The Clasps of Creativity


People often associate creativity with big ideas, but it is often found in centimeter-sized details. In an earlier post I discussed how creativity involves tinkering with subject matter; here I will look at how it thrives on the small scale, in the realm of hinges, clasps, and other parts.

The above picture (which I took at home) shows three objects–two book stands and a pair of AN-6530 goggles–manufactured by the Chas. Fischer Spring Co., founded by my great-granduncle Charles Fischer. He was about fourteen when he came with his parents and seven younger siblings to New York City from Györke, Hungary (now Ďurkov, Slovakia). In 1906, after working as a toolmaker and spring-maker, he founded his company in Brooklyn and employed a few of his brothers. My great-grandfather worked for him as a bookkeeper, I believe.

The two book stands clasp onto the knee, so that your hands are free when you read; the AN-6530 goggles were produced during World War II for Army and Navy flight crews. After one year of use (in 1943), they were superseded by rubber-framed, plastic-framed goggles (since mass production of plastic had become possible in the interim, and plastic lenses were much safer).

Many of Charles Fischer’s inventions pertained to goggles; he had several patents for goggles themselves, and others for goggles’ hinges, clasps, bridges, and seals. His goggle clasp (Patent No. 2,126,379), filed in 1937 and patented in 1938, improves upon existing clasps in ways that he carefully lays out.

claspHere’s a photo of the AN-6530 clasp (at least on my own pair). I have looked at pictures of others; the clasps are similar in form. You can see that they require twisting a piece of wire. As we know from experience with hangers (for instance), if you twist the wire too much, it breaks.

That is exactly the problem that Charles Fischer sought to address. (Note that the AN-6530 goggles came well after his invention but stuck with the earlier clasp.) In his patent specifications, he explains:

Heretofore, the head band has carried a thin light open ring which was passed through the ears of the frame and then twisted by pliers. The twisting of the ring strains it and crystallizes it. Thereafter, the stresses to which the ring was sub­jected imposed further strain and led to break­age at the point of twisting.

Here’s how he resolves the problem:

The possibility of the head band clasp breaking or working loose from the goggle and the result­ing inconvenience and perhaps danger to the user, is avoided by the clasp shown in Figs. 2, 3 and 4, in which a strap 23 is provided, slotted at 24 to receive one end of a head band 25. The strap has a forwardly extending pocket 26, the strap and pocket being stamped from one piece of metal. Passing through the sides of the pocket is a pivot pin 27, and a strong hook 28 is pivoted on this pin. As illustrated, pivot pin 27 is arranged off-center, i.e. below the central horizontal plane of the pocket and below the line of force acting on hook 28. This arrangement results in the hook being securely locked to the frame when in closed position. In addition, the upper sides of pocket 26 are pinched at 29 to provide a pair of spring jaws. When the hook is open, as shown in full lines in Fig. 2, the jaws act to hold the hook up and in a position which facilitates the passing of the free end of the hook through the perforated noses of the frame. When the hook is closed, the jaws give way to allow the hook to pass and then spring back behind the hook. Also, as shown, the extended lip 30 of pocket 25 is adapted to be engaged by and serve as a stop for the free end of hook 28.

That may seem a little confusing until you match it, number by number, with the diagram:
goggle-clasp-imageNow it’s evident that this new clasp resolves the problems of the previous one. There’s no twisting of wire, no loose ends, no strain on the materials. What’s more, it involves a kind of spring: “In addition, the upper sides of pocket 26 are pinched at 29 to provide a pair of spring jaws.”

I don’t know why this clasp wasn’t incorporated in the AN-6530 model. His patent was issued a year before the outbreak of World War II. Maybe his inventions didn’t get enough attention; maybe they were considered too expensive.

My point is that our discussions of creativity tend to miss the mark. There’s creativity in the spring jaw and pivot pin of a goggle clasp–yet when people speak of creativity, they disregard those beautiful little parts.

Charles Fischer died almost two decades before I was born, so I had no way of meeting him. Only one of his siblings, Emanuel, survived into my lifetime; he died when I was about four, and I knew nothing of his existence. My great-grandfather Max died four years before my birth. I wish time could be compressed so that I could ask them questions. I sense enjoyment in Charles Fischer’s descriptions; I imagine that he loved explaining them to people who showed interest.

There may be far more creativity in the world than people imagine. It may be found in the particulars, in the subtle reworking of words, sounds, and springs. The current focus on big ideas detracts from creativity itself. Or to put it bluntly: creativity means nothing in the abstract. It has meaning only in relation to specific form and matter.

Image credits: I took the two photos. The patent image can be found on the United States Patent and Trademark Office website.

Note: I made some edits to this piece–and added two sentences to the end–after posting it. Also, I changed the title.

The Springs of Creativity


I am talking about literal metal springs here, the things that bounce. What do springs (those metal bouncy things) have to do with creativity?

As I mentioned a little while ago, my great-granduncle Charles Fischer founded the Chas. Fischer Spring Co. in 1906. He invented and manufactured many parts and devices, including a delightful book prop that clasps onto the leg. (I don’t know whether Charles Fischer himself invented it—it could have been one of his sons—but his company patented and manufactured it.) I just received a comment about that very book prop! (Thank you, Joe Simpson, for writing!)

Before he founded his company,  he worked as a spring-maker. I imagine him tinkering with the springs and thinking of new uses to which they could be put. My argument here is that creativity–at least a certain kind–comes out of playing and experimenting with an actual subject or medium. You don’t teach or learn creativity in the abstract. People have been wringing their hands over the need to teach creativity in schools–but that’s a waste of hand muscle. Get the hands going with something, and then start tweaking it. Before you know it, you just might have something new in the works.

I’ll take a look at one of Charles Fischer’s inventions, the take-up spring, then apply this notion of “tweaking” to some simple R code.

I  imagine him making spring after spring while his wife was at home ironing and cursing the cord that always got in the way. (The retractable cord,  like the one in today’s vacuum cleaners, wasn’t invented for another few decades.) “What if,” they may have discussed one day over dinner (who knows–maybe they talked about these things, maybe not), “What  if a spring could actually keep the cord suspended up above, in the air, so that when you needed it, you could draw it in, but when you didn’t need it, your ironing could proceed unimpeded?” Lo and behold, he found that a spring could do just that:


You can read the description here.  He explains: “The invention is especially useful in taking up the cord of an electric iron, thus doing away with the inconvenience and annoyance of having the cord in the way of the iron when the latter is in use and permitting free use of the iron by the operator.”

So there you go–the daily work with springs, I imagine, allowed him to think of other things that could be done with them.

That, I believe, is often how creativity works. You’re doing something repetitive and routine, but within that repetition, you start thinking about other things that can be done. You try them out with your materials. You learn about what works and what doesn’t; you gain knowledge not only of the practicalities, but of the principles and possibilities. You try new things from there.

Now I’ll give a simple example of this from computer programming–something easy enough for anyone to try. I won’t do anything groundbreaking here; my point is that by starting to tinker with code, you can learn what’s going on and experiment with new things.

I got this code from “R by example.” It’s the first one under Graphs. (You can download R itself from The R Project for Statistical Computing.)

# Goal: To make a panel of pictures.

par(mfrow=c(3,2))                       # 3 rows, 2 columns.

# Now the next 6 pictures will be placed on these 6 regions. 🙂

# Let me take some pains on the 1st
plot(density(runif(100)), lwd=2)
text(x=0, y=0.2, "100 uniforms")        # Showing you how to place text at will
abline(h=0, v=0)
              # All these statements effect the 1st plot.

par(col="blue")                         # default colour to blue.

# 2 --
plot(x, sin(x), type="l")
lines(x, cos(x), type="l", col="red")

# 3 --
plot(x, exp(x), type="l", col="green")
lines(x, log(x), type="l", col="orange")

# 4 --
plot(x, tan(x), type="l", lwd=3, col="yellow")

# 5 --
plot(x, exp(-x), lwd=2)
lines(x, exp(x), col="green", lwd=3)

# 6 --
plot(x, sin(x*x), type="l")
lines(x, sin(1/x), col="pink")

Now, when you run it, you get this nifty series of graphs:


Now, let’s say I don’t know R (which is true). I’m looking at this and thinking, “Let’s say I want to show the same function throughout, let’s say sin(x), but over a different interval each time.” So I look for the line of code that seems to indicate the interval. That would be:


But I see that that’s also the default, and I want it to change each time. So I’m going to have it repeat for each graph, but I will change the middle number with each iteration. The adjusted code looks like this (I’m omitting the “lines” function since it isn’t needed now, and I’m making all the graphs blue):

# Goal: To make a panel of pictures of sin(x) at increasing intervals.

par(mfrow=c(3,2)) # 3 rows, 2 columns.

# Now the next 6 pictures will be placed on these 6 regions.

par(col=”blue”) # default colour to blue.

# 1 —
plot(x, sin(x), type=”l”)

# 2 —
plot(x, sin(x), type=”l”)

# 3 —
plot(x, sin(x), type=”l”)

# 4 —
plot(x, sin(x), type=”l”)

# 5 —
plot(x, sin(x), type=”l”)

# 6 —
plot(x, sin(x), type=”l”)

And here are the resulting graphs (how pretty):graph2

The tinkering, you see, has just begun. I can fiddle with the colors, bring in a second function, and do all sorts of other things. Even at this basic level, as I do this, I’m learning code while at the same time thinking up new possibilities.

In short, creativity is not elusive or amorphous. It has to do with fiddling around within forms and structures and then pushing outward to something new.

For more on this, see my piece “Curriculum: A Springboard to Creativity” on the Core Knowledge blog. It discusses a brilliant piece by one of my former students. (The word “springboard” relates to the present discussion by coincidence; I didn’t know about Charles Fischer’s work at the time.)

Happy New Year to all!

Image credits: The ad at the top is my own copy, which I purchased on Ebay. The patent figures (Pat. No. 1,578,817) are from the United  States Patent and Trademark Office. The graphs were generated in R.

Note: I made a few minor revisions to this piece after posting it.

Let Daydreaming Daydream


Painting: “11” by Karen Kaapcke, an entry in the 2016 Atlas Art Contest.

I have written about daydreaming numerous times (see here, here, here, here, and here in the blog, see here in Republic of Noise, and see my story “The Diagnosis“). I have daydreamed all my life; since infancy I was able to absorb myself in something simple for hours. I was kicked out of ballet class at age six because I would dance around the room instead of following directions (and was completely unaware that I wasn’t following directions). I was terrible at sports involving quick reactions, because my mind was on other things.

Generally I like being this way. It slows me down but also allows me to play with ideas, words, sounds, images. I am usually working on a story in my head over a period of months. It may not be anything I write down; I simply enjoy working out the details and carrying it in my mind. At other times, I work on projects or just let the thoughts wander.

All of this goes to say that I have some experience with daydreaming. Usually, when I read discussions of it, I find that they are slightly on the wrong track. They seem to focus on how daydreaming helps or hinders productivity (or so-called “creativity,” which is usually meant as corporate creativity). This carries two questionable assumptions: (a) that mental processes are valuable only insofar as they serve productivity (and so-called “creativity”), and that if we just found that key to productivity and creativity, people would be ever so much more productive and creative.

So it was somewhat refreshing to see Emily Reynolds’s New York Magazine piece “Everyone Should Make More Time for Daydreaming.” After that iffy title, the piece hit some good subtleties. Challenging the assumption that daydreaming is “a waste of time,” Reynolds cites some research and commentary suggesting otherwise, and goes on to say that daydreaming takes different forms, some helpful, some not. But not all daydreaming has to boost your output, she notes:

But this isn’t to say that you should reframe daydreaming as a “productive” activity, one aimed at particular or favorable outcomes. “Positive constructive daydreaming need not have a goal,” Kaufman agrees. Whether you do it mindfully or mindlessly, it’s worth spending a little time each day imagining the world beyond the present moment.

All fine and well, except for two things. First, there was really no need to cite Kaufman here; is the idea to give her statement a kind of scientific glow? Something from Dante or Emerson (for instance) might have worked better.

Second, I am not sure that daydreaming should be practiced deliberately. That seems to turn it into something else. Reynolds advocates some kind of “mindful daydreaming”–a combination of whimsy and awareness–but isn’t that already second nature to some people? If people set out to do this for the sake of becoming more creative, wouldn’t that corrupt the endeavor?

There is something wrong with the search for a “key” to creativity (or productivity). The people clamoring for it are not typically yearning for more poetry; no, they want more creativity on the job, in the service of profit. It is creativity on someone else’s terms. Also, they neglect the interaction of subject matter and creativity. Creativity exists only in relation to something. The best way to increase your creativity is to immerse yourself in that subject. You will start thinking about it, playing with it, imagining its possibilities, daydreaming about it. You won’t get there by trying to become more creative.

In his scathing (and brilliant) article “Ted Talks Are Lying to You,” Thomas Frank writes that “the literature of creativity [is] a genre of surpassing banality” in that it exemplifies conformity, not creativity, and is directed not at artists, musicians, actors, and writers, but at the professional-managerial class. Reynolds’ piece certainly doesn’t fall in this category, but it could step more boldly outside the trend.

In short: It’s good to recognize that daydream is not just a waste of time–that it is essential to some natures and endeavors. But there’s no need for daydreamer-chic, daydreamer mindfulness training,  or Amazon (Inc.) treehouse daydreaming sessions. Let daydreaming do what it does best: take its own way.

In This Grand Primordial Mess


Messy people (including me) may be on the up-and-up. Behold, to the left, a desk, my desk. This is about as unmessy as it gets. At least once a week, the piles at least triple. They flow onto each other. They threaten to converge and topple. So I bring them down a little and start again. That has been my life since adulthood. In childhood and adolescence, it was much worse; my mess didn’t even organize itself into piles. But I enjoyed it in some way and did not want to become neat. Others tried to get me to organize myself; although I did, a little, over time, I also kept a good deal of messiness, since it allowed me to focus on other things.

So I was delighted to see Jesse Singal’s article on mess. Apparently there are more mess-defenders in the world than I thought. I learned about a new book, Messy:  The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, by Tim Harford. Unfortunately, though, the title gave me IS (Instant Skepticism). It sounds like another “Great Secret to Creativity” book. I hope it’s not that. There’s lots to be said for a degree of messiness, but I don’t for a messy second believe that becoming messy will make you more creative or successful. (It may be that the title only flops askew over the book’s actual contents; I will wait to see.)

When and how can messiness be good? Well, first of all, it’s just the way some of us are. My students have described me as organized, but that’s probably because I have learned over time how to handle my mess. Even so, I don’t organize myself more than I have to. It takes too much time, and I have my mind on other things. I work better if I don’t have to worry all the time about putting things in their  proper places. As long as I know where to find them, and as long as I keep them in good condition, I’m fine.

I need some messiness; I need the freedom to pile book on top of book while I am looking into an idea and writing out an argument. Also, I like the look and feel of mess (up to a point); it reminds me of things I and others have been doing, and it keeps an array of materials at hand. This cannot and should not be pre-engineered; it’s just the way I work.

It may well be true that all creativity involves some messiness. This does not mean that you arrive at creativity by generating mess. Mess comes in different forms; there are people who maintain an impeccably neat exterior but allow themselves a pile of loose ends in the mind. There are those whose mess occurs in blogging, or in speaking, or in musical tastes. It’s unlikely that any “messy regime” will help anyone produce a work of brilliance.

On the other hand, it is nice to see some people questioning the despotism of neatness. Talk about hegemony. Some of us (including me) have had points taken off, throughout our lives, because we didn’t write as neatly as others, organize our notebooks clearly, take legible notes in class, or put everything away immediately after using it. For the sake of justice alone, I am happy to join in praise of limited mess.

Speaking of mess: I was delighted to come upon some videos of a 1978 concert by the Roches. I first heard them in 1982 (thanks to a friend who insisted I come hear them). I had forgotten just how beautifully messy (yet in time and in tune and inspired) they were. Here they are performing the wonderful “We.”

Oh, the title of this blog: Once upon a time, in 1989, someone’s beautiful mess, and the occasion of a tornado, inspired a sonnet from me. Here it is.

Tornado, July 10, 1989

The winds began to imitate your prance,
a rolling soda can became the lyre,
the sirens sang the lyrics, mixing fire
with something like your name. The dance grew dense,
a cat shot an accusatory glance,
and time was canceled. Wood, debris, and wire
were pulled like windowshades to curb desire,
since pagan hail had trampled down the fence.

Thinking survival hardly worth the cost,
I risked electrocution or success,
clambering over what was once a street,
with hopes that in this grand primordial mess
finding you in your element, I’d greet
what never had been had, and still was lost.

The Key to Creativity?

One must walk through much of life alone, but one also draws on the wisdom, experience, and practical assistance of others. Books (including literary, religious, philosophical, historical, and scientific texts) address many of our persistent questions. Their guidance has a place;  we would be stranded and parched without it. We seek out books not only for insight, but for help.

But if there’s a futile quest for assistance, it’s the quest for a “key” to creativity–some some way of life, some practice that others package up and that (supposedly) will release our creative powers. When I read articles about how to become more creative, I ask: why don’t people allow creativity its idiosyncrasy, and why do they covet creativity in the first place?

The answer to the second question seems obvious. Who wouldn’t want to make something original, something that involves both imagination and skill? Who wouldn’t want to write a truly good poem, song, or play, or invent a needed (or utterly useless but amusing) device, or give a memorable speech? Who wouldn’t want to do this day after day? It sounds like the happiest possible life–making a contribution to art, literature, technology, and other fields.

But it is not entirely happy. If you think differently from others, if you see untried possibilities in the material before you, then you may find yourself questioning what other people take for granted. You may never feel that you “fit in.” Now, fitting in is not the most important thing in the world, but outsiderness takes courage and some sacrifice. You grow used to seeing things differently and verging, moment by moment, on offending others, hurting their feelings, and losing your place among them. (This sense of outsiderness is especially acute in a culture of group thinking and group “likes.”)

Moreover, a creative life takes time and work. You don’t just go around bubbling with ideas; you have to sit down and pull them off. This means setting aside blocks of time–time that could be spent with others, or at work, or in relaxation. If you have a job on top of that, and a family, you may end up with no time for pastimes and insufficient time for anything else. You may be continually torn between necessary things.

In addition, such a life has disappointments. One has ideas that don’t pan out or that, when brought to completion, are not as brilliant as they seemed. One comes to see flaws in one’s own work; very little of it ultimately seems good, even if others praise it. (In addition, good work often goes unrecognized.)

Now, many people involved in creative work (including myself) have accepted the demands and letdowns of such a life. They would not give it up permanently for anything (almost). I say “almost” because generalizations of this kind tend to prove false at some point.

That leads to the first question: why don’t people want to allow creativity its idiosyncrasy? In each person it takes a different form, and each person practices it in a different way. There are certainly good habits (such as regular practice), and conditions that can make those habits fruitful. But where one person may work best in a dim light, with no sound, another may prefer brightness and music in the room. One may work regularly, in the mornings; another may snatch time whenever it comes. Moreover, there are probably as many kinds of creativity as there are personalities; the creation of a sonnet is profoundly different from the creation of an advertisement, even though both work within constraints of time and space.

Thus I was puzzled last month to see a New York Times article suggesting that the buzz of a cafe can boost creativity. It cites a study in which subjects brainstormed product ideas with varying levels of background noise. Now, why would anyone equate “brainstorming” (especially of ideas for products) with creativity overall? Certain kinds of ideas may come more easily when there is a background hum–but that does not apply to all ideas, nor is idea generation the whole of creativity. Some writers spend part of their writing time in a cafe, among others, and part of it alone. Some prefer to spend all of their writing time alone (but take in conversations and sounds when out on a walk).

Granted, one can learn interesting things from such studies, if one puts them in proper perspective. Annie Murphy Paul cites and discusses a study (originally published in Creativity Research Journal) suggesting that those who show creativity are marked (in the interpretation of cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman) by “a tolerance for ambiguity, complexity, engagement, openness to experience, and self-expression.” Paul speculates that these qualities may account for the “flaky artist” stereotype. An artist (or other seriously creative person) may be inherently “flaky” in that he or she works flexibly with a range of possibilities and projects.

Yes, I can see how that could be so. But an artist also needs a counterbalance to the flakiness in order to do anything well. The proportion of spontaneity and discipline will vary from person to person and from field to field. Some focus intensely on one project or idea at a time (but may toy with thousands of possibilities within it). Others may test out divergent projects until one takes hold. Some may stick to one medium throughout their lives; others may experiment wildly. Some may work assiduously on a project (and not touch any others) until it is complete; others may prefer to move back and forth between projects.

Where do creative ideas come from? Recently I wrote an essay about how a good curriculum can stimulate creativity by combining and juxtaposing works and ideas in interesting ways. I emphasized, though, that such a curriculum does not “produce” creativity (such as the student’s piece cited in the article), nor does creative work “result” directly from it. Creativity does not lend itself to mass production.

It’s difficult not to be intrigued by creativity. (I wouldn’t be reading articles about creativity if I were uninterested in the subject.) Many of us many have a speck of Dr. Faustus in us; we may want a secular devil, unaffiliated with hell, to sell us creative brilliance. or at least a sliver of it, in appealing wrapping. It would be a tantalizing offer. (This may explain why people don’t allow creativity its idiosyncrasy: they may hope to acquire it somehow.) There may even be something in such an offer–a helpful suggestion or insight, for instance. Artists (and other “creative” people) have a great deal in common–temperament, habits, interests, even pain–and can offer each other advice and understanding. Beyond these shared attributes, though, their distinctive trait is their ability, even when learning from others, to find their own way.

Note: I revised this piece (for flow and clarity) after posting it.

Crossing the Threshold

In honor of the end of the school year, here is a picture of the shadow of my cat Aengus, who has started to contemplate emerging from the den.

Here, also, is a link to my most recent article, “Curriculum: A Springboard to Creativity” (The Core Knowledge Blog, June 20, 2013). In it I discuss a piece by one of my students. Well worth reading for the latter alone!

To top it off, here is a photo of the Philosophy Roundtable held by fifteen of my students on June 5.

I will post a new piece here soon.

aengus shadow