Friday, 20 October 2017

If I could code I'd ... #3

If I could code I'd...

Write a script for a way of doing a google search for a term plus a string of dates, that would open the results for each date in a different browser tab. (Thereby helping journalists etc find when something happened / is happening.)

...but I can't.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

On creativity

I wrote here about how there are thought to be essentially only three ways in which several things can be related or connected: resemblance, contiguity in time or space, and cause or effect.

Creativity is often talked about as making connections between disparate things. For example, Steve Jobs told Wired in 1996 that "Creativity is just connecting things."

But is making connections the only way we can be creative?

A recent article by Dan Jones in Nature, reviewing three books on creativity, suggests not - depending on what you define as a "thing".

In their book The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World, Jones says, David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt "trace the roots of creative thinking to three key mental skills: bending, breaking and blending".

Clearly blending involves connecting two things, but what about bending and breaking? I would say these don't, or at least not if we want to look at things in the most fruitful way.

As an example of creative bending, Jones cites architect Frank Gehry's warping of the lines and planes of buildings into waves and curves (see also Zaha Hadid). Now, you could frame this as connecting unbent buildings with any of a number of things that cause the building to bend, for example: mechanical stresses; the concept that curves are beautiful; or even, to get meta about things, the suggestion that bending is a key skill at the root of creativity.

(The bending doesn't have to be physical, btw: Jones also cites Einstein's bending of how we look at the fabric of the universe with his theories of relativity. )

But this seems silly: to say that something has been connected with the idea that it would be better off bent is an unhelpfully roundabout way of saying it was bent.

Likewise breaking, which Jones exemplifies with cubist painting, also seems better thought of as a standalone process.

So it does seem that creativity is not just connecting things, as Jobs asserted: it can also be purposeful, novel changing of a single existing thing.

Indeed, it seems to me that Eagleman and Brandt have (or perhaps Jones has) overlooked various other kinds of creative changing - for example, of colour, texture, size, proportion, orientation, stiffness and surface contiguity (say, whether or not something is perforated).

So are these two subsets of creativity (connecting and changing) exhaustive - do we now have a complete taxonomy of creativity?

Jones goes on to talk about another book, Mario Livio's Why?: What Makes Us Curious. This, according to Jones, says that curiosity, and subsequently creativity, is piqued by novelty, complexity, uncertainty and conflict. So what mechanisms does creativity piqued by these prompts act through?

It occurs to me that each of these four things can be not only properties inherent to a thing one is presented with, but also properties that one can oneself introduce to a thing. Could this introduction in itself be a creative act?

Clearly bringing something into conflict entails connecting it to something else, so that's already part of our taxonomy. But what about making something more novel, more/less complex or more/less certain? Can any of these things be done without connecting something to something else, or without changing it in a way that isn't better described as simply twisting, bending, snapping it, etc?

Is, say, the solving of a complex mental problem best characterised as a creative mechanism in itself or as an abstract form of straightening / unravelling - i.e. changing?

(Holy shit. I was going to ask whether problem solving might also be better thought of as an abstract form of rearranging multiple tangled strands, and that made me realise that not only can single things be creatively changed but so too - duh - can the connections between connected things. Hence that's a third type of creativity right there, or a combination of the two primary types, if you prefer.)

Likewise, can something be made more/less certain without adding or removing something else to or from it? (Removing might seem to be another creative category, but following my holy shit moment about changing connections in the above paragraph, I'm going to lump the removal of a connection in with other changes to connections, or bracket disconnecting with connecting.)

I'm not sure, and this post is getting a bit long, so let's end by summarising:

Creativity is not just connecting. Creativity includes changing, which is more than just bending, breaking and blending; it includes connecting, which seems to be limited to likening, bringing into proximity, and affecting; it includes changing connections or disconnecting; and it might also include other things.

To be continued...

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Answering for Verhofstadt

The European Parliament's Brexit lead, Guy Verhofstadt, gave a talk at the London School of Economics on 28 September, on the future of Europe after Brexit. In the Q&A afterwards I asked him a question that he said was an "excellent" one he would return to later. He never did.

The question I asked was whether there was not a contradiction in the talk he'd just given: he'd said that the 48% of people who voted Remain in the Brexit referendum were "too large a minority to ignore", and then set out his vision of a deeper, more united future EU. I asked him how he could back the views of the Remain 48% while his vision seemingly ignores the views of, say, the 46.2% of Austrians who voted for the euro-sceptic Norbert Hofer in that country's 2016 presidential election. I also asked whether a more flexible, multi-speed EU might not be more democratic, given the breadth of opinion, and more robust to the ebb and flow of nationalism.

I would have been very interested to hear Verhofstadt's thoughts on this. But in lieu of his, here are mine.

It's not necessarily hypocritical to want to back the views of one minority but not another. Or rather, one could seek to back the views of every minority, but reluctantly decide one can't in a given case if doing so would be more damaging overall.

In the case of the Remain 48%, there's good reason for thinking that taking their views into account would actually better represent the desires of the biggest chunk of voters. The Brexit referendum was poorly designed, and told us nothing about the type of Brexit that Leave voters wanted. But we have good evidence from surveys to think that a majority of voters would like to remain in the single market, for example - a closer future relationship with the EU than the government is set to deliver.

I don't know much about the Austrian presidential election, but for argument's sake let's imagine that every one of the pro-Hofer voters would have settled for nothing less than Austria leaving the EU. In that case, backing their views would be less representative overall, since a majority of people voted for the pro-EU van der Bellen.

The alternative explanation is that Verhofstadt backs the Remain 48% and not the Hofer 46% simply because he thinks he knows what's best for everyone, and that the Remain 48% are right while the Hofer 46% are wrong. That might not be a stance he would be keen to admit to taking. If asked about it, he might dodge the question.

(It's interesting to contrast that hypothetical with the known stance of Theresa May, who is backing the most extreme interpretation of the narrow Leave victory even though she wanted a Remain outcome. She's neither taking on board the views of the 48% minority nor sticking with the courage of her convictions. Instead, she's hoping that by pandering to the extremists in the 52% even though she expects it to damage the country, she'll see off any challenges from within her own party. Her game is short-term personal and party politics, as opposed to what's best for the long term.)

That brings us to my second question. Whether a more rigid, united EU would be more or less robust to nationalist challenge depends on whether it would be sufficiently more effective to generate more additional positive feeling than the additional negative feeling that would be generated by ignoring the views of euro-sceptics.

I don't claim to know the answer to that question (unless you count this piece I wrote). Verhofstadt, Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Claude Juncker do. That's why they're politicians. And in fairness to them, they all won elections. But then, voters' views change: time will tell whether Verhofstadt et al are right, and whether those who voted for them last time around will stick with them and their federalist stablemates in future.

Evolving bucket list, autumn 2017

[Numbers 1 to 40 written in Spring 2014. Numbers 41 to 96 and strikethroughs and comments on numbers 1 to 40 added 30 December 2015. First publication 30 December 2015.]

1. See Tool live. - They're touring in 2016, I think?
2. Visit Barcelona. - I expect it'll happen sooner or later...
3. Visit Iceland. - Do with someone as a couple?
4. Watch "1984".
5. Read War and Peace. - I read Anna Karenina instead; W&P can wait 20 years...
6. Visit New York City. - AAC?
7. Visit Venice and Rome. - AAC?
8. Visit Japan. - With whose money?! AAC?
9. Write a book. - But what, FFS!!!
10. Write a screenplay. - BWFFS!!!
11. Ride a motorbike. - Leave London and get a licence?
12. See Henry Rollins live. - He's touring in 2016...
13. Read one of Henry Rollins' books. - Let me save a few quid, then I'll do it.
14. Run my own business. - BWFFS!!!
15. Own a rock bar. - Leave London to do it?
16. Get married. - Ha. You kill me.
17. Have kid(s). - Should probably find a woman first. A keeper, I mean. See 16.
18. Watch Easy Rider.
19. Watch Dirty Harry.
20. Read Moby Dick. - Less keen now. I think it'd bore me.
21. Play a venue as a drummer. - Trying to join a band...
22. Shoot a gun. - AAC/Group?
23. Have a go at welly toss. - AAC/G?
24. Go to a football world cup game. - Eh. Whatever.
25. Meet Henry Rollins. - Christ, I need to find additional people to admire...
26. Visit South America. - Quit my job and do it? Wait 6 months? 12?
27. Visit Cuba. - See 26
28. Visit Vietnam. - See 26
29. Try a hallucinogen. - Less keen now. I like my sanity. Sort of.
30. Visit the highlands. - AAC?
31. Visit Ireland. Visit the rest of Ireland - AAC?
32. Visit New Orleans. - See 26
33. Be a radio DJ. - How?
34. Make a short film. - BWFFS!!!
35. Curate or programme a show or exhibition. - BWFFS!!!
36. Throw a throwing knife. - Or an axe? AAG?
37. Get over 1000 views for a single blog post. - Trying!
38. Own a car or motorbike. - Leave London?
39. Sail somewhere. - Haha, with whose money?
40. Visit Vegas. - See 26.
41. Play squash. - Unwrap the racket you've had for 18 months and find a friend who plays, you loser!
42. Get a short story published in print. - BWFFS!!!
43. Get a poem published in print. - Ha, you don't even read poetry!
44. Get a book review published in print. - Up your game, son!
45. Get a film review published in print. - Up your game, son!
46. Record an album. See 21.
47. See a million in my bank account (earned). Pounds, euros or dollars. - Erm... come back to me on this one.
48. Give blood. - Just do it, you useless shitsack!
49. Buy someone a present they really like, instead of your usual crap. - Erm... get to know ... people?
50. Design and build some furniture. - Leave London? No, not to build furniture. Give me a break! Take a woodwork class? Three years of them at school didn't achieve much...
51. Climb a mountain. - Any one will do. What's the nearest of the UK's big 3?
52. Climb Kilimanjaro. - See 26. Try not to be too big a tourist twat while you're about it.
53. Be in a good club for New Year's Eve - AAC/G. Not got long to do this one! Cos I'm 30 I mean, not cos it's Dec 30th.
54. Do a standup routine. - Whoa there! The most terrifying thing on two legs? But you aren't funny! Nick someone else's routine...?
55. Do some amateur dramatics. - Google some societies. Stop being a coward. Read a ... play? Read plays!
56. Get better at chess - Google some clubs. Improve online first? Clubs seem pretty unwelcoming!
57. See the northern lights. - Everyone else seems to want to! See 3.
58. Join a cult, just briefly. - Google "London cults?" Does Scientology count??
59. Live on a commune. - Not really compatible with most of the rest of the list, but sure... Does Scientology have any??
60. Go to another festival that involves camping. - Will never ever remember or be sufficiently alert to get Glasto tickets again. Play Glasto?! See 21.
61. Go to a festival in Barcelona. - See 2.
62. Go to Burning Man. - See 40.
63. Meet the President of the USA. - Build a really complicated clock??
64. Go to space. - May as well aim high... See 47.
65. Do something selfless. - Try thinking about someone other than yourself for two minutes??
66. Get an academic paper published. In print or Open Access online. - Get a PhD? Wait, maybe start with a Master's? BWFFS!!! Leave London?!
67. Walk across the roof of the O2. - Find out how much it costs. (£35. Not horrendous.) AAC/G?
68. Run up the stairs of a massive building, for or not for charity. - Start trying doorhandles?
69. Do an oil painting. - Google painting classes? Buy a pipe and slippers, granddad?
70. See a desert. - See 26.
71. See the pyramids. - See 26.
72. Read Homage to Catalonia. - Visit Bookmongers. Get some Amis too.
73. See Underworld live. - Start saving. AAC/G?
74. Do a driving holiday. - Take refresher lessons? Get a bike license? (No, saddle sore!) AAC/G?
75. Go canoeing or kayaking, whichever is easier on the back - AAC/G?
76. Try surfing! - See 26.
77. Live in a foreign country for at least 6 months. - Leave London? (Duh!) - Now?!
78. Collaborate on something. - Get good at something! BWFFS!!!
79. Get a mentor. - Join the ... circus? No. Approach older men in bars and ask them for life advice?
80. Be a mentor. - BofWFFS!!!
81. Run a marathon. - Keep checking websites for signup dates.
82. Try fell running. - Try not to fall on the fell. Find a fell. What's a fell?!
83. Own a nightclub. - See 47. Alternate with 15?
84. Try falconry. - Google it? AAC?
85. Take piano lessons. - See 47. Drumming would come first, FFS.
86. Visit Moscow and St Petersburg and Lake Baikal. - After Russia pulls out of the Crimea, stops killing journalists and dissidents and lets gay people live... Topple Putin?
87. Conduct an interview you're really, really pleased with. - Decide who you'd really, really like to interview. BWhoFFS!!!
88. Get a GOOD feature published in print. BWFFS!!!
89. Try skiing and/or snowboarding. - See 26.
90. Get fluent at German. - Keep hammering DuoLinguo? So dull! Move to Berlin?
91. Read Madame Bovary. - Bookmongers again.
92. Read at least the first volume of A la Recherche de ... - Bookmongers? The library?
93. Read Dubliners. - In German parallel text?
94. Get a dog. - Leave London?
95. Watch The West Wing and The Wire. - Scope some charity shops?
96. Think of something better than 95...

Christ, I'd better get cracking...
Pisspoor progress....