Posts Tagged ‘problem solving’

Most mornings I stop by the MIT homepage to see what new projects are in the works. Today I was particularly struck by the sense that these folks are freaking rockstars. 

Designing a flexible graphene supercapacitor for solar energy storage?


Researching cell-based treatment for Type 1 diabetes?


Advising the White House on space policy?


Reducing concrete emissions, making affordable air quality sensors, supporting collaborative action, and addressing disparities in health care?

Rockstars all.

As someone who imagines the future, I love to see it being built. 

And it’s not just MIT, of course. The world is full of creative innovators at all levels, from cutting-edge research to finding solutions to everyday issues. Scientists or not, that’s kind of humanity’s thing.

Take a moment to remember a time when you identified a problem and worked to fix it. Have you ever soaped a sticky drawer, had a stoplight installed at a dangerous intersection, added pollinator-friendly plants to your garden, or tackled any of the many (many) problems we face every day?

Then you’re a rockstar too.

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Photo by Aditya Chinchure on Unsplash

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There is one part of my day job that is repetitive and annoying. It’s the kind of task that would be much easier if automated, and for a while now every time I have had to do this thing I think, “There has to be a better way.” 

Well, this week I found it.

It was a small thing, fixed with a hacky bit of code (my speciality), but figuring it out feels pretty great. Now every time I do the thing that used to annoy me so much, I instead feel a minor but deep-seated sense of satisfaction.

Perhaps you know the feeling? Something was broken and now it is fixed. 

When I’m up against a problem like this I always think that there has to be a better way. While I’m not always right I like that approach much better than rolling over and giving up.

So whatever it is you’re working on, keep pushing. If there’s a way to make it better, eventually you’ll find it.

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Photo by Alex Lam on Unsplash

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What can science fiction do for you? Help you think. Here’s an interview on Marketplace, better known for its discussions with economists, professors and policy wonks, with writer Neal Stephenson.

How sci-fi can make us smart – Marketplace

We’ll talk with Stephenson about how he thinks about big, complex issues like climate change and what this genre can teach us about the future and solving problems in the real world.

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Photo by Daniel K Cheung on Unsplash

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So long as you go about it ethically, I don’t see any shame in shortcuts. On a general note, most of what has given us as a species an edge could reasonably be categorized as such. And personally, I am particularly in favor of techniques, tools and strategies that help me fill in gaps of time or talent.

I’ve mentioned drawing, and how I can’t. Oh sure, I used to be able to draw an almost perfect circle freehand and once drew the world’s most beautiful eye while I was supposed to be studying verb conjugations in high school French class, but that’s about the extent of my talents in that department.

That doesn’t stop me from wanting to do more. If only my fellow monkeys had developed some tools that could help me make up for such deficiencies!

Cue computer drawing programs, yes, but then what? There’s still the difference between what I see in my mind and what comes out on the page or screen.

I came across this tool the other day: the Da Vinci Sketch Addon for Photoshop. 

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Ooh, I said to the cat (who paid as much attention as usual, which is to say none), that is exactly the sort of art I like, part beauty, part craft, part epistolary exploration. Too bad I had to move away from Photoshop. Now what?

First, despair! Cue gnashing of teeth and rending of garments (just kidding, that’s wasteful and I really hate to shop).

Then it was time to get to work.

I decided to see if I could replicate some version of this technique in Affinity Photo. After forum diving, video watching, and a visit to The notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, I produced this:

The Venus de Milo by Alexandros of Antioch, sculpted c. 150BC. Original photo by tabitha turner on Unsplash, text and doodles by Leonardo da Vinci. I don’t read Italian, much less Renaissance mirror writing, but I would love it if this was Leo’s to do or shopping list. “Note: buy looser robes with draping like this, because I like a healthy breeze around my private parts.”

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Not bad, aside from the fact that it took forever and could use some real hatching and more dramatic outlines and the shading crashed the program about a dozen times. Still, it was progress I felt ok about.

Working through that puzzle also gave me time to think, and in that time I realized a couple of important things:

  • my computer is not the only computer in this house, and while the desktop upstairs has had the tech equivalent of a stroke and can’t be trusted with anything not backed up, I did manage to rebuild it into a functional system and it is now running a deprecated OS,
  • six bucks is not a lot of money, and
  • don’t I still have the disks for CS5, which includes Photoshop, kicking around somewhere?

True, true, and yes, yes I do.

Cue exciting graphic adventures!

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I may have also sprung for a couple more tools from the same developer. Still affordable, and still worth it. This is what the Da Vinci Photoshop action produced, plus several other versions:

Da Vinci action
vintage sketch action
architecture sketch action

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Have I been having fun? Yes, and here’s my absolute favorite so far:

When Leo met 3PO. Original Image by Gerhard Janson from Pixabay 

Shortcuts can be terrific so long as they don’t impede learning. In this case, I got the mental workout of deconstructing and rebuilding an effect, plus the practicality of pre-built actions.

Also C-3PO:)

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I’m banging my head against a data problem so I’ll have to set aside the in-depth and incisive essay on the mating habits of Salarian scientists I had planned (so sad, but maybe next week;).

Instead, today’s thing I like is this image and the sheer effort the landscape represents. It’s also a shout-out to my Irish relatives (currently recovering from St. Patrick’s Day) and to the fact that people have been solving problems for millennia. Look at those walls, that can’t have been easy:)

The best way out is always through.
― Robert Frost

So, persistence for the win. With that in mind, back to work!


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This is the coolest thing: a designer decided to tackle fifty problems in fifty days. I think it’s terrific when creative people find ways to use their talents to fix problems, particularly when they focus on challenges most of us have been living with for years. It’s easy to get used to doing things one way even when that way is not optimal, and once acclimated it can be hard to even see the issue, much less fix it.


This is what happens when creative people look at the world with fresh eyes, and decide that they can, and should, do something to make it better. Constructive creativity for the win.

What “fifty problems” would you choose?

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