Cogs and Creativity

Preferring to watch movies on bluray, I tend to live behind the curve a bit when it comes to cinema. As a result it was only recently that I managed to see the film Hugo (based on Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret). While I enjoyed the automaton (I’ve linked to Maillardet’s automaton before) and setting, it was this somewhat existential, thematic line delivered by Asa Butterfield (Hugo Cabret) which quite caught my attention at the time:

Everything has a purpose, clocks tell you the time, trains takes you to places. I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured if the entire world was one big machine… I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.

I like the sentiment this evokes, and I suspect it’s just as powerful, if not more so, to younger audiences. Fitting in – and knowing where we fit – is a fairly common human desire, and in a big and often impersonal world can be quite a scary concept.

But Hugo is about more than just fitting in – it’s about realising one’s dreams. Hugo Cabret is starting out his life, he has a dream he wants to realise; other characters show us other aspects of this theme – such as what happens when we’ve realised this dream and then had it taken away from us, or how not realising it changes us as we age.

So it was the treatment of Georges Méliès, the once-great and now-obscure entertainer, film maker and engineer which I found particularly inspiring.

If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, you look around… this is where they’re made.

A month ago, my wife sent me a link to an article by Steven Piziks on Passion and Ambition. Piziks suggests that passion and ambition aren’t universal qualities, and that ‘motivational’ catchphrases such as Follow your passion, might sound great to audiences but often fail to prove actionable.

Converting ambition into action is often a solitary activity – it stands to reason that if most of the people around you don’t share your passion and ambition then you’re going to be going it alone. In fiction this can give us the stoic, strong and silent creative type: In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, her paragon of creative virtue, Howard Roark, provides a gold mine of Creative-vs-Rest-of-the-World quotes, one of the most memorable (to me at least) being this response when Roark is encouraged to hire an attorney:

There are some rules I’m perfectly willing to obey. I’m willing to wear the kind of clothes everybody wears, to eat the same food and use the same subways. But there are some things which I can’t do their way — and this is one of them.

In Hugo, Georges’ frustration and disillusionment with a war-weary public sees him abandon his passion for film, an abandonment that is hugely self destructive and which I still find one of the most powerful elements of the film. Because unlike Howard Roark, Georges isn’t intended to be an infallible, one-dimensional foil. Rather, he’s a contemporary fiction character: a conflicted, human person.

If Hugo Cabret’s character arc thematically answers How might you achieve your dream?, then Georges Méliès’ asks what do you do when you’ve lost it?

Hugo’s conclusions probably shouldn’t be taken as career advice – I’m pretty sure there should be a clear delineation between self-help and story. However as an illustration of the effects of creativity, ambition and passion on human beings I think this film managed to fit quite a lot under the hood.

And I do like me a little wish fulfilment.

And a road that leads to awesome.


On Sucking

January four years ago I had a little lesson in, among other things, self criticism.

I was tired, from a combination of a new three month old addition to our family, the silly season’s social commitments, several days of 40°C without – at that time – airconditioning at home. Having little chance to ride the motorcycle in the past fortnight I’d organised with a friend to ride through the bush from Perth to York this particular Sunday.

Some images from that ride would have been at home in a documentary: Two wedge-tailed eagles eating a feral piglet in the middle of the road, a pair of kangaroos hopping across our path, or a steep sandy slope that our bikes (which had road tyres) weren’t really equipped for.

But it was another 40°C day and I was starting to question why I’d gone riding on such a hot day. As the ride wore on, conditions got rougher and our speed dropped, and I started to question the sanity of our schedule. Were we going to make it to lunch in York after all? Or would we be there for dinner? Would my riding buddy be annoyed at the pace? Would the bike overheat if I’m riding so slow in these conditions?

Then the GPS showed a sealed road up ahead and around a corner. At the same time we turned onto some decent graded gravel. I opened the throttle and picked up the pace.

Then I crested a hill. The hill.

About a minute later my riding buddy took the following photo from the top.

bike 025

As I picked that bad line, the front wheel dug in and I found myself airborne, there was an overwhelming feeling of “Gosh, what an idiot” and “This is so embarrassing.”

Riding the broken motorcycle back is a story in itself, but that’s not for here.

I now have a piece of titanium in my right foot and, I have hoped, a healthier degree of self-analysis when it comes to get-there-itis, analysing tiredness, skill and planning.

This weekend I got to ask whether I’ve truly learned when to listen to the internal critic.

I had my first solo flight since August. A busy schedule on the weekends, holidays overseas, bad weather and whatever else meant that I hadn’t been able to fly very much in the last five months, so I was really looking forward to Sunday. Perfect weather for soaring and I hoped for a nice long flight.

Check ride went well, so I fitted my GoPro camera where I could completely ignore it during the flight. Then off I went, being towed up 2,700′ and climbing another 1000′ in a thermal before deciding to leave the lift and head to the west to stay upwind.

(For the uninitiated, a glider flies by – on average – staying in air that’s moving upward faster than the aircraft is descending. It was by all accounts a buoyant day with lift to spare, so my theory was that if I thermalled off to the west, the prevailing westerlies would tend to keep me within easy reach of the airfield area.)


The image to the right is snipped from the video. The instrument on the top is the variometer, which indicates the vertical movement of the air through which I’m currently flying. As I’ve been heading west it’s started pointing down further and further until I’m in a good 10kt downdraft with no end in sight.

Crunch time comes, I’ve lost 1,300′ and I decide there’s no way I can be here any longer. A rapid U-turn and I’m flying the aircraft back to the airport, knowing I’ve got to fly through all that sink again to get back to the field. At least I have the wind on my side, and in a pinch I can land in several non-optimal locations there if I need to.

Final approach, made worse by turbulence, is hairy but the touchdown is perfect and I’m able to roll to a stop where I want to be. Nevertheless, I’m feeling shaken up by the flight:

  • Why did I leave lift early?
  • Should I have turned back to lift sooner?
  • I entered the circuit low, which cramped everything up much more than the more comfortable, relaxed circuits I’m used to. Should I have landed on the cross strip, or even in the opposite direction?
  • I was trying to set up for a landing at the flight line so I could go again. By pressuring myself to do that, was I also cramping that final approach and adding unnecessary risk?
  • Couldn’t I have managed a flight longer than 13 minutes?

Four years after my motorcycle incident I find I’m frustrated at my performance and the internal critic is in full swing. And its best question is am I letting a sequence of small mistakes contribute to a potentially much more disastrous outcome?

Some discussion with the instructor, a little soul searching and I come to a few realisations.

  • There’s no mission, no goal I must achieve on this flight. I’m here to enjoy myself.
  • It’s a sport: You fail? So what. Try again.
  • If you’ve stopped learning, you should stop flying. And you can’t learn if you know it all already.
  • I had other options available should conditions have deteriorated further.

So after a short break I went for another flight. This time I stayed in the lift. After attaining 9,200 feet altitude – the highest I’ve been in a glider so far – there was no concern about whether I’d reach the airport. I only landed, nearly two hours later, after I ran out of water, had watched all the cross-country pilots returning and began to wonder if I’d be hangaring the plane by myself.


The day’s two flights were instructional, and a gentle reminder of the two-sided nature to self-criticism. Yes, it has its place in avoiding complacency, or getting so stuck in the zone or white-line fever that we forget planning and safety. But it also demonstrated how close it can come to being an emotional destabiliser, and how easy it is to have a bad run and turn around and stop playing.

When Jeff Atwood wrote recently on the suicide of Aaron Swartz, he drew some parallels with ragequitting. And while I think the circumstances surrounding Aaron’s tragic death are more complex than any blog post could hope to address, I do wonder if Jeff’s concerns over ragequitting in general touches on this aspect of self-criticism.

Ambitious, goal driven people can be very self-critical, and failure in sight of our biggest critic (ourselves) easily leads to emotional decision making – fear to keep playing (what if I fail), or questioning our identity (am I cut out to be a pilot-motorcyclist-programmer-writer-artist-whatever). One of the biggest causes of writer’s block can simply be the internal editor telling us that the first words on the page are going to suck.

If I’d given up after the first flight I could have gone home, convinced that the internal critic was right, and that giving up was the safest option. Instead I said to myself yes it might all go wrong, and then fronted up and flew again to – literally – reach new heights.

And perhaps that’s at the heart of resilience, this giving ourselves permission to suck, make mistakes or risk annoying people.

Because perhaps only when we embrace failure ahead of time do we free ourselves to really achieve.

Programming People

In this industrial, technologically advancing world we live in, we’ve grown rather accustomed to the notion that we control machines: Machines do stuff, we tell the machines what to do. Being transported somewhere? It’s one of us humans controlling that car or bus or plane. And even were we to be transported in an unpiloted vehicle, that vehicle itself is following a program created by humans. The link between control and machine is inherent, clear and unquestionable in our minds.

At the same time, our technological world is yielding advances in our understanding of dna, genetics and biology daily. Advances which show cause and effect, such as genetic markers for disease, ultimately strengthening the notion that this biological stuff we’re made of is deterministic. We might not have mapped all of the ways our biology works yet, but due to the resemblance there’s a strong, natural temptation to classify that biology as, effectively, a machine.

And machines can be controlled, right?

I happen to control machines for a living. It’s the end result of programming, after all. There’s a buzz to be had from seeing a robotic limb react the way you’ve instructed it to, or a computer take a vast amount of distributed data and present some short and actionable summary to a user. And even more so when it’s done elegantly. I’d guess it’s related to my interests in music and writing: there’s as much satisfaction in getting the reaction you desire from an audience as there is beauty in the thing itself.

So it seems to follow: just as we can program or control a machine, we can, at some level, program or control a person. Ever been watching a movie and been happy, or sad, on behalf of the characters? Ever felt your spirit soar in a concert? Same process surely, right?

Nevertheless, I was introduced to something a few months ago which didn’t compute at all.

Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) was touched on in a class and, after later looking it up on Wikipedia I found I couldn’t take it seriously. It seemed to require confusing the other person into a suggestible state, and on first glance just seemed like crackpot pseudo-science.

So I forgot about it.

Shame on my lack curiosity.

A few months later and I just happen to crash on the couch as local TV plays Derren Brown’s Apocalypse.

Holy cow, can I say Compelling Television? The premise: Through an elaborate set-up, a self centred young chap is convinced that the world as he knows it has ended, been replaced by a zombie apocalypse, and he has to rise to the challenge not only to survive himself, but to help a complete stranger. If you’ve not seen Derren Brown before, and if you think reality TV has lost its flavour, see this. You can’t help feeling empathy for this guy as he goes through this horror story (And yes, I’m recommending this despite being totally over the zombie phenomenon).

Fascinated, I researched more of Derren’s work and came across this:

Derren Brown and Simon Pegg

And suddenly here was a something which made sense of the NLP concept (sort of – to my understanding, Derren’s not exactly practicing NLP here). Confusion, suggestion, timing… but equally, there is a whole lot more going on between Derren and Simon. So much so that I still wonder how effective just using language to ‘program’ someone is going to be:

  • Simon is already somewhat in awe of Derren due to Derren’s reputation, and he’s expecting to be a little bewildered.
  • Derren establishes early contact by touch so that Simon will accept it as the process continues.
  • Derren uses a form of handshake induction with Simon to snap him into a highly suggestable, confused state. He keeps his left hand on Simon’s right to maintain it.
  • Simon is kept off-kilter while Derren recites his programming script, which is both deliberately confusing but also consciously suggesting that Derren can change people’s minds.
  • The details Derren wants Simon to subconsciously choose are hidden (mostly) from conscious processing of Derren’s script.
  • To signify the subconscious keywords, Derren taps Simon on the arm whenever they occur in the script.

Okay, so the syntax you might use to program a person may include more than just words, and we may well be being programmed all the time by media and advertising, but it does raise some scary questions. Just where does it end? How easily can we be programmed against our own moral identity? If you or I could do this to affect a conversation, or a transaction, would we? I know I’m uncomfortable with the idea.

Music and literature seem safer forms of mind control. At least the audience has opted in, you know?

Thinking On My Feet

I spend most of my day behind a computer, and I’m behind a computer at home often enough. It’s fair to say I spend all day behind a computer. Given I’ve been doing this for a while, that’s more than fifty thousand hours behind the computer? And that’s not even counting programming or writing in school. Okay, I admit it: I like pushing buttons. (Just maybe not The button, and not just because I can do the math. But I digress…)

But while I might be comfortable building things behind a computer, I’m not sure all this sitting down is doing my back any favours. And let’s not forget study after study pointing to even more serious risks related to a sedentary lifestyle. So after a few decades sitting at a desk and typing I’m starting to wonder if there’s a better way – something that isn’t going to keep adding to my back pain.

So tonight I decided to try something completely different: I cleared three shelves out of a bookshelf and installed a keyboard, laptop and monitor there. It’s not a desk – but then in this age of multi-monitor computer systems, well, I can’t remember the last time I managed to actually use all my physical desk space at work. Screen real-estate though – that’s always running out.


And it turns out that working a desk job while standing is not only a commonly considered solution (some even going so far as to install treadmills – I’ll pass) but also quite an old one.

But while Thomas Jefferson and Ernest Hemingway might have worked standing, the jury’s certainly out as to whether it’s of universal benefit. Certainly chairs are the done thing – and I’ve yet to see someone programming supine.

Personally, I’m interested to see what this is like to live with for at least a week. It’s not quite perfect – the monitor is too close, for example – but I also like the idea more and more as I use it writing this post. I’m certainly using muscles I’d not exercise were I sitting.

And despite the exercise and unusual workspace the old brain still manages to do its job just fine.

And I guess that’s the point, really.

Another New Year

Goodbye 2012.

This year just past saw too little in the personal creativity department – reading, writing, and the occasional home coding project all seemed to evaporate in a puff of hyperactive children.

Then again, there was a lot to be thankful for in 2012. We did manage a family holiday to the USA and Canada. I joined the Beverley Soaring Society, took a few lessons and flew solo for the first time (and the second, third, …). I lost eight kilos. And, finally, the world didn’t end.

So who knows what 2013 will bring? New Years day here we saw Life of Pi, which I felt was a great book-to-film adaptation (though, I might be biased – having read the book and enjoyed its themes). So it’s off to a good start – and we don’t have to face all that hype over the end of the Mayan calendar this year either.

Yeah, it’s a good year already.

Hello 2013.