Archive for the ‘creative thinking’ Category

When coffee & convenience were the mothers of invention: the roots of the Webcam

Having spent a large chunk of the last three weeks on Zoom (shares up 30%), Skype and the like, whilst drinking lashings of coffee, it is interesting to reflect on the device that has made this all possible and its humble origins in my alma mater, Cambridge.

The inspiration for the world’s first webcam came from a coffee pot next to the Trojan Room in the old Computer Laboratory of Cambridge University. In 1991 the computer scientists working there rigged up an early form of webcam (in greyscale) so those further from the room could monitor the level of coffee in the pot and stop missing out on the black stuff. At first it was an internal system running at a low frame rate but after a while (Nov 1993) someone thought to connect it to the World Wide Web and it became something of an early internet star (the web equivalent of a silent movie star). People from round the globe checked out the coffee levels in the lab. Because they were on different time zones a lamp was introduced to cover the evening and night.

Trojan_Room_coffee_pot_xcoffee

XCoffee was the client software written by QSF

The coffee pot was retired after a decade in 2001 (it was actually the fourth or fifth) and bought by a German magazine (Der Spiegel) at auction for a bit over three grand.

The original programmers were Quentin Stafford-Fraser and Paul Jardetzky. Daniel Gordon and Martin Johnson connected it to the WWW. Here is QSF’s account, beautifully titled ‘When convenience was the mother of invention’.

The way this humble invention has transformed our lives in the last month is as astonishing as the rest of this surreality. I have used my (flakey) webcam in these weeks to join my mum on her 80th birthday; participate in a seminar on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake; help deliver a documentary-making workshop over three days (that were supposed to be in Copenhagen); last night, hang out with some friends, associates and strangers/new friends whilst sprawled on my bed in the semi-darkness; have a meeting which opened with a live song; start writing a book with a close colleague; work with some filmmakers in Prague and L.A. and Thailand; have our regular book group meeting (online for the first time). So big up to Quentin, Paul, Daniel and Martin – and Cambridge. And coffee.

Trojan_Room_coffee_pot_xvcoffee

The last shot: a hand switching off the server

P.S. For a great book on coffee and creativity, whilst you’ve got all this time on your hands, try Patti Smith’s M Train.

“In my way of thinking, anything is possible. Life is at the bottom of things and belief at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs all.”

World of Zoom

Well, that was a weird week. I spent three whole days in online conference calls. I’d used Zoom once before. I’d never used Microsoft Teams.

However the week finished on a high note – our monthly Finnegans Wake research seminar at Senate House, University of London was shifted online this evening. Led by Prof. Finn Fordham of Royal Holloway, University of London, our motley crew wrestled with the clunkiness of MS Team to enjoy two hours together drilling down through the layers of the Wake and its various manuscripts and versions. Spending 20 minutes arguing the toss over the word “be” was a comforting contrast to the macro chaos beyond our virtual room.

Microsoft Team james joyce digital archive finnegans wake

“the massproduct of teamwork” suddenly took on a new dimension given that Teams was the software making this human contact and continuity possible.

The three days leading up to this evening was spent on Zoom (wish I had shares in them – and how did they nick ahead of Skype so effectively?). Zoom is a well designed software but the difference between what the workshop would have been like IRL and how it is in an online video conference is stark. Very intense and relentless in a way that is not the case face to face. I was working as a mentor on Documentary Campus Masterclass  – we were supposed to be in Copenhagen, parallel to CPH:Dox Film Festival (cancelled). I did the same workshop in the same city last year so I have a direct comparison.

The most creative use of the software was by two Czech filmmakers I’m working with – Vit & Tomas. They transported themselves and us, using the software facilities, high into the mountains…

zoom software documentary campus masterclass

[photo: Esther van Messel]

The gap between the experience of these sorts of softwares and the experience of being in a room with fellow humans is an interesting one which tells us much about how we actually communicate and how we create – which is not a flat experience but a rounded and fluid one. Something to keep observing over the next days and weeks…

Keep creating [quotation]

“If anybody wants to keep creating, they have to be about change”

Miles Davis

mile davis jazz trumpeter

Miles at Newport ’69

Adventures in the Writing Trade: Day 4

Friday ended up as a frustrating feeling day. A lot of loose ends. Nothing finished. Including my relatively short To Do list. Saturday (yesterday) by contrast finished with me hitting send as a fired over three useful documents to my co-writer, Doug Miller. A mark-up of his outline. A set of notes collating the helpful, considered responses to my online call-out. And a response to Doug’s initial thoughts on how best to collaborate in practice. A satisfying, rounded-off feeling to conclude the day.

It’s important to live with mess, loose ends, even chaos in the writing process, indeed in all creative endeavour. It’s getting over that hump, bringing back some order in the face of the most out-of-control prospect, which usually marks where the creative achievement lies.

view from the summit of Lambay Island County Dublin Ireland

View from the summit down to the harbour

After lunch we headed up to the summit I had visited the day before. This time it was as a group, led by our hostess who is one of the two prime-movers on the island. I had a lovely chat with her on the way up, quite deep for a modest walk. At the triangulation point on the top there was a real sense of a cohort, a group bonded across very different experiences, backgrounds and personalities. Two of the Americans asked me to explain what we were looking at so I pointed out Howth Head as the North end of Dublin Bay and the Wicklow Mountains as the Southern limit; Rush and Malahide opposite; the small islands of Skerries looking North, and at the limits of our view the Mourne Mountains, faint in the distance, where my Other Half comes from. The panorama was epic, a beautiful subtle palette of blues and greys and delicate purples in the autumnal sunshine.

view of Howth from Lambay Island County Dublin Ireland

View of Howth Head from Lambay

On returning to the white house we did our second writing workshop with Jonathan (Gosling) on Style. Clarity; Pace; Engagement were the factors we considered. I focused on the opening of my as yet unfinished book When Sparks Fly, on the creative rewards of openness and generosity – a subject closely allied, it turns out, to the book on Collaboration Doug approached me about (the focus of my efforts this week). It was a helpful exercise and I could see at least a couple of things to improve – too long sentences in a quest for fluency/flow and questionable assumptions about how Digital Culture is perceived by many people.

The day before our first workshop was on our relationship to Writing. By using two observers as we spoke concisely about writing’s role in our lives, one recording facts, the other emotions, we quickly got some real insights into our work and ambitions. A really useful technique I hope to deploy in some other context soon. Probably starting with the MDes course on Story-telling I am teaching at the end of the year at Ravensbourne university/film school.

After the workshop I made a bee-line to the harbour to take advantage of the strong late afternoon sun. Donning my new Finisterre swimming trunks I strode into the September sea and dived in. It was …fresh. Envigorating.

Commercial Break: Coincidence No. 477

I am out for a walk in St Agnes, Cornwall during my summer break a few weeks ago. It’s a bit rainy so I head up from the cliff top inland towards where I’ve been told (by Joya & Lucy of Surf Girls Jamaica, both locals, hence my choice of St Agnes to sojourn in) there is a small business estate where there’s the HQ of a great surf clothing retailer called Finisterre. I eventually come across it, go in and buy some swimming trunks, shirts and a lime green recycled plastic water bottle. As the shop assistant is wrapping up my stuff he explains a bit about the business, how well it is doing, where the branches are, there’s even one up in London. Oh, where’s that? Earlham Street.

I work at Red Bull at 42 Earlham Street. I’ve never noticed Finisterre.

I have the harbour to myself, except for sharing it for a few moments with a black Labrador. The tide is out, the sand is smooth, the water cold (colder than Donegal a couple of weeks ago) but bearable, soon really refreshing. After the swim I feel amazing. I chat to a couple of Dubs from Howth over for a nature walk day trip. The wife shows me on her phone a photo of their view of Lambay from Howth village.

IMG_7492 lambay island harbour white house cottages county dublin ireland

I finish the day tying those loose ends on the lawn, my spot du choix. I also connect the lady-boss of the island to an old colleague & friend of mine who lives on the Isle of Eigg. Eigg has done an amazing job pioneering green energy & sustainable living, and my friend Lucy has been enthusiastically involved in driving those efforts. The Lambay Trust has similar ambitions. I’m glad I made the connection during our walk&talk.

Creativity, in my view, revolves around Connections. This includes the people connections offered by a writing retreat like this. And the factual/conceptual connections such as Lambay is a proto Eigg.

I bought myself a book from the island on Friday – it was my birthday present to myself. From my family, I asked for a new walk as a gift.  The book is In Praise of Walking by Shane O’Mara. Mara is Irish for sea. John of the Sea. It explores the science of walking and why it is good for us. I am convinced it is very good for Creativity, hence my early morning walks every day on Lambay. Here are a couple of quotations on Walking I recently gathered.

“Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.”

Steven Wright (US comedian)

Alchemy by Rory Sutherland – Quote

I went yesterday evening to hear Rory Sutherland, Vice-Chairman of ad agency Ogilvy in the UK, speak in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square about his new book Alchemy. I have had the good fortune to meet&chat with Rory on a number of occasions and it is never less than fascinating. He kindly contributed to the (finished) chapter on Paul Arden in my (unfinished, as yet) book When Sparks Fly.

Rory sutherland conway hall how to academy 17th April 2019 talk red bull

Rory grabbing the Bull by the horns

In view of the fact I’ve recently started working at Red Bull Media House (as a Commissioning Editor), I loved that he used Red Bull as a striking case study in this talk (as well as in the foreword of his book which I started reading today).

I liked this quotation on the value of Big Data from today’s reading:

It’s important to remember that big data all comes from the same place – the past.

Rory is a big advocate of evolutionary psychology and behavioural science (with all the irrationality those expose) as opposed to economics and other data-driven activities. He’s not against logic and hard facts, just in favour of suspending rationality from time to time in favour of creative magic or alchemy.

The Empathy Podcast with Oisin Lunny

the empathy podcast oisin lunny adam gee

I can’t recall exactly how or when I first met Oisin Lunny – it was through digital media/multiplatform circles. But I do clearly (that is, as clearly as was possible in the circumstances) recall listening to his band in a rowdy basement in Watermint Quay, Hackney on big nights among the London Irish Murphia – they were called Marxman, a pioneering Celtic hip-hop band that used the bodhran, the traditional Irish drum, for their beats. The band was on Gilles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud label (alongside the great Young Disciples among other footstomping acts which defined the 90s). They had the distinction of having their first single banned by the BBC and their third one performed on Top of the Pops. Oisin making his marx in music is no surprise given his heritage – his da is Donal Lunny, Irish producer extraordinaire and member of seminal bands Planxty and Moving Hearts (with the likes of Christy Moore). Oisin has moved the family on from the bouzouki to all things digital and mobile (but with a healthy respect for the bodhran and the Irish songbook).

marxman Oisin Lunny

Oisin in Marxman (left)

Among his digital marketing related activities Oisin produces a podcast about Empathy called The Empathy Podcast. He recently recorded an episode with me in which we discussed the relationship between Empathy, Creativity, Connection and Networks. Here is the programme [Running Time: 22 mins].

oisin lunny

Another Marxman on Simple Pleasures.

Marxman with Sinead O’Connor:

“Ship Ahoy” by Marxman from Oisin Lunny on Vimeo.

Fighting the Good Fight

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

— e e cummings

tumblr_m1zcce5sq11r47bczo1_500

The 10 Books which made the most impact on me

A friend of mine, Carol, (aka The Naked Novelist) via my bestman Stuart, passed on a challenge this week: to list the 10 books that have had the most impact on my life. So that’s impact, not my favourite 10.

Here’s my stab at it…

1. ‘Here We Go’ – the Janet and John book I learnt to read with: “Look, Janet, look!”

janet and john here we go book
2. ‘Ulysses’, James Joyce – it’s about everything, and very resonant if you’re a Jew married to an Irish woman “Yes, yes, yes!”

First edition (I'd love one of these)

First edition (I’d love one of these)

3. ‘Paradise Lost’ Books 1 & 2, John Milton ed. John Broadbent – the poetry’s pretty damn good but the footnotes were a revelation – it helped me realise school subjects are artificial divisions and everything’s connected to everything else. “Of man’s disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree…”

 'Paradise Lost' Books 1 & 2, John Milton ed. John Broadbent book
4. ‘Asterix in Britain’ – I loved the notion of an invasion succeeding because one side stopped for tea at a set time every afternoon (5 o’clock)

Asterix Chez les Bretagnes

Asterix Chez les Bretagnes

Time for Tea (a fatal weakness)

Time for Tea (a fatal weakness)

5. ‘The Dinosaur Strain’, Mark Brown – got me into the subject of Creative Thinking, led to me making a computer game (MindGym) and ultimately to writing my own book about Creativity, ‘When Sparks Fly’ (5/8 finished, interviewed Jamie Oliver for it today)

the only picture I can find as it's almost extinct

the only picture I can find as it’s almost extinct

6. ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Shakey – emblematic of the year I had an inspiring teacher (English teacher of course – Mr Fitch RIP MA Cantab) who got me really reading

romeo and juliet shakespeare arden edition
7. ‘The Riddle of the Sands’, Erskine Childers – made me realise what a burden material possessions can be in the scene where the protagonist can’t get his trunk into the sailing boat and has to dump all his shit on the quay

'The Riddle of the Sands', Erskine Childers penguin book
8. ‘The Complete Plays of Joe Orton’ – bought it for a 6th form project, turned me on to satire and the Sixties

'The Complete Plays of Joe Orton'  book
9. ‘Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide’ – pored over this fat tome when I first got really into movies as a teenager

'Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide' 1979
10. ‘On the Road’, Jack Kerouac – led me to Allen Ginsberg who in turn inspired ‘When Sparks Fly’ (see above) and is the subject of the first chapter, With a Little Help from My Friend

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

on-the-road-book-cover-jack-kerouac-poster

jack Kerouac-On-The-Road book novelIf it’s not too Neknominate, please do share your Top Impact 10 below (or a link to it)…

Spin off (Day 47)

Afro Hair styles for women

Something of a tangential day. Was researching an alternative case study for the Music chapter when I came across a music spin-off which gave me the idea for a simple business proposition/side-line. I discussed it with the friend and former colleague who was having the 70s music discussion with me and then brought a second former colleague from the same era into the Circle of Trust and we gathered on the morning of Day 47 to decide whether we all thought there was something in it and what creative approach to take. Our kick-off venue was the British Library, which is a building I’ve really come to respect for the way it respects the ornateness of the surrounding buildings, especially St Pancras, and for giving a home to a lively studious community.

I was reminded as they set up an exhibition about Georgian Britain (opening today) about coming here last year to see Jack Kerouac’s scroll manuscript of On The Road, a landmark on the way down the track to this book.

I had a pleasant couple of afternoon hours carrying on with the Hettie Jones research outdoors in the large courtyard of the Library site. It’s resonant for me because I came across the play Dutchman, by her husband LeRoi Jones, during a teen-age burst of play-reading and the whole milieu on the memoir reminds me of those enthusiasms of that time in my life. As the milky sunlight turned greyer and the temperature dropped, headed inside beside the wonderful tower of books, a great glass cabinet cutting through all the floors of the building, filled with rare volumes. Found a seat among the stooodents next to a girl with a fro worthy of the East Village and a winning smile. Read some more in the bookish shadow of the tower.

I love the way a no-nonsense commercial idea has spun out of this project with bookish roots, focused on the pre-digital age. The idea is very digital in that common paradoxical way of being centred on a beautifully designed and made concrete object in the physical world. One of the highlights of the day was seeing our designer’s mind take off the minute he started generating ideas, questioning shape, texture, nothing assumed, everything possible…

70s afro woman female

You’re going to create demented

AIR AND LIGHT AND TIME AND SPACE

– you know, I’ve either had a family, a job,
something has always been in the
way
but now
I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this
place, a large studio, you should see the space and
the light.
for the first time in my life I’m going to have
a place and the time to
create.”

no baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
or
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on
welfare,
you’re going to create with part of your mind and your body blown
away,
you’re going to create blind
crippled
demented,
you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your
back while
the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment,
flood and fire.

baby, air and light and time and space
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
new excuses
for.

Charles Bukowski on the Ideal Conditions for and Myths of Creativity

charles bukowski

And this on freedom, writing and doing what you really want with your one short life… courtesy of Rebelle Society

“In 1969, publisher John Martin, founder of Black Sparrow Press, offers Bukowski $100 a month during the rest of his life, in exchange for quitting his job and taking up writing. Bukowski listens and two years later, Bukowski’s first book, Post Office, sees the light.

From then on, Bukowski writes voraciously for the next twenty years, until his death. His legacy amounts to thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories and six novels, eventually publishing over 60 books.

In 1986, he writes John Martin recalling his escape from the slavery he had resigned himself to, before taking his life in his hands.”

Quoted from Reach for the Sun, vol. 3 ~ Charles Bukowski’s Selected Letters.

8.12.1986
Hello John:

Thanks for the good letter. I don’t think it hurts, sometimes, to remember where you came from. You know the places where I came from. Even the people who try to write about that or make films about it, they don’t get it right. They call it “9 to 5.” It’s never 9 to 5, there’s no free lunch break at those places, in fact, at many of them in order to keep your job you don’t take lunch. Then there’s OVERTIME and the books never seem to get the overtime right and if you complain about that, there’s another sucker to take your place.

You know my old saying, “Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors.”

And what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does.

As a young man I could not believe that people could give their lives over to those conditions. As an old man, I still can’t believe it. What do they do it for? Sex? TV? An automobile on monthly payments? Or children? Children who are just going to do the same things that they did?

Early on, when I was quite young and going from job to job I was foolish enough to sometimes speak to my fellow workers: “Hey, the boss can come in here at any moment and lay all of us off, just like that, don’t you realize that?”

They would just look at me. I was posing something that they didn’t want to enter their minds.

Now in industry, there are vast layoffs (steel mills dead, technical changes in other factors of the work place). They are layed off by the hundreds of thousands and their faces are stunned:

“I put in 35 years…”

“It ain’t right…”

“I don’t know what to do…”

They never pay the slaves enough so they can get free, just enough so they can stay alive and come back to work. I could see all this. Why couldn’t they? I figured the park bench was just as good or being a barfly was just as good. Why not get there first before they put me there? Why wait?

I just wrote in disgust against it all, it was a relief to get the shit out of my system. And now that I’m here, a so-called professional writer, after giving the first 50 years away, I’ve found out that there are other disgusts beyond the system.

I remember once, working as a packer in this lighting fixture company, one of the packers suddenly said: “I’ll never be free!”

One of the bosses was walking by (his name was Morrie) and he let out this delicious cackle of a laugh, enjoying the fact that this fellow was trapped for life.

So, the luck I finally had in getting out of those places, no matter how long it took, has given me a kind of joy, the jolly joy of the miracle. I now write from an old mind and an old body, long beyond the time when most men would ever think of continuing such a thing, but since I started so late I owe it to myself to continue, and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I’m gone) how I’ve come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die.

To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.

yr boy,

Hank

And for the more visually oriented courtesy of ZenPencils.com

zen pencils comic

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