Friday, April 22, 2016

Fighting Poverty Takes Creativity

For nearly 50 years, the United States has, in some form of rhetoric or another, claimed to be fighting a "war on poverty." Despite the buzz, the most recent census data has confirmed that more than 45 million people, or 14.5% of all Americans, are living below the poverty line in the U.S. Less conservative estimates assert that there could be anywhere from 40 to 70 million U.S. households currently living in poverty. Furthermore, the rate of national spending on welfare programs is steadily increasing, and yet the "war on poverty" still rages on. Is it time to enact a new battle plan? Maurice Lim Miller thinks so.

                   Maurice Lim Miller, founder of the Family Independence Initiative

Miller is the founder and CEO of the Family Independence Initiative (FFI), and a 2012 recipient of the MacArthur Genius Fellowship for his work in economic development through FII. So what exactly is FFI? The Family Independence Initiative is an anti-poverty nonprofit organization that is taking an innovative approach to raising the poor out of poverty and into the middle class - by creating the opportunity for these families to communicate with one another, share resources and strategies, and build their own creative solutions to getting out of poverty.

In an interview for NPR, Miller describes the process as going something like this: "A family walks in and we tell them, look, you're never going to be able to get out just by yourself. We have no staff that is really going to be able to help you. Go find six or eight other families that are friends of yours and, if you organize those families and come in, we'll talk to you as a group and if we think that we can learn from you, we want to learn from you. And if you are going to try to change your life in the next two years, then we'll pay you for the time you spend showing us what the progress is that you're making."

                           Families gathered to share their resources and progress

Miller compares this to the motivational and behavioral studies that companies like Google use to justify decisions like giving employees 20% of work time to do anything they want using the resources that Google has. He notes that "they [Google] have gotten some of their best products by giving people the freedom to really experiment when they have resources available. That's all we do. We set up a platform for people to say, look, getting out of poverty and becoming independent is a creative process. You guys have the challenge to do that.

Miller himself used his creativity to rise out of poverty. Born in Mexico and raised by a single parent, it was the resourcefulness of his mother that inspired and motivated him to begin this movement. In the same NPR interview, he comments on realizing that there was something missing from the national conversation on poverty. A lot of this had to do with the emphasis on charity and the deficits of poor people. Miller realized that there needed (and still needs) to be a paradigm shift to focus on their strengths and their infinite potential for positive contributions. For his mother, the American dream was about becoming truly independent, and knowing that the social safety net alone would not be able to do that for them. He remarks that his mother "was really hurt by the message both from the right and the left. She didn't like being called Mexican and dirty and lazy and then she didn't like the social worker that was trying to say, oh, well, you know, you're a poor mom and we're going to help you and basically saying the same thing, that she wasn't capable. My mother had only a third grade education, but she was smart and she was rough and she really was resourceful and that's how these families are."


Miller's initiative truly puts into practice some of the psychological principles that we discussed in class. The decision to only fund families if they can work in groups of 6 to 8 is rooted in the concept of creative collaboration, and the idea of a creative cohort functioning best when there is an ideal Q - in practice, each family would know some of the other families really well, and a few others would be more distant or newer contacts, but they generate ideas and formulate plans best working within their collaborative cohorts. Furthermore, the principle of intrinsic motivation is seen in both the participants and Miller himself. In our reading entitled "Motivation and Creativity," the authors make the points that "there is considerable anecdotal and empirical evidence that creative production does require a high level of intrinsic motivation" (Collins & Amabile 297). The participants need to challenge themselves to find creative solutions for themselves and their families, while Miller works because of a deep level of understanding stemming from his own background.

FII spotlighted on the blog of a mother whose family it helped

Miller's initiative is truly paying off for the families involved. Within the first two years of his first project in Oakland, the average household income for FII families jumped by 27%. On FII's website, a Stories of Impact page highlights the achievements of participating families, anything from buying houses, to starting businesses, and paying for college tuition for their children. Miller notes that sharing this type of success both within their cohorts and to the general public validates that these families are the solvers of the problem, that they are both capable, intelligent, and resourceful, and that, working together, they are able to rise up and overcome poverty.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

If You Ain't First, You're Last

The early 21st century fictional philosopher and Nascar driver, Ricky Bobby, coined the phrase "If you ain't first, you're last" and "shake and bake." Classic personalities like Ricky Bobby and Ron Burgundy are creative children of the versatile director Adam McKay. McKay is known for working frequently with his good friend Will Ferrell. Together they have produced hit movies like Step Brothers, The Other Guys, and Anchorman [1]. Aside from the Ferrell-inspired comedies, McKay wrote the screen play for Ant-Man and The Big Short. The latter went on to win an Oscar for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay [2].

Now for a little bit more about Adam McKay's history and creative process. McKay spent most of his early years in comedy, specifically the impov industry. If you think presenting in front of a crowd for your public speaking class is difficult, try improv. Improv takes immense creativity because it requires on-the-spot wit and acting. McKay practiced improv with the Second City comedy troupe, and even became the head writer for Saturday Night Live [3]. When it comes to the creative process, McKay has an odd way of helping himself develop screenplay. He stated, "sometimes as an exercise, I will tell the story of the movie to my youngest daughter, as a bedtime story. I will change some details to make it a fairytale allegory" [3]. This may sound familiar to you, if you have ever had to explain a problem to a friend - like a fifth-grader - to help yourself understand it better. McKay benefits in a similar way. He learns what holes the plot may have, where the momentum of the story is, and what the overall flow is like.

Although one can argue that most of McKay's comedies revolve around Will Ferrell, the plots and characters surrounding Ferrell are always different and consistently creative. In an interview with Index Magazine, both McKay and Ferrell stated that a comedy cannot be successful with one character leading all the jokes. The more funny characters there are contributing to a movie, the more interesting it is [4]. Creating outrageous plots and adding many characters is one way McKay stretches his creative boundaries. Lastly, although The Big Short does have many hilarious moments, the tone of the movie is more in the drama and documentary genre, instead of a comedy. Being able to write movies with different tones and interactions has helped establish McKay as a versatile and creative writer.

To examine this producer's creative process, it is vital look at his influences. McKay's creative collaborator is obviously Will Ferrell. In interviews he has said that they have mutual respect and when creating scripts they are basically just trying to make each other laugh [3]. Although McKay was not necessarily a prodigy, he grew up with a strong love for Monty Python, Steve Martin, Akira Kurosawa movies, and comic books. I believe these influences has helped him create extravagant story telling techniques and characterization. For an example of this, I have included a great clip from The Other Guys which features witty dialogue and an abstract, yet possible, situation. Lastly, McKay's bedtime storytelling exercises have helped him develop creative plots that are straight-forward and relatable.

Ending this tribute to Adam McKay, I will leave you with a favorite Ricky Bobby quote of mine: "Well let me just quote the later-great Colonel Sanders, who said 'I'm too drunk to taste this chicken.'"


A New System for Sexual Assault Survivors

One in 5 women will be sexually assaulted in college in the United States. One in 13 men will be sexually assaulted in college in United States. But less than 10 % of these men and women report the crime and those who do wait an average of 11 months to make the report.

If these statistics scare you, you’re in the same boat that Jessica Ladd was in when she realized that someone had to do something to improve the situation.

Jessica Ladd is the founder and CEO of Sexual Health Innovations and worked in the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. She also founded The Social Innovation Lab. Ladd received her Masters in Public Health at John Hopkins University and her Bachelors Degree at Pomona College. She identifies herself as an infectious disease epidemiologist, so for her to be analyzing data on reports and creating websites was very much out of her department. She wanted to allocate the resources that she had to do the most good, reflecting an intrinsic motivation for her creativity to fight this issue. She wanted to solve the problem of sexual assaults purely because she wanted to stop offenders from getting away and increase the number of victims reporting the crime.  

She soon learned that 90% of sexual assaults are committed by repeat offenders and only about 6% of people arrested for sexual assault spend at least one day in prison.

Ladd talked to people on different college campuses and asked them what would help them in case of sexual assault. She received the answer that they wanted a website with clearly written information and reports could be electronically done. People would rather report electronically than talk to someone who could or could not believe them. This website would also secure a time stamp document and preserve evidence if they don’t want to report the crime at that moment. There would be
a matching system in place so if someone else reported a crime with the same assailant, the website would match the two victims and put them into contact and send the report to the police. This means that if a victim does decide to come forward, they know someone will be there for them that has gone through the same thing.

Ladd and her teammates launched the website on 2 college campuses 3 months ago, and they have seen that people are more likely to report and have perpetrators penalized. It is really important to stop repeat offenders after the 2nd assault because that can prevent 59% of assaults by stopping them earlier on.  

I think that this is a really creative idea because it takes a process, like reporting crimes, that has been the same for as a long as the criminal justice system has existed, and changed it completely to serve the needs of victims of sexual assault. I think that her thinking and those of the college students giving the suggestions is also heavily influenced by the way that society lives today-more focused on technology. In the American Journal of Sociology, Brian Uzzi and Jarrett Spiro talk about “creativity…is the consequence of a social system of actors that amplify…one another’s creativity” (448). In society today, we have such a close relationship with technology and technological tools, such as computers and phones, that it influences the way that we react to situations and interact with people. I think that Ladd does a great job of creatively incorporating the things that society prioritizes to solve the problem that she sees.

"The Reporting System That Sexual Assault Survivors Want." Jessica Ladd:. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.
"Our Board." Board. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.

League of Legends and the Growth of Esports

In 2006, two men, Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill came together to form the video game publishing company “Riot Games.” And after years of their own work, as well as the collaborative efforts of game designers, Riot published a brand new game: League of Legends. Both the company and game started out small, but since 2009, Riot has grown to house over 1000 employees across the globe, and close to 67 million people are playing the game every month. In 2015, League of Legends grossed the massive total of 1.6 billion dollars through in game micro-transactions, though the game remains completely free to play. For a company that started with just two founders, Beck and Merrill have managed to not only make one of the most successful and popular video games of all time, they’ve also revolutionized the world of e-sports.

            League of Legends was originally based off of a custom map made for the video game Warcraft III. The map, called Defense of the Ancients (DOTA), was a game genre all on its own, and many people wanted to capitalize on the popularity and make a standalone video game within that genre, though one that stood independent rather than a modification to a current game. Beck and Merrill partnered with one of the original designers of DOTA to attempt to make this game. It was through these efforts that League of Legends was born. It was released in North America on October 27th, 2009, and has since been released in several major countries across the world, such as Europe, Australia, and South Korea. As far as creativity goes, while Beck and Merrill were heavily influenced by the DOTA game, League stands as its own game within the industry. And the game is constantly changing and evolving every month, and Beck and Merrill are always involved in the games major changes.
            The success of League is largely driven by the motivation of its founding members.  As Collins and Amabile said in their work, Motivation and Creativity, “creativity is motivated by the enjoyment and satisfaction that a person derives from engaging in the creative activity.” It’s clear that both Beck and Merrill love what they do. They are both die-hard gamers, and that mentality is reflected in their work; they make sure to tailor the experience so that it is best for the player. In a time where most gamers would have to pay $60 to play a game, League of Legends is a free to play game. There are in game transactions to purchase additional content, but none of those purchases are necessary. The full game is available without having to pay a cent. It’s clear this idea has caught on, seeing as free apps dominate the mobile stores on our smart phones. Beck and Merrill are driven almost exclusively by intrinsic motivation; they do not seek to make a profit, as much of the money they make goes back into the game to create a better player experience. They are always concerned with making the game even better.

            The creative process of both men also heavily relies on collaboration, the game could not be as successful as it is today without the help of other people. The game consists of a number of ‘champions’ that the player controls, and they release new champions every few weeks. Rather than leaving this creation to a handful of people, Merrill says that they open the creation process to everyone in the company, and allow all the employees to have a voice in this aspect of the game. Beck and Merrill do not have separate offices in their building. They sit among the other game developers, and maintain an open door policy so that they are always accessible to employees.

            The game was not only revolutionary in its free to play model, League has also revolutionized e-sports. Shortly after the creation of the game, Beck and Merrill established the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) which is currently in its sixth season. The creation of LCS was heavily influenced by professional sports such as European soccer and the NFL. LCS has its own world championship, minor league system, as well as an All-Star Game and a Collegiate Championship, which offers scholarship money to participating students. Riot has also hired broadcast commentators, as well as an analyst desk that discusses every game. To go with over 85 million players, hundreds of millions of viewers frequently watch LCS games, and the championship events typically sell out major sports venues, such as Madison Square Garden. Thanks to the efforts of Beck and Merrill to legitimize professional video gaming in the eyes of the public, League of Legends is at the forefront of the e-sports movement.

Collins, M. A., & Amabile, T. M. (1999). Motivation and creativity. In Robert J. Sternberg (Ed.) Handbook of Creativity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

PCR from the Car

From biochemistry to forensics, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a staple procedure in multiple scientific fields. PCR allows for the amplification of specific DNA regions using thermal cycling. This method is used in various applications such as DNA (paternity) testing, disease diagnosis, and genetic sequencing (Saiki et al. 1988). The development and optimization of this technique revolutionized biological research and remains just as relevant now as it was then (Bartlett and Stirling, 2003). While the development of PCR has been a collaborative effort where ideas continue to be built upon one another, there is one man in particular to thank for his creative contributions to this technique: Kary Mullis.

Born in 1944, Mullis grew up in North and South Carolina where he attended high school and found his knack for chemistry (Shmaefsky, 2006). He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry at the Georgia Institute of Technology, followed by a PhD in biochemistry at the University of California, Berkley (Autobiography, 1998). At first, Mullis strayed from a scientific career. After receiving his PhD, he went on to write fiction and continued exploring other careers as he managed a bakery for two years (Yoffe, 1994). Eventually, he wound up at the biotechnology company Cetus Corporation (Shmaefsky, 2006). It was here that he came up with ideas on how to improve the polymerase chain reaction, thus revolutionizing the field of genetics.

Mullis was neither at work nor at home when he had a spark of inspiration. Driving his Honda Civic with his girlfriend one night, he suddenly imagined using a pair of primers to bracket the target DNA sequence- an idea that would allow for more rapid amplification of DNA (Yoffe, 1994). As we have discussed in class, creativity often comes from random places at random times. Mullis' ideas reiterate the importance of creativity in scientific fields. While cultural stereotypes tend to separate science from creativity, one cannot realistically exist without the other.

By now, we have learned to not be surprised with the unconventionality of creative thinkers. Mullis qualifies as an unconventional scientist by today's standards; he would rather think of ideas while surfing or driving than be in the lab doing work (Fridell, 2005). Mullis' creative process reminds me of research done by Ritter et al. to determine the role of unconscious thought in creativity. While a lot of research suggests that unconscious thought does not generate more creative ideas than unconscious thought, Mullis demonstrates how the best ideas can come at times when we aren't trying.


"Autobiography". 1998. Nobel prize.

Bartlett, J., and Stirling, D. 2003. A Short History of the Polymerase Chain Reaction. PCR Protocols. Methods in Molecular Biology. 226: 3-6.

Fridell, R. 2005. Decoding life: unraveling the mysteries of the genome. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications. p. 88. ISBN 0-8225-1196-7.

Ritter, S. et al. 2012. Creativity: The role of unconscious processes in idea generation and idea selection. Elsevier. Thinking Skills and Creativity. 7: 21-27.
Saiki, R., et al. 1988. Primer-directed enzymatic amplification of DNA with a thermostable DNA polymerase. Science. 239 (4839): 487-491.

Shmaefsky, B. 2006. Biotechnology 101. Google. ISBN 978-0-313-33528-0.

Yoffe, E. 1994. Is Kary Mullis God? Nobel Prize winner's new life. Esquire. 122 (1): 68-75.

Edgar Allan Poe

“True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”

                                        -Edgar Allan Poe, "The Tell-Tale Heart" 

            Edgar Allan Poe was born in 1809 to two actors. His biological parents didn’t play a major role in his life, as his parents separated and his mother died of tuberculosis very early in his life. Although much of what we know of Poe is false, owing to the inaccurate biography published by his rival Rufus Griswold, there are some unquestionable facts about Edgar Allan Poe. He was a talented writer, weaving haunting tales of horror and pain.1 He is one of the first American writers to achieve international acclaim and has even been called the father of detective stories and the modern short story, and has even been credited with innovating the science fiction genre.2
            One of Poe’s most famous short stories is “The Tell-tale Heart”, which was first published in the magazine The Pioneer in 1843. It is a very good, and short read, which I highly recommend reading now to avoid any spoilers. The story begins with an unnamed narrator, who I will assume is a “he” for the purposes of this blog, and served as the caretaker for an elderly man. In an attempt to dispel the accusation that the narrator is mad, he carries on in a detailed explanation of the hideous crime he committed. He counters the claim that he is mad, essentially arguing that a mad man would never possess the faculty to carry out his plot so perfectly. Would a madman have the wherewithal to take an hour just to inch his head into the doorway? Eventually, the killer is moved to confess his crime because of the elderly man’s infernal heart—which he can still hear beating even after its death. The story is highly ironic, as the author attempts to explain himself and prove that he is not mad. In this attempt, the narrator only succeeds in illustrating his madness to the reader. The tale deals with the dark themes of fear, murder, and deception. Additionally, “The Tell-tale Heart” addresses the very serious issue of mental illness.
            One might wonder whether Edgar Allan Poe himself, famous for stories dealing with the deterioration of the human mental state, might have experienced some madness himself. The hardships of his life did not end with the death of his mother. After witnessing his mother die of tuberculosis in a poor house, he was raised in a foster home, where he loved his foster mother and had a strained relationship with his foster father, John Allan. Allan and Poe had many difficulties over finances, and Poe had monetary problems throughout his life. As payment for his first collection of short stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, Poe was only given 25 copies of his own book.3 Even after he had gained some fame as a reputable writer and literature critic, Poe lived in poverty.
            Yet another contributor to the life-long depression of Poe was the women in his life. First, his biological mother died of Tuberculosis. Then, his foster mother Frances Valentine Allan also died of tuberculosis, leaving Poe without anyone to champion his cause to his foster father. Finally, his own wife (and, yes, cousin) Virginia Clemm died of tuberculosis at the young age of 24.4 Edgar Allan Poe was allegedly overly fond of alcohol, but his worst periods were often linked with the illness of the loved women in his life.
            Did Poe’s deep depression contribute to his creativity? As noted in “I Bask In Dreams of Suicide: Mental Illness, Poetry, and Women” by John Baer and James Kaufman, in a study comparing creative writers and demographically-similar non-writers, creative writers had a much higher incidence of mental illness. Additionally, historiometric studies found that poets in particular had the highest rates of depression compared to even other creative professions. Kaufman and Baer speculate this might be because the types of people who are attracted to poetry might be more likely to be mentally unstable, or even because poetry does not help mental illness as other writing styles can. Given a consideration of Poe’s unfortunate childhood, I would suspect he was depressed before he began writing poetry seriously, and perhaps took up poetry as a way of venting those emotions. Perhaps, as Kaufman and Baer suggest, poetry was not enough for Poe to vent his depression, which is why he took to drinking instead?


Uber for Women?

Imagine you’re leaving your friend’s house late at night and you call an Uber. Your driver will be “Adam” today (who has only 3 stars) and the license place number is ABD1234, but you just look for the silver “U” in the windshield, hop in the car, and don’t think twice.

As you’re in your Uber home, Adam starts asking you if you have a boyfriend. Why would he wonder about that? You laugh at the question, and make some joke about how you’re only twenty once and don’t need to be tied down. You think it’s just polite conversation, but he takes it as an opportunity. Suddenly the car doors lock, you arrive to your apartment, and Adam won’t let you leave until you give him a kiss. “You’re only 20 once, right? Live a little.” he says. You are trapped and have no idea what to do, you just want to go up to your apartment and sleep…

This is a true story that the founder of the new app, “Chariot for Women” was told by one of his female Uber riders. The founder of this service is Michael Pelletz, who was a former Uber driver, was appalled by the stories he heard from the female passengers, especially late at night. As a husband and a father, he wanted to make sure that there was a safe ride-share platform for not only the women in his life, but also all women. Pelletz has the three important components of creativity that are discussed by Collins and Amabile in our reading: "intrinsic task motivation, domain-relevant skills, and creativity-relevant processes." In being a husband and father, Pelletz has intrinsic task motivation to create a safe platform for those he loves, and those who he understands do not have as safe of an environment as he might, as a 41 year-old Caucasian man. He also worked for Uber for three years and worked roughly 17 hours a day, which gives him a lot of inside knowledge and skills about the payment and function of a ride-share application. This also allows him to have creativity-relevant processes to maintain Chariot for Women.

Starting today, there is a new ride-hailing app catering exclusively towards women. “Chariot for Women” launched today, April 19th, in Boston, which is the first ride-share app of its kind. It focuses heavily on safety, employs women drivers, who are required to go through an extensive background check, and only picks up other women. The idea behind this is that not only might women be afraid to get into a car with a male stranger, but they also might not feel safe driving male strangers. Chariot provides women with the opportunity of safe ride-share jobs, who might not have felt safe driving men and women at night. It will also cater to women and children of any gender under the age of 13. To reach another level of security, the app will give the rider and driver a “safe word” that they will have to exchange for the rider to get in the car. If the safe word is not exchanged, or incorrect, the ride will not begin and the rider will know to look out for the correct vehicle.

Scholar Laird D. McLean, from our readings, explains that cultural creativity involved the truths about a society that are found below Schein’s iceberg model of the unconscious. As a woman, I have never considered being a ride-share driver because I didn’t think I fit the profile. What do I mean by that? I subconsciously dismissed the idea of working as an Uber driver because I didn’t think it would be a job that would make me feel safe. Pelletz is a creative that combats these ideas by creating a safe platform for women to both work and ride.

Additionally, this service is giving back by donating 2% of each single fare to a women’s based charity of the rider’s choice. There will be 10 different charities picked each month, which will show up as a popup while the woman is paying, and she can select any of the 10 charities to donate her 2% to. As stated on Chariot’s website, “With the help of more drivers and passengers, women across the globe will benefit from a simple ride across town.” This is made possible because Pelletz stated in an interview with FOX Business, “I started this business only 9 weeks ago. But when you do something right, everything falls into place. …And I haven’t had to worry about money at all.” Money and profit are not the main goals of Pelletz’s app. Rather, it is about the safety and security of its women’s drivers and riders. 

We need applications like Chariot for Women because of the “climate” in our society. McLean defines climate as “the manifestation of practices and patterns of behavior rooted in the assumptions, meaning, and beliefs that make up the culture” (229).  Sexual assault and harassment are very real things in our society. It is something that women and men worry about on a day-to-day basis. This platform that Michael Pelletz has created, not only in general, but also in the detailed business plan (such as the safe word and donation to women-based charities), allows a safe space.

Will this app make it out of Boston? Will it pop-up on select college campuses? What do you think? Male classmates, do you feel as though this is a discriminatory app? There are a lot of questions that come with this new application, but the creativity, innovation, and good intention are all there.

Mclean, L. D. "Organizational Culture's Influence on Creativity and Innovation: A Review of the Literature and Implications for Human Resource Development." Advances in Developing Human Resources 7.2 (2005): 226-46. Web.

Collins, M. A., & Amabile, T. M. (1999). Motivation and creativity. In Robert J. Sternberg (Ed.) Handbook of Creativity. New York: Cambridge University Press.