July 20, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: July 20th 2020

  • Why does DARPA work? Interesting look at one of the few research "innovation agencies" that has worked. This should be something that anyone setting up things like Innovate UK.
  • When data is messy. AI thinks a tench looks like human fingers against a green background. This is why we need to be able to explain why machine learning has made the choices it has, and why we need regulation to cover unexpected cases and consequences.
  • Ten Things I Have Learned by Milton Glaser.
  • History Will Judge the Complicit. You could write a similar article to this replacing Trump et al with Johnson, Commings etc. The country needs more of the Tories outside the inner cabal to find their decency and speak out.
  • Just Too Efficient. More efficiency is the sort of maxim that at first glance seems sensible, but really it's one that should be "as efficient as necessary, but not more".
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July 18, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

I first read Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland in the early 2000s. Obviously before I'd started blogging all dog-eared pages. The overriding message I took from it then was that at some point you have to declare your "art" finished and release it into the world to be judged or ignored or... The quotes around "art" there are mine, because back when I first read it I was applying it to my product development work rather than any art.

I still don't identify primarily as an artist, but it is part of what I do these days. Not that it matters, the wisdom in the book is similarly applicable to anyone developing their professional practice. I felt like I could do with a reminder of the importance of getting things out into the world, that "real artists ship", so I've read it again.

Since reading it, the work is the work has become a new mantra, a way to remind myself that producing any of the things that I want to bring into the world is work and isn't always meant to be fun. It's been a practical means to shake myself out of more reading-interesting-things-on-the-Internet or whatever and to get on with the thing I'm subconsciously putting off.

Page 3

[...] the fear that your fate is in your own hands, but that your hands are weak.

But while talent — not to mention fate, luck and tragedy — all play their role in human destiny, they hardly rank as dependable tools for advancing your own art on a day-to-day basis.


Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work.

Page 4

The sane human being is satisfied that the best he/she can do at any given moment is the best he/she can do at any given moment. That belief, if widely embraced, would make this book unnecessary, false, or both. Such sanity is, unfortunately, rare. Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did. In fact, if artmaking did not tell you (the maker) so enormously much about yourself, then making art that matters to you would be impossible. To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork. The viewers' concerns are not your concerns (although it's dangerously easy to adopt their attitudes.) Their job is whatever it is: to be moved by art, to be entertained by it, to make a killing off it, whatever. Your job is to learn to work on your work.

Page 14

More often, though, fears rise in those entirely appropriate (and frequently recurring) moments when vision races ahead of execution Consider the story of the young student—well, David Bayles, to be exact—who began piano studies with a Master. After a few months' practice, David lamented to his teacher, "But i can hear the music so much better in my head than I can get out of my fingers."

To which the Master replied, "What makes you think that ever changes?"

Page 17

As Stanley Kunitz once commented, "The poem in the head is always perfect. Resistance begins when you try to convert it into language." And it's true, most artists don't daydream about making great art—they daydream about having made great art.

Page 21

Control, apparently, is not the answer. People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive, complicated, iffy, suggestive or spontaneous. What's really needed is nothing more than a broad sense of what you are looking for, some strategy for how to find it, and an overriding willingness to embrace mistakes and surprises along the way. Simply put, making art is chancy—it doesn't mix well with predictability. Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art. And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding.

Page 28

Artists get better by sharpening their skills or by acquiring new ones; they get better by learning to work, and by learning from their work. They commit themselves to the work of their heart, and act upon that commitment. So when you ask, "Then why doesn't it come easily for me?", the answer is probably, "Because making art is hard!" What you end up caring about is what you do, not whether the doing came hard or easy.

Page 36

The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work. To see them, you need only look at the work clearly—without judgement, without need or fear, without wishes or hopes. Without emotional expectations. Ask your work what it needs, not what you need. Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.

Page 52

Making art is bound by where we are, and the experience of art we have as viewers is not a reliable guide to where we are.

Page 54

Today artists often back away from engaging the times and places of Art. But it's an artificial construct that begins and ends at the gallery door. Apart from the readership of Artforum, remarkably few people lose sleep trying to incorporate gender-neutral biomorphic deconstructivism into their personal lives. As Adam Gopnik remarked in The New Yorker, "Post-modernist art is, above all, post-audience art."

Page 60

Equally, it must have been just plain helpful when J.S. Back committed to writing a prelude and fugue in each of the twenty-four keys, since each time he sat down to compose he at least had a place to start. ("Let's see, I haven't begun to work on the F-sharp minor yet...") Working within the self-imposed discipline of a particular form eases the prospect of having to reinvent yourself with each new piece.

The discovery of useful forms is precious. Once found, they should never be abandoned for trivial reasons.

Page 66

Many attempts to introduce art to the larger world simply give evidence of the uneasy fit in our society between economics and beliefs.

Page 68

A reminder from history: the American Revolution was not financed with matching Grants from the Crown.

Page 72

Fear that you're not getting your fair share of recognition leads to anger and bitterness. Fear that you're not as good as a fellow artist leads to depression.

Page 73

In not knowing how to tell yourself that your work is OK, you may be driven to the top of the heap in trying to get the rest of the world to tell you.

In theory this is a perfectly valid approach—the tricky part is finding the right yardstick for measuring your accomplishments. What makes competition in the arts a slippery issue is simply that there's rarely any consensus about what your best work is.

Page 89

Books on art, even books on artists, characteristically have little to say about actually making art. They may offer a sprinkling of romantic parables about "the artist's struggle", but the prevailing premise remains that art is clearly the province of genius (or, on occasion, madness). Accepting this premise leads inescapably to the conclusion that while art should be understood or enjoyed or admired by the reader, it most certainly should not be done by the reader. And once that kinship between reader and artist has been denied, art itself becomes a strange foreign object—something to be pointed to and poked at from a safe analytical distance. To the critic, art is a noun.

Clearly, something's getting lost in the translation here. What gets lost, quite specifically, is the very thing artists spend the better part of their lives doing: namely, learning to make work that matters to them. What artists learn from other artists is not so much history or technique (although we learn tons of that too); what we really gain from the artmaking of others is courage-by-association. Depth of contact grows as fears are shared—and thereby disarmed—and this comes from embracing art as process, and artists as kindred spirits. To the artist, art is a verb.

Page 108

What gets lost in that interpretation [that art is about self-expression] is an older sense that art is something you do out in the world, or something you do about the world, or even something you do for the world. The need to make art may not stem solely from the need to express who you are, but from a need to complete a relationship with something outside yourself. As a maker of art you are custodian of issues larger than self.

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July 11, 2020

Small Groups and the DoES Liverpool Salon

A few weeks ago in her fortnightnotes Laura James pointed to The Small Group, an article exploring what defines the je ne sais quoi of groups like the Bloomsbury Group or the Homebrew Computer Club and the like.

I held off reading it for a while, as it felt like something that I'd want to write about and would need a bit of time for that. Seems I was right.

I'm a firm believer that these long-lived, small and reasonably close-knit groups of peers are important places to nurture each other's practice, encourage explorations of new ideas and to change things. Brian Eno calls this a scenius, and there's a reason I often quote him in talks I give about DoES Liverpool.

I think I've been part of a few small groups, although only with any "success" (more on that later) since I moved to Liverpool.

Initially it was the Geekup Liverpool group, which basically gave birth to DoES Liverpool. That's been a key group for me over the past decade.

Francis Irving and I also explicitly tried to conjure up one, based loosely on his experiences with a group in Cambridge that spawned mySociety and other civic tech, and my occasional appearances at the sadly-victim-of-Covid-and-London-property Shepherdess "salon". While it led to an enjoyable regular breakfast crowd, it didn't quite spark in the way we'd hoped.

That sense of something missing, of almost-but-not-quite, lingers on.

It's not something I can ever properly pin down.

It could be that it's a more diverse group and so isn't as focused on coding, given my current feeling of going-it-alone with my "15 minute city" experiments, despite the group exploring interesting maker and activist avenues.

There's probably a hefty dose of the perennial grass-is-greener of watching other groups seem more successful.

And I think a lot is a frustration that we're not fully realising our potential. I see so many ideas and work lying around, not having the impact they could, seemingly perpetually overlooked, with people picking away at them often as an extra-curricular activity, rather than being able to devote themselves to it full time. I think that's what I mean when I put "success" in quotes earlier.

Maybe this is always what it feels like in the middle of the scenius, and it's only truly apparent to outsiders or with hindsight. Maybe we're just not as good as I'd hope we are. Maybe we just need to talk about what we're doing, and about what we see each other doing, more. Maybe it just needs one of us to break through to the next level and then help the rest up.

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