The term Poka Yoke is a Japanese manufacturing term in use since the early 1960s. Literally meaning “mistake-proofing,” the intention behind Poka Yoke is to eliminate production defects and prevent human errors from occurring. “Continual activity and excitement seem to me a true perception of the nature of things,” wrote the poet Kenneth Koch. “Because everything is always changing and turning into something else, and, as we’re sitting here talking, monkeys are jumping around in the trees, and waves are going across the Hudson, and new poets are being born, and covers are coming off books—I mean, all sorts of things are going on.”
In January of 1927, Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa returned from a year of self-imposed exile. Tormented by chronic insomnia and haunted by his brother’s recent suicide, Akutagawa’s writing had grown increasingly bleak and dystopian. The next six months saw an explosion of prolific creativity, resulting in some of Akutagawa’s finest works. Still, he lived an unhappy life of despair and self-loathing. In the early hours of July 24, on one of the hottest days of the year, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa took a fatal dose of the barbiturate Veronal and passed away quietly on his futon. The reason he gave for his impending suicide was “vague anxiety about my future.”
In 2007, researchers at the University of London developed a flexible screen-printed tabletop called the History Tablecloth. When objects were placed on the Tabletop surface, its electroluminescent material formed a grid of glowing, lace-like patterns. The longer an object rested on the table, the further the halo expanded; upon removing the object, the halo of patterns slowly faded to nothing. It seems that everyone, even University of London scientists, wants to gain a small degree of immortality by leaving some sort of imprint on the world. Perhaps this is why people feel compelled to carve their initials into trees and public park benches.
“You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.” So says Jeremy England, assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who developed a mathematical formula that explains the fundamental components of life. Put simply: when an external source of energy is applied to a grouping of matter, under certain conditions the matter will gradually restructure itself in order to disperse more energy. Depressingly, biological evolution is thus translated into an engineering algorithm; we exist merely as a palette of things to be taken apart and put back together.
Forgetting is a form of closure. Existentialist literature considers forgetfulness to be an essential attribute of the human condition. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera described characters for whom the “space [of memory] is an obstacle to progress.” The Danish philosophy Søren Kierkegaard once noted, “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.” Jean-Paul Sartre sang, “Ha! To forget. How childish! How can you keep yourself from existing?” And Charles Bukowski advises us to never forget anything, ever, because “There is always somebody or something waiting for you.”
In September 2009, the Bulgarian lottery randomly selected 4, 15, 23, 24, 35 and 42 as its winning numbers. Precisely four days later, those exact same numbers were drawn again by the same lottery. According to mathematician David J. Hand, this event was due to what he calls the “law of combinations.” Each time a lottery result is drawn, surprisingly, there’s an increasing chance that it will contain the same numbers produced in any previous draw. (The formula is n x (n –1)/2, if you’re interested). “Given enough opportunities,” writes Hand, “we should always expect a specified event to happen, no matter how unlikely it may be at each opportunity.”
In 15th-century Europe, only 1 in 20 males could read. Writing was an even rarer skill. The advent of the printing press allowed content to be mass-produced at greater volumes than before. The scribes of the 18th-century, who wrote on bound paper pulp, have today been replaced by millions of social media pontificators transmitting to 4.5 billion tiny screens worldwide. Technology is not neutral in such things. The release of one’s thoughts to a willing audience, however, does not necessarily render oneself an “expert” no matter how many eyeballs they reach. What we call “expertise” is an ongoing negotiation, determined by historical context.
In genetic science, a palindromic sequence is when the nucleic composition of double-stranded DNA forms a double helix. Interpreting a palindrome through music is a comparatively simple challenge: record something, play it backwards, then butt the two ends together to arrive at a “forward + backward” outcome. Voila, instant palindrome! Nothing worthwhile is ever easy, however. A typical piece improves reductively, methodically, spanning several iterations. It takes a long time to filter out the dodgy playing and sour notes to unearth whatever good stuff lies beneath. Sort of like how the taste of fruit juice is improved by removing its bitter tartrates.
Next time you misplace your keys, try thinking like an ant. Ants solve problems collectively by secreting messages to other ants called pheromones. When an ant finds a source of food, it walks back to the colony leaving markers discoverable to other ants. Upon learning that that the marked trail leads to food, more ants populate the path with their own pheromones. The more ants who travel the path, the more markers are dropped. Once the food source is depleted, the ants cease populating the trail and any remaining pheromones left behind slowly decay. And just like humans, ants prefer shorter trails with stronger signals. Less work for more reward, apparently.
In the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, space and time are mere formalities; the way we perceive events is independent from the event itself. This is what Kant called a noumenon, literally meaning “the thing in itself,” to describe the gap between an object’s properties and our ability to cognize it into existence. Ah, but matters of the heart are not so easily compartmentalized. One wonders how Kant might interpret the condition of grieving. The passing of a loved one serves as a thing in itself, coupled with a persistent, smoldering melancholy that muddles our comprehension of what’s real and what isn’t. Sometimes the world just makes no sense at all.