oil painting, Risk, Uncategorized

Oil Painting Canadian Geese in Times of U.S. Turmoil

When one is accustomed to watercolor painting, experimenting with oil paints is initially frustrating.  There are a lot of differences and one is that it’s a whole lot messier. There must be a method to your madness too, or the colors will quickly become muddy from careless mixing and intermingling of brushes.  I set myself up with some Gamblin oil paints, which came with a handy 6″ x 12″ wooden panel.  I used this panel as my first surface (seen below). It’s easy to see how (and why) one could spend a lifetime trying to master this. As with watercolor, however, there is a difference between somewhat heavy-handed applications of paint, and a lighter hand.  It’s all going to require a lot more experimenting…


Illustration: “Canadian Geese on a Fountain”, Oil on 6″ x12″ panel by Black Elephant Blog author (2017)

As to this image, it sprang to mind when I faced off with the blank wooden panel. While out taking a walk recently, I noticed that a nearby fountain is currently undergoing maintenance and our ubiquitous Canadian geese were resting on it in the middle of the lake.  This became my subject.  But remembering what Canadian geese look like proved harder than it should be–given that there are so many in this area that groups of them waddle through parking lots in search of food.  So I went out and looked at them again!


Illustration:  Trying to make the Canadian geese more realistic!

A “touch up” later and the whole thing got still more complicated; (maybe this is like revising an already unacceptable healthcare bill).  When I start over next time,  I will try to stick with simple shapes, and see what happens.  Anyway, this is welcome distraction from the just-announced “healthcare” bill which, if passed, will cause immense damage to this country, apparently intentionally so!

A brief break from the easel to check the news online… and what do I see?   Video clips of U.S. Capitol Police trying to carry elderly and apparently disabled people out of the halls of the U.S. Capitol…   This is not very positive imagery for the erstwhile “leader of the free world” clearly.   Evidently these people had gathered there at considerable personal effort, in wheelchairs and on canes, to protest the secretly cobbled-together “healthcare” bill that will throw all of them out onto the street.  Here they were being picked up off the floor to be carried out to the street…how symbolic of the new government approach to people in need.  These are exactly the type of people who will be harmed the most if this bill passes, as major insurances companies warned again just today:  The proposed bill will most hurt “74 million low-income, disabled and elderly Americans whose health care coverage through Medicaid” depends on Congress’s next moves.  Right now, their obvious preferred option is to make the rich richer, and let the less fortunate fall through the widening cracks, come what may…  What kind of policy-maker thinks this way?

Ironic that Canadian geese must have determined this is a better place to live when, at least for American people (except for the famous “1 %”), it will become much more difficult in the U.S. in the years ahead. That is, unless we suddenly see an outbreak of forward-thinking readiness to consider the public good  among the people’s elected representatives–thinking that is not much in evidence, tragically.   They cannot connect the dots between the public good and national and global security, obviously.

As I turn back to the easel, I think about what I just saw:  U.S. Senators are embracing a bill that the U.S. President has described as “mean” even as he urges them to pass it without delay. It’s not making America great apparently that is the goal, but making America “mean”?  How could this sort of thinking possibly prepare this great nation for the unprecedented challenges rushing headlong at us, irrespective of our political leanings, in the years just ahead?  Clearly making sense of the news is harder than painting in oils.  I’ll stick with the task at hand…for now.

Innovation, Risk, Uncategorized

View from a Schoolhouse Window

Things have been quiet(er) on this blog as the new school semester gets underway, and snow and icy conditions have made our class schedule slip and slide a bit. But in that class, despite a delayed start, we are putting our best foot forward on some challenging subjects.

Illustration:  Watercolor and bistre ink wash, "View from a Schoolhouse Window" by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and bistre ink wash, “View from a Schoolhouse Window” by Black Elephant Blog author

In addition, “feeding the beast” (more on that soon) tends to get in the way of efforts to sustain a creative environment (the promised look at obstacles to creativity is therefore still pending). On top of this, learning how to do portraits in watercolor (a very high bar to cross) is taking up considerable time and effort these days; getting those skin tones just right, and learning what to leave in and what to leave out is super difficult.  But our teacher is inspiring, to say the least, and some colleagues in class are taking this course for the third time!  I myself am in it for the second time. It makes sense, though, that capturing the reality of the human spirit with a few dabs of cadmium red and yellow (with some yellow ochre for good measure) and raw sienna, and perhaps some cerulean blue for the shadows,  would not (and should not) be easy.

Surprise, Uncategorized

Room with a View

With nearly all the people in this area still inside their houses after the snowstorm of the past 36 hours, a cardinal took a peek into the window today.

Illustration:  Watercolor and pen and ink (Kuretake fine point black marker) by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink (Kuretake fine point black marker) on Arches Cold Press 140 1b watercolor paper by Black Elephant Blog author

Sunlight lit up the scene outside, creating dramatic shadow shapes on the snow, a real challenge to paint.

After a while, it was time to take a walk outside in this wonderland, following a small path stamped down by others who passed this way earlier. Next on this blog, a look at why  about one inch of snow that fell last Wednesday caused relatively more havoc in this area of about six million people than nearly 30 inches that fell yesterday. It turns out that, like snow blindness, “paradigm blindness” can affect our ability to see, and prepare for, what’s right in front of us.  This is related to material we will commence teaching in the university semester which begins this week, so it is good for me to review it.

After the snow 1

Illustration: Watercolor sketch on Arches Cold Press 140 lb watercolor paper by Black Elephant Blog author




Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Drawing the Light

Illustration:  Pastel pencil and white charcoal by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Pastel pencil and white charcoal by Black Elephant Blog author

During a recent art class, the teacher encouraged the students to “draw the light.” With black sheets of paper and a few xeroxed black and white images fished out of a pile to serve as models, we tried seeing the opposite of what we have been trained to expect. Instead of trying to represent the external reality of someone or something in terms of its casing or flesh and bones, we were to draw the light reflected from the surfaces. This was a fascinating exercise for those of us who hadn’t tried it before.

In drawing the light, at least for the first time, you can almost feel a different part of your brain working, and see an image emerge on paper that you know you didn’t draw in a standard way.  Out of total blackness and emptiness emerges a figure, an expression, and new possibilities previously unimagined.

While many an effort doesn’t work out exactly as originally hoped, sometimes the outcome is surprising simply because we didn’t expect it.  Drawing in search of such surprises seems to have parallels in methods for thinking strategically. If we applied similar counterintuitive reasoning strategies to some of the world’s greatest problems–drawing the light instead of (or at least in addition to) reacting always to the darkness we can see more readily–what could be the result? How much of what happens is driven by our expectations, as low as they might be for some issues?

Art can help reset the mind to realize that by learning to see differently we can open up different possibilities. Indeed, could persisting in traditional ways of seeing actually be dangerous in  a world so obviously transformed and transforming by the hour, if not the minute? Might we more inevitably face more dangerous surprises by persisting in unproductive ways of thinking (or working, or organizing, measuring, or valuing)?  Alternatively, by embracing more surprising thinking ourselves, might there be a way to gain strategic advantage?  Isn’t this already recognized in business as identifying ‘niche’ opportunities or fostering innovation?  In any case, by trying to draw an image again and again, it is possible to see how much went unseen before.

Image: Poster of child's drawing displayed on the Paseo de la Reforma, Chapultepec, Park, Mexico City

Image: Poster of child’s drawing displayed on the Paseo de la Reforma, Chapultepec Park, Mexico City as part of program focused on preserving the Lacandon Jungle

It seems that artists, including children, have much to teach us about different ways of seeing the modern world.  Without fully exploring these “adjacent possible” spaces, to use the phrase coined by Stephen Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From, how many opportunities do we miss?  The recent lesson in drawing the light was a powerful reminder of how much innate capacity remains untapped in most traditional approaches to challenges!


Creating the Future

Painter 4

Illustration: Graphite crayon and pencil by Black Elephant Blog author

My new class on “Climate Change and Security”–which I am co-teaching this Spring at a local university–has proceeded with supersonic speed due primarily to the students in it.  In one week’s time, they have demonstrated impressive capacities for agile thinking and reframing new concepts.  This is a good thing as, whatever your optics on the world, surely it’s clear that seizing and shaping the future(s) we face requires all kinds of agility today.  Our course alone requires us to move across disciplines as diverse as geology, biodiversity, land management policies, and international law.  (Due to the diversity of knowledge required for this topic–a diversity exceeding most people’s cognitive capacity–we always are on the lookout for guest speakers!)

At the outset, our class covers the science of environmental changes right down to the molecular level, and then–in a way that could be dizzying to some–moves rapidly into broad subjects related to concepts of national, global, and human security.   We zoom in close on a careful consideration of the chemistry and geophysical interaction of the biosphere and then, often in the same class session, zoom right out into the worlds created by man. Together we examine the evolution of international security studies and quickly weave in newer work on global risks, resilience, and broader notions of security.   This year, the World Economic Forum’s report, Global Risks 2014, is featured early in the reading assignments.

Looking at the larger context of global risks helps us see  right from the get-go that environmental security issues have much in common with–and are interconnected to–other global risks and challenges. Having people from around the world in the class always makes for richer discussions!  The discussions this past week have stuck in my mind, so perhaps jotting down a few notes here will make some ideas easily recoverable for later projects, links, posts, and so forth…

While this blog left off with a post last week on the notion of serial innovators (and their innate capacities for valuing the “whole”, including the whole team, the whole organization, etc.), the discussions in our brand-new class last week were a powerful reminder of the importance of cooperative (and iterative, “nonlinear”) sense-making abilities across disciplinary, national, and even generational boundaries.  Serial collaboration skills are coming into vogue, involving the abilities to rapidly form teams and networks able to leverage geographically dispersed expertise, technologies, and data. There is simply too much to know, or wonder about, for one individual, organization or even a single nation! In so many ways, our responses, organizationally, may need to mimic the nature of the challenges:  interdependent, diverse, flexible, and combining a bifocal capacity for short-term and long-term sensibilities.  “Progressive” lenses, that’s what we need! 🙂

So far the class has discussed how “security,” the concept, means different things to different people, primarily due to diverse contexts and values.  We had a presentation from one student based on the assigned readings, which highlighted that concepts of security are linked to given values, such as job security, cyber security, and national security.  The bottom line, as he saw it, is that the definition of security relies entirely on the environment in which it is presented.  Students’ short papers also emphasized, based on assigned readings, that prevailing views of security are out of step with emerging realities.  One suggested that a main challenge today is “our inability to change our way of thinking and reform institutions at a pace fast enough to deal with reality.”

Students have identified that a strictly state-centric perspective in security discourse can be a limiting factor, in the context of environmental security issues, and needs to change.  The concept of human security, already 20 years in the making, may offer a way to “shift to people and societies in discussions and discourses on security,” wrote one student.  This shift will be crucial to designing appropriate responses to the emerging challenges related to climate change.  In many ways, dealing with environmental security challenges requires “a longer-term, more complicated, and integrated response,” said a student.

Up to now, security studies have emphasized external threats to states and so, as some of the experts whose work we are consulting in the class, such as Simon Dalby of the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Ontario, Canada, the very concept of security sometimes may be a detriment to providing it.  One student pointed out that security generally implies protection of the status quo and against change.

The students are grappling with the conflicting conclusions of the IPCC assessment reports regarding the link between climate change and security.  They also are reading about the fact that climate change threatens to “exacerbate existing socio-economic inequalities on an international scale” as, according to one student’s paper, “the poorest populations are simultaneously the most vulnerable and least able to adapt to climate-induced impacts.”

Among the remarks made in the discussion were that effective responses require international cooperation, not rivalry. Participants in the class wondered whether this “security” challenge is like other global threats, such as the Ebola crisis, where required responses involve more than the military.  In addition, the discussion surfaced issues of risk assessment and perception, communication strategies, and public engagement.  Clearly it is going to be a busy semester! I am glad I just have one class! 🙂

Risk, Surprise

Boiling Frog Syndrome

Image:  Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

We come now to the metaphor of the “boiling frog syndrome” which has many metaphorical cousins, such as an “ostrich with its head in the sand.”  This metaphor refers to the notion (apparently untrue according to biologists who have tested it) that a frog will not jump out of gradually heating up water–and, sadly, dies.  (In reality, the experts say, if the frog can jump out it will.)  This expression is used to warn of our built-in tendencies to ignore or dismiss changes that are so gradual (or long-term, or complex, or multi-faceted) as to be nearly invisible or even incomprehensible.  As specialization drives experts, analysts, and planners into focusing on ever-narrower slices of knowledge, the thought goes, they lose an ability to see the whole.

Whatever our daily preoccupation, this fragmentation of our attention affects us all, in sometimes unnoticed ways, leading me to wonder if we might all have a bit of boiling frog syndrome.  If so, what do we do to counter it?  Who are those who manage to overcome this syndrome, how do they do it, and are we able to hear them?

As someone who has been spending a lot of time in the gym lately (to get ready for those New Year’s resolutions!), it is impossible to miss the many HDTV screens propped up overhead.  They beam down at all, apparently selected to represent a spectrum of political and entertainment tastes.  Seemingly, there ought to be something for everyone, as no less than twelve different channels are simultaneously broadcasting literally in our faces.

Those who want to can tune in to the channel of their choice, wearing headphones connected to the fitness machine they’re on to hear their chosen flavor of the news. While people pump their legs on this or that machine, with water bottles propped up on the machines, towels cast to the floor, and iPods attached to their spandex belts, horrific images of violence in cities and countries around the world flash up in front of us–simultaneously.  When I leave the gym, I feel refreshed usually from exercising but usually have a vague sense of unease from having just been enveloped by oversized TV screens purporting to tell me something.

Bursts of “news” with next-to-no context tell us little, despite the inordinate amount of time devoted by each channel to endlessly rehashing details of the day’s top headlines.  Although these stories are immensely important, it is difficult to hear about them in dueling soundbites, so I generally try to ignore them altogether while at the gym.

The interconnections and deeper underlying causes or trends are rarely examined, of course, in the “news” because they are not news.  Such phenomena develop slowly over time, like gradually heating water.  Occasionally a tipping point of some sort or other is reached:  a catastrophe occurs that focuses our attention…but only for the time it takes before another sudden eruption captures the news.  Beneath the surface so much else is going on…but it is difficult to make sense of it, and thus it doesn’t ever make the news.

Some recent works (such as here  and here)  suggest that we are applying the wrong models (and thus harbor ill-founded expectations about risks) to trying to understand the complex (increasingly interconnected and interdependent) systems that make up global society today.  Mankind’s very successes in developing more efficient supply chains, transportation systems, and ICT are creating new vulnerabilities, or “systemic risks,” which we generally are poorly equipped to detect, let alone understand.  These risks represent “highways for failure propagation” which can ultimately result in “man-made disasters,” say the authors.  Highly interconnected systems, such as the financial system, or food and energy markets, are complex systems that are difficult to predict and control.  If there is a mismatch of expectations, it might be difficult-to-impossible to see these risks in time–leading in turn to the “surprises” or “abrupt changes” that are the focus of this blog.  Would such risks be like the “boiling frog”  or a “black elephant?”  It seems that this may be a fitting point at which to consider what the originator of the “black elephant” concept intended…coming up in a future post!