Announcing ‘Done by When’

I promised to ship a new piece of software today but I haven’t quite made it.

Ironically it’s a tool for managing expectations, and visualizing likely delivery times for a given piece of work. It would have been useful!

I hate making excuses, but it’s been a crazy month with lots of good interruptions (lovely clients with interesting projects) and bad interruptions (family emergencies and so on).

So while it’s not ready for you to use today, I’ll have to settle with announcing the project title today, ‘Done by When‘.

A version of the tool, whether it’s ‘finished’ or not will ship by this time next week.

Thought I didn’t make the deadline this time, it’s been very helpful for focussing the mind.

I’ve set myself a challenge

I’ve had an idea for a piece of software I think would be really useful. And rather than spend months thinking about and scoping it, I’ve set myself a deadline (deadlines are magic).

The first version will ship by the end of this month.

If I’ve not announced this new project on this blog by 31 Aug 2012, feel free to send me abuse.

I’m also going to use this as a chance to learn some new skills. I think I may learn Python.

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 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 adjusting

I have a few blog posts sitting as drafts right now. I may finish them once I learn to change nappies with my eyes closed and catch up on lost sleep with my eyes open.

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?