On Pokemon and evolution

Pikachu!

This week I’ve been reading Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker and The Devil’s Chaplain, thinking about evolution, and how this topic could be better taught in schools. Or in many cases, just taught at all.

Then today, I had a lesson in Pokemon from my 10 year old nephew…

Now if we ignore the issues around the merchandising of Pokemon combined with the slogan ‘Gotta catch em all’, it’s amazing how many of the concepts required to understand evolution are already developing in the mindset of a young Pokemon fan.

My Pokemon lesson included:

  • 50+ weird and wonderful names of Pokemon species (like listening to a biologist)
  • Groupings of species by functions or appearance (taxonomy)
  • Catching wild Pokemon (wild and domesticated animals)
  • Seasonal Pokemon (whose appearance changes throughout the year, like an arctic fox)
  • And evolving Pokemon (including the discernible visual lineage between one variation and the next)

So in my quick Wikipedia look into the subject, it made sense to read this:

“The concept of…[]…of Pokémon, stems from the hobby of insect collecting, a popular pastime which Pokémon executive director Satoshi Tajiri-Oniwa enjoyed as a child.”

Now we just need to encourage the Pokemon fans to spend a similar amount of time outdoors looking at the countless, fascinating, real ‘Pocket Monsters’ that we share the world with.

On cheap plastic disposable Union Jacks

This is not a comment on the queen, the monarchy, or even the jubilee celebrations, but it’s something I observed during the recent weekend of national festivity.

Nearly all the flags I saw being waved were disposable; cheap plastic throwaway items destined for landfill. These flags, like the oil from which they are derived weren’t even made in the country they claim to support.

I think this is an important indicator of the society living in Britain today. And that’s deliberately the ‘society living in Britain’ rather than ‘British Society’ as I don’t think this behaviour is unique to this country at all.

Regardless of my views on flags themselves, it would have sent a very different message if people had spent a few extra pounds on something of quality construction. Something that supported the British textiles industry. Something they could treasure and re-use. Something they could pass onto future generations.

Maybe these people really are blind to the built in obsolescence our retailers love to cash-in on. Or maybe it’s a subconscious representation about how patriotic they really feel.

Whether consciously, or unconsciously, the purchase of these cheap disposable flags says a lot about patriotism today.

Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing is another matter altogether.

On disingenuous acts of kindness

There’s little point getting all poetic about our wonderful planet if the only time you appear to do anything whatsoever to care for it is when you want to save a few pounds at your customer’s discretion.

Replace “Earth” with “bottom line”, and “environmental” with “financial” and this would be somewhat closer to the truth.

On the joy of (self-imposed) impossible deadlines – AKA Magic Deadlines

Last year I wrote a novel. Admittedly, a novel I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to re-read for fear of what I may have written, but I wrote a novel all the same. And I managed to do it because of a deadline.

It was an impossible deadline by all accounts of common sense, but impossible is a challenge worth living up to. The goal was to write a novel (50k+ words) in a month, without putting my life on hold or taking any time off work. I’m still not sure how, but I did it. And I wasn’t the only one to do this, I shared this month of madness with 256,618 people around the world who signed up for the same challenge; and that was part of the fun.

This photo looks a bit like writing a novel

To give this some context, I co-founded and built the short story website Bibliofaction, but despite many efforts over many years I have failed to finish writing a single short story, even without a deadline. But, after signing up for Nanowrimo on a whim, and with just a little reminder and a nudge from their excellent staff, I wrote a 50,000 word novel thanks to their magical deadline. I can’t quite put my finger on why this deadline works when so many deadlines fail, but I’m sure it comes from being opt-in, and without any pressure. Maybe the voluntary aspect increases the likelihood of the complete personal buy-in required to push through to the end of a goal when you start losing faith – which was after about 10,000 words in my case.

There are two points I want to note:
– I didn’t choose the deadline, but I did choose to accept it
– The deadline wasn’t set for me in particular

If I’d taken an expensive creative writing course, and given myself a year to write a novel, even taking a year off work to do it, I’m pretty sure I would have failed. I’d still be agonizing over plots right now, and I’d have written and rewritten the first chapter so many times I couldn’t bear to look at it. But somehow, just somehow, Nanowrimo tapped into the magic of an impossible deadline.

What makes a deadline like this magic?

I’m not sure, but something magic happens. With Nanowrimo, I was even losing sleep near the end. I’d get home from work exhausted, eat some dinner, then, when my brain felt like it was about to collapse, open this computer and write and write and write. Even at the point of complete exhaustion I felt compelled to continue creating. Just to do something. To actually do something rather than talk about doing something. Even though no-one would ever chase me on my deadline. Even though it was entirely optional, I kept going. Even when it was painful and I was sure I was writing rubbish. A deadline that can inspire that can of action is magic in my eyes. I can’t write a formula for it, and I think that even if I tried, the closer I’d get to the perfect formula, the weaker the magic would become. Like any living thing, you can only dissect a magic deadline so far before it stops being what it is. So at best I can write around the subject. And that’s what I offer you here.

After the novel was written and safely stored away, I accepted another deadline.

My in-laws were nearly finished with renovating a huge holiday home, but they needed paintings for the many empty walls. Lots and lots of paintings. And I had about a month until they were coming to stay with us, and bringing their car. And while they didn’t ask for anything, and I didn’t offer them anything, I decided I’d try and help. And without knowing it, they’d set the date of my next magic deadline.

It’s worth noting some background here. The in-laws (or imminent-in-laws as they were at the time) were coming to stay because we were getting married, and because we’d only given ourselves three months between our engagement and the big day we were running around a bit at the time. So by all accounts of common sense, it was not the best time to take on a new creative project that dwarfed everything I had tried and failed to do in the past as an artist. Again however, the deadline proved its magic.

Painting in the garden

For context, I used to paint a lot. I studied fine art and even exhibited and sold a few pictures here and there, but my biggest challenge was consistency. If you’ve ever tried this yourself, you’ll know that galleries value consistency almost as much as they do quality. A consistent theme, at least for a distinguishable period of time, defines the artist and in turn the art. Only the artist who revisits a theme often enough is thought to offer any value.

My paintings were anything but consistent. There were images of buildings in decay, political protests, power plants in Constable landscapes, sculptural paintings of sculptures, geometric deconstructions of the patterns found in nature, abstract experiments with colour, and even a few portraits. In essence I was starting from scratch with almost every image I created. Then my working life took over and the time I made to paint dwindled. My beloved basket of oil paints moved from easy access in the spare room into a drawer, then to the back of a cupboard, and finally out to the shed. So by the time I set myself this deadline, I hadn’t picked up a paint brush or a palette knife for at least a couple of years.

I had two weeks to paint as many pictures as I could physically manage. For the observant reader, that’s two weeks rather than a month because oil paints need a fair amount of time to dry, especially if you scrape them on thick with a knife as I like to do.

I needed a theme, but didn’t have time to worry about how the theme would go on to define me as the artist, I just needed something I could work with. So I thought about the context and the icons of the area where the pictures would live, and settled on Cathar Castles. That would offer some visual link for their guests.

Peyrepertuse © Adam Baker

When I was studying art full time and my skills were in regular use, I’d complete a painting a week at best. But with this new deadline, I had to paint quicker than ever before. Some nights I found myself completing as many as three pictures in one session. And like the novel, this was after a full day’s work. In the rush to output quantity instead of perfection I freed up my style of painting and found resources I didn’t know I had. Instinctive reactions replaced artistic ‘decisions’.

Not only did I get through a quantity of images, but the requirement for speed brought certain stylistic traits to the fore. And though castles had never been part of my repertoire, the images quickly brought together the disconnected themes I had painted in the past. There were landscapes, decaying buildings, sculptural applications of paint, semi-abstract-semi-figurative colours and so on. I saw many old ideas fall into place, though that wasn’t my intention.

Paintings of Cathar Castles

I didn’t paint these castles because I was fascinated with them, but by painting these pictures I became fascinated by them – or at least the image of them. To me these castles now tell a story not just of historical society, but more poignantly man’s interaction with nature. They are made from the mountains, and sit on top of the world, but in time they blend back into the rock and the scrub on which they are made. And as the trees take over and the building blocks slowly crumble, it becomes harder to make out where the castles start and the mountains stop. I have a magical deadline to thank for this thought that may otherwise never have come to me; a deadline that focused on quantity over quality. On doing.

Sometimes, all we need to do is do.

In all, I completed about 25 pictures. To put that into perspective, I once had a single picture on my easel for the best part of a year, which eventually went on the wall unfinished. A deadline that inspires 25 finished pictures is magic to me. And it’s even better when the simple act of doing can teach you something about yourself.

I think there is a truth buried somewhere in here that is key to the artistic process. Do not wait for inspiration before you create. Just create. Do. Make. Act. Action. Something. Anything. If your only cost is time, then invest it wildly. There may be a case for careful planning if you wanted to build a teapot from diamonds, but dangerously expensive things are rarely worth the effort.

Inspiration is waiting, within the act of doing.

And to back-up that concluding thought, I should note it wasn’t on my mind when I started writing this. This was meant to be about deadlines. The thoughts about inspiration happened after I started writing, not before.

P.S. For externally imposed impossible deadlines, I’d still fall back on these wise words:

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
– Douglas Adams

On repetition

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

– Henry David Thoreau

Undulating path, Bingley © by Tim Green aka atoach

On “is the glass half empty or half full?”

I’d like to draw a line under this ongoing debate so we all have more time to do important things like drawing pictures. I conclude as follows…

The glass is half full if it’s being filled, and half empty if it’s being emptied.

I drew some pictures to illustrate this point:

This glass is half full

This glass is half empty

This glass is half full

This glass is half empty

P.S. If you can think of some situation of perfect stasis, I suggest you shove it in the box with Schrodinger’s cat. If still in doubt, considering a longer timeline (say 10,000 years) resolves most unanswered questions by rendering them irrelevant.

On ‘We, the Web Kids’

Intel inside

I thoroughly enjoyed reading We, the Web Kids, and could probably have picked a quote from any paragraph to highlight it’s quality. But I’ve picked one in particular as it connects with one of the themes I’ve been writing around here for the last couple of weeks. That is: paying the artist. Like Piotr, I’m happy to pay for the art I love. And whether it’s a painting, sculpture, performance or book, I’d like to pay the artist as directly as possible. In this extract, he captures some of the motivations excellently:

“Why should we pay for the distribution of information that can be easily and perfectly copied without any loss of the original quality? If we are only getting the information alone, we want the price to be proportional to it. We are willing to pay more, but then we expect to receive some added value: an interesting packaging, a gadget, a higher quality, the option of watching here and now, without waiting for the file to download. We are capable of showing appreciation and we do want to reward the artist (since money stopped being paper notes and became a string of numbers on the screen, paying has become a somewhat symbolic act of exchange that is supposed to benefit both parties), but the sales goals of corporations are of no interest to us whatsoever. It is not our fault that their business has ceased to make sense in its traditional form, and that instead of accepting the challenge and trying to reach us with something more than we can get for free they have decided to defend their obsolete ways.”

Piotr Czerski (translated by Marta Szreder)

However, while the whole text resonates with me, if it were read as a manifesto, there’s one section I’d caveat before offering my support:

“To us, the Web is a sort of shared external memory. We do not have to remember unnecessary details: dates, sums, formulas, clauses, street names, detailed definitions. It is enough for us to have an abstract, the essence that is needed to process the information and relate it to others.”

That’s true; but it’s a blessing and a curse, and the subtle implications are important. The web offers us instant everything, and as with all new technologies, like clocks and cars and computers, it changes the way we use our brains. And the way we use our brains shapes the people we become. The example from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows that always sticks with me (probably because it supports what I want to believe anyway!) is that the part of our brain used to imagine, follow and remember a complex idea in detail, say when reading a novel or studying a topic in great detail, is the same part of our brain used to feel compassion.

And it is up to us how we exercise our brain.

Hat tip to Ade for flagging up We, the Web Kids.

On wanting to conquer the world

The Other F WordI’ve spent the last couple of weeks watching updates come in from my old band as they tour around Europe with some of my teenage heroes. It’s a bittersweet experience. It’s really great to see the band going strong, but I can’t pretend I’m not a little bit jealous. Teenage me would definitely give adult me a hard time about this if I went back to meet him. Especially if I met him as he’s watching Reel Big Fish at Reading Festival. He’d tell adult me that one day he’d support RBF on tour, and he knew it could happen. He was right, damn him. It would just take about eight years longer than he expected, by which time he’d be doing something very different with his life.

Now, I’m really not complaining. I was very lucky. I met and gigged with many of my heroes, and most of my heroes turned out to be lovely people, which is awesome. But, there is a part of me that will always remember my teenage vision of life on the road in a punk-rock band; a life I only 80% realised before I moved on. That will always be a loose end I carry with me. But better a loose end than no thread at all. Shepherd’s Bush would have been fun though.

Anyway, the point of this post wasn’t strictly to reminisce, it’s mainly about the future. A future where anytime now I could become a father (11 days until d-day!).

Understandably (I hope), I’ve been thinking about the choices I’ve made in this life and the road I’ve walked so far. And as I think it’s healthy to remember teenage dreams, I was asking myself something along these lines:

  • How would fatherhood fit with my teenage dream of punk-rock life on the road?
  • How do you challenge the system of the world, while still living in it?

So Pheebs and I watched The Other F Word. Who would have thought that someone would make a documentary dealing with exactly those questions? It’s by no means the best film ever made, but it was definitely the most weirdly specific and well timed documentary I’ve ever watched. I’d recommend it if you’re interested in exactly the same questions, and you happened to like 90s punk and you’re about to become a father.

I found my answer somewhere just off the edge of the screen, in a song that wasn’t featured in the film. Somewhere near the start, there was an acoustic version of Bad Religion’s Sorrow, and I was left with a lyric in my head that lasted the whole film. It was actually from another Bad Religion song I Want to Conquer the World, though I only twigged that later:

“Hey Mr. Diplomat with your worldly aspirations, did you see your children cry when you left them at the station?”

The words crept out from my teenage memory and stayed with me as I watched Jim Lindberg trying to Skype with his daughters after something like 200 days on the road. The hotel connection was poor, and we’re left watching the girls talk to the black void where their father’s face used to be. They don’t even know he has gone.

This life will always be a paradox. At best I can contemplate the poles.

What separates a diplomat and a punk-rocker?

Sell out?

On avoiding advertising (on TV)

© Tate, London

I like that people try to avoid watching ads while they watch TV, but it’s probably not effective, and definitely not sustainable.

On effectiveness

For years TV stations have increased the volume during ad breaks so you still hear them when you leave the room to make a cup of tea. Now they face the challenge of people recording TV with the option to fast-forward through the ads at a later date. You’d think this would worry advertisers and in turn the broadcasters, but this quote from Sky shows the consideration they have already given this:

“When people are fast forwarding, they are actually paying closer attention because they want to ensure they do not miss the resumption of the TV show.”

Which explains their calmness pretty clearly. I should note that I’ve copied that quote from the Daily Mail (http://bit.ly/fuusIk), and yes, I appreciate the irony of using ad funded mostly despicable media to back up my case against ad funded media. Move on…

Methods for avoiding watching ads are only a temporary fix. Advertisers will adapt, as they are incentivised to do so by the very business model that drives them.

And if the ads stop driving revenue, the broadcasters will intervene, because it’s in their interest too. TV-on-demand suppliers are already pretty skilled at forcing you to watch an ad before you see the content, and doing the same during a Sky+ fast-forward is within feasible technical boundaries already.

But if you still think you can watch TV and avoid advertising (including the times when you think you’re not watching), then read on.

On sustainability

If the content you want to watch is funded by advertising, then it requires enough people to buy the advertised products to sustain the advertising revenue to in turn sustain the content. If no one watches the ads, no one can watch the content.

If you think it’s OK to skip the ads yourself on the grounds that someone less aware of the impact of advertising will buy the product and fund the content on your behalf, that says something about your compassion for our fellow human beings.

In summary

You have two choices about how you pay for your entertainment:

  1. Indirectly, by buying whatever is shown in the ads
  2. Directly, by paying for the content

I prefer to invest in the arts, directly.