Category Archives: Creative Arts

Sub-atomic Idea Collider – too much WIP

Long-time readers of this blog may remember when I build the SIC out of recycled Internet meme-pipes and any random noise I had lying around. The basic engineering principle was that creativity happens when ideas collide, so by maximising the number of streams, then crossing them, I could get the Internet to super-charge my creative process. In no time at all I had started three different books.

Lean practice puts a maximum limit on Work-In-Progress. The less you do, the faster you will achieve, the quicker you will deliver value.

The Bad News:

  • You can either be creative or efficient.
  • You can be really competitive or really care about quality.
  • You can be decisive or know about the details.

Compromise is balance. It’s a Yin and Yang thang.

I shall probably continue to oscillate between the two, attempting to optimise cadence. I may come back to cadence when I feel I really understand what it is.

Slack(er) in the system

Someone told me recently that there is no point in ‘knowing’, as other people only value you for what you ‘do’. While I’ve been writing, the two have been intimately linked.  I’ve experimented to confirm my hypothesis that the less focused I am, the more conceptual connections I make and creative ideas I have, suggesting that in any period of time, productivity and creativity lie in opposite directions. I grow ever more certain that creative ideas are what allows humans to make our great leaps forward, so that things we thought needed to be done efficiently become irrelevant.

Society should be more tolerant of us slackers, dreamers, artists, pure researchers, collectors of tales; those who are interested in odd things to an unhealthy degree. Productivity kills innovation. Efficiency drives stifle improvement and increase entropy.

WARNING: Too much ‘management’ may be harmful.

Joining the Sets

I admit that I can, on occasion, be obsessive. That isn’t entirely true. I’m obsessive most of the time, but about a wide variety of these things, so to the casual observer I can look like a fairly rounded person. I made a list once and it gave the impression of someone who had traded his marbles for any uncollected items at a pawn-broker’s that were small, spherical and intellectually shiny.

One of my ‘Things’ is the enjoyment I take in finding connections between apparently unrelated people. Imagine therefore my unbounded joy when I discovered a historic house in a town I thought I knew quite well that I had previously been completely unaware of. I’m going to leave it as a puzzle for the reader to identify a couple who would have had as visitors the following:

Lord Byron, father of Countess Ada Lovelace and his mistress Lady Caroline Lamb, believed to be the person who coined the phrase “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” about him, on their first meeting.

Sir Walter Scott who wrote the book ‘Rob Roy’ about the man who built canoes and made the only sport I’ve ever taken seriously popular in Britain. Also the reason I know the town.

Josiah Wedgwood, Staffordshire potter and member of The Lunar Society of Birmingham, Lichfield and Walsall.

Queen Charlotte, mother of Princess Charlotte after whom I think the famous rock pub in Leicester was named, where I saw The Von Bondies for the second time in 2 days. They were also the first band I saw 10 times. Which ISN’T WEIRD!

Obviously none of this was a coincidence. I take it as new evidence that in every place and era, the interesting people with ideas find each other and find somewhere to hang out together. I bet the Kardashians know Lord Sugar. Of course, a title has always helped to make you appear more interesting. I must find out where you buy those.


It appears that quizzes are not a big hit on my blog but in case anyone is interested, the couple were: The Ladies of Lllangollen.

Their house is ‘the new place’ and it’s valley garden on the Autumn day we visited was both beautiful and Tolkienesque.

Inside the Virtual Box

After its Autumn maintenance shutdown, the Large Idea Collider is back up to operating temperature. I’ve run a few simple tests in the shower this morning (the cooling system?)

A link provided by video provocateur showed a dancer interacting with a digital grid, projected onto an invisible net box in which she performed. It reminded me of a band called ‘Mad Action’, that I saw in about 2003. They were a 2-piece who performed inside a 3-sided white box onto which were projected the shadows of 2 other virtual musicians, probably also them, who were also playing on a pre-recorded backing track. Their ‘real world shadows’ were also cast onto the sheet. The audience experience was a combination of reality and projection from a virtual world and different from those trapped inside the boxes, arguably more ‘real’.

For quite a while, I’ve been using the Internet slang IRL (In Real Life) fairly sarcastically, as a large proportion of my life seems to take part in this semi-virtual domain. Obviously, I’m not alone here, @euan regularly talks about his networked life,

As already reported, the time-shifted video of Hal Abelson’s ( 6.001 course at MIT re-enforced my belief that process (and therefore software) exists outside of our gravitational field. It is a world in which, he argues, we can do anything we can imagine. He must lack imagination but we can do ALMOST anything.

The question then, is: where is the Human Computer Interface now? Forget that question! Half of the computational machinery I use is virtual too. Where is the boundary between reality and our (almost) wildest dreams?

Here’s a woman dancing in a virtual box. Or is it the other way around?

p.s. Is this what famous mathematician Charles Dodgson was grasping for, in his philosophical book about mirrors?

Who Pays For a Counter-Culture?

Do you remember the Summer of Love? No, nor me; of course I wouldn’t, because I was there. I wasn’t spaced out on LSD, or making free love with hippy chicks. I was being Seven. I was wearing a flower-power tie with a bottle-green, knobbly leather-buttoned, home-knit cardigan, if dim memories of photographic records are to be believed and I don’t see why anyone would make up such a cruel lie.

What happened to the counter-culture revolution?

The trouble with revolutions is that they break things and when things are broken, thuggery flourishes, alongside the arts, like a Beatnik on a bongo. The problem with dropping out of society, is that you still need to eat and society has the food. Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ tells the story of the gradual slide into petty theft of a band of travelling poets. Most revolutions seem to be instigated by the educated, ungrateful children of the Middle Classes. I guess they are the ones with the time. Every revolution seems to have its poets, “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.

Punk was both inspired and financed by the dole, just as theater, music and art had been funded by the state since the 60s, when hippies rejected materialism, preferring to live off their wealthy parents or the welfare state. Wars are started by the rich and manned by the great unwashed, like production lines. At least genuine counter-cultures are equal opportunity employers. No-one stands much of a chance.

Karl Marx predicted that people would rise up  when the inequality gap got so wide, civilised behaviour would get sucked into the void but the Russians got impatient and hurried things along, so we don’t know much anger would it take to give UK sufficient momentum to change. Where were the warning shots of poetry this time? Perhaps in rap, where old beatniks, hippies & punks won’t hear them, because they’re still fighting the last older generation.

Hacktervism as a Distributed Team Sport with a Youth League

My list of interests includes tech, art and politics but I’ve never tried doing them all at once before. The inaugural meeting of Open Rights Group Birmingham recently was the ‘a first time for everything’ moment.  I found the way the techies, artists and political infuencers came at an issue with their own practices suggested that we could do great things together.
Twitter: @OpenRightsBrum

Last week, as a volunteer mentor at Birmingham City University for Young Rewired State’s Festival of Code 2015, I was on more familiar territory of working with a group of young techies with a shared product development goal. Neither I nor my fellow mentors Simon & Bhish had been involved before and as the week wore on, we knew our emphasis needed to shift from working prototype to presentation skills. We suspected that we were slightly out of our depth in this area and that was before we saw the competition.

Even in the heats, there were no bad ideas. Some of the teams presented with such incredible passion and strength of personality, that it was easy to miss that they hadn’t shown any evidence that they had written any code that worked. Our team had gone from 6 quiet kids who’d never met on Monday, to a functional team developing front and back end systems in parallel and delivering a working prototype for an earthquake detection and mapping system by Thursday evening. They can be very proud of themselves but they were not selected for the semi-final. I hope they’ll continue working on their product.

I noticed that there appeared to be a divide between kids who had become skillful coders then looked for something to do with that skill and the teams who want to change the world so are learning to code. Imagine if they could get together in multi-skilled teams, including people with great artistic and presentation skills. They’d be unstoppable.

Last night, I went to a party with Dudley Green Party and Natalie Bennett was the unofficial guest of honour. She said it had proved difficult to organise IT with volunteers. I think it could be done, if you had a few cat-herders, a broad mix of skills to draw on and a distributed development model. First, find your Green hackers; then find out which night they have least homework.

The Economics of Free Culture

I’ve spent the last 18 months in a period of self-development: learning, thinking and writing. There has been a vague idea of something ‘book-like’ at the end of the process that might generate an income but, to date, I have earned nothing. I am a kept man. In Mrs. Woos words recently, “It’s lucky you can occasionally make me laugh or you’d be dead”.

Last night I gave a 10 (11) minute talk in the form of a book review of a series of blog posts. I did all the preparation between 2pm and 5pm, without too many distractions and it was more structured than my normal on-the-fly blog posts. Ignoring the ideas that I slipped in from the previous research, this is the best data I have from which I can measure my writing productivity.

If we assume a rather optimistic income of £50,000 a year for a writer and an optimistic 2 weeks per year holiday (due to the constand flow of work, at steady rate which I can satisfy), we get a nice round target of £1,000 per week to aim for, or £100 per half day. So, to have a comfortable life as a writer, I would need to find someone willing to pay me £100 for a page of writing that I hadn’t even had to research, or at least double that if if they wanted me to go somewhere to present it, plus expenses. So, £250 per 10 minute speaking engagement or they could just read it here for nothing and I could get a bar job like most artists and musicians I know. As everything becomes free, our creative economy is imploding. I need a new commercial model.

Let’s imagine there was a micro-payment system for this blog. How cheap does information have to be, to compete with free, when people are drowning in an information flood? The Free culture of the Information Revolution is doing for new writers what karaoke did for pub singers.

For the first time in my life, I’m asking myself, “What would Simon Cowell do?” and the implications of that are too horrible to contemplate. When my childhood in the Sixties promised a future of 50% leisure time to weave a new kaftan or write poetry, I imagined the wealth and the leisure would be distributed evenly. I should have considered the broken promises of the industrial revolution to save us all from toil.

A Gravitational Map of Cities

I recently made a light-hearted comment that Birmingham exerts a gravitational pull on its surrounding area. The same would be true to an even greater extent for London and that extends nationwide and beyond. This caused me to  remember reading a few months ago an economic observation that the average income of people in a city tends to increase with size because the number of paths for individuals to network and cooperate grows exponentially. This leads economists to extrapolate to a future in which most of the human population of Earth lives in densely populated mega-cities.

In contrast to this, for several years, I’ve been observing the gradual breakdown of hierarchy in companies, creative ‘industries’ and local politics (and yes, the star architecture of a city is a tree, drawn from above/below; a hierarchy. Hello, London outer-zone low-life.) Yet, the high-flying city worker’s dream is often to retire to a country cottage, away from the madness.

So why live in cities? The Internet has made it possible for us to belong to several distributed tribes, to “network” in a geography-free way, and yet… I’ve recently felt drawn by the culture of a place. I’ve joined, a network of “hipsters, hackers & hustlers”, in and around Brum’s thriving ‘digital startup scene’. This netizen is feeling confused.

When I don’t know what I think, I draw pictures. When I don’t yet have an image in my head, I talk to people or get software to draw the picture for me. This time, I didn’t even know what software to use. I asked my local(ish) community if anyone knew of software that drew gravitational maps. I wasn’t sure what the question meant at the time, either:

I think my mental image is becoming a bit clearer now: I imagine a map of the UK showing a circle for each of the n largest cities, proportional to it’s size (population / area, since the definition of city limits are fairly arbitrary. Cities will need to be broken down further, perhaps into post-codes, electoral wards or boroughs. I think employment opportunities, incomes and living costs will become relevant at a later stage, to fully explain population movement but let’s keep the model as simple as possible, for now. Represent these circles by a number, analogous to the mass of a planet or star then ‘do physics’. Clearly these celestial bodies are unusual because they have fixed relative positions but their populations feel the pull of other cities, just as the oceans of Earth experience the forces which lead to tidal movements.

How hard can it be to turn this into a software model? Maybe I’ve found an itch I can  scratch with code <cleans cobwebs off skillz>.

A Last Look Through the Analogue Window

After a day in Frome, Somerset and an overnight stay nearby we had a whole day to get home. The book of National Trusting was consulted and I stuck the virtual pin in ‘Lacock Abbey, Fox Talbot Museum and Village’.

As a photographer (isn’t everyone now), I was aware that Henry Fox Talbot had played an important part in the early development of photography. Later we learned that our man Fox had lost the race to bring the first photographic process to market, to Loius Daguerre. Talbot’s process developed ideas from John Herschel (son of William) and Thomas Wedgewood (yes, Lunar Society babs, son of Josiah.) Science was a popular hand-me-down in the top British society families.

The key break-through made by Talbot was the development of a viable process for the production of a negative image, allowing reproduction of images. The oldest negative in existence is this photograph of a window in Fox Talbot’s family home.


Fox Talbot is believed to have become interested in photography because he had little artistic talent and felt left out when the rest of his family were sketching. He wanted to automate the artistic process. In later life he gave up photography because he realised that others were still able to produce better images than him. His daughters all became talented watercolourists each with noticeably different personal style. A room in the house is dedicated to their paintings. The Abbey was sold during the Reformation but in an unusual act of good taste, the new owner left the ground floor in its original state and converted only the nun’s living quarters into an unusual family home, without major disruption to the original architecture.

Access to the upper floor was by guided tour. We moved quickly but as I passed the famous window I just had to take a grab-shot with my phone camera, in DIGITAL.


During the tour of the museum, as I looked at the collection of old cameras, I realised that the inheritance line of printing from analogue, negative images that started in 1835 has ended for mainstream photography. Only art can keep it alive.

But is IT art?

What is IT? It’s Information Technology, clearly but why is it that rather than “Information and Communication Technology”, as UK schools call it? Is communication simply information on the move? Are messages only data in transit? Conversely, ‘are’ data messages that have been frozen? Is communication more than messages? Perhaps communication is related to messages as information is related to data?

What are data, information, knowledge, wisdom and enlightenment? Most of modern computer science is built upon Claude Shannon’s Information Theory:

“Information theory is a branch of applied mathematics, electrical engineering, and computer science” How would the worlds of applied mathematics, electrical engineering, and computer science take it if I publish a book that points out that Shannon’s definition of Information is, at best, unhelpful and possibly wearing holey clothes? Well, I’m sure that because of the enquiring minds of scientists etc.

In ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’:, Shannon said,

“The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem. The significant aspect is that the actual message is one selected from a set of possible messages.”

Shannon’s theory appears not to relate to what we would now call ‘information’ at all but to data or even pattern.

Since we are questioning the foundations of computer science, what is art?  Is art everywhere?

Donald Knuth produced a 3-volume ‘Art of Computer Programming’. Clearly he saw the creation of new algorithms as a creative act.

Does Software Engineering deserve it’s name? Or is it Software Craftsmanship? Agile software development is a recognition that the project management methods from hard engineering cannot be applied to software, where the butterfly effect of uncertainties in requirements can lead to chaos. Agile works by leaving decisions later in the process when a feedback loop from incrementally delivered software better informs the requirements and allows emergent designs. But are Agile/Lean teams doing incremental delivery ever able to create beautiful design? Does great art/design need an architect who owns and drives the creative vision?

I remember going to a talk about Smalltalk where the speaker claimed that “No worthwhile piece of software has ever been written by a team of more than 2, maybe 3 people.” to an audience largely made up of the Inland Revenue IT department.

How to make friends and influence people. You know that Shannon bloke? Pah!