I loathe the word, Serendipity.  It has that air of whimsy and a slight bit of sophistication to it, and it is not used, generally, in a colloquial fashion, such as its shorter-synonym-cousin, luck, but I still dislike the word.  You would never hear people buying lottery tickets say, “Oh boy, the gods are with me on this one; I feel a fortunate streak of serendipity is upon me.”  It is entirely possible that the lottery ticket crowd and the crowd who use serendipity, when placed in a venn diagram, would not overlap.  Needless to say, I stuck with Serendipity as the title because it fits best with what I hope to layout.

Most weeks, the Computer Science & Engineering department present colloquia on various computer science topics.  Topics are generally heavily weighted toward stroking your inner comp sci nerd: Systems-level insights from large-scale combinatorial perturbation experiments in yeast, or Mining Billion-Node Graphs – Patterns and Algorithms.  Several weeks ago (October 8, 2012), my manager asked if I wanted to attend a colloquium in Comp Sci.  The topic: Interactive Information Visualizations for Everyday Practices.  It was presented by Dr. Sheelagh Carpendale from the University of Calgary.

In a too warm and likely over capacity room in Keller Hall, Dr. Carpendale presented a very non-bits-and-bytes colloquium.  The thesis was simple: A good visualization provokes interpretation, exploration and appreciation, inviting direct interaction that reveals the data contents. How can we produce interactive visualizations of digital data in a manner that enhances people’s cognitive abilities?

The visualization techniques and technologies were quite interesting and offered excellent design-eye-candy. However, the one take away that really stuck with me was that of observing the world around you and how, simply being aware of your surroundings, it would increase your serendipity.

“Increasing your observation of the world around you, increases your own serendipity.”

In Japan, you will find these cats with a raised paw all over the country. They are called maneki-nekos.  They are a symbol of good luck or good fortune.  The raised paw is often thought to beckon you come in or to proceed.  The maneki-neko is supposed to bring people good fortune; increasing your serendipity, if you may.

Several stories try to layout the lore behind the maneki-neko.  One is that of tragedy, misjudgment, and eventual atonement for a wrong.  A woman’s swordsman-friend is visiting her. At some point the man, thinking the woman’s cat is trying to attack her, kills the cat by decapitating it.  The severed head flies through the air, and with its fangs sticking out, it kills a poisonous snake that was unseen by neither the swordsman nor the woman.  The swordsman, feeling terrible, travels to the best woodsmith in the land and has a cat with paw raise carved.

A second version of the story is that of a poor woman having to sell her cat.  The cat appears to her in a dream and tells her to make its image in clay.  She does so, and people take notice.  They want their own clay cat.  She makes and sells more, and she eventually becomes very wealthy.

The maneki-neko is symbolic of good fortune, but it is rooted in myth and folklore.  I could go on with that theme of certain ideas being rooted in myth and folklore, but I am almost certain I would piss off some people.  I much prefer Dr. Carpendale’s idea of being aware of your surroundings and the act of being aware will be far more beneficial than just blindly relying on luck, whatever that may be.