The Practice & Art of Thinking

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Visual Problem Solving

This blog has up to now explored many aspects of visual thinking directly and indirectly.

The aim was to have diversity on the topic that would explore some aspects of thinking, rationality and simply how to think better so that we can contribute positively with our interventions.

The topics have not been exhaustive, the aim was to simply map the range and diversity of how we think and make sense of the world.

I am not one for quotes, but the ones below make the point better than if I were to write an essay.

“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”

“And he has Brain.”pooh

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”

There was a long silence.

“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”

A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh


“Don’t you understand that we need to be childish in order to understand? Only a child sees things with perfect clarity, because it hasn’t developed all those filters which prevent us from seeing things that we don’t expect to see.”

Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

The point I am trying to make is that we sometimes get too clever and forget the basics and loose trust in out own capabilities. This leads us to desperately seek the magic formula out there, because we have lost the confidence in our basic abilities of thinking and making sense of the problems we are faced with.


The basic principles of thinking and asking critical questions – dumb questions – like the ones that children sometimes ask – is important and we should become confident to explore basic principles.

Visual thinking, although it might come across as a fad, I deeply believe is a very basic skill that we have lost confidence in. It is not a technique nor a method, but one of those skills that we as humans are excellent at and should reignite our innate abilities and use it with confidence.

In future posts I will be exploring more frequently issues related directly to problem solving and specifically how to use visuality to make good informed decisions.

There are tons of methods that promise to help us solve problems – I do not criticise any, I only suggest that there is a danger with any approach that promises that if you follow x and y steps this will be the panacea to all your needs.

The only caution I make is that there is the danger that one loses the basic skills to think and hands over control to a method that in many cases has been removed from ‘the context’, thereby loosing the essence of its original intention because it is being used incorrectly or applied incorrectly resulting in and creating more problems than the one’s we truly solve.

We tend to clutch at quick fixes because we deeply fear to make mistakes. This attitude was drilled into us at school. We learned that mistakes are bad, and we were punished for making them in some way. Yet, if you look at the way humans learn, we learn by making mistakes. We learn to walk by falling down. If we had never fallen, we would never have walk. The same with thinking, we need the courage to think again.

As Toni Morrison said, if “You wanna fly, you got to give up the s..t that weighs you down.


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New Forms Of Poetry.

I find the work of Ted Warnell pure visual pleasure. His work is elegant, funny and thoughtful; simple and strong. The beauty of his work is rooted in technology. He uses the new medium to create new forms of communication and meaning by mixing and remixing disparate elements.

Commerce as art is a thread he explores frequently throughout his work. He likes to infuse his work with more than simple representational reality. He refers to it as ‘perceptual realism’ – an objective reality infused with a ‘spirit of life’, resulting in images that have clarity and power.

Various works by Ted Warnell

Various works by Ted Warnell


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Beauty in the Tech Age Part 1

The notion of beauty is one of those cyclical arguments; we will never have a universal set of rules that defines beauty.

The reason for this is really not too complicated – we are all individuals and culturally diverse. The problem is that humans have a tendency to be imperialistic, controlling and arrogant. In our ignorance, we seem to be quite comfortable imposing our value system onto others. Possibly, this is the reason for many of the problems we are faced with today (such as wars and national conflicts) but this is another conversation.

The structuralist paradigm of ‘one size fits all’ is a form of small-minded parochial thinking. For some reason, we are threatened by ‘otherness’. We seem to want to force everyone else to our way of thinking. This is the case with politics and religion, even music. My opinion, my taste, my view is better, correct and the only one acceptable. Why is this the case? I will not attempt to explore this complex question in this post. Rather, I am hoping that we are now in an age where it is not only okay to be unique but, also, we have come to see cultural diversity as something that should be encouraged, respected and celebrated.

Globalization does not help but rather than seeing it as a destructive force, we can see it as a reason to strengthen, invigorate and give us a conceptual base to reinterpret our unique traditions and evolve them within this new context of globalization and technology.

iToday, diversity is ‘beauty’. If we were all exactly the same, that would be a terrifying ‘desert’ and the ‘ideal’ human would very quickly become ugly and boring to us. Beauty is a consequence of the times we live in. It has shifted to being of a passive nature to one where we, as a society, are participants and co-creators.


We need to mature further as humans to accepting and appreciating the pleasure of what other people see and treasure as beautiful.

I will explore beauty in the age of technology next week in Part 2.

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I feel like I have been missing something – SoundCloud has been around since 2007 and I have just stumbled across it quite by accident.

SC Logo

SC Logo

SoundCloud is an online audio distribution platform based in Germany, enabling users to upload, record, promote and share their originally-created sounds.

Co-founder Alex Ljung said in an interview with Wired Magazine:

“We both came from backgrounds connected to music, and it was just really, really annoying for us to collaborate with people on music—I mean simple collaboration, just sending tracks to other people in a private setting, getting some feedback from them, and having a conversation about that piece of music. In the same way that we’d be using Flickr for our photos, and Vimeo for our videos, we didn’t have that kind of platform for our music”.

SoundCloud depicts audio tracks graphically as waveforms. I like it because it is visual, simple to use and people can visually make comments on specific parts of the track (known as time comments). These comments are displayed while listening to the part of the sound they are referring to – seriously ‘nice’. You can re-listen to any section of the track and get to it precisely by simply pointing to it, unlike other systems that you need to remember a number, or slide your clumsy finger on a clumsy slider and hope that you can get to the section that you want to get to.


There are other standard features such as reposts, playlists, followers and complimentary downloads.

SoundCloud also provides users with the ability to create and join groups that provide a common space for content to be collected and shared.

Music is distributed using widgets and apps. The widgets can be placed in individual websites or blogs and SoundCloud automatically tweets every track uploaded. The API (application programming interface) also allows other applications and smartphones to upload or download music and sound files.

I am having a sensory and visual ball!

Rui Having fun. By Rui

Rui Having fun. By Rui


Brain Music by Masaki Batoh

Imagine creating music by simply using your brain. That is exactly what Masaki Batoh (formerly the frontman for the experimental rock group ‘Ghost’ formed in Tokyo in 1984) has done.

By using a science fiction-looking contraption strapped to his head, Masaki is able to generate eerie theremin-like sounds (see Youtube video to see what a Theremin is).

The musical instrument, referred to by Masaki as a BPM or brain pulse machine, consists of headgear and a motherboard. Brain waves are picked up from the parietal and frontal lobes and then sent by radio waves to the motherboard, which then converts the radio waves into a wave pulse that is outputted as sound.

Masaki Batoh - Brain Pulse Music Machine

Masaki Batoh – Brain Pulse Music Machine

The goggles that are part of the BPM have indicator lamps synchronized with the motherboard, allowing the musician to see her/his brain’s musical output. According to Masaki Batoh, it requires quite a bit of practice to learn how to control one’s mind in a way that produces a pleasing sound.

The music might not be to everyone’s liking but it remains fascinating and I think it is the beginning of many new technologies.

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Is Visual Thinking a Science or a Pseudo-Science? Part 1

I will consider this question over two posts; I do this for the simple reason that long posts are difficult to read.

The first part will define the terms science and pseudoscience. The second part considers if Visual Thinking is a science or pseudoscience; after all, visual thinking could be nothing more than a flash in the pan.

The history of any discipline takes shape and emerges in various changing social and intellectual contexts. The boundaries are not predetermined. They are dependent on the conditions of their constitution and also on the developing relationship with other disciplines that are also, in turn, contingent on their own histories.

The history of science is fascinating and the beginnings of all disciplines are rather like a strange attractor forming around forces (contexts), people with like-minded interests and burning questions humans have at the time.

When we say ‘I think scientifically’, we are essentially referring to an objective process of putting claims to rigorous and systematic ‘test’ and to test if beliefs we have about the world are true or not. All scientific knowledge and theories are based on observation and consistent logic. A theory is a logical explanation for observations.

The term ‘test’ refers to a process of investigation of whether the real world behaves as predicted by the hypothesis.

The question is really about how to draw that line of demarcation – the ‘fence’ between science and pseudo-science. For instance, is astrology a science or a pseudo-science?


We might have a gut feeling or even a strong position, but how do we explain the difference in rational terms? Not in  ‘I believe’ terms, but in “I must explain logically” terms’.

Humans have a natural curiosity for understanding the reasons we behave the way we do but, more importantly, we need to be able to make decisions based on fact and we need to be confident that our theories about the world are correct. The reason we develop theories is so we can describe, explain, predict and control. We need to be assured that the knowledge we have is reliable for us in order to make decisions.

It is for this reason that we test and re-test until we start to be confident that the knowledge we have is reliable.

Why do we need to make a distinction? Well, I could state that I believe in fairies that live in the bottom of my garden. Do they? Because I make the statement that they live there – does it make them real?

The point is how do we make the distinction between science and pseudo-science?

image source modified by Rui Martins

image source modified by Rui Martins

The issue of objectivity and subjectivity is a difficult one and not one that we should be flippant about. Postmodernists would argue, as stated by Stephen Gould (evolutionary biologist and a non-Postmodernist) “Science is a social phenomenon… It progresses by hunch, vision, and intuition. Much of its change through time is not a closer approach to absolute truth, but the alteration of cultural contexts that influence it. Facts are not pure information; culture also influences what we see and how we see it. Theories are not inexorable deductions from facts; most rely on imagination, which is cultural.”

In other words, life has just become a little more difficult and not straightforward. Nevertheless, we still need confidence about what we know so as to move forward.

The traditional way to define science is that it is inductive. It builds from individual experiences to theoretical generalizations. This is correct. Science does proceed in this fashion but so does pseudo-science. It is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition for something to be scientific.

Because of this, we need a better qualification to test between science and pseudo-science. The Vienna circle offered the notion of ‘verifiability’ as the mark of science.

What makes something scientific is that it is verifiable. Collected data or empirical evidence is required to verify the theory.

Karl Popper had a problem with this criterion as well. He thought it was too easy – “once your eyes were … opened, you saw confirming instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory”. Once you ‘got it’ one starts to see things and reinterpret them to verify one’s point of view. For instance, seeing Stonehenge and then stating that it was built by extraterrestrials, the same with crop circles etc.


Popper claimed that a theory must, in principle, be falsifiable in order for it to be valid science. A theory must make predictions that can be tested. For example, evolution is theoretically falsifiable. People keep on testing it and, while the results are significant, it remains a scientific truth.

However, at any point in the future, the current ‘truth’ can be falsified when more knowledge and resources (new experiments and technology) become available. In such a situation, if an observation contradicted the principles and falsified the idea of evolution, at first the observation is questioned and if future observations keep on falsifying the theory, the established theory then becomes suspect.

Even Charles Darwin stated: “if it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”

Taking the example of Astrology and Fung Shui for instance, both have a history of disciplines that cannot be disconfirmed. They do not set themselves up to be falsified. They are insulated by the way there have been set up.

Astrology, for example, is a theory that states that our destinies are controlled by the stars under which we were born. This theory has not been put forward in a way that it could be falsified; the history of astrology is not about a group of people looking for ways and tests to falsify the theory (i.e. looking for falsifications in order to look for better theories). Instead, it is a history of people making money from fortune-telling.

The way to build a pseudoscience is to build a theory that cannot be falsified. There is nothing that can be said or tested that can defeat the theory. Any argument can be rejected and deflected.

For instance, going back to the ‘fairies that live at the bottom of my garden’ – If I say the fairies are invisible and undetectable by any means that can be manipulated by mammals – there is nothing that can be said to disprove this statement. It cannot be tested by touch or CT scans. It is invisible to all mammals (humans are mammals – no argument). It cannot be falsified – it is a pseudoscience. Unfalsification has been built into the theory.

Another way to build a pseudoscience theory is to make it a moving target, where the theory changes slightly when scrutinized. An example is the Ptolemaic Astronomy theory of the universe – the planets and the Sun circle the Earth. However, this is easily falsified by simply plotting the motion of Mars across the sky – we see retrograde motion (observed backward motion of the planet). The theory then gets quickly modified to say that there are invisible pivots that circle the Earth around which planets turn and this appears to address the issue of retrograde motion.

The Ptolemaic system of the universe explained many things and defined which questions were legitimate and which should not be asked.

The Ptolemaic system of the universe explained many things and defined which questions were legitimate and which should not be asked.

Unfortunately, this theory does not fit careful observations of Mars either – oops! The theory is further modified by saying that the planet circles around a point that circles around another point that circles around the Earth. We can then keep on adding post hoc modifications to the theory. All this is the ideal making of a pseudoscience. If one does this often enough, the theory becomes unfalsifiable.

A footnote to the Ptolemaic Astronomy – the reason that people at the time expended so much effort in forcing this theory was that they were obsessed with their belief that the Universe could be described through elegant and beautiful mathematics, which in turn enabled them ‘logically’ to mathematically calculate and predict their future and when some event would occur. What is fascinating is that even Galileo is on record as having cast astrological maps for his children. That is how powerful a theory can be, even if false, on the way we live our lives.

For this reason, I think it is important that we seek to know that what we are basing our decisions on is as accurate as possible and not some falsehood that makes us build castles for the fairies living at the bottom of my garden!

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Heat Maps

Heat Maps is a simple yet powerful technique that leverages the human’s superior visual cognitive capacity to gain deeper and faster insights into data and information.

Cormac Kinney coined the term in 1991 to describe a 2D-display depicting real-time financial market information.

A heat map is any data visualization that uses color to represent data values in a two-dimensional image. A simple heat map provides an immediate visual summary of information. More elaborate heat maps allow the viewer to understand complex data sets.

There are many different types of heat maps used in different disciplines, each referred to by the term “heat map”, even though they use different visualization techniques.

The reason heat maps work so well is because of our ‘Pre-attentive Processing’ ability. The term refers to the ability of the low-level human visual system to rapidly identify properties, such as color and size, in less than 250 milliseconds.

According to Van der Heijden, we unconsciously accumulate information from the environment ,which is pre-attentively processed. The brain filters and processes what is important based on what stands out the most. Once the individual’s attention is captured (based on what is of relevance to what the individual is thinking), at that point the information is selected for further and more complete analysis by conscious (attentive) processing.

It is a two-stage process, which happens in seconds, and this is why heat maps are so powerful.

Heat maps are being used in many sectors and that is great. The best way to demonstrate these is to show you examples. I use some examples as shown by John Brandon in a slide presentation.


Marketing people created the map above. By using eye-tracking devices, a heat map is created showing where attention of the user is focused on display pages. The map above is a sample heat map of a Google search result.

A dominant pattern for search engine results is the “F” pattern showing the eye being drawn to the upper left (hot colors) and then moving down and across from there (shown as the blue colors). There are, however, factors (such as the inclusion of images, graphics, and additional columns) that can significantly alter this pattern.

This heat map displays risk by location. It was created by RMS (risk management company) to show risks related to catastrophic events: Earthquakes, hurricanes, severe storms (including tornados and hail), wind storms, wildfires and volcanoes. An insurance company might use it to determine the “probability of loss” related to such an event.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 9.39.20 am

This heat map shows the reality of fraud attempts in real-time using live data. A red dot pops up to show a fraud attempt. ThreatMatrix culls the data from 1,950 customers, which includes about 9,000 websites, and tracks about 360,000 cyberattacks per day.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 9.38.35 am

This heat map from MarketProphit shows buzz and sentiment around specific stocks. The larger blocks indicate the most buzz (or discussion) around a stock as culled from Twitter. The colors show sentiment; the red blocks denote negative comments and the green denotes positive comments. In an instant, financial planners can see general trends with stocks based on social media posts.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 9.37.58 am

This heat map shows the movements of customers in a retail store aisle. Red areas represent the spots where most customers shop. Retailers can use the heat map for product placements and to see whether a sales campaign was successful.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 9.37.22 am

This heat map shows the age of buildings in the Portland, Ore. area. About 544,000 structures are represented, including about 4,500 erected in the 1800s and 10,265 buildings constructed in 1978 alone.

Justin Palmer created this heat maps based on public data released by the City of Portland. It shows the age of buildings. This can help municipalities see which neighborhoods hold the greatest concentration of structures that may need repairs.

Click on the link ( to see the map in large scale, iit s beautiful. It shows the nearly 10 million buildings in the Netherlands; some in central Amsterdam are more than 1,000 years old.

Some would argue that heat maps are very specific – “the heat map is a treemap-like graphical technique used to represent a two-dimensional array of data” as shown in the example below.


Many techniques illustrated in this post, as argued by the purists, are not heat maps. I agree and I disagree. The principle of using color to very quickly highlight the issues of concern, attention or importance is extremely valuable and it is a perfect example of how we work better with visuals than with coded jargon. The fact that it is called a heat map – well, does it matter? Notionally, it is a perfect description even though it might not be as it was originally labeled – I think this is a good and natural evolution of the principles. I will call these techniques ‘heat maps’ – it works and it is powerful.