

A tighter loop is contained in Waterfall, which, as we already observed, involves only six discrete steps. You may be thinking that there is some ambiguity in the notion of a single “step”-for instance, couldn’t Ascending and Descending be seen just as easily as having four levels (staircases) as forty-five levels (stairs)% It is indeed true that there is an inherent haziness in level-counting, not only in Escher pictures, but in hierarchical, many-level systems. We will sharpen our understanding of this haziness later on.

But let us not get too distracted now’ As we tighten our loop, we come to the remarkable Drawing Hands (Fig. 135), in which each of two hands draws the other: a two-step Strange Loop.

                                                 Figure 135, M. C. Escher, Drawing Hands

  Figure 136, Abstract diagram of M.C. Escher’s Drawing Hands. On to, a seeming paradox. Below, it’s relsolution.

"And yet when I say "strange loop", I have something else in mind — a less concrete, more elusive notion. What I mean by “strange loop” is — here goes a first stab, anyway — not a physical circuit but an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive “upward” shifts turn out to give rise to a closed cycle. That is, despite one’s sense of departing ever further from one’s origin, one winds up, to one’s shock, exactly where one had started out. In short, a strange loop is a paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop.” — (D. Hofstadter,  I Am a Strange Loop, p. 101-102)

And finally, the tightest of all Strange Loops is realized in Print Gallery (Fig. 142): a picture of a picture which contains itself. Or is it a picture of a gallery which contains itself? Or of a town which contains itself? Or a young man who contains himself’? (…)

                                              Figure 142, M. C. Escher, Print Gallery

Implicit in the concept of Strange Loops is the concept of infinity, since what else is a loop but a way of representing an endless process in a finite way? And infinity plays a large role in many of Escher’s drawings. Copies of one single theme often fit into each’ other, forming visual analogues to the canons of Bach. Several such patterns can be seen in Escher’s famous print Metamorphosis (Fig. 8). It is a little like the “Endlessly Rising Canon”: wandering further and further from its starting point, it suddenly is back. In the tiled planes of Metamorphosis and other pictures, there are already suggestions of infinity.

                                   Figure 8, M. C. Escher, Metamorphosis II

But wilder visions of infinity appear in other drawings by Escher. In some of his drawings, one single theme can appear on different levels of reality. For instance, one level in a drawing might clearly be recognizable as representing fantasy or imagination; another level would be recognizable as reality. These two levels might be the only explicitly portrayed levels. But the mere presence of these two levels invites the viewer to look upon himself as part of yet another level; and by taking that step, the viewer cannot help getting caught up in Escher’s implied chain of levels, in which, for any one level, there is always another level above it of greater “reality”, and likewise, there is always a level below, “more imaginary” than it is.

This can be mind-boggling in itself. However, what happens if the chain of levels is not linear, but forms a loop? What is real, then, and what is fantasy? The genius of Escher was that he could not only concoct, but actually portray, dozens of half-real, half-mythical worlds, worlds filled with Strange Loops, which he seems to be inviting his viewers to enter.”

Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel Escher Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, Penguin Books, 1999, p. 18-23.

Inspirations: A Short Film Celebrating the Mathematical Art of M.C. Escher

Cristóbal Vila, Inspirations, February 2012

See also:

The Official M.C. Escher Website
The Strange Worlds of M C Escher, Escape Into Life
Mathematical Art of M.C. Escher, Platonic Realms MiniText
Nature by Numbers - a short movie inspired on numbers, geometry and nature by Cristóbal Vila

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The Road to Success, published 1913
"Motivational Poster (click image twice to blow up size), adapted to musical education from an original drawing issued by the National Cash Register Co. to point the road to business success. It originally appeared in THE ETUDE music magazine, published October 1913 and includes some of the unique language and jargons of the time. Great inspirational and motivational tool/gift for anyone, especially young people starting out, new businesses and anyone seeking success (aren’t we all?)..  Just follow the ‘Road to Success,’ making sure not to fall prey to ‘bohemianism,’ shiftlessness’ or one of the many other pitfalls along the way. Don’t lose time at the ‘Hotel Know It All’ or ‘Mutual Admiration Society’ waiting for compliments such as ‘Caruso can’t touch you’ or ‘You’ll set the world on fire.’ Once you reach the ‘Gate of Ideals’ you’ve nearly reached the big zither(?) of success.
‘This (literally) lyrical prize is achieved by first entering the Gate of Opportunity. People are running through, but some have already settled in to the sit-down life of ease and comfort in what looks like the Beer Garden of Bohemianism.
Some manage to pass by those delights to check in to the Hotel Know It All, because they hold to mottoes such as Nobody can tell me, or I don’t need to practice, or I’m a born genius, or yet: I don’t need system.
Similarly misguided cries are heard on the patio of the Mutual Admiration Society: You’re the Hit of the Age, You’ll Set the World on Fire, You’re a Wonder My Boy, or (my favourite): Caruso Can’t Touch You.
Those who avoid those three establishments of ill repute might still fall victim to the deep, dark well of Illiteracy, or the spinning, disorienting wheel of Conceit. A select few manage to board the train called Right System at the Railroad Station.
That doesn’t stop some from running along the rail track towards Success, only to succumb to the ugly hand of Vices, the spinning fan of Bad Habits (blowing its victims towards Oblivion), or the pitfall of Bad Reputation. Others fall prey to Charlatanism, or get tangled up in the webs of Jealousy and Do It Tomorrow.
Those who overcome all these perils will enter the gates of System. But while the train crosses a bridge across the river Failure, those on foot are threatened by the Cauldron of Misrepresentation, and tempted by Short Cuts.
Some do manage to wade across the river to the other side, but there must overcome Bad Temper, Carelessness, Shiftlessness and Bad Memory. Then there’s Lack of Preparation, a giant rock which the train can tunnel through effortlessly, while the surviving pedestrians must trek across it.
Sprees, Laziness and Bad Business Methods then still threaten them, until at last they come before two gates, the one for Weak Morals remaining forever closed, the Gate of Ideals open to the train (and some on foot).
Conclusion: you can be successful without adopting the Right System, but your chances are far smaller. And you’ll have to make a lot bigger effort to get there.” (Source: OldiesCountry)

The Road to Success, published 1913

"Motivational Poster (click image twice to blow up size), adapted to musical education from an original drawing issued by the National Cash Register Co. to point the road to business success. It originally appeared in THE ETUDE music magazine, published October 1913 and includes some of the unique language and jargons of the time. Great inspirational and motivational tool/gift for anyone, especially young people starting out, new businesses and anyone seeking success (aren’t we all?)..  Just follow the ‘Road to Success,’ making sure not to fall prey to ‘bohemianism,’ shiftlessness’ or one of the many other pitfalls along the way. Don’t lose time at the ‘Hotel Know It All’ or ‘Mutual Admiration Society’ waiting for compliments such as ‘Caruso can’t touch you’ or ‘You’ll set the world on fire.’ Once you reach the ‘Gate of Ideals’ you’ve nearly reached the big zither(?) of success.

‘This (literally) lyrical prize is achieved by first entering the Gate of Opportunity. People are running through, but some have already settled in to the sit-down life of ease and comfort in what looks like the Beer Garden of Bohemianism.

Some manage to pass by those delights to check in to the Hotel Know It All, because they hold to mottoes such as Nobody can tell me, or I don’t need to practice, or I’m a born genius, or yet: I don’t need system.

Similarly misguided cries are heard on the patio of the Mutual Admiration Society: You’re the Hit of the Age, You’ll Set the World on Fire, You’re a Wonder My Boy, or (my favourite): Caruso Can’t Touch You.

Those who avoid those three establishments of ill repute might still fall victim to the deep, dark well of Illiteracy, or the spinning, disorienting wheel of Conceit. A select few manage to board the train called Right System at the Railroad Station.

That doesn’t stop some from running along the rail track towards Success, only to succumb to the ugly hand of Vices, the spinning fan of Bad Habits (blowing its victims towards Oblivion), or the pitfall of Bad Reputation. Others fall prey to Charlatanism, or get tangled up in the webs of Jealousy and Do It Tomorrow.

Those who overcome all these perils will enter the gates of System. But while the train crosses a bridge across the river Failure, those on foot are threatened by the Cauldron of Misrepresentation, and tempted by Short Cuts.

Some do manage to wade across the river to the other side, but there must overcome Bad Temper, Carelessness, Shiftlessness and Bad Memory. Then there’s Lack of Preparation, a giant rock which the train can tunnel through effortlessly, while the surviving pedestrians must trek across it.

Sprees, Laziness and Bad Business Methods then still threaten them, until at last they come before two gates, the one for Weak Morals remaining forever closed, the Gate of Ideals open to the train (and some on foot).

Conclusion: you can be successful without adopting the Right System, but your chances are far smaller. And you’ll have to make a lot bigger effort to get there.” (Source: OldiesCountry)