living in truth, Uncategorized, urban sketching

Wandering through older sketches to make sense of the present

Blog post writing has taken a bit of a backseat lately.  Preparation for classes could be one excuse, but it wouldn’t be true. I guess it’s because I’ve been doing more thinking than drawing in this age of discontinuity.  The recent blast of winter in this area complete with snow and ice this year sadly has been too much for the many blossoms and flowers that proliferated here during an unseasonably warm February. Even the geese on a nearby lake are a bit confused by the eccentric weather.

This sort of disorientation (yes, that exhibited by the geese–as in “where are we?”) has been mirrored by the befuddlement of many people around the world at the jarring reports of current political events, especially domestically–more on that below.  Just as the early blossoms thought that the Spring in February was real, we humans are confused as to the political climate we are living through….

Looking back to look forward sometimes is useful, as paging through older sketchbooks can remind one.  While looking ahead to a forthcoming exhibition of my watercolors and sketches, I came across a few of my sketches from the past:

dupont circle

Illustration: Watercolor sketch, “Dupont Circle,” by Black Elephant Blog author (2016)

Lately, with the sun briefly peering out again, there are more inspiring palettes to explore in the near future…


Illustration: Watercolor sketch by Black Elephant Blog author (2016)

On the geopolitical level of human affairs, the emerging palette is more complicated–even “complex”– a crucial distinction not yet as appreciated as it could be, though “complexity”–as in complex systems–is something we spend a lot of time on in the university graduate class I teach.  Making sense of complex problems is a necessary starting point to resolving them–and is too often a (very intellectually-demanding and time-consuming) step skipped over, as we have recently seen an example of in the healthcare arena.

Similarly understanding this moment in our collective human history requires us to draw from the experience “palettes” of a wide variety of people in order to understand our true options going forward.  I would include in this “experience palette” respected contemporary professors of history, such as Dr. Timothy Snyder–whom I had the privilege of hearing speak in person at a local bookstore recently.  People doing fresh thinking about economics also have an essential role

Rodin The Thinker

Illustraton: Watercolor, “”The Thinker’ at the Entrance to Rodin Museum, Philadelphia, PA” (2017) by Black Elephant Blog author

to play in the efforts to apply different palettes to our common future.  And a look back to the founders and founding documents of this American nation would also be essential, as I just did a week ago by wandering through the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia again.

It’s true, at least for me, that once you become accustomed to painting–and more vitally, living and making choices– in ‘plein air,’ it’s harder to settle for bleak cold days–whether due to the weather or the political climate.

We can call up sketches of the past to help us make sense of the present.   Are the things which divide us still more important than taking stock in a clear-eyed way of what actually has happened and what pathways forward lie ahead?  These processes are sometimes known as “scenario practice,” “forward reasoning,” and simply “foresight”–also processes we focus on in class. There is no end to the usefulness of learning we can gain from those who have studied the past, I’ve concluded.   As Professor Timothy Snyder tells us in his work linking the history of Eastern Europe to our present, the choice is (still) ours to make.



Perspectives on Parks

Adorned with blossoms of all kinds, Washington, D.C.’s beauty is especially noticeable inside and around its many parks at this time of year.  Fortunately, it’s possible to find reminders of the pioneers who had the foresight to make such beautiful parks possible.  One of them is a monument to Andrew Jackson Downing. Who?  It turns out he was pretty much a celebrity in the emergent landscaping and horticultural profession in the U.S. in the first half of the 19th century.  He was attuned to developing an American style that borrowed from, but was not simply a copy of, European tastes at the time.

Downing Memorial Wide View

Illustration: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

While still a young man, Andrew Jackson Downing–a landscape architect and botanist–had a huge influence (though his design proposals for Washington were not adopted in the end–one learns upon reading more about about him) on the parks of Washington, D.C. as well as on the plans for Central Park in New York, his home state.  A memorial urn in his name can be found in the gardens behind the red-brick Smithsonian Castle across the street from the U.S. Department of Energy.  It was moved to this location from New York State in 1856, a few years after his accidental death before the age of 40.   An inscription (from Downing’s Rural Essays) on the urn reads:

“The taste of an individual, as well as that of a nation, will be in direct proportion to the profound sensibility with which he perceives the beautiful in natural scenery. Open wide, therefore, the doors of your libraries and picture galleries all ye true republicans! Build halls where knowledge shall be freely diffused among men, and not shut up within the narrow walls of narrower institutions. Plant spacious parks in your cities, and unclose their gates as wide as the gates of morning to the whole people.”

Just as relevant today as it was in the mid-19th century!


Surprising Creatures

It wasn’t until I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, The Black Swan, that my naturalist sensibilities became attuned to proliferating species of surprise. They are everywhere! As the years tick by, I have come to think that understanding the origins of surprise are fundamental to solving the greatest challenges of our times–including those so-called “black elephants!” (This is the main reason I am devoting a whole blog to the subject.)

How we learn, create, and share knowledge…how innovations occur…what role collaboration and teamwork play in fomenting breakthrough thinking…how the subconscious mind works with our conscious selves…how sparks of serendipity ignite new possibilities… All such themes and more belong in an examination of the “black elephants” of our times. But why am I talking about black elephants when I started with “black swans?” Clearly our taxonomy for surprising creatures needs attention. So let’s get started!

Before all these metaphors entered our lexicon, most of us were familiar with the thought cloud images from cartoons, showing a bright lightbulb over someone’s head! The lightbulb signified a new idea!!! Archimedes in the bathtub shouting “Eureka”…that’s another visual image of surprise.


Image: Google Images

But in recent years, particularly since the Financial Crisis of 2008, we’ve seen a stampede of elephants and hippos, flights of swans and hummingbirds, and pots of boiling frogs cross our fields of vision. What in the world is going on? Are we more prone to be surprised these days? Surprising creatures are helping us to make sense of these developments: let’s begin with the “black swan.”

The Black Swan…

Unless you live in Australia, black swans are rare and, according to Taleb, in most of the world–before the discovery of Australia–the absence of black swans led to an unexamined assumption that all swans are white. Such unexamined assumptions are typical to all of us: having a cognitive framework, or mental map of how the world works, enables us to function. The downside (one of many) to how we go about making sense of things normally is that our knowledge is limited by what we have observed or experienced. The size of our ‘sample set’–or real-world experiences–influences our concepts of reality and possibilities for the future.

Taleb tells us that his metaphor for a “black swan” event comprises three attributes:

  • It is an “outlier” in the sense that it “lies outside the realm of regular expectations.” Nothing in our experience has prepared us for this possibility.
  • It carries an extreme impact.
  • It was “predictable” but only in hindsight! (Taleb says, our human nature persuades us, after experiencing an outlying event with an extreme impact, that it was predictable.)

In Taleb’s view, the way our human brain is wired makes what we don’t know more important than what we do know:

“Black Swans can be caused and exacerbated by their being unexpected,” he writes.

Our concept of what is “normal” tends to rule out outliers and uncertainty.  But, more and more, what we’re learning, from the “law of large numbers” and other principles of improbability, is that what seems normal often is not!  So, how do we manage in a world of surprising creatures like the black swan? It turns out that rare events are behind most breakthroughs in human history…so understanding how we get locked into assumptions, and when we need to unlock our assumptions, seems critically important not only to business success but perhaps survival in all its meanings.

Coming up: I’ll look at what Steven Johnson, the author of so many great books on where good ideas come from, says about the “hummingbird effect” in his new book, How We Got To Now. Why does it matter to know how we got to now?