Archive for the ‘creativity’ 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.

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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.

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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.

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“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…

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[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

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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.

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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)

Tigress

While it was very sad to hear of the death of Judith Kerr this week, it also felt like the rounding off of a life well lived. To come from flight (in 1933) from the Nazis and the Holocaust in Germany, Poland, France and across Europe (which went out to vote the day after her passing) to a constructive, hopeful and beautiful body of work which gives delight to millions is a story and a half.

I had the pleasure of appearing with her on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’, talking about fathers reading to their children. Prior to entering the studio I’d forgotten that the programme was live so it really helped having a calm atmosphere engendered by Judith and Jenni Murray, the host. I can’t recall much about the conversation other than it went well, felt coherent and fluent, not stressful. And Judith was a thoroughly inspiring person.

Of course I read ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ with my boys. She kindly signed their copy after the recording at Broadcasting House.

I have a vague memory of people looking for a historical analogy in it, like the Tiger stood for the Nazis or the Gestapo or something, “It’s about the rise of Hitler, right?” “No” she said “it’s about a tiger. Who comes to tea.”

That Judith Kerr now stands widely as being about turning adversity to living fully, being constructive and defeating the forces of darkness with hope and humanity is as it should be. The family, though surprised, take the Tiger in their stride and find a joyful, united solution to the problems it causes.

I am writing this in the garden of Keats’ house in Hampstead. Up the road in Downshire Hill, opposite the house of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, is the home of Fred and Diana Uhlman. I met her many years ago to speak about her husband’s work as an artist and their joint role as catalysts of the London art scene before and after the Second World War. Fred came to London in 1936 and became the centre with Diana of a network of artists on the run including Oskar Kokoschka (who followed in the wake of Egon Schiele). This whole area became a home to artists escaped from Nazi tyranny. Judith was the widely admired standard bearer for art and culture’s triumph over the dark side.

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The Artist Who Came To London (acquired this week from Black Gull book shop, East Finchley)

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.

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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

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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].

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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

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Freebird

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Back in 2000 I chaired a task group for the Broadband Stakeholders Group (a body lobbying the Government for better broadband connectivity) looking at the probable impact of broadband on the UK workplace. One of the group’s conclusions was that it would have a positive impact on the environment and transport because it would enable workers to do more locally or at home, thereby reducing the need for the daily commute.

From 2000 to 2013 I spent much of my life on a tube train across the city, mostly for no good purpose. I stopped that on 9th July 2016 when I left Channel 4 after 13 glorious years.

I am now working in a peripatetic style and not only thoroughly enjoying it (and the summer) but actually finding creative inspiration from it. I knew this from the sabbatical I took in 2013-14 to write during which I wrote in all kinds of places from the National Library, Dublin to the kitchen garden of Kenwood – and chronicled it here on Simple Pleasures.

As my working week drew to an end yesterday in a steam room near Gray’s Inn followed by a last hour-long burst of writing in some barristers chambers (very productive and clear-minded) I reflected back on a classic week of working on the move which I feel like capturing here for posterity because the working locations were such an inspiration in themselves; reflect the rich mix I plan to make the defining characteristic of my work life going forward; and brought with them such uplifting experiences.

So this week I have worked…

  • in Borough, in the shadow of London Bridge – with Mark Stevenson, writer and futurist, on a project about the sustainable future of energy, feeding on his always refreshing optimism
  • at BAFTA, one of my two pied-à-terres in central London, where I had a key meeting with an always-inspiring former colleague about the film script I am currently writing (for an energetic British production company whose early successes are very promising)
  • in the garden of the Chelsea Arts Club where I met a film-maker whose father knew the protagonist of my movie and from whom I got a useful sense of the kind of person he was. This particular stop brought the highlight of the week as we were joined in the sun-bathed garden by the poet Brian Patten, a charming, witty and warm man from the evidence of this first encounter. In fact it was in a way my second encounter as I saw him perform live in Cambridge around 1984 with his fellow Liverpool poets Roger McGough and Adrian Henri. He gave wise advice concerning my younger son, who has severe dyslexia, and his literary studies. A young priest in exquisitely made robes entered the garden at one point and sat at the adjoining table. At which juncture Brian leaned over the table and recited a brilliant poem about a falling priest, without the faith or courage to fall freely. Brian had based the poem on an ancient Sufi text. It was a beautiful and unexpected gift of words that made my week.
  • in a restaurant in Victoria where an old Channel 4 colleague  of mine turned out to be pals with a director who would be perfect for the film
  • outside Kipferl, an Austrian cafe at The Angel, one of my favourites, where I caught up with Harry Cymbler, MD of Hot Cherry (where I am a Non-Exec)
  • in the Reading Room of Somerset House where I drafted an application for Creative England with my co-producer
  • in the newly opened Eneko Basque restaurant, scion of Eneko Atxa’s Michelin-starred place Azurmendi in Larrabetzu (in the Basque country in Northern Spain), where we finished drafting the application either side of a beautiful meal of Iberico pork and fruity wine punch
  • in my back garden where I carried on writing the treatment to the tranquil sounds of my newly resurrected water-rock (I can’t possibly use the term ‘water feature’, it’s so Home Front). I copied the water-rock from the courtyard of a hotel in Newry, County Down – it definitely irrigates creativity.
  • in Raymond Buildings, Gray’s Inn in a room with a photo of my lower sixth English class, a reminder of a very inspirational year with a very inspirational teacher (in the photo sporting a velvet jacket).

There’s a lot to be said for wandering freely. As I read in The Week earlier this very enjoyable week, Nietzsche was also much in favour of being on the move:

All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.

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The Water-Rock

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Eneko on the Aldwych

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Eneko Basqueness

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Chelsea Arts Club

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Gray’s Inn

Shiny New Things (Phase 3: Month 1)

I haven’t written about my book When Sparks Fly since Train of Thought back in June. That’s around the time I begun commissioning what amounted by the close of the year to 17 series of short form video for Channel 4 Shorts, including Tattoo Twists and Futurgasm. So I was a busy boy and writing had to take a bit of a back seat for the tail-end of the year. My attitude was that I needed to be patient with myself and accept that space would re-emerge.

I managed to get odd snatches of time to work on the book. Another train of thought to the Edinburgh TV Festival afforded one such opportunity, six or so hours of chuff chuff. I spent a fair amount of time around Jamie Oliver’s various companies doing interviews for the Business chapter of which he is the protagonist, culminating in an interview with the man himself. I’d expected relatively short shrift but he was strikingly generous with his time. Most recently, when I was over in Northern Ireland for work, I did an interview with Aidan Murtagh of Belfast punk band Protex for the Terri Hooley section of the Music chapter. But it’s only this week, with the advent of 2015, that I managed to get back to writing in earnest – and it feels good.

How do you like them apples?  (photo courtesy of JC Dhien)

How do you like them apples?
(photo courtesy of JC Dhien)

I went back to the Business chapter and picked up from where I left off, enjoying the process of tuning back in, just slightly back-tracking to get back into the flow and dive in. It’s a different kind of chapter, the first I’ve written with a living central character so the research is more focused on the original interview material. I’ve set myself October as a deadline to finish the whole she-bang so let’s see how it pans out…

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