Saturday, June 16, 2007

IDEAS BUILD ON IDEAS: THE MOVIES II

Although I was born in Singapore, I actually grew up in a small town, known as Yong Peng, located in the state of Johor, Malaysia. My late father, a dealer in tools & equipment for rubber plantations, as well as a trader in natural rubber, had brought the family into Malaysia to set up a new home.

Throughout the fifties & the early sixties, Yong Peng, ironically as its name means ‘Peace Forever’, was a real hotbed of communist insurgents.

Skirmishes in the nearby jungles as well as irregular stretches of curfews were part & parcel of prevailing daily affairs, & worst of all, I had to queue up weekly to get the family’s ration of rice. The town (frankly, it was classified as a village during those days) was regularly patrolled by British soldiers, as well as Home Guards formed by local residents. My late third elder brother was a member of the Home Guards.

Nevertheless, I still enjoyed my childhood & teenaged days in Yong Peng. I had studied there, before moving to Kuala Lumpur in the mid-sixties to join a technical institute.

During those days, I had spent most of my spare time catching & playing with spiders, listening to radio broadcasts as well as songs & music from vinyl records, & best of all, going to the movie theatre with my brothers.

I remember vividly the first Japanese movie I had watched was actually famed director, Akira Kurosawa's ‘Seven Samurai’ (Shichinin No Samurai). It was a black & white movie, which lasted some three hours. I was completely mesmerised by the fancy Japanese swordplay, as well as the attendant samurai codes & traditions of duty & honour, as depicted in the movie.

[In later years of the sixties, I invariably got glued to the black & white, dubbed-in-English TV series, 'The Samurai', which chronicled the adventures of Shintaro, the samurai, & his trusted companion, Tombei, a Iga ninja in 18th century Japan. They often battled the enemies of the Shogun & the dread black-dressed Koga ninjas. Then, came the dubbed-in-Mandarin 'Blind Swordsman' movies from Japan, followed by a series of dubbed-in-Mandarin action movies, also from Japan, & starring Akira Kobayashi, who often played the lone-wolf hero. His movies always ended with the heroine waiting silently, while he disappeared into the sunset.]

The simple story plot went like this: A small farming village, regularly tormented by marauding bandits, finally sought out seven out-of-work samurais (actually wandering ronins, to be precise) to protect them. The setting was the 1600s.

The principal actor was the legendary Toshiro Mifune. Although he was often considered the star, for me it was Takashi Shimura, who was firmly anchored at the core of the movie. He was the undisputed leader of the ragtag group, from the beginning when he accepted the villagers’ request for help. Mifune's character could be quite annoying at first because of his loutish behavior, but he gained respect throughout the movie & eventually became a unifying force second only to Shimura.

For me, I reckon the climactic battle, filmed in a torrent of rain, with the raiding bandits, remains today as one of the most breathtaking - violent to some extent - sequences ever filmed. It was poetry in hyperactive motion, & represented one of Kurosawa's crowning cinematic achievements. True to his style, the famed director had beautifully weaved philosophy & entertainment, volatile human emotions & relentless action into a rich, evocative, & unforgettable tale of courage & hope.

A few years later, I got to watch ‘The Magnificent Seven’, starring Yul Brynner, backed by a star-laden cast. The movie was directed by John Sturges, famous for his westerns e.g. ‘Last Train from Gun Hill’, ‘Gunfight at OK Corral’.

To my great surprise after watching it, I found that this movie had built its entire story on the earlier Japanese masterpiece.

In this Hollywood movie, samurais became cowboys. Swords became six shooters. One can easily argue that the codes & traditions of ancient Japan & the wild, wild west are not so very far apart.

Again, the simple story plot goes like this: Bandits terrorised a small Mexican village each year. The village elders delegated three of the farmers, who crossed the border with the United States, to hire seven gunfighters to repel the invaders once & for all.

The principal character was Chris, played by Yul Brynner, who was not known for acting in westerns. (Readers can certainly recall him as King Mongkut of Siam in the King & I, for which he won an Oscar for ‘Best Actor’.) The leader of the bandits was played by Eli Wallach, a very fine actor, whom readers may recall him as the ugly guy in ‘The Good, The Bad & The Ugly’, starring opposite Clint Eastwood.

I have always thought that the opening scene, with the hearse-ride taken up to Boot Hill, with Yul Brynner pulling the horses & Steve McQueen riding shotgun, set the stage & tone for the entire movie.

Yul Brynner, with his usual trademark of shaved head, & in his completely black outfit plus a thin cheroot in his mouth, was the cool & yet aplomb leader. He was a man of few words & often communicated by the mere gesture of the hand.

The other supporting characters were great, too.

Steve McQueen played Vin, “just drifting” & was the first to be signed on by Brynner. James Coburn was perfect, as Britt, who lived only for the thrill of the moment - & at the edge of his knife. Charles Bronson, as usual with his archetypal screen tough guy image & weather-beaten features, played the down & out lumberjack, O’Reilly, in need of a few dollars more. Brad Dexter played the unlucky fortune hunter, & Robert Vaughn, as Lee, seemed uncomfortable & lost. The last character was Horst Buchholz, a German actor, who played Chico. It was really fun watching him struggling for a chance to be man.

I also like the musical score, with its pounding staccato beat that has become one of the most recognized pieces of music ever created for movie.

There was something very magical about this film. This was different from every other Western that came before it. I believe it was the rapport of the seven gunfighters, & their motives for that one chance at gallantry & redemption. There were some memorable scenes, like Charles Bronson sharing life lessons with some young Mexican boys.

The ending scene following the battle was touching. After being shot, the bandit leader, Calvera, simply could not believe that the seven returned to save the village even after the villagers had rejected their help. "You came back. A man like you. Why?" asks Calvera as he died; Chris (Brynner) gave no answer.

In retrospect, I noted that the ‘Magnificent Seven’ had somehow brought personal & professional success to most of the actors:

- Yul Brynner reprised his role of Chris in the sequel, ‘Return of the Magnificent Seven’. I remember he played a gunfighter again in two sci-fi movies, ‘WestWorld’ &‘FutureWorld’;

- Steve McQueen went on to star in the ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ TV series, the original ‘Thomas Crown Affair’, as Lt Frank Bullit, opposite Robert Vaughn, as an ambitious politician in the Oscar-winning movie, ‘Bullit’, 'Nevada Smith’, ‘The Great Escape’ (featuring his famous leap over the barbed wire on a motorcycle while being pursued by German soldiers) & ‘The Hunter’ (in which he played real-life bounty hunter, Ralph 'Papa' Thorson);

- Charles Bronson acted in ‘The Dirty Dozen’, ‘The Great Escape’, ‘The Mechanic’, & ‘Death Wish I, II, III, IV & V’. As a matter of fact, - & what a coincidence – he even played a gunfighter opposite Toshiro Mifune, as a samurai, in the movie, ‘Red Sun’;

- Robert Vaughn played the charming & witty Napoleon Solo, Number I of Section I, in the successful ‘The Man from UNCLE’ TV series for many years, as well as its associated movies bearing the same title; [UNCLE is the acronym for 'United Network Command for Law-Enforcement'.]

- James Coburn starred as “the world greatest secret agent” – an expert in electronics & Dolphin speech - in ‘Our Man Flint’, & its sequel, ‘In Like Flint’. He also acted in the ‘The Great Escape’, with Steve McQueen & Charles Bronson;

- Horst Buchholz starred as a gambling club owner, caught unwittingly in a spy game, in ‘That Man in Istanbul’;

IDEAS BUILD ON IDEAS: THE MOVIES I

Besides the realm of science & technology, I have noted that the phenomenon of 'ideas build on ideas' has been most prevalent in the movies.

I just love watching movies, especially the action movies. I recall a rather old movie that I had watched when I was growing up in the sixties.

For me, the sixties was the true period of spy thrillers. The invincible Jame Bond started the ball rolling with 'Dr No' & 'From Russia with Love', followed by 'Goldfinger', 'Thunderball' & 'You Only Live Twice', starring Sean Connery, whom I have always considered to be the best of the Bond actors. Then, came Harry Palmer, played by Michael Caine, working reluctantly for British counter-intelligence, in three movies, 'The Ipcress File', 'Funeral in Berlin', & 'Billion Dollar Brain', based on Len Deighton's novels. As a spoof to James Bond, Tom Adams played Charles Vine, "the second best secret agent in the whole wide world" in the two movies, 'Licensed to Kill' & 'Where Bullet Fly'. Even Richard Burton had a role as a secret agent in the movie, 'The Spy Who Came in From the Cold', based on John le Carre's novel. These spy thrillers were produced mainly in UK.

From Hollywood, came 'Our Man Flint' (plus a sequel, 'In like Flint' - Readers may recall that he had a cigarette lighter that had more than forty uses!), starring James Coburn, as well as 'Secret Agent Matt Helms' (three sequels were made), starring Dean Martin. Then, came 'Secret Agent Super Dragon', played by Ray Danton.

Not to be intimidated, the Europeans, famous for their spaghetti westerns, popped out 'That Man in Istanbul', starring Horst Buchholz (Readers may recall him as the last & youngest member of the 'Magnificent Seven') & 'Our Man in Rio', starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, a French actor. There were also a series of different spy thriller movies, dubbed in English, with a host of secret agents bearing insignias like Copland FX-18 & OSS117. I had seen many of them, particularly those with Frederick Stafford & Kerwin Matthews in the lead roles.

On TV, there were 'Dangerman', 'The Baron' (with Steve Forrest as John Mannering, an antique dealer who was really an undercover agent), 'The Avengers', 'The Man from UNCLE', & 'Wild Wild West'.

There was this rather old movie, probably produced in Italy & dubbed in English, entitled 'Passport to Hell', starring Georgio Ardisson as Walter Ross, a CIA agent. Unlike 007, he held an insiginia of 3S3 (a designation meaning secret agent number 3 of the 3rd Special Division). Till today, I still don't know what that means, but I do know that the double 0 in 007 is a 'license to kill'.

All I can remember today is that Walter Ross was a pretty good fighter, as well as good looking, even better than Bond on both counts. Naturally, he also had all those cool super-duper gadgets to assist him. I certainly could remember the numerous action sequences, which were superbly cheorographed. One particular exciting scene had him struggling to get out of a small car, sandwiched precariously between two speeding freight trucks, which went all out to ram his vehicle. The movie was filmed in exotic locations like Vienna & Lebanon.

A couple of years later, I saw a Chinese movie, produced by Shaw Brothers, entitled 'Feng Liu Tie Han' (translated from Chinese: 'Flamboyant Big Fellow'), starring Paul Chang & the voluptuous Diana Chang (not related to each other.).

Incidentally, Diana Chang was better known to Chinese movie-goers as Zhang Zhongwen, a former Miss Hongkong & considered in Chinese movie circles as 'Planet Earth's Most Beautiful Animal'. In some way, I must say, she added spice as well as distraction to the movie.

What surprised me most about this Chinese movie is that it was actually an adaptation of 'Passport to Hell'. From start to finish, all the story ideas from the latter movie were replicated in this movie. Even the cool super-duper gadgets & action sequences!

Although the lead role was played by Paul Chang, I felt that he did not do very well as far as the action sequences & fighting scenes were concerned. He looked suave & flamboyant, but he was certainly no fighter, unlike Georgio Ardisson.

In retrospect, the movie title in Chinese (Cantonese to be more specific) was somewhat of a misnomer.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

TICKLE YOUR FUNNY BONE


AT THE ARMY CAMP:

Notice at the camp: Troops are warned not to drink any water which has not been passed by the Medical Officer.

At a medical examination, the Medical Officer remarked to the young National Service recruit: “Ah, yes! You’ve been circumcised.”
“No, Sir! Just fair wear & tear,” replied the giant lad.

Sergeant” “What was your occupation before entering the army?
National Service recruit: “Salesman, Sir!”
Sergeant: “Stick around, you’ll get plenty of orders here.”

A hoity-toity, second lieutenant was caught without proper change in front of a vending machine. Accordingly, he stopped a passing private & asked: “Got change for a dollar?”
“I think so,” said the private cheerfully, “Wait till I see.”
The lieutenant drew himself up stiffly & barked: “Private, that is not the way to address an officer. We’ll play this scene. Got change for a dollar?”
The private saluted smartly & said: “No, Sir.”

Sergeant: “What is the first thing to do when cleaning a rifle?”
Private: “Look at the number.”
Sergeant: “What has that to do with it?”
Private: “To make sure I’m cleaning my own gun.”

“It’s dropsy,” the Medical Officer explained to the retired general. “There’s too much water in your body.”
“Never touched a drop of the bloody stuff in my life,” the old soldier expostulated. Then, after a moment’s reflection, he added: “Must have been the blasted ice!”

IMPROVING YOUR MEMORY III

[continue from Part II. This is the final part.]

Managing Your Memory


This section presents twenty proven strategies & techniques for managing your memory. With these strategies & techniques, you can increase your ability to turn short-term memories into long-term. Naturally, it takes motivation & practice.

1. Be confident: People who think they have poor memories often do have poor memories because they lack the confidence to remember. They should think: “I can remember, & I will remember.” Avoid self-talk like “I can’t remember,” because your brain always listen to you. Say” “I have not yet remembered.”

2. Be interested: It helps a great deal in remembering things if you are interested in what you are planning to remember. It is difficult to learn anything in which you are not interested. According to Richard Saul Wurman, an expert in information design, before learning can take place, there must be interest.

3. Pay attention: My belief is that poor attention is the greatest problem in memory management. For information in your working memory to be absorbed into long-term memory, it will depend on how intensely you pay attention. For example, reading is more than just looking at words: you also need to think about what the words are saying. Learning is impossible when the attention is wandering. One problem identified with people who have difficulty is that it is often not their memory at fault, so much as their concentration. There is a decline in the ability to discern & retain information after 15 to 45 minutes of studying. Therefore, you should take five to ten minute breaks.

4. Understand: Learning something means understanding it. You cannot remember what you have never known. If you do not understand it, ask someone to explain it to you & then read through it again.

5. Personalise it & make it meaningful: Attention is automatically alerted by information that is personally relevant. Nearly any experience can be made relevant to you in some way. When you are studying, make the connections between the material & things, events, people, ideas, or goals that are of value to you. All meaning has to be personal. In a business setting, discover what dimension of the information relates to your immediate activities. Imagine a way in which it could apply to you in the present or the future.

6. Organise it: A good memory is like a well-organised filing system. Information stored in an organised way is rarely forgotten. Organising things into priorities is essential to remembering them. Before beginning the day or a project. Think through the sequence you will follow. Do things in order of priority, naturally, but if you have a task that is tedious, try to do that first. You will be less likely to forget projects that are more interesting.

7. Picture it: You should try to think of mental images connected to the thing you want to remember in order to strengthen the memory of it. The more you can visualise, the quicker you memory will improve. Visual images are some of the most powerful memory joggers. When you have expressed the ideas in words, you have put them into the left hemisphere of your brain. If you then create visual & sound images, you can get the material anchored in your right hemisphere as well.

8. Categorise it: For example, grocery lists can be remembered easily if you use product categories, such as “dairy”, “meats”, canned foods”.

9. Break it into small chunks: For example, if you have to remember a telephone number, break it into chunks. A number such as 65-65698723 can more readily be remembered as 65-6569-8723.

10. Make it into a rhyme: If you set what you are trying to remember to music or make it into a rhyme, you will remember it more easily. This is because music involves the right side of the brain, where emotions & feelings are located.

11. ‘Overlearn’ it: The more thoroughly something is learned, the longer it is remembered. Get into the habit of frequently revising material you have learned. Even when you think you have memorised a fact, go on repeating it for a little longer.

12. Review it: According to current research, when you review, you strengthen the connections & associations between the nerve cells in your brain. Since initial consolidation of information from short-term to long-term is thought to occur within ten minutes of the event, the first review should take place ten minutes after you have completed your study. Frequent reviews should be done after the study to make maximum use of consolidation.

13. Say it loud: The way to properly review is to use your vocal chords, & actually say out loud the material you want to remember. Studies have proven that using the vocal chords, stimulates your memory. Noise can interfere when you are retaining something short-term, so try to keep your environment quiet when you are learning something new.

14. Memorise it each day: The more you use your brain to retain information, the more you will be able to do it efficiently.

15. Always recite it: When given instructions or directions, recite aloud what has been said or written. This will help clarify the steps in your mind & you will be able to remember them better. One of the theories about why this works well is that the right hemisphere of the brain is used for visual memory & the left hemisphere for verbal memory. By looking at instructions & then repeating aloud, the whole brain is employed to remember.

16. Associate it: the key to successful memory is to establish a variety of memory triggers – mental & physical cues that let you pull out the correct information from memory. As you study, you actively create mental associations to help you recall the material. In a business setting, you are introduced to another person; make a mental “snapshot” of the person with the name. “Donald Tay” could be associated with “Donald Duck”. Repeating the name after someone gives it to you also helps, as does asking the person the origin of the name, if that is appropriate. Plan anything that works to “fix” the person’s name in your memory.

17. Sense it: It is through our senses that we gather information. When you are trying to memorise something, be conscious about how it smells, sounds & looks, where applicable.

18. Paint a story about it: Suppose you want to remember a shopping list of bread, eggs, flour & orange juice. The first thing you might do is picture a loaf of bread breaking open & eggs falling out into a flour bag on the floor. Then picture a pitcher of orange juice being poured into the flour bag. Each item is linked to the subsequent on via the ‘ridiculous’ image.

19. ‘Design a room’ for it: Suppose you wish to remember these errands: pick up clothes at the cleaners, take a registered letter to the post office, & stop for some bread. Picture your living room with clothes on the armchair, a letter on the coffee table & bread on the sofa. The same would work for a speech you want to deliver to a small business group. You can organise mentally your key ideas according to the furniture layout in your living room.

20. Support it: Memory support devices can be invaluable aids to a busy person. Some good supports include daily organisers 9e.g. to-do lists), appointment books, note cards, card files (e.g. to jot person’s information on business cards), contact management software (e.g. to keep information record on each account). The key to successful support is consistent, systematic use.

Last but not least, exercise regularly & find ways to unwind & relax. According to scientists, stress is the #1 enemy of good memory. For unwinding & relaxation, listen to calming music, do deep-breathing exercises & progressive relaxation, etc. For those who are extremely anxious about doing their best, it may help to simply not to try so hard!

IMPROVING YOUR MEMORY II

[continue from Part I]

Understanding Your Memory Modalities

There appears to be fundamental differences in the way different people perceive information. While we all pass information through the three memory stages as outlined earlier, there are differences in the type of information that the individual is most sensitive to, or tuned into. These differences have a significant impact on how we experience our world, remember it, & communicate these experiences to others.

Just as people differ in their preference or types of music or food, they differ in which sensory mode they prefer. Some people are most attentive to what they see; thus they remember visual information very well. Others readily retain what they hear, & some people best remember events, movements, or what they actual do.

My position is that sight, sound & the physical action we perceive by touch, which we call kinaesthetic, are primary types of memory, all potentially equal in clarity, impact & value. Most people use all three sensory modalities, but the relative effectiveness of the modes differs from person to person. Although some individuals consider themselves primarily visual, auditory or kinaesthetic, most people experience their stronger form of memory as a combination of two modes, such as visual-auditory, kinesthetic-visual, or auditory-kinesthetic.

When you attend a seminar, what memories do you bring back with you: the room setting that you saw, the food that you ate, the activities that you participated in, or the sounds & voices that you heard?

Once you are certain what your strongest memory modality is, you should always plan to direct information to it. For example, if you are strongly visual, you can express experiences & ideas visibly through sketches, drawings or written notes. If you are auditory, you can direct important information to your sense of hearing through talking or music.

Another way to sharpen your memory is to expand your learning experiences to involve senses beside your strongest one.

Experiencing information through an additional sense builds another “path” to help guide you to the information later. After experiencing something in one “channel”, use other senses to enrich that memory.

[to be continued in Part III]

IDEA MAPPING vs. MIND MAPPING: PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES II

[continue from Part I]

Undoubtedly, Tony Buzan should be credited for starting the ball rolling for mind-mapping in the late seventies/early eighties. He certainly took a brave stance on his own. Whether he originated the idea is still debatable, because I strongly believe that the clustering technique (as originally envisaged by Gabrielle Rico in her debut book, `Writing the Natural Way', in the early eighties) is the precursor to the mind-mapping technique.

I still own the original releases of two books written by Tony Buzan, in which he introduced mind-mapping during those days:

- Make the Most of Your Mind;

- Use Both Sides of Your Brain
;

Going back into these two books & comparing them with the ‘Mind Maps at Work’ book, I am very surprised to note that there are not much differences from the intellectual standpoint. Despite the fact that more than three decades had already transpired, there are no new enhancements for readers, except, may be readers now get to see mind-maps in colour.

Tony Buzan is still pursuing the dogmatic approach of putting every issue from a centralised position & viewing all the connected issues in a radially-outward perspective. Beyond this singular aspect, he doesn't have any new ideas to share with readers.

Sad to say, Tony Buzan is clearly running out of steam. All his new & subsequent books still follow doggedly the same old formula. In fact, most of his new books are often rehashed &/or mildly expanded from the foregoing two books. Some of his disciples e.g. Ingemar Svantesson, Jamie Nast, who have written similar books even follow the master's footsteps.

I am not saying mind-mapping is obsolete. It still works, but it has severe limitations in complex situations. In today's chaotic business world, not every issue can be centralised in perspective.

Even in the educational arena, mind-mapping has its fair share of problems in application.

Let me share with readers a true case in Singapore, as reported in the Straits Times, a local newspaper, a few years ago.

According to the then-principal of Raffles Girls' School, a top-ranked secondary school, the school invested heavily in getting students to learn & apply mind-mapping in their studies. Every teacher & student was very excited. Every student was proud of her colourful mind-maps. However, when the final exams came, all the girls just abandoned mind-mapping & went back to the old habit of note-making. To them, mind-mapping didn't work as expected.

My own analysis is this: you can only apply mind-mapping to some subjects in the academic curriculum, but not all. For example, fish-bone diagramming & time-lines (or transitive-order diagramming, an expanded variation) would be more effective for history lessons. A story grid would serve English Literature more effectively. Concept maps & V-diagramming would be more ideal for navigating science subjects.

Coming back to the ‘Mind Maps at Work’ book, I wish to say this: mind-mapping alone is not going to help you solve all your problems. The mind-maps just look good on paper in most instances. You need a smorgasbord of visual tools & graphic organisers at your disposal!

Just imagine you only have a screw driver in your tool-box.

For readers who are keen to explore beyond traditional mind-mapping, & to venture into the realm of true idea mapping, they should take a look at the following resources:

- 'Thinking Visually: Business Applications of Fourteen Core Diagrams', by Malcolm Craig;

- 'Rapid Problem Solving with Post-It Notes', by David Straker;

- 'The Power of 2 x 2 Matrix: Using 2 x 2 Thinking to Solve Business Problems', by Alex Lowly & Phil Hood;

- 'Visible Thinking: Unlocking Causal Mapping for Practical Business Results' by John Bryson;

- 'Beyond Words: A Guide to Drawing Out Ideas', by Milli Sonneman;

- 'The Marketer's Visual Toolkit', by Terry Richey;

In the realm of strategic planning, I reckon 'Reinventing Communication: A Guide to Using Visual Language for Planning' by Larry Raymond would be an excellent resource.

Even Nancy Margulies' mind-scapes as envisaged in her 'Mapping InnerSpace' &/or 'Visual Thinking: Tools for Mapping Ideas' can help you deliberately move away from Tony Buzan's standard mind mapping routines. In other words, you can start your idea from anywhere you like.

In fact, I would even venture further to recommend James Wandersee, Kathleen Fisher & David Moody’s wonderful book entitled Mapping Biology Knowledge’. Just judging from the title, this book is obviously written for the academic world, but the authors have very masterfully spun together an excellent exposition on knowledge mapping. The many visual tools, e.g. concept circle diagramming, in this book can readily expand your repertoire of visual tools for understanding & simplifying complexity in a knowledge-based economy.

For readers who just want a quick & broad understanding of visual thinking perspectives, I would recommend Robert Horn's 'Visual Language: Global Communication for the 21st Century.'

IDEA MAPPING vs. MIND MAPPING: PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES I

[Towards the end of the seventies, I had started to explore & apply the clustering technique as embodied in Gabrielle Rico’s ‘Writing the Natural Way’. In the mid-eighties or so, I had progressed to using ‘mind mapping’, which I had learned from Tony Buzan’s ‘Use Both Sides of Your Brain’. In the early nineties, I stumbled on to Nancy Margulies‘Mapping InnerSpace: Learning & Teaching Mind Mapping’, which introduced me to her free-form approach. She called her system, ‘mindscaping’.

Around the same time, I had read about another free form approach in Charles Thompson’s ‘What a Great Idea: The Key Steps Creative People Take’. He called his system, ‘idea mapping’.

To fuel my curiosity, I then embarked on a personal journey to explore all other available tools & processes, which include visual tools & graphic organisers for both educational as well as business applications.

Since then, I had also experimented with various available softwares, like the Axon Idea Processor, Inspiration, MindManager, MindMapper, Smart Draw, VisiMap, Visio, etc.]

Today, most people are familiar with ‘mind mapping’. What is ‘idea mapping’ then?

I would like to use my recent review of the following books on the amazon.com website as a springboard for deliberating further on the distinction of ‘ idea mapping’ from ‘mind mapping’:

1) ‘Idea Mapping: How to access Your Hidden Brain Power, Learn Faster, Remember More, & Achieve More in Business’, by Jamie Nast;

2) 'Mind Maps at Work: How to Be the Best at Your Job & Still have Time to Play', by Tony Buzan;

In the first instance, the whole title of the first book is very catchy.

After perusing it, I regret to point out that this book is just another 'how-to' mind-mapping book. Essentially, it's no different from what Tony Buzan, Joyce Wycoff, Michael Gelb, Lana Israel, & others had written earlier.

Except for one particular aspect in the book: The author has now incorporated the use of MindManager software to go with it.

Undoubtedly, from my personal experience, I find that MindManager can really expedite the mind-mapping process.

[With all the available third-party add-ons, MindManager is really a godsend!].

In some way, you can say that reading this book is like reading any of Tony Buzan's mind-mapping books, syntopically with the 'MindManager for Dummies' book!

In reality, I find that this book is not as ground-breaking as the publisher has claimed, & sad to say, it does not offer any new insights into idea generation at all.

I must add, however, for a beginner into techno-savvy mind-mapping, this book is still great stuff. I also want to compliment the author for listing out a series of 28 mind-mapping applications & suggested practice activities in the Idea Mapping Menu at the end pages!. For beginners, this is obviously a very good place to start.

My only adverse comment about ‘mind-mapping’ as envisioned by Tony Buzan & his staunch followers is that every topical idea must seemingly take a radial approach & commence from the centre. This book doggedly follows the same approach.

Nancy Margulies, in her debut book, ‘Mapping Innerspace, during the early eighties, took a radical departure from the standard Buzan routine. She created 'mind-scaping' - your topical idea can start from anywhere you like - which I thought is really great!.

To some extent, I feel 'Idea-mapping' as the book title is also quite a misnomer. With due respects, it is obvious to me that the author has a somewhat narrow perspective, arising from her only chosen exposure to the standard Buzan's ‘mind mapping’ routines & the MindManager software.

A truly 'idea-mapping' book should provide readers with a smorgasbord of options to go beyond traditional ‘mind mapping’ &/or just MindManager alone.

To illustrate a quick point, 'mind-scaping' routines appear exceptionally wonderful with SmartDraw Pro (with its abundant templates & clip-arts).

I would add that 'concept mapping' routines - with the topical idea starting from the super-ordinate level -, as postulated by Joseph Novak, & 'causal loop diagramming' routines - from the field of systems thinking -, are pieces of cake with 'Inspiration' software.

'Fish-bone diagramming' & 'flow-charting', which are other forms of idea-mapping, with either 'Inspiration' or 'SmartDraw Pro' softwares are some very good examples, too.

As a matter of fact, there are too numerous other software examples to cover here.

[For readers who are visual thinkers - with a high propensity towards conceptual modelling -, I would even suggest the AXON Idea Processor. It has an impressive 3-D modeling capability, with a 500-level depth migration. Incidentally, it's also a Singaporean thoroughbred!]

In the course of my strategy work, & sad to say, I have come across a lot of followers who are simply indoctrinated by the rigid mindsets of mind-mapping as envisioned by Tony Buzan.

I would like to share with readers the true power & value of ‘idea-mapping’:

An ‘idea-map’ is just a visual tool to jot down & organise ideas & then use it to generate insights, irrespective of whether they are captured from reading a book or just stretching your brain for a change. This is what I call the initial response.

Once, this map is drawn up - with or without software -, it's just an exploded-view (or map) of what you have just captured. Period! Most kids at primary school level can do it very well.

After the ‘idea map’ is done, you step back, take a helicopter view & reflect on it, by seeing the bigger & broader picture as well as from the systemic relationships between what has been written or drawn on the map. You can add to or may even subtract from the map.

In a real terms, a lot of thinking - as well as reflecting - on your part must go into this stage. Tactically, you also cross-pollinate from what you have read elsewhere as well as from your own &/or other peoples' experiences in connection with your reflections (or memory jogs!) from the ‘idea map’. This is what I call the reflective response.

Lastly, comes the final response, with which you readily integrate (or internalise) what you have done in the initial & reflective responses, into what you are thinking &/or planning to do. Here, a list of things to do is drawn up. The resultant outcome is what I call the assimilative response.

Using another lingo, this is your strategic model. This is where the actual value of an ‘idea map’ is primarily located! Not in the beautiful map - with or without software - you have drawn in the first place! (Regrettably, I often notice that a lot of Buzan followers simply love to spend time & effort in beautifying their mind-maps! This is really crazy!)

I love to call this end-point process the 'water logic' of idea generation, to borrow a phrase from Edward de bono.

The true value or ROI of an idea-map is WHERE IT LEADS YOU TO.

Of course, having a beautifully drawn or crafted idea-map is good for the ego - looking good, but going nowhere!

Just as I have said earlier, this book has really great stuff for the beginner into techno-savvy mind-mapping. But, please don't just stop here because life as well as business issues are never centralised. So, keep exploring! The world is full of possibilities!

In summing up, I wish to point out that the author, regrettably with all her good intentions, did not focus on the true power & value of idea-mapping in this book.

[to be continued in Part II]

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

IDEAS BUILD ON IDEAS: SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

Ever since I started my own strategy consulting business in the early nineties, I have always been fascinated by the concept of ‘ideas build on ideas’.

I even own a framed poster print from The Executive Gallery Collection, which bears the inscription ‘Ideas Build on Ideas’ with a picture of Leonardo da vinci, on the wall of my home office as a constant reminder.

What do you mean by ‘ideas build on ideas’?

Now picture a scene - a huge dam straddled across a river with its surroundings of nature. At the downstream, imagine two small animals, a beaver & a mouse deer, talking to each other. Pointing its left paw at the dam, the beaver says to the mouse deer: “Well, I didn’t build it, but it was based on my idea!”

Get it, now?

I reckon the concept reinforces the observation made in the 14th century Book of Ecclesiastes: “There is no new thing under the sun.”

Let’s fast forward to the modern networked world of business.

Today, no professional or businessman can function without the cell phone. In reality, I can safely say this: Today, no one can thrive without this handy device. Just ask any young student in Singapore!

We must really thank Alexander Graham Bell for his invaluable contribution to man’s progress. [He was well known for his intense intellectual curiosity. In fact, he would explore the realm of communications as well as engage in a great variety of scientific activities involving kites & other stuff.]

I read that Bell’s telephone invention was inspired by his understanding of acoustics as well as his work with deaf children, during which he struggled to develop a “visible speech’ process to help them overcome their handicap.

If we go back into history, we can realise that the early cavemen communicated via smoked signals. Then, as time went by, they communicated via drum beats, followed by intermittent riders on horse relays between settlements. [Remember the movie, The Postman, starring Kevin Costner.] Finally, we had the telegraph with its dot & dash morse codes – which had been an established means of communication for some three decades.

In fact, Bell’s telephone invention, particularly the diaphragm, contributed to the wonderful phonograph & motion picture apparatus, which were the inventions of Thomas Edison. Without these marvellous inventions arising from Edison’s building on other people’s ideas, for which he was well known, Hollywood would not have existed today.

I had read from somewhere that Bell's invention had also revealed the principle upon which today's laser & fiber optics communication systems are founded.

Interestingly, some wise guy had put a scanner, a printer & a telephone together, & what did we get? The facsimile or fax machine, of course!

[ Several years earlier, Samuel Morse had invented the first successful telegraph machine, and the fax machine closely evolved from the technology of the telegraph. The earlier telegraph machine sent dots & dashes over telegraph wires that was decoded into a text message at a remote location.]

Today, probably unique to only Singaporeans, a true professional or a successful businessman is often characterised by acquisition of the 5 c’s. The first c is the car. [The other 4 c's are credit cards, condominium, country club memberships, & cash in the bank.] In Singapore, we are blessed with a vast range of choices, from the low-cost China-made toys to the high-priced European thoroughbreds.

For this status symbol on four wheels, we must really thank Henry Ford for coming up with the early concept of mass production. Do you know where he got the concept in the first place? He had visited a meat packing plant, where there was an assembling line.

Mother Nature has always been man’s teacher as far as technology is concerned. Birds of all feathers fly. For many centuries before the advent of the aerial age, many men had made unsuccessful attempts to conquer flight by emulating the birds. Icarus fell into the sea after he flew too close to the sun & the wax which glued his artificial feathers gave way. More crazy ideas & futile attempts abound. Then, came the big kites. Next, hot air balloons, followed by hand gliders.

Also inspired by the birds, Renaissance man, Leonardo da vinci even designed some flying machines that could not be built because the technology was'nt available during his times.

Then, in early 1900’s, on a remote sandy beach somewhere in North Carolina, USA, two bicycle mechanics, with the names of Orville & Wilbur Wright, experimented with their own version of flying machines. They were fascinated by the idea of flight from an early age & naturally inspired by many earlier but failed flying attempts.

[Their father had actually bought them a flying toy made of cork & bamboo. It had a paper body and was powered by rubber bands. The young boys soon broke the fragile toy, but the memory of its faltering flight across their living room stayed with them.]

Many thanks to their perseverance & persistence in dealing with initial technical problems, they finally succeeded in man’s eventual conquest of flight. The first heavier-than-air, powered aircraft to make a sustained, controlled flight, with a pilot aboard, was born. It flew only 852 feet for 59 seconds on December 17, 1903 on its maiden flight.

The world thus became forever a smaller place.

In summing up my writing here, I wish to paraphrase an observation attributed to Douglas Hofstadter, a cognitive scientist, well known for his magisterial first work, ‘Godel, Escher, Bach; An Eternal Golden Braid’ [quoted in Dr Steven Kim (of MIT)’s ‘Essence of Creativity: A Guide to Tackling Difficult Problems’]:

“The crux of creativity resides in the ability to manufacture variations on a theme. If you look at the history of science, for instance, you will see that every idea is built upon a thousand related ideas. Careful analysis leads one to call a new theme is itself always some sort of variation, on a deep level, of previous themes.”

That’s why, it is always very important for all of us to suspend judgement & continuously build on the ideas of others, especially when we are brainstorming together to resolve common issues.

Monday, June 11, 2007

RACK YOUR BRAIN: CREATIVE CHALLENGES

In most of my training workshops with professionals as well as students, I often like to use creative challenges to demonstrate the many cognitive traps in our thinking when we look initially at problems.

Stephen R Covey puts it very beautifully: "The way we see the problem is the problem." Likewise, Edward de bono, has this to say: "The reason that many opportunities pass us by is a perceptual one: we do not recognise an opportunity for what it is. An opportunity exists only when we see it."

In a nut shell, these are the most common cognitive traps in our thinking, based on the work of Stuart Litvak, a psychologist, who wrote 'Use Your Head' & 'More Ways to Use Your Head' in the eighties:

- tendency to use logic;
- begin with certain assumptions, & build upon these additional assumptions;
- stake beliefs, affairs & worldviews in personally specialised universe;
- perceive things in piece-meal fashion;
- apply concept fixations;
- get stuck with labels & words;
- adopt panacea thinking;

In the course of my research into training & development, I have gathered the following questions from a lot of different sources to form a series of simple as well as complex creative challenges.

Please take a look at them, & explore as well as experiment how you can come up with some possible solutions. However, before your proceed, I would like you to read again & understand the cognitive traps I have outlined above.

In most instances, there is more than one answer.

PART I:

1. How many sides are there in a circle?

2. In what place does Thursday precedes Wednesday?

3. What is a reward for waiting?

4. What do you sit on, sleep on, and brush your teeth with?

5. How can you throw a ball so it goes a short distance, comes to a dead stop, reverses its motion, then goes the opposite way? You are not allowed to bounce it off anything, hit it with anything, or tie anything to it.

6. You have a cheese cake to divide into eight equal pieces, but you are only allowed to make three cuts with a knife in the cake. How do you do it?

7. Three men were in a boat in the middle of the river. The boat capsized but only two of them got their hair wet. Why?

8. A girl dreamed she and her two friends were in a burning building. She saw a way to escape but she could only save one of her friends. The fire was coming closer and closer. What should she do?

9. Consider for a moment how you can change a FIVE into a FOUR with just two strokes of your pen.

10. Lay 6 matches on a flat surface. Now arrange them so that they make 4 equal-sided triangles. Can you do it?

11. A traffic policeman saw a SBS Transit driver going the wrong way down a one-way street, yet he did not issue the driver with a summons. How come?

12. Why is a manhole cover always round?

13. What is half of thirteen?

PART II:

1. Two sisters were arrested for murder. One of them committed the crime and was proven in court without any doubt. However, the judge could not sentence her to death and neither could he put her in jail. Why not?

2. Two look-alike ladies standing at the entrance of a cocktail lounge are approached by a customer. 'You must be twins.' he says. The ladies smile, 'We have the same parents and were born on the same day in the same year, but, no, we're not twins.' How come?

3. An architect has a swimming pool in his backyard. He wants to double the size of the pool, despite the fact that there are large & valuable trees at the four corners, which he did not wish to cut down. He did indeed end up with a square pool, double the size of his original pool, & all four trees remained in their places. How did he do it?

ANSWERS:

Well, if you feel that you are really stuck after racking your brain, just drop me an email, but I would like to encourage you to spend more time & effort to explore all possible solutions to the challenges on your own. You will be amazed. Enjoy yourself!

LESSONS FROM THE MOVIES: ‘EYE OF THE TIGER’

I love watching action movies, even if some of them are no-brainers! My purpose of going to the movies is very simple: firstly, to be entertained within a span of about two hours or so, & secondly, to pick out some interesting & useful ideas.

Triple X or XXX is one such action movie.

The plot is very simple: An extreme sports renegade (with no fear but has a bad attitude), Xander Cage (played by Vin Diesel), is recruited by a NSA big shot, Augustus Gibbons (played by Samuel Jackson), to spy on & then foil an attempt by a nasty group of Czech criminals, known as Anarchy 99, & led by a crazy villain, Yorgi (played by Marton Csokas) who had some nutty ideas to change the world using a biological virus, called Silent Night.

The many high-octane, pulse-quickening action sequences (cars, bikes, skis, snowmobiles, boats, helicopters, etc.), all the way from the opening scene & the attendant rampant explosions, plus all the state-of-the-art weaponry, including a multi-purpose hand-gun & a super-duper Bond-type vehicle, in the movie are quite fun to watch.

The dialogue is witty, too. [For example, in Prague, while Cage was about to go to bed with a sexy girl, with compliments from Yorgi of course, he remarked: "The things I'm gonna do for my country." Another one: When Yelena (played by Asia Argento), his Russian counterpart, confesses that she has been undercover with the bad guys for two years, Cage retorts: "What were you waiting for? For them to die of old age".]

Among others, there is one particular dialogue, between Gibbons & Cage, during the first half of the movie which strikes my personal attention.

When Gibbons offers Cage a job to work for the US government, in an exchange for a redemption of the latter's crimes, Cage turns him down flatly. That's when Gibbons tells him the story about the difference between “the eyes of a lion” in captivity & “the eyes of a lion” in the wild. This also reminds me of an equally meaningful dialogue between Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) & Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in one of the earlier scenes of the movie, Rocky III.

[In contrast to Triple X, Rocky III is an intelligent movie.]

The movie tells the story of how Creed convinces & retrains a down-&-out Rocky to go back into the ring to fight against Clubber Lang (Mr T), who had earlier given Rocky a thorough bashing, resulting in a humiliating defeat. In that particular scene, Creed talks about "the eye of the tiger".

A tiger (or a lion for that matter), when hungry, is intent on its prey & totally focused. It will not fail. If you look into the eye of that tiger, you will see an unwavering focus & a commitment to do whatever it takes to catch its prey. The tiger knows it must catch an animal or starve to death. It’s ability to hunt is a matter of life & death.

Creed desperately wants Rocky to regain his focus - the eye of the tiger - quickly in order to win. [Incidentally, this is also the title of the movie's signature tune, played by the rock group, Survivor.]

In the case of Cage, Gibbons is giving him a chance to decide whether he wants to regain his freedom as a renegade.

These are certainly interesting learning points, especially in terms of understanding life (or survival) skills. I often share these stories with teens, whom I often encounter in the course of their search for directions in life.

In summing up, I have enjoyed watching Triple X & also learned something interesting - & useful - along the way.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

POINTS TO PONDER: MADE-IN-SINGAPORE GRADUATES

While going through – in fact, I was doing spring cleaning - the vast collection of news clippings in my personal library during the weekend, I did somehow stumbled on to a few of them which I thought would be interesting for me to write something about them here.

In one "undated" (probably early 2000) clipping, entitled ‘Lessons in Creativity from the US’, a journalist by the name of Zuraidah Ibrahim, writing under her by-line, ‘Notes from the New Economy’, in the Straits Times, related this real story:

Her friend had just graduated from an Ivy League university in US. When asked how his four years in the university had changed him, he thought for a while & answered: He had learnt to look at problems in a new light.

He gave an example. His class was assigned a paper most of the students thought was “truly stupid”. He & his fellow Singaporean classmates moaned privately but did it. His American classmates also complained, but then several of them went to see their professor & proposed an alternative topic to write on. The professor agreed.

In another "undated" (probably early 2000) clipping, entitled ‘Defining problems stumps S’poreans’, there was a Q & A with Professor Arnoud De Meyer, the founding Dean of the Asia Campus of INSEAD, Europe’s premier graduate business school. [He co-wrote the books, 'Global Future: The Next Challenge for Asian Business' (2005), ‘Inspire to Innovate: Management & Innovation in Asia’ (2005) & 'Managing the Unknown: A New Approach to Managing High Uncertainty & Risk in Projects' (2006)]

He was asked: “How do you size up made-in-Singapore graduates?

He answered: “What strikes me about those I meet is that many are very good at solving a problem but very bad at defining a problem. I’ve noticed if I say “This is the problem, solve it”, they are very dedicated, intelligent & come back faster than I expected. But if I say “I’m not sure what I would do here, how would you define the problem?”, then they have problems.

Interestingly, in one clipping, dated 3rd October 2003 & entitled ‘Top grades don’t spell job success’, a Straits Times educational correspondent, Sandra Davie, wrote:

One employer, Glaxo Smith Kline VP Tan Kay Tong, said he found Singaporeans able to “deliver to promise, but unable to dream beyond the established or to advance the frontiers.”

Another boss, Venture Corporation chief Wong Ngit Liong, said: “Singapore staff are more conforming than independent. They are generally not curious enough about most things. If there is no money to be made, most staff do not spend much time on an issue.”

As one industry leader phrased it: “Many Singaporeans are put in a position of leadership, but they remain as task-masters, not leaders.”

Another clipping, dated 21st January 2004 & entitled 'Go for quality, not just numbers' in the Straits Times, contained an excerpt of a speech made by Ngiam Tong Dow, a former Permanent Secretary & Chairman of Surbana Corporation (a Temasek-linked company), to the Economic Society, during which he revealed:

"Both Singapore & MNC employers acknowledge that our graduates are competent. They know 'how to get things done', but when faced with road-blocks, they often cannot figure out the 'why'. "

According to a Channel News Asia report entitled 'Think big, dream beyond our size: Minister to youth' last year (1st September 2006 to be precise) by Tor Chin Lee, Manpower Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen had this to say, while addressing about 450 undergraduates at the annual Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum :

"...While Singaporean graduates have the advantage of an 'established international brand' renowned for intellectual rigour, they are also perceived as being less adept at dealing with 'fuzzy situations' & 'less daring'...Another weakness is the unwillingness of Singaporean graduates to work their way up..."

It is pertiment to mention that Singapore Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has already started the ball rolling with regard to proposed changes in our education system.

However, I like to paraphrase Professor Arnoud De Meyer: "But I think the current system is so entrenched that change is very difficult."

Well, Readers, what do you think?

THOUGHT LEADERSHIP: A LEAF FROM MINISTER MENTOR

Over the years, I have collected & collated numerous newspaper & magazine clippings that contain interviews with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, during which he shares many of his deep insights & personal thoughts.

Here is an initial sampling of my personal favourites for readers:

Passion

“It’s a job I sought for myself & therefore I should be prepared to do it. If I could not find a passion for doing this job, it could not have been done. The job never stops, you solve one problem, another problem of higher order crops up...It is an unending quest to improve life for yourself & your fellow human beings. If I did not find pleasure doing that, I’d have packed up a long time ago.”

Principles

“This is a place that works, that must work & continue to work because it is based on principles. And the first principle is nobody owes you a living.”

Living a Life

“Life is an adventure because when you start, you don’t know when it’ll end, because you don’t know what you are going to meet, & you want to go to a certain place, you find road blocks, landslides, earthquakes. You change directions.. You must have a certain bounce, certain resilience, & you must have a certain optimism in life that you can overcome these problems. Otherwise, you’ll give up.”

Change & Core Values

“I think if you don’t change as the world changes, you will be a misfit. You have certain basic principles which you should not abandon...we have an evolving society. Not that I have changed in my views, but the situation has changed & you’ve got to find new solutions to that. But try to retain the core values.”

Think Out of the Box

"At the end of the day, a society needs both team players & those who can think out of the box...I didn't know this when I started, I know this now - you need both...Your workforce must have the cohesiveness, but to make the big leap forward, you need your mavericks, your geniuses, your people who can think out of the box & say: 'I can do it better, simpler'."

Staying Young

“Eat less than you want to, work more than you need to, sleep well.”